The Adirondack Park — all six million acres of it — suffers from an identity crisis. It was set aside in 1892 as a place beyond the reach of the many axes and saws then clearing New York’s primeval forests. According to Article 14 of the New York Constitution, approximately one-third of it is supposed to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” But in that same region, people live, businesses operate, and cars and trucks pass through. It’s a delicate balance of conservation and commerce.
That balance has been wobbled this year by a proposal to limit development along streams feeding Lake George, a large, deep-blue body of water in the southeastern corner of the park. The controversy has raised a fundamental question about the purpose of the park: Is it a place for people or not?
Human settlement is starting to have negative effects on the water quality in Lake George. After 30 years of continuous water-quality monitoring by the Darrin Fresh Water Institute at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute scientists are reporting that aqueous concentrations of phosphorus, nitrogen and salt have risen to unhealthy levels. In addition, environmentalists assert, sediment from erosion and stormwater runoff has created seven major deltas on streams in the Lake George basin.
To counteract this trend, the Lake George Park Commission, a state-run organization that manages Lake George’s water quality, has proposed adding stream-corridor management regulations to the arsenal of environmental laws it uses to protect the lake. The plan, if adopted, will create a 100-foot, development-free buffer on all streams and rivers that empty into Lake George.
The nonprofit Fund for Lake George has been collecting scientific data on water quality and provided input on the draft regulations. According to Chris Navitsky, the “waterkeeper” at the fund, the regulations create two buffer zones: “In the zero-to-100-foot zone,” he explains, “there would be no buildings and no impervious surfaces. In the zero-to-50-foot zone, you would be allowed a minimal disturbance, to keep the stream banks intact.” There are some exemptions for timber harvesting and access to properties along streams, in addition to a variance process for small lots where it isn’t possible to build outside of the buffer.
The executive director of the Lake George Association, a nonprofit group committed to protecting the lake’s watershed, admits that the water-quality issue has not become acute, but that these regulations are precautionary. “Our position,” says Walt Lender, “is that you want to protect before you have to remediate.”
John Carr, a resident of Lake George and the owner of the Adirondack Pub & Brewery, doesn’t subscribe to that line of reasoning. He’s one of many vocal opponents of the regulations, calling them a “power grab by the Fund for Lake George.” Carr’s main argument is that the scientific data are not complete enough to warrant the new land-use measures. “They are very vague,” he says of the studies released so far, “and not peer reviewed, and lack a basis in real science.”
Take algae, for instance. Navitsky contends that algae blooms are becoming more frequent. “When we’ve got six inches of algae washing up on someone’s beach … something’s wrong,” he says.
Carr, meanwhile, asserts that algae levels haven’t changed in more than 20 years. He further argues that 20 percent of the phosphorus that feeds those supposed algae blooms comes from natural sources, such as rain and decaying leaves. Northwest Bay is the largest contributor of phosphorus to the lake, Carr points out, yet it is the least developed area and has no significant agriculture.
Navitsky’s response recalls that of the climate scientist to global-warming skeptic: “How much scientific data are enough?” Stream buffers are recognized as the most effective and economical protectors of water quality, he says, so the only debate should be about the size of those buffers. Carr would prefer the same buffer that applies to development along the lakefront — 35 feet. Others argue that 100 feet isn’t enough.
“Your right to construct on your property is your right,” Navitsky says, “and that should not be removed, but it also should not impact the general good of our common natural resources, which is the water quality of Lake George. That is a balance the regulations are trying to hit.”
Carr isn’t unsympathetic to efforts to improve water quality — lake water is an essential ingredient in his beer — but for him it boils down to unrealistic restrictions on development that come from the “forever wild” language in the park’s creation papers. To him, those words translate as, “We want a pristine park with nobody.”