The nonprofit advocate Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has been denied certain documents by the NYS Adirondack Park Agency (APA) which Adirondack Wild believes would shed light on the APA’s responsibilities to restrain public motorized uses within Wild Forest portions of the “forever wild” Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Motorized use on areas of the Forest Preserve classified as Wild Forest is restrained under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan because Article XIV of the State Constitution deems the entire Forest Preserve “forever kept as wild forest lands.” APA is legally responsible for the Master Plan’s guidelines and criteria for the management of the Forest Preserve.
In September, Adirondack Wild requested documents under the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL. In October, APA staff released a small number of documents which Adirondack Wild says pointed to the existence of other, more substantive documents which APA chose to withhold. Adirondack Wild appealed to request those other documents. APA denied the appeal because, claimed the Agency staff, the documents, written in the 1990s, were merely advisory opinions and not final policy determinations and were, therefore, deniable under FOIL.
Adirondack Wild believes these documents are important to release because the APA relied on them in the 1990s to carry out the Agency’s legislated responsibilities to interpret the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. Furthermore, says Adirondack Wild, the documents would shed light on current Agency deliberations about public motorized use of Wild Forest and should therefore be released to the public rather than withheld under an improperly narrow view of exemption to FOIL. The Adirondack Council supports Adirondack Wild’s request.
The APA is currently weighing a decision of whether the increase in public use of motor vehicles in Wild Forest areas since 1972 should be deemed material, which would be prohibited by the State Land Master Plan. One of the questions APA has posed to the public in 2022 is whether Wild Forest routes opened solely for persons with disabilities should count towards any increase in the mileage of motorized routes.
If they do count, APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation agree that routes open to public motorized use have increased since 1972 by 15% or more, a figure which Adirondack Wild contends is a material increase.
At issue are memoranda issued in the 1990s by senior Agency staff that would help answer that and other questions. Adirondack Wild believes it likely that those documents would show that APA at that time clarified that the State Land Master Plan guideline of no material increase in the mileage of roads open to public motorized use on Wild Forest applied to efforts then underway to provide more access for persons with disabilities.
Adirondack Wild contends the withheld memos were influential in the settlement of a federal lawsuit in 2001 that opened carefully selected Wild Forest roads to motorized use strictly for persons with disabilities. That court settlement carefully selected those routes in Wild Forest to comply with the Master Plan’s limits on mileage open to public motorized uses. Agency memos of 1995-2001 provided policy direction in the matter and were relied upon by the court and by other state and federal agencies and should, therefore, be accessible today under FOIL.
Adirondack Wild supports the court-ordered consent order and the selected routes opened exclusively to persons with disabilities, but also believes APA and DEC need to significantly restrain new motorized routes open to the general public elsewhere on the Forest Preserve. “This is important because material expansion of the mileage open to public motorized use threatens the wild character of the Forest Preserve, embraced by New Yorkers and protected by our state’s constitution,” said Adirondack Wild’s David Gibson.
“The APA is not only denying us certain documents but may be depriving its own Agency members of the same information which could inform their current deliberations about ‘no material increase.’ For a state agency to rely on a technical exemption to FOIL and withhold, in effect to hide past documents that could inform current policy decisions is not being transparent, it’s being secretive about a matter of importance to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, Gibson added. “We will continue to pursue our request for the documents.”
Chad Dawson, now a member of Adirondack Wild’s board, was on the APA board through 2020. He also believes these documents should be made available and not withheld. “This matter remained contentious and intensely debated between APA and DEC legal staff up through 2020 and appeared to be unresolved at that time. There is much to learn from the decades of involvement by APA and DEC staff who were part of the original and subsequent meetings, discussion, debate, and correspondence.”