Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Short History of the Moose River Plains

The Moose River Plains Wild Forest, sitting between Route 28 and the West Canada Lake Wilderness in Hamilton and Herkimer counties, is a bit of an Adirondack political and natural history wonder.

The gravelly, flat, grassy “plains” of the Moose and Red Rivers are a significant contrast to the rest of the Adirondack Park and one of it’s more unique (and popular) features. Although it’s hard to know for sure, indications from various studies and permit requests suggest that about 50,000 people use the plains each year (not including the some 500 campsites bordering the area, and the incidental use generated by those in the hamlets of Inlet, Raquette Lake and Indian Lake). “The Plains,” as the area is known, was also the site of one of the region’s legendary environmental conservation fights of the last 100 years.

The Department of Conservation’s decision to close the roads this spring raised the cockles of locals and regular users, some of whom suggested that it was all a plan to end motorized access on behalf of wilderness advocates. Forgotten in the usual tirades was the fact that environmentalists led the fight to save the Moose River plains from being flooded by the Higley Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Among the reasons they cited as most important, were the existence of the winter deer yards. If it wasn’t for the efforts of environmentalists, much of the Moose River Plains would be under 50 feet of water today.

Even without the dam, The Plains is well-watered and straddles three watersheds. The area has significant wetlands totaling more than 12,000 acres, including five large and important ones, along Benedict Creek, Browns Tract Inlet Fen, South Inlet Fen, Silver Stream Floodplain, and Limekiln Swamp. Rains falling here flow north to the Raquette, east to the Hudson, and south and west to the South Branch of Moose River. That last, a mere tributary of the Moose River is the dominate water in the area, although there are perhaps a hundred lakes, ponds, and beaver ponds in the plains. All three branches of the Moose River (North, Middle, and South) take a general westward track to meet the Black River at Lyons Falls before making the run through the Black River Canyon in Watertown to Lake Ontario. It was those folks in Watertown, that nearly doomed The Plains.

All that water has made the area historically important for trapping (weasel, mink, muskrat, otter, and beaver) and transporting logs. The area’s extensive road access has contributed to its increased use since the 1960s as a fairly popular location for big game hunting camps and the plains is considered one of the largest whitetail deer winter yarding areas in the state. In the 1970s the first Moose spotted in the Adirondacks in decades was seen at White’s Pond, now one of the best places to witness the fruits of their return; today that amounts to about 20 or 30 moose in the plains. The years of overuse have taken their toll and so the elk, wolf, cougar, golden eagle and wolverine are all gone. About half the waters that once contained brook trout no longer do; just two have self-sustaining populations.

Because it contains some of the best lowland boreal forests and wetlands in the western Adirondacks, the plains is an important area for birds as well. The area marks the southern range of many boreal forest birds like the endangered Spruce Grouse, and Audubon’s #5 Common Bird in Decline, the Boreal Chickadee. It’s varied habitat of bogs, spruce mountains, and upland hardwoods, however, make it a mini-bird paradise of sorts. Local birder Gary N. Lee, author of Adirondack Birding, counted over 150 species breeding in the region, and he should know, he was forest ranger at the plains for 33 years. In 1971 the last of New York State’s resident Golden Eagles nested in the Moose River Plains Wild Forest.

What also makes the Moose River Plains unique is that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has, until this spring, maintained an extensive road system of more than 42 miles of public roads and another 25 miles of DEC “administrative roads,” including roads between Indian Lake and Inlet that split the Wild Forest in two. The roads provide motorized access to 170 scattered camp sites, a kind of half-developed 85,000 acre campground used by about 10,000 vehicles and 25,000 users each year. A big half-developed campground is an even more apt description now that DEC has announced plans to reclassify half of those roadways to Intensive Use, a designation, Phil Brown recently noted, that is usually reserved for state campgrounds.

The road system is also heavily used in winter by snowmobiles. Numbers are hard to come by, but it appears as though at least 20,000 snowmobiles use the area each year – during heavy snow seasons that number could be twice as high, it’s just not known. Other important uses include the annual New York State Muzzle-Loaders Association primitive rendezvous and black powder hunt, and the Adirondack Mountain Bike Association’s yearly Black Fly Challenge bike race from Indian Lake to Inlet across the plains.

Hiking is limited, because of the lack of unique destinations, with the notable exception of the Wakley Mountain fire tower, and a section of the Northville-Placid Trail that crosses the area. The annual Wakely Dam Ultra, a trail running event uses this section of the N-P. Paddling is becoming more prevalent, particularly along a stretch from 5th Lake to Raquette Lake, which is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. A significant amount of car, truck, and RV camping occurs along the borders of the Moose River Plains Wild Forest, notably at Limekiln Lake Campground (271 campsites), Eighth Lake Campground (126 sites) and Browns Tract Campground (90 campsites).

The vast road system enjoyed today by so many is the result of logging that was begun in the area in the early 1850s. Floating logs on the Moose was a historically different experience than on other rivers. For example, the jam boats were square on both ends and utilized both bowsman and sternsman, each with paddles to maneuver the boat. Logs floated on the Moose by the Gould Paper Company were slightly longer than the thirteen foot standard elsewhere, due to the length of their grinders at Lyons Falls. In the Spring of 1940, the company conducted one of the largest drives in over a decade with about 60 men sending about 22,000 cords down the river (most serving “as clean up men” clearing the some 50 miles of banks behind the main drive). By the 1940s the logging in the area was pretty tapped-out and the last log drive on the Moose River’s South Branch took place in 1948.

As the logging was winding down, a threat began to loom by the name of the Black River Regulating District. In 1919, mostly Watertown business interests successfully lobbied the Conservation Commission (forerunner of the DEC) for the Regulating District’s establishment under the four-year-old Machold Storage Law. The District’s approval granted them the right to assess and collect taxes and to seize property for the public good (the Hudson River Regulating District, which created the Sacandaga Reservoir was also created under this law).

The Regulating District’s rights included only private lands in the Adirondack Park but in 1920, they put forward a plan for a dozen reservoirs (nine new ones), some of which planned to flood public land. The first project was the expansion of the Stillwater Reservoir on the Beaver River, and although the new dam flooded some 3,000 acres of State Forest Preserve, conservationists did not strenuously fight it. The District abandoned two projects on the Moose River at Old Forge and Sixth Lake because of the impacts on the local communities there and for one reason or another the other projects fell through over the years. The District then set itself on two large dams – one at Panther Mounter and the other at Higley Mountain on the South Branch of the Moose. The projects would flood lands in the Forest Preserve and those owned by the Adirodnack League Club.

The Great Depression stalled the projects, but in 1942 the Higley Dam was approved. When construction became imminent in 1945 it attracted the attention of Paul Schaefer, a compatriot of the aging John Apperson. After Conservation Commissioner Perry Duryea told Schaefer he was too late, “the fight’s over,” Schaefer and Edmond Richard contacted the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (today known as Protect!). The then mostly New York City based Association refused to take on the battle, considering it a lost cause. So from Schenectady, Schaefer and Richard organized the Adirondack Moose River Committee, who along with the Wilderness Society, and Commissioner Duryea, announced they would fight the Higley Dam.

Suffice it to say that Schaefer, who historian Philip Terrie called “the most energetic defender of the forever-wild principle,” was the driving force in what became known as the “Moose River Fight”. It’s now considered a legendary battle among environmentalists, who joined with the Adirondack League Club and nearly a thousand other organizations against local governments, the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, the Lewis County Farm Bureau, and the Carthage paper makers.

“The fight to stop [the dam] was to be Schaefer’s finest hour, or rather finest decade” historian Paul Schneider noted. The Moose River Fight (part of the larger Black River War) made it way all the way to the State and U.S. Supreme Courts, and included dueling constitutional amendments that both overwhelmingly defeated the dam builders. The final vote was held in November of 1955, and the Moose River Fight was finally over. You can read all about in Frank Graham’s outstanding political history The Adirondack Park.

A year later, Finch Pruyn gave almost 600 acres north of Sixth Lake and most of the plains was acquired by the state through a land acquisition bond act in the decade that followed. In 1960 almost 16,000 acres of the Limekiln Lake Tract was bought from the Gould Paper Company and in 1964 the state purchased the nearly 51,000 acre Moose River Tract from the company (a separate deed was made for the roads for the “purposes of fish and wildlife management”).

Once DEC acquired the land the agency formally established campsites, most with privies, picnic tables and fireplaces, were log landings had once been. In the early 1980s the DEC charged a fee to use these sites and ran what is called the Moose River Plains Recreation Area as a for-fee day-use-area as well. The remainder of Township 7, including the Gould Road and the Wakely Mountain Road were acquired in 1987 from International Paper.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 30 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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