The 1,492 key acres at the heart of Zoar Valley have a new designation: forever wild.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has signed a bill that designated the "Zoar Valley Unique Area," granting it protection from logging, gas exploration or other development.
"It's a legal step that was necessary to make sure it's protected," said State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean. "There are a lot of endangered species in the area and also a lot of old growth forest that needs to be protected."
Young sponsored the bill along with Assemblyman William L. Parment, D-North Harmony.
The "unique area" covers some of the most critical areas in the state's Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, including gorge cliffs and notable stands of tulip poplar, slippery elm, American sycamore, black walnut, cottonwood red oak, bitternut hickory, yellow birch and white ash trees that are recognized as the tallest in the state. A 128-foot basswood in the area is considered the tallest of its kind in the world.
The designated area covers about half of the 2,923-acre Multiple Use Area.
Neil F. Woodworth, the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, welcomed the designation, although he said it comes 30 years after it should have.
"Zoar Valley was supposed to be added to the state's natural heritage trust along with the Great Cicero Swamp and some other very critical ecological areas of the state," he said. "At the very last minute, Zoar Valley was pulled from the list. The other six went on to protection in the trust -- forever wild."
But now that Zoar is in the trust, it would take approval by two consecutive sittings of the State Legislature, plus approval in a statewide referendum, to take it back out.
State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren said the new status was a departmental initiative that picked up support from Young, Parment and Spitzer.
DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said the change reflects recommendations in the final unit management plan for the Multiple Use Area.
Woodworth said the new designation coincides with what he heard in public hearings on Zoar in recent years.
"The local residents spoke strongly in favor of preserving it," he said. "Many of the people who lived around Zoar Valley were of the opinion, 'Let nature take it's course.' We heard that over and over from speakers."
Woodworth said the other main concern at the hearings was for improved safety for visitors and for the local emergency volunteers who sometimes have to rescue them.
Young said Tuesday that a Zoar safety initiative has led to many volunteer firefighters receiving additional training.
She also said that many of the more dangerous sites in Zoar are on private property and that all of the landowners with land abutting state property have signed statements that they want trespassers to be prosecuted.
"They've had signs, but often they get ripped down," Young said. "But if they post a sign once, it's legally posted for the remainder of the year, even if the sign is torn down."
The state budget also includes money for an additional DEC ranger for Zoar, she said, and the law enforcement coalition of police, Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office and DEC officials is planning renewed sweeps in the area.
She said 30 people were arrested in one recent sweep.
Other safety improvements include the proposed building of a handicapped access site that hikers will be able to use as a navigational landmark and cooperation between rescue officials on both sides of Cattaraugus Creek in calling landmarks by the same names.
In the past, there had been confusion because the same landmark could have a different name depending on which municipality the rescuer was in.