As the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) prepares for their March meeting, a decision on classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract is not on the agenda. That’s a good thing, indicating that more research and deliberations are ongoing and providing some comfort that the decision is not just pro forma.
Adirondack Wilderness Advocates believes that it is therefore an excellent time to review the status of the deliberation process. In doing so, we can justly say “hats off” to the Adirondack Park Agency staff. Their thorough analysis of the Boreas Ponds Tract, conducted as part of developing a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS), and presented to the State Land Committee at the February Agency Meeting, was a breath of fresh, evidence-based, rational air in a process that to this point has been in dire need of reason and facts.
Carefully following the Classification System and Guidelines contained in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), APA staff analyzed the Boreas tract according to four required criteria: physical, biological and intangible characteristics, and established facilities. Without any agenda other than their professional responsibility to make data and facts available to the commissioners and the public, the staff delivered a credible, thorough analysis and we commend them.
However, while the APA staff’s presentation was scientific, data-focused and unbiased, it yields a clear conclusion. Their analysis made an unmistakable case for protecting the Boreas Ponds Tract as Wilderness. To reach any other conclusion would require some remarkable gymnastics. Now what is needed is to hold the APA Board’s feet to the factual fire.
The APA staff’s analysis made every point that Adirondack Wilderness Associates has put forward in our own analysis that we submitted in our formal comments:
- In terms of size, geography, distance from roads, forest cover and wildlife, the Boreas Ponds Tract is a significant wild area, by Adirondack measures, by national measures and by global measures
- The Boreas Ponds Tract has a high degree of ecological integrity and resilience, meaning it plays a crucial role in protection and sustainability of many rare and threatened plant and animal species.
- Removal of dams, culverts, and roads would restore the rare aquatic system of which the Tract is part to a superior state, leaving three ponds, and an expanded and enhanced wetland.
- The intangibles of the Boreas Ponds Tract, including its forest, scenic vistas, and remoteness, make it an ideal candidate for a Wilderness experience that is rare even by Adirondack standards.
In sum, the staff analysis plainly demonstrated that the Boreas Ponds Tract’s wilderness values are nearly an ideal match to each wilderness criterion in the SLMP, as well as the advancing sciences of ecological integrity and resilience.
Let us review some of the APA staff’s findings.
With respect to the rarity and significance of the Boreas Ponds Tract as a wild area, the staff noted:
- In the context of the Northeast ecoregion, Boreas is critically important. According to 2C1Forest collaboration, a major Canadian-U.S. collaborative of 50 conservation organizations, researchers, and foundations working to conserve and restore the forests and natural heritage of the Northern Appalachian Acadian ecoregion, the Boreas Tract is one of only three large areas in the Adirondacks (and ten areas total) that qualify for their “Last of the Wild” designation. Last of the Wild areas are the 120 largest and wildest areas remaining in the ecoregion.
- The Boreas Tract contains a sizable Mountain Spruce Fir zone, which the New York Natural Heritage Program designates a Significant Community that is imperiled or vulnerable
- The Boreas Tract is a principal tributary of the Hudson but also supplies the St. Lawrence watershed. The fact that it connects two watersheds increases its importance and potential impact.
- In the Adirondack Park there are 121 lakes over 300 acres in size. Only 15 are the size of Boreas or bigger and surrounded by Forest Preserve. Of these, only 6 are surrounded by Wilderness, Primitive or Canoe areas.
- There are 7 Headwater streams, all suitable for trout. One of them, the Branch, is currently a candidate to be added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers registry.
- Rare flora and fauna abound and there is, to quote staff, “very little development”.
- The wetlands are value 1 (the highest rating), are very diverse, and so far are free of invasive species. Among other flora and fauna they harbor are breeding pairs of loons, a great blue heron rookery, and the threatened Farwell’s Water Millfoil.
- Many gaps exist in documentation of the biological wealth of the tract’s wetlands and more study is needed, especially at the tract’s south end. For example, the mink frog is there but little is known about other amphibian species.
- Wetlands are useful in a multitude of ways that benefit society. The Boreas wetlands affect and positively treat a very large combined watershed.
In terms of ecological integrity, APA staff discussed that with the increasing pace of climate change, the focus in scientific work on ecological integrity is changing, from preserving places and species as and where they exist today, to preserving places with a high degree of ecological integrity and resilience, “regardless of the current character of the biological landscape,” where it is possible to sustain biodiversity and associated ecological processes over the long term. This definition of ecological integrity encompasses the critical role of resiliency, which includes the capacity to recover from or adapt to disturbance, connectivity. By this definition of ecological integrity:
- More than three quarters of the Boreas Tract has an above-average degree of ecological integrity. Furthermore, areas rated lower are those with roads and development around dams, but those areas can recover well, as the tract has high recoverability.
- The Boreas Tract is highly resilient, which is of prime importance. As species begin mass reorganizations, current science is focusing on conserving the stage, not the players. Boreas is resilient due to its complexity and especially its connectedness. 97% is above average in resiliency and some of it is far above average. Boreas provides options and the lack of road subdivision is the reason. Staff offered this sobering quote about the Boreas Tract: it is “one of the largest blocks of intact temperate deciduous forests left on Earth, making it important on an eco-regional, if not global, level. “
- A Nature Conservancy analysis using matrix blocks – areas able to sustain ecological processes with a high degree of resilience – found that Boreas sits right inside one of the largest identified matrix blocks in the Northeast United States.
- Analysis of the Boreas Tract forest shows strong interconnectivity of different forest types, meaning a strong chance of sustaining long-term ecological integrity. The forests are largely unbroken and relatively undisturbed (contrary to rhetoric from some who talk about how developed and spoiled the area is), have patches of old growth forest and excellent connectivity. Recreational overuse is one of the listed vulnerabilities
- The Boreas Tract has 88% forest cover. There was little harvesting at high elevations or in wetlands, helping the forests to be resilient. According to staff, “Roads will… …fade back into the forested landscape”.
- Because Boreas connects two major watersheds a terrestrial or aquatic invasive species could have an impact on both watersheds. Staff noted during the presentation that “because of the connectivity with the surrounding area, an exotic insect coming into the Boreas Tract could have major implications for the High Peaks Wilderness”
- The Boreas Tract possesses a high degree of climate resilience. Peat bogs hold a lot of carbon, on a scale of global significance
- The best continued capacity to support moose in the future is the High Peaks and northern part of Boreas. It is optimal terrain for sustainability for both the moose and the American marten as well
- High elevation boreal bogs may likely disappear in the state except in the northernmost areas of the state, including Boreas
- Removal of roads and culverts and replacement with smaller trails and bridges would have a substantial positive impact on ecological integrity. Roads that support cars are a vector for invasive species
In terms of the impact of dams and roads, and the consequences for their removal, the staff found:
- The Boreas Dams are physical barriers: the outlet drop at the Boreas dam and the plunge pool depth at the LaBier dam are both significant impediments. There are multiple impacts to ecological integrity
- Pre 1898 dam impoundment showed thee distinct basins. First Pond is about the same size as now and connected to Second Pond. Second Pond is considerably smaller but with a long channel to Third Pond
- Dam removal would mean the natural hydrologic regime would be reestablished, nutrient and sediment transport restored and connectivity restored, including between the Hudson and Ausable watersheds. This will be important as climate change has a greater future impact on the region, adding up to increasing the biodiversity of both plants and animals. Ed Snizek, Supervisor of Natural Resource Analysis, said this: “Dam removal is a positive thing because it does recreate the natural, stable conditions.”
In term of intangible considerations, APA staff noted that Boreas has unquestionable value in intangible categories recognized in the field:
- Bequest (a legacy for future generations)
- Existence (just knowing that it is there)
- Option values (“someday I could go there”)
APA staff noted that these categories are recognized by economists and that research confirms that more people like to know that a wild place is there and protected than to actually go there. Finally, staff reminded us of how uniquely remote the Boreas Tract is: less than 3% of the Adirondack Park is more than 3 miles from a road or 2 miles from motorboats. Even if Gulf Brook Road were closed, half of the Boreas Tract would be within 3 miles of a road. Yet, it would be preserved as one of the most remote places in the Northeast.
At the question and answer period at the end of day one, APA Board member was heard to comment “We’re all a little overwhelmed.” As well they should be: they were confronted with a plethora of facts that prove the Boreas Ponds Tract to be a precious ecological and environmental asset, a gift to the people of New York and the world that needs and deserves the highest Wilderness protection. It is vital that we recognize what objective analysis has told us and hold the APA Board accountable for recommending a different alternative than any on the table right now: full Wilderness for Boreas, for us and for future generations.