Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Essential Wilderness

Over the last two weeks I have been involved in quite a discussion in another venue about wilderness as a matter of subjective point of view versus wilderness as an objective designation. Simply put is wilderness only a matter of opinion? Are we left with one person’s wilderness being another’s spoiled back country Grand Central?

At the same time in my last Dispatch I explored Joe Hackett’s point of view about the “stamp of man” being unavoidable in the Adirondacks. The vehicle for that exploration was a trip to Flowed Lands which, for all its seeming primeval beauty and remoteness, has been thoroughly altered by industry of one kind or another. There is no doubt that the imprint of humanity is omnipresent in the Adirondacks, if not always noticed. But does that mean that wilderness is nothing more than an idea in the mind?
The epistemological issues attendant to this question are difficult and deep. But rather than descend into a philosophical thicket denser than a bushwhack from Skylight to Moss Pond (and oh my is that a dense thicket), let me simply state a few things and move on. First, I do not think there is anything like an absolute definition of wilderness. Second, I agree with multiple readers that our experience of wilderness is always subjective. I think the perspectives vary and the more we have of them the better.

Third, and most important, while I embrace the idea that in fact all human knowledge is subjective, I reject wholesale the idea that this means it is all just a matter of opinion. There must be qualities of wilderness that rise above mere opinion lest we give up the ability to make value judgments altogether. I will call these qualities essentials. They are not absolutes and they are not above being colored by subjective interpretation. But they are there to be experienced. In the way that there is something essential about Newtonian theory or hip hop or béchamel sauce, there is something essential about wilderness. If we are to have the best and most informed public policy we need to pay great mind to both the wealth of subjective perspectives about wilderness and the essential qualities of it to which we come.

Let me go way out on a limb here and guess that more than a few readers have had enough of the philosophizing and have a hearty urge to cut through the nonsense. Isn’t it obvious that some places can reasonably be described as wilderness and most places are not? I’m reminded of the famous utterance by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Is it realty that complicated?

Well, apparently it is. I don’t think it gets any more complicated than in this park with its myriad, terms, laws, regulations, opinions and debates over more than a hundred-fifty years. So let’s look a little further. What are these essential qualities? Can we say anything about them?

Let’s begin with the stamp of man. It is admittedly disappointing to discover how pervasive the human effect upon the Adirondacks has been. I think that ignorance is bliss for many lovers of the park, however for me or someone like Joe Hackett that luxury is long gone. But is it a deal breaker?

Is it a deal breaker that in the most remote part of the Arctic you would see frequent jet trails? Or in the Amazon delta you could measure an artificially high level of particulates? Or in Maine you could see the effects of a damaging concentration of acid depositions? Suppose we consider a more immediate example, camping back in the woods. Would a tree blaze really damage the experience of wilderness to the level we would say that it is merely a fantasy in the mind? Would a Mohawk encampment three hundred years ago on the Plains of Abraham have disqualified the area from being wilderness?

It seems to me that the stamp of man does not in and of itself deny wilderness; after all, we are creatures of nature too. I think there are two characteristics upon which the effect of human imprint issue depends, and I think these characteristics point to the ultimate issue for me.

One characteristic is whether the imprint is current or an artifact. In itself this is a subjective question but it is, I think, reasonably clear and common. Consider coming upon the remains of an old lumber camp dump in the woods (not an unusual event if you venture in the back country enough). Think of your reaction to that versus coming to a dumping ground from an irresponsible group of campers that left the area last week.

The other characteristic, not unrelated to the first, is whether that imprint is respectful of the forest. This is subjective too. Most people live with trail markers, find comfort in them, accept them as part of the wild landscape. I myself am jarred by them. Yet I am overjoyed to pass through a section of trail engineering that has arrested erosion, even though such engineering can leave quite an imprint. Certainly good trails are respectful of, even assertive of, wilderness.

Another factor seems to be how far away civilization, that dominating stamp of humankind, is distant from us when we’re in the woods. It seems to be a necessary condition that we be able to get far enough away from our civilized markers that we can ignore them, that we can no longer hear and see them, that – and this seems particularly important – that we can no longer rely upon them. We have to rely upon ourselves. Pete Klein’s comment about the forest being big enough to get lost in, die and never be found comes to mind.

Here, by the way, the Adirondacks have a remarkable advantage over almost any other wild area I’ve been to. The Adirondack forest is so dense, the land so tortured and uneven and run through with a variety of rock and water that it only takes going about fifty yards into the woods and you are remote. But if you only know the Adirondacks you may not realize that just doesn’t happen in, say, Colorado. It’s not even the same in Vermont. The only comparable experience I know is in the Pacific Northwest, especially the Olympic Range which on its rainforest side is a riot of the vertiginous and the verdant.

Combine the dense, immersive nature of the Adirondack forest with its size and large contiguous tracts and you’ve got something. I live most of the time in Wisconsin which is a beautiful state and is renowned for its north woods. Wisconsin is wild enough to sustain a healthy wolf population. But that is more a product of the fact that the wolf was never extirpated from the area than it is a product of the wild quality of the forest, which simply does not compare to the Adirondacks. There is wilderness in Wisconsin to be sure, but with the plethora of roads, towns, logging, powerboats on all the lakes… I sometimes think that Adirondackers don’t know how good they have it.

In the end I think the unifying marker in these various factors is the word I just used, “immersive.” I think that what we most clearly share about the experience of wilderness is that we are immersed in nature’s rhythm rather than civilization’s rhythm. When it is nature’s clock and nature’s cycle that runs the show, when the stamp of man is not enough to prevent it, when the buffer between us and the road where we parked is great enough so that the “outside world” does not interrupt it, then we can justify the calling it wilderness.

I think sometimes in our fixation over our subjective point of view we forget that nature has a point of view, one that when it is preeminent, cares not one whit for our point of view. I think we know what it feels like when we are in a place sufficiently wild and immersive to impose nature’s point of view.

This is where I come to what I think is an essential characteristic of wilderness: natural terrain sufficient in extent and completeness that its rhythm achieves uncompromising primacy over ours.

I always chuckle when I hear that the High Peaks is not wilderness. Maybe the busy trails or environs such as the Lake Colden camp area do not qualify as wilderness. Maybe nature’s rhythm is too compromised in those places. That is debatable. But here’s the thing: draw a straight line from the southern end of Lake Colden to the Upper Preston Pond, just to pick something. Then set off to walk that line. You might well be the first person ever to do that exact route.

If you can, of course. Good luck.

I just came back from a mid-March trip to Lost Brook Tract. The experience of wilderness, as it always is, was overwhelming. Nature had me immersed in her groove, her rhythm. When we set foot into the Adirondacks on its own terms I think we know it, regardless of how we might subjectively interpret our experience. I’ve never experienced anything more wilderness than that.

Photo: An untraveled area in the High Peaks.


Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




18 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    You never cease to find my innermost thoughts exactly. I fully concur with this selection.

    Your comparison between the Olympic Rain Forest and our beloved Adirondacks is indeed an appropriate one.

    I especially enjoyed thinking about the 50 feet-fifty yards into the Adirondacks feeling. And I canot get the word PRIMEVAL out of my my mind.

    I thank you again for such concise and soul clenching writing!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    JSB:

    Your comments are always gratifying and flattering. I just can’t bring myself to think of myself as a real writer which makes your comments very encouraging. So thank you!

    You have obviously been to the Olympics… something else, eh?

  3. Harold says:

    Another thought-provoking Saturday morning read! Due to a combination of overconfidence in my map and compass abilities and an overwhelming sense of reaching my destination sooner rather than later I have frequently bushwhacked while backpacking only to find myself in the thickest of thickets where at times the width of my pack seems to prevent any movement. It is at these moments when I feel the overwhelming sense of wilderness. The possibility that no man has ventured along the same route for centuries or perhaps ever, is very powerful and yet a bit disconcerting. I’ll admit that a trail marker at these moments is a welcome sight. For me, that’s wilderness!

  4. Dave Gibson says:

    Pete,

    Simply, I feel your harmonic. Another evocative and immersing tale from Lost Brook. Thank you.

  5. Dan Plumley says:

    Pete:

    Provocative thoughts which run deep in us too as we look very deliberately (as NY State once did and still should) at the whole of the forest preserve essentially as “forever wild” and to be sustained for their critical values – including the rare ability to be “immersed” in wild nature, its sounds, feeling, smells, sights and timelessness (or expansion vastly beyond our human orientation).

    We are blessed here in the Adirondacks that we can become part of the whole in such lands.

    In 25 years of conservation practice, incidentally, I have heard these statements often from a few: “the High Peaks or Giant Mountain or (you name the location) are not “true” wilderness lands.” These statements, often without exception, come from those that would deny the East any wilderness capacity and have an agenda for use of these lands for their own interest or gain which distance themselves from wanting to be part of the whole — in their right place in these wild lands — for their own personal desire to remain as conqueror or the controlling species in one manner or the other.

    They would deny us our birthright for the wilderness experience in the East and the Adirondacks at the ultimate expense of their self-interest and only through our common struggle — and incisive writings like yours — can we insure that the promise of the wild be passed down from this generation to the next. Thank you Pete.

    Dan Plumley
    Keene
    Partner, Adirondack Wild

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    From someone who has been lost in the Western High Peaks [once, long ago, for 3 days] and live in Washington State and experienced the Olympics and the N. Cascades, you are spot on!

  7. Paul says:

    Pete, there is no doubt that some of the Adirondacks is what we call wilderness. Some of it is not.

  8. Paul says:

    “(as NY State once did and still should) at the whole of the forest preserve essentially as “forever wild”

    Dan what do you mean since when has NYS ever seen the FP as anything else(since it existed)? They have added quite a bit more to it in the last decade, NO?

  9. catharus says:

    Another great LB Dispatch post. with much to think on and appreciate! Thanks!

  10. Paul says:

    “In 25 years of conservation practice, incidentally, I have heard these statements often from a few: “the High Peaks or Giant Mountain or (you name the location) are not “true” wilderness lands.” These statements, often without exception, come from those that would deny the East any wilderness capacity and have an agenda for use of these lands for their own interest or gain which distance themselves from wanting to be part of the whole — in their right place in these wild lands — for their own personal desire to remain as conqueror or the controlling species in one manner or the other. ”

    Dan where do you get off insulting folks that just have an opinion that differs from yours? I happen to be one who thinks that some of these areas are “not true wilderness” and it has nothing to do with the ridiculous reasons that you list.

    Part of the reason they are less wild than they could be is because some groups who do have a selfish agenda have exploited these areas to that end.

    Places like the land that Pete describes on his “lost brook tract” are ones that are truly protected. Unlike the HP Wilderness that is being ruined by overuse some of these other places have a chance to remain as true wilderness and I hope that they do.

  11. Bill Ingersoll says:

    The role of private stewardship in wilderness preservation is valid, but few landowners are in an economic position to maintain a property in a primitive state — i.e., generating little or no revenue — for very long. Eventually their property taxes will probably catch up with their idealism, and if so then one of two things happen: either they’re forced to sell, or they’re forced to do something productive with the land.

    Not that I think that logging is a bad thing, but if the private owner’s desire is to maintain a “wilderness” state on their land — to maintain the appearance that it has not been touched by man, as has been the theme of this blog series — then logging is the antithesis of that goal.

    And if the only wilderness was privately owned, then where would the rest of us non-land-owning peons be allowed to go?

  12. Paul says:

    “And if the only wilderness was privately owned, then where would the rest of us non-land-owning peons be allowed to go?”

    I am not suggesting that the only solution is private stewardship. But if the public stewards are going to let the masses wreck the place than you can hardly call it wilderness.

    Bill I am talking about preservation you are talking about recreation.

    “few landowners are in an economic position to maintain a property in a primitive state — i.e., generating little or no revenue — for very long”

    Not sure this is true. If you look at the statistics more land in the east is forest like than it was 100 years ago. The trend is toward land being used less for revenue generation and more for preservation. Even in places where agriculture has been king for many years the land is reverting back to forest land. Look at Northern Texas for example. It is going from cattle farms to wildlife sanctuaries on many acres.

    Also everyone can go and recreate on the several million acres of public land that is already available in the Adirondacks. I just think we better consider some limitations at some point or we will ruin what we are hoping to preserve.

  13. Bill Ingersoll says:

    “I just think we better consider some limitations at some point or we will ruin what we are hoping to preserve.”

    Well, yes. I would argue that involves the following actions: sticking to the SLMP, strengthening it rather than trying to find ways to get around it; encouraging volunteer stewardship of public facilities; allowing the Forest Preserve to generate revenue through user fees, to fund ranger staffing and trail maintenance, the same as any and every national park or national forest in the country; keeping out ATVs at any cost, reminding ATV owners that they are free to walk like any other tax-paying citizen; and simply instilling a basic outdoor ethic to anyone who will listen.

    I don’t know the first thing about North Texas, other than that it’s south of Oklahoma. I do know that in New York we have property taxes that an individual owner has little control over. Say someone (or some group) owns a substantial acreage that they want to preserve as wilderness, meaning that the land is allowed to grow wild without a stick of timber being cut. Say this land is in the town of Webb. What’s the tax rate per acre? What if that land includes water frontage? Sure, a downturn in the real estate market might ease the pressure to log or sell in the short term, but say the price of veneer hardwoods shoots up through the roof? Say the demand for undeveloped waterfront property can’t be satiated? Is the assessor going to reward the owner’s ideals with a tax break?

    The point is, my hat is off to any private landowner in the Adirondacks who is making this work. (I suspect that in the case of “Lost Brook,” development and logging aren’t valid options anyway if the property is surrounded by state land with no deeded ROW.) But I am not aware of any legal mechanism in this state that rewards landowners for preserving their land in a state of wilderness.

    Not that logging is bad; not that private land ownership is bad. I’m just stating that if the stated goal is wilderness preservation — and by the word “preservation” we’re implying “for a very long time,” if not in perpetuity — then I don’t see private ownership has being the most reliable way of accomplishing this public goal.

    “If you look at the statistics more land in the east is forest like than it was 100 years ago.”

    And yes, I agree too, but only because there is so much more public land now. A century ago, most of the state forests in NY did not exist. A century ago, I don’t think there were any national forests east of the Mississippi. Especially in NY, many of the state forests outside the Adirondacks were farms that failed in the Depression. The state bought them, the CCC planted them with pines, and today they are forests.

    But again, this topic is about wilderness preservation, and none of these reforestation areas strike me as “wilderness,” as nice as they might otherwise be.

  14. Paul says:

    “I do know that in New York we have property taxes that an individual owner has little control over.”

    Bill, this is true. The state has to deal with the same issues as the tax payer on parcels of land that we own.

    The state should do more to encourage preservation on private land. The easement agreements in place that protect the Elk Lake preserve are a great example. Those deed restrictions are “in perpetuity”. Unlike the NYS constitution these restrictions cannot be changed. The state is too quick now to just buy up available parcels and open them up to public use (and very often abuse).

    The vast majority of the forest preserve land in the Adirondacks is “reforested” land.

  15. Bill Ingersoll says:

    “The vast majority of the forest preserve land in the Adirondacks is ‘reforested’ land.”

    Hardly. Most of it was logged previously, yes, but only a few specific parcels were actively reforested. There is a difference between a “second growth” forest and a reforestation area.

    A “second growth” parcel in the Forest Preserve is one that was logged selectively for specific tree species in the past, but has then been allowed to naturally recover ever since state acquisition. The underlying assumption is that if the land is left alone, natural forest growth will return it to “old growth” conditions over time. This process can be observed in the Silver Lake Wilderness south of Piseco. Likewise with those places that were severely burned: the aspens, birches, and cherries that are there now got there on their own, and the process of natural succession is expected to mimic what occurred in the Adirondacks after the retreat of the last glacier.

    A “reforestation area” was a clearing — often an abandoned farm for homestead — where trees were manually planted. Often, but not always, these sites appear as monocultures of even-aged pine or spruce trees; in some cases, European species such as Scotch pine and Norway spruce were used instead of native species. Several of these sites do indeed occur in Adirondack wilderness areas (Old Farm Clearing in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness being one example) but in terms of the overall acreage of designated wilderness or the Forest Preserve in general, they are very much in the minority.

    In regards to conservation easements, I think that’s a great program and I have visited a few of them throughout the park. But again, this discussion is about wilderness preservation, not just forest conservation. An easement ensures that a tract of land will remain forested and undeveloped, but there is never an intent to curtail so-called “non-conforming” uses and impose wilderness conditions on forestry lands. What logging company would agree to an easement condition that prevented them from logging a 10,000 acre chunk of their own land?

    Remember, “wilderness” in the modern legal sense is a continuous tract of land at least 10,000 acres in size (or less, if it can be justified), with no motorized or mechanized access and no intrusive structures. Not to belittle the efforts of private owners who have maintained outstanding sections of forest that they probably haven’t touched in their lifetime, few could afford to set aside the bulk acreage required to mimic the public wilderness in the Forest Preserve. What motivation would they have to do so, when they could sell the land to the state anyway and enjoy the same access without the tax burden? If the owner sought non-profit status to seek property tax relief, how would that affect the local municipality?

    Maybe it would be desirable to create a framework that supported and rewarded private forest preservation efforts, but that’s probably a topic for another discussion.

  16. Paul says:

    “Hardly. Most of it was logged previously, yes, but only a few specific parcels were actively reforested. There is a difference between a “second growth” forest and a reforestation area.”

    Good point.

    “Maybe it would be desirable to create a framework that supported and rewarded private forest preservation efforts, but that’s probably a topic for another discussion.”

    Or maybe it really is the discussion. Lost Brook seems to be one such effort.

  17. Pete Nelson says:

    An incisive and involved discussion, thanks all.

    LBT is not particularly germane to the private/public land stewardship debate because it’s relatively small and because it is strictly protected. I have the luxury of never needing to worry about the land as an investment and I have both a conservation easement and the reality of a remote inholding to limit my options anyhow. Logging or development is completely out. The issues other private landowners with larger or less remote parcels face are of a different nature.

    However, LBT is germane to the question of how we look at immersive wilderness a la Dan Plumley’s comment. Despite the restrictions we have we could ruin its character in a few short years with poor stewardship, in ways intentioned or unintentioned. We are utterly committed to protecting it.

    Many private landowners should be commended for their excellent stewardship (Harold Hochschild comes to mind from my youth). And it is true private stewards have the ability to be even more protective than the State. But in practical terms that is limited acreage. The cast majority of private land is not protected as thoroughly as State Wilderness. Only New York State, through its agencies and laws – and most important – political will, can preserve and expand the Adirondacks as wilderness on large scale.

    I return to my original rationale for writing these dispatches. The view that there is enough wilderness in the Adirondacks is myopic, as a sobering drive around our national landscape easily proves. The State needs to reacquire its will to preserve and improve the Adirondack park.

    Since political power derives from the people, it’s up to us to carry on the legacy of those who fought for the park we have today.

  18. Paul says:

    I suggest that anyone interested in this topic should consider reading Barbara McMartin’s “The Privately Held Adirondacks”. Her views on the importance of even smaller parcels is very interesting. Now that the state is going to find it harder to properly maintain the land they have this is something to think about. The fact that ATV’s are an issue on WF land is a good example. They are barred from these parcels just like on Wilderness land if they are an issue it is about enforcement not regulations.