Retired postal worker Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville, N.Y., has hiked the Appalachian Trail and climbed the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. But on a warm, clear mid-June day, he decided to try something new: a trip to OK Slip Falls, one of the Adirondack Forest Preserve's most recent additions. Tumbling 250 feet, it's one of the Adirondack Park's largest waterfalls.
While Swensen enjoys the views from the High Peak summits, he chose this trip, he says, because it was one he could take with his four family members of various ages. The six-mile round-trip hike to the waterfall from the trailhead on Route 28N, seven miles east of Indian Lake, has only modest hills to negotiate.
"My wife is not really a hiker," Swensen says, "but it sounded like a fairly easy walk that we could take with a really nice payoff at the end."
That payoff comes in the form of two lookout points, each located atop cliffs a few hundred feet from the falls, and both perfect picnic spots. On this particular day, recent rainstorms had swelled the brooks and rivers and made the falls into a thunderous torrent. The cascade of foamy water stood out against the lush, green forest. At the base of the falls, mist rose from a pile of boulders.
Located in the central Adirondacks, OK Slip Falls didn't become part of the Forest Preserve — the 2.6 million acres of state land within the 6-million-acre park — until 2013. The Forest Preserve is protected under a "forever wild" clause in the New York state constitution that prevents the area from being logged, developed or sold without the consent of the state legislature and the voters. It's meant to preserve lands that have ecological, recreational and scenic value.
The 2,800-acre OK Slip Falls tract is part of a complex land purchase that is still in process between the Keene Valley-based Nature Conservancy and the state. This particular tract also includes 2.1 miles of the Hudson River, Blue Ledges, Hudson River Gorge, and numerous ponds and forests that abut state land. Besides having recreational value for hikers, paddlers, rafters and fishermen, these areas — particularly OK Slip Falls and Blue Ledges — are believed to harbor more rare and significant plants, mosses and liverworts than any other site in the park. That's because these often-moist cliffs consist of bedrock that is streaked with mineral-rich Grenville marble.
This type of land transfer is nothing new in the Adirondacks. Because bureaucratic machinery prevents the state from moving quickly to purchase large tracts of Forest Preserve-quality lands when they hit the market, the Nature Conservancy often steps in to buy such parcels. It then retains them until the state has the financial and political capital for the purchase.
Most of these deals, including the current one, face fierce opposition from local towns. Many residents oppose preservation because, they say, barring the land from logging or development hurts their local economies. Another concern is the frequent displacement of hunting and fishing clubs that lease the land, whose members these communities depend on to spend money in local establishments.
The large land deal that includes OK Slip Falls got its impetus in 2007, when Glens Falls-based paper manufacturer Finch, Pruyn & Company sold 161,000 acres to the Conservancy for $110 million. In 2009, the Conservancy sold 92,000 acres of timberlands to the Danish pension fund ATP Private Equity Partners; most of that property eventually became state conservation easement lands. Smaller parcels were sold to local towns. Finally, in August 2012, the Conservancy worked out a deal to sell the state 69,000 acres over five years. Those lands are slated for the Forest Preserve, making them the largest addition in more than a century.
So far, all the lands except the 22,000-acre Boreas Ponds tract have been transferred to the state. Purchase of that tract, home to a series of ponds with views of the High Peaks, is expected within the next year. Some consider it the most attractive parcel among the new Forest Preserve lands.
Most of those tracts are located in the central Adirondacks, where the landscapes are scenic but communities are small and jobs sparse. Hamilton County, where OK Slip Falls is located, is home to just 5,000 people. Locals like to point out that the county has only one traffic light.
While some opposition to the land deal exists, local business owners hope the new Forest Preserve lands will make the area a more desirable recreation destination and be a boon to the economy. In the past, much Adirondack visitor traffic has gone to gateway communities such as Lake George and Old Forge, as well as to Keene Valley, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, located near the High Peaks in the northern Adirondacks.
"It's not going to be the Holy Grail, that's for sure," says Dave Olbert, owner of Newcomb-based Cloud-Splitter Outfitters, of the new Preserve land. "But it definitely helps."
Even as recreation opportunities in the central Adirondacks increase, some of the area's communities still lack adequate infrastructure for tourism-based economies. Take the town of Newcomb, near some of the Forest Preserve additions. It has a population of just 450 and not a single hotel — though it is home to other types of overnight facilities, such as the recently opened Hoot Owl Lodge bed and breakfast.
Other businesses, including Olbert's, offer limited overnight options such as cabins. A grassroots effort is under way in the Adirondacks to create a hut-to-hut-style lodging system, which could mitigate the lodging shortage in Hamilton County.
To address the problem of struggling local economies, the Nature Conservancy gave the state $500,000 to start a microenterprise grant program for businesses located near the new Forest Preserve lands. Olbert took advantage of the program and partnered with several other local guides to create Newcomb Guide Service. The partnership has received a $100,000 grant to purchase outdoor recreation equipment, including lightweight canoes and whitewater rafts.
The equipment will help Olbert's LLC serve an area brimming with paddling opportunities such as the Essex Chain of Lakes, located in Newcomb, and the Hudson and Opalescent rivers. Boreas Ponds, once it is open to the public, will be another destination.
Olbert has seen an increase in demand for paddle services on the Hudson River, which runs alongside his business, since that section became publicly accessible in December 2012. The 12-mile river segment stretches from Route 28N to the confluence of the Hudson and Indian rivers, offering both flatwater and whitewater opportunities for day-trippers or overnight campers.
"One big impact that we're seeing is more shuttling for people," says Olbert, referring to paddlers who need to be picked up once they reach their destinations.
In addition to the shorter trips, whitewater adventurers can take a roughly 25-mile-long trip from the Route 28N area in Newcomb to North Creek. Though expert kayakers might go it alone, rafting guides lead most visitors into the Hudson River Gorge and past the Blue Ledges, where there can be Class IV rapids in high water.
The Upper Hudson River is also part of the Essex Chain of Lakes, which contains 18 bodies of water ranging in size from three-acre Chub Pond to 216-acre Third Lake. State officials are working on a plan that would allow a variety of activities in the area, including mountain biking, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, paddling, hiking and horseback riding.
Nature Conservancy executive director Mike Carr led negotiations with the state on the land purchase and worked with towns to win their eventual support. "The Essex Chain holds a lot of promise," he says. "I'm encouraged about the diversity of opportunities."
While creating recreation management plans for places such as the Essex Chain of Lakes may benefit local economies in the long run, it is time consuming and complex for the state. The plans must meet strict park regulations intended to protect ecological resources yet remain flexible enough to accommodate various user groups.
Even small provisions in those plans can have unintended consequences that hold up progress. For instance, the state seems to be bending over backward to allow user groups into the Essex Chain, yet it has created a new regulation prohibiting fires at shoreline campsites. While the provision's objective sounds reasonable — to prevent campers from denuding shorelines of downed wood — some say it discourages user visits.
"That's a huge deterrent," Olbert says of the measure. "They have to change that if they want to see more use in there."
While the push-and-pull over the Adirondack Park's new lands continues, the use of some areas, such as OK Slip Falls, has been uncontroversial. Making it accessible was as simple as designing and building a three-mile trail to existing viewpoints of a spectacular 250-foot waterfall, and the area has been popular since it was opened last summer. State and local officials must wish it were always that easy.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Nurturing Nature"