Mountain bike riders could gain more access to the Adirondack backcountry under proposed changes to the law that governs activity on state-owned land in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park.

While the amendments to the 1972 State Land Master Plan were prompted by development of the state’s recreation plan for the 18,000-acre Essex Chain Lakes tract in the central Adirondacks, environmental groups say the proposed changes could weaken protection for a much larger area of the region protected by the state constitution as “forever wild.”

“Not only the Essex Chain, but every primitive area could be opened to bicycles,” said David Gibson, partner in the wilderness preservation group Adirondack Wild. “Right now, primitive areas are managed as wilderness,” the most protective designation for Adirondack forest land.

The Adirondack Park Agency, which drafted the proposed amendments, said about 9 miles of bike trails could be opened in the Essex Chain tract under the proposal, but it had no estimate of how many miles of bicycle trails might be opened elsewhere if the changes are applied to all primitive areas.

The Adirondack Mountain Club said opening all primitive areas to mountain biking would affect about 40,000 acres of state forest preserve.

The U.S. Forest Service prohibits mountain bikes in federal wilderness areas because of the assumption that they cause more erosion and trail damage than hikers — something mountain biking groups dispute. In the Adirondacks, the State Land Master Plan allows bikes in areas designated wild forest, the lowest level of protection, and in primitive areas only on truck roads used by state officials for managing natural resources. Bikes are banned in wilderness areas.

Bicycle access came up during development of the state’s recreation plan for the remote, lake-studded Essex Chain tract, acquired by the state from The Nature Conservancy in 2013. Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited the region to meet privately with local officials, sportsmen and environmental activists to develop a plan that would make the Essex Chain tract an economic asset to surrounding towns.

Approved by the Adirondack Park Agency in November, the plan includes mountain biking in areas classified as primitive — a designation that prohibits mechanized travel under the State Land Master Plan. Another part of the Essex Chain management plan that drew criticism from environmental groups is construction of a snowmobile bridge over the Cedar River, a legally protected “wild and scenic” river, using materials other than the logs and rocks traditionally used for Adirondack backcountry construction. That’s also addressed in the proposed State Land Master Plan amendments.

Several alternatives for bicycles are included in the proposed amendments. The broadest option would expand bike access to approved former logging roads in all primitive areas.

“This is a bad idea that would open significant new areas of the Adirondack Park to mechanized recreation,” said William Janeway, executive director of the nonprofit Adirondack Council.

Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which represents local communities, said the towns favor bicycle tourism to offset jobs lost when timber lands were sold to the state.

The Adirondack Park Agency is accepting public comments until Jan. 29. Two final public hearings are scheduled on Wednesday in Albany and Saratoga Springs.


Photo Credit: Paddlers prepare to launch their canoes at a rugged launch site on Deer Pond in the Essex Chain Lakes tract near Newcomb, N.Y. Mountain bike riders could join paddlers if they gain expanded access to old roads in the Adirondack backcountry under proposed amendments to the 1972 State Land Master Plan. Mary Esch / Associated Press