Press-Republican

April 20, 2013

Essex County emergency radio project almost delayed by rare bird

BY LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County’s $15 million radio project was almost delayed because of the rare Bicknell’s thrush that nests atop four of the mountains slated for use.

Work on Little Whiteface Mountain was going to be held off so the Adirondack Park Agency could OK an amendment to the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the Whiteface Mountain Intensive Use Area.

But the APA and DEC have now decided construction can proceed without the amendment, APA spokesman Keith McKeever said late Thursday.

“We have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the DEC … for projects like this. The APA and DEC determined both structures (there now) are consistent with the UMP. They (Essex County) can start construction Monday if they want.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also pledged to assist them so the project can proceed, county officials said.

There are preexisting radio towers on Little Whiteface, Gore, Blue and Morris mountains, where the county wants to put antennas, and the Adirondack Park Agency initially wanted the county to do a study to ensure that using gasoline-powered construction equipment to install equipment at those sites wouldn’t impact the mating season of the Bicknell’s thrush.

The study will now be done by DEC staff, McKeever said.

DEC WILL DO STUDY

The Essex County Board of Supervisors went into special session earlier this week to approve spending up to $10,000 to hire an independent environmental specialist for the thrush study, but the DEC has now agreed to have its staff perform the work at no cost to the county.

Supervisors believe the written report will confirm that construction activities will have no impact on the breeding and nesting season of the bird.

The study is essential to that part of the radio project, County Manager Daniel Palmer said.

“It’s whether the noise that occurs on the construction site may impact the Bicknell’s thrush mating season,” he said. “You go up at 3 a.m. and listen for the bird calls, and you document how many of them you hear. That’s how you do the study.”

RARE BIRD

The Bicknell’s thrush is listed as a rare bird that breeds in the spruce-fir forests atop some Adirondack mountains. They usually breed at higher elevations, typically above 2,800 feet.

The federal government is considering the bird for endangered-species status.

The thrush’s mating season is May 15 to Aug. 1, and Palmer said the project contractor told them it would be able to do only basic work this year after an Aug. 15 cutoff, such as putting up building shells for transmitters.

APA PERMIT IN HAND

McKeever said they’ve been working with the county so the multiple-site radio project can proceed. The APA permit for the project was issued in December 2012, he said.

“We worked with the county cooperatively to develop a permit that would meet their needs and protect the Bicknell’s thrush,” he said. “On elevations that exceed 2,800 feet, they could start work, but they would have to alter use of heavy machinery from May 15 to Aug. 1. That’s the known breeding time for the Bicknell’s thrush.”

The permit conditions state that if they want to do construction between those dates, the Bicknell’s thrush study must be done to ensure the bird won’t be disturbed.

“It’s in the permit that if they want to do those types of activities, they have to do an assessment,” McKeever said. “It’s only if they choose to do that type of work.”

ROOFTOP CUPOLA

The Olympic Regional Development Authority operates Whiteface Mountain Ski Center, and Essex County plans to replace the Ski Patrol shack on the summit of Little Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington with a new one to house its transmitter. A microwave dish will be housed inside a rooftop cupola that’s designed to look like a clock.

Little Whiteface Mountain is needed for public-safety-radio coverage in the northern end of Essex County.

‘DELAY UNLIKELY NOW’

If a delay does occur, it should be documented, Supervisor George Canon (R-Newcomb) said.

“I think we ought to come up with an amount that’s it’s going to cost us if we don’t start construction by May. It’s very frustrating we have to worry about the mating habits of a bird.”

Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Douglas (D-Jay) said APA and DEC representatives are now working with them so they can start on time, and he believes there won’t be a delay after all.

Douglas said he talked with Gov. Andrew Cuomo after it looked like the project might be held up, and Cuomo plans to monitor the project so delays do not occur.

“He (Cuomo) was here during Tropical Storm Irene when the radio system went down. He’s assured me this project will be kept moving.”

Although it may no longer be needed, the hiring of the consultant passed the Board of Supervisors, 11-0, with Supervisors Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson), Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) and Michael Marnell (R-Schroon) opposed to doing the extra work.

Supervisors Roby Politi (R-North Elba), William Ferebee (R-Keene), Sharon Boisen (I-Essex), and Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) were absent.

The new public-safety-radio system, to be tied into the County 911 Center in Lewis, will be used by fire, police and emergency medical personnel. It will replace a 1950s-era radio system that is failing.

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com

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ON THE NET 

Hear a Bicknell's thrush recorded on Whiteface in June 2000 at http://tinyurl.com/cwtrpqo. See and hear Bicknell's nestlings at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_mcUp6_vJs