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Cathead Mountain

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  • Cathead Mountain

    Maybe a compromise?

    Public safety receiving static in Adirondacks
    By Gwendolyn Craig, Adirondack Explorer

    Hamilton County Chairman Bill Farber says he is heartened that a number of environmental groups have heard his plea and agree an emergency communications solution is needed.

    A fire tower exists on Cathead mountain, in addition to radio equipment for DEC and State Police. State Police fly to the site when a technician needs to make repairs to radio equipment.

    At the southern end of Hamilton County, a radio dead zone has plagued emergency workers for years. Law enforcement cannot check license plates. Ambulance corps members cannot call a hospital.

    After years of looking for ways to bolster communications in the area, a tower on Cathead Mountain in Benson appears to be the answer. The problem? It is surrounded by land where state law prohibits motorized vehicle use, a real challenge for building a tower, let alone maintaining or repairing one.

    To build a road to the top, Hamilton County must cross about half of a mile of forest preserve, and to do that, two successive state Legislatures and about 19 million New Yorkers must vote to amend the state Constitution. If that wasn’t daunting enough, one of the leading environmental groups in the Adirondacks is not convinced a constitutional amendment is needed, though state agencies say it is.

    Without a specific plan on paper comparing costs, planning a road and how the site would get power, the Adirondack Council is hesitant to back a constitutional amendment, spokesman John Sheehan said.

    “We are almost every year asked to amend the Constitution, the forever wild clause, for one reason or another. Personally, I’ve seen 30 years of this,” Sheehan said. “It is important for us to have a set of principles in place for when we think it’s appropriate to amend the Constitution, and how we go about doing that.”

    Others agree the county should have more specifics, though most are in support of an amendment. There is no bill on the Legislature’s docket, but county Chairman Bill Farber hopes lawmakers will vote this year to get the two- to three-year amendment process rolling.

    Mike Tracy has worked in the emergency medical field for 22 years and is the assistant fire chief for the village of Speculator. Parts of Arietta, Wells, Benson and Hope are disturbingly silent.

    “You can’t hear anything down there,” Tracy said, about his emergency radio. “We can’t communicate with the fire departments. We can’t communicate with dispatch. … The further south you get, the worse it gets for us.”

    When talking about doing anything in the Adirondacks, there are a number of environmental groups to consult. So far, Farber is heartened that all have heard his plea and agree an emergency communications solution is needed. Now he is trying to figure out how to get it done.

    The county is part of the Adirondack Regional Interoperable Communications Consortium, part of a statewide network to connect the emergency services of neighboring counties. Part of it involves radio towers set up all over the state, bouncing signals off of one other. They have to be in sight of an operable tower to communicate.

    Most of Hamilton County’s towns are in bowls and it’s hard to bounce signals into them, Sheriff Karl Abrams said. Another challenge is that the state owns most of the mountaintops where towers can’t be built. So, privately owned, high-elevation land is valuable.

    Abrams said Cathead is the county’s last link. Between its location and height, it can bounce a signal off of their tower on East Mountain. The sheriff’s office in Lake Pleasant has a signal that bounces to Oak Mountain, then to East Mountain, then up to Blue Mountain. As part of the consortium, the signal can continue traveling to Gore Mountain, visible from Cathead.

    If Hamilton County is able to get communications on top, Purdy said it would also help out Fulton and Saratoga counties’ emergency services, which also struggle with poor communication at their northern ends.

    The top of Cathead, including about 800 acres in the area, is privately owned by the Hatchbrook Sportsman’s Club. Nathan Clark, club president, said Farber approached him about four years ago to talk about an emergency tower. The top is already home to a fire tower and limited radio equipment for the DEC and State Police.

    The club has owned the property since 1989. Back then, they had access to two rights-of-way to their hunting camp and an abandoned forest ranger cabin. But entry points were owned by someone else, and a foreclosure process put the land in the state’s hands, thereby closing the roads.

    For a while, Clark said, the club could get special state permits for motorized access to their camp site, but then the state did away with those in 2000. Members sued the state to regain motorized access but lost.

    The fire tower had been open to the public, but a DEC fire tower report shows in 2000, “the trail was officially closed since the landowners withdrew their permission for the public to use the trail.”

    In 2010, the club pursued their own attempt at a constitutional amendment in order to get motorized access to their campsite, but many environmental groups opposed and it did not make it past committees.

    Clark and the rest of the Cathead Mountain owners lease the fire tower to the State Police for radio transmission. To perform any maintenance or repairs, State Police fly a helicopter up and let off a technician on an old helicopter pad.

    “It’s not accessible by ground, and it does not have commercial power to it, so it’s obviously not an ideal situation for us, but it’s powered by a combination of solar panels, wind turbine and a generator,” said Beau Duffy, spokesman for the State Police. “Maintenance and repairs would be a lot simpler if there was road access.”

    Road access would be simpler for the hunting club, too, but Clark said it’s more than that. Many of the club members are volunteer first responders, and they’re eager to help the county.

    Clark said the club is willing to give up about 480 acres to the state for 80 acres that would be for the access road, which the club would be able to use, but it would also be used by the emergency services organizations. The public would also regain access to the fire tower

    The 400 acres the club would hand over to the state brushes the Silver Lake Wilderness tract and is near the Northville-Lake Placid trail, making it a desirable proposed swap for those with visions of opening the tower back up to the public and protecting more prime Adirondack land. Farber and many others also want the public to hike the mountain. There could be plans to connect the hike to the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, too.

    The Adirondack Council issued a news release in May, saying the county could pursue other means to put an emergency tower on Cathead other than an amendment. The release irked a number of groups.

    Sheehan said some of those alternatives could be the county using a State Police helicopter or hiring a helicopter to do any maintenance. He also suggested a road with a gate only the county had access to.

    In conversations with Farber, the council has suggested opening back up an old jeep road that forest rangers used to use. The council’s “administrative fix” suggestions raised legal questions for Farber and other environmental groups.

    “The Adirondack Council is wrong,” said David Gibson, of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. “Who wants to see helicopters flying up that ridge? It’s practically in the Silver Lake Wilderness. Let’s eliminate helicopter use entirely, which is antithetical to wilderness environment. It’s also dangerous to have choppers fly up there all the time.”

    The Court of Appeals has yet to decide on what tree cutting should look like in the Adirondacks, and Farber isn’t willing to take a chance on a quick fix that could have the county end up in court.

    An Adirondack Park Agency spokesman said it reached the conclusion with the DEC that a constitutional amendment is needed to access the private land on Cathead and that the agency is committed to resolving the access issues in a legally defensible way.

    Former DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said the parties should come together and work out the details. He favors a constitutional amendment, but Martens said he understands why Sheehan wants to have everything on paper.

    “Ultimately, if it goes before the voters of New York, they all know exactly what they’re giving up,” Martens said.

    Farber said spending more money on an engineer and specific plan is a concern for the county, and some county board members feel enough has already been spent with nothing specific to show for it. Farber also believes there’s not much at stake for those opposed to a constitutional amendment if it were to pass one Legislature since it still has to pass again the next year.

    “But there’s a big risk there for Hamilton County by not doing it,” he said.

    Without those detailed plans or a bill, it’s hard to say how legislators will come back to Albany and vote on an amendment.

    “We hope the Adirondack Council will stay at the table with Hamilton County officials and continue to discuss this public safety issue as we believe, based on our understanding from the APA and DEC, that there’s not an administrative fix for it and it needs to be done by a constitutional amendment,” said State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, who represents Hamilton County.