Generally, I regard the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan as a sound document, but when it comes to mountain bikes I have some qualms. It seems to pit environmentalists against bikers, and the bikers I know consider themselves environmentalists.
I thought of this while reviewing the state’s proposals for the classification and management of the former Finch, Pruyn & Company lands.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is recommending that bikers be allowed to ride on a network of dirt roads in the Essex Chain of Lakes area and on the access road to the Boreas Ponds Tract (known as Gulf Brook Road).
This would be legal if—as DEC proposes—the lands are classified Wild Forest. It would be illegal if the lands are classified Wilderness, the strongest land protection under the master plan.
As noted in my previous article, environmental groups want the Essex Chain region classified Wilderness. This would require closing the roads to bicycles as well as motor vehicles.
As to Gulf Brook Road, the environmentalists are split. The Adirondack Council wants it closed and classified Wilderness. The Adirondack Mountain Club and Protect the Adirondacks are satisfied with DEC’s plan to classify it Wild Forest and keep much of it open so hikers and paddlers will have easier access to Boreas Ponds. DEC envisions that the road also will be used by bikers.
My guess is that bikers would enjoy the Essex Chain area more. From the DEC map, it looks like they would be able to ride on more than fifteen miles of old roads that wind among various lakes, including a big loop around the Essex Chain itself. Unlike Gulf Brook Road, these routes would not be open to motor vehicles. They would double as hiking trails.
Since these are roads, I assume that they can withstand the impact of bike tires as well as footfalls. This would be true whether the land is classified Wilderness or Wild Forest. Nevertheless, bikes will be banned if the environmentalists have their way and the area becomes Wilderness. So if you’re a mountain biker, you’re forced to choose between pursuing your sport or advocating for the strongest environmental protection of the land.
The State Land Master Plan does not explain why mountain bikes are banned in Wilderness Areas, but I suppose it’s largely for aesthetic reasons: they leave tracks, they go fast. I understand why many people think bikes don’t belong in a place “untrammeled by man.” On most days, I’m one of those people. But the Park’s Wilderness Areas have a number of graded, hard-packed roads that see little foot traffic and seem ideal for biking. I’m thinking, for example, of the logging roads near Little Tupper Lake and the gated road that skirts Lake Lila. What would be the harm of cycling on these roads?
I don’t think bikes should be allowed everywhere. Obviously, we don’t want bikers churning through wetlands or barreling down the High Peaks. But perhaps they should be allowed on certain designated trails in Wilderness—those that are little used by hikers and that can withstand the extra abuse. In most cases, we’re talking about old roads. In other cases, a short trail through a Wilderness Area might provide useful connection between trails in Wild Forest Areas.
I’m not ready to advocate that the State Land Master Plan be changed, but it’s worth discussing. The sport of mountain biking has grown considerably since the plan was written. If the document were amended, we might see more support for Wilderness.
Illustration: Detail of DEC map showing trails near Essex Chain of Lakes that would be open to mountain bikers.