Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bill Porter: Friend of Wildlife, Ecology, and Education

The weather was pleasant at the Long Lake pavilion, and the dialogue at this year’s Common Ground Alliance stimulating enough. Then, my thoughts strayed to the fire tower on top of Goodnow Mountain, and what I could see from it. So, off I went. This being my first hike of the summer, I took my time and climbed the fire tower just as dramatic clouds and welcome summer rains moved in, allowing glimpses of the scintillating lake country, and High Peaks Wilderness to the north. Out below me was Lake Harris, the Newcomb VIC, Rich Lake, Arbutus and and Catlin Lakes on the 14,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest, one of the world’s best and longest running experimental forests.

Some of my most interesting moments in the Park have been in the Huntington Wildlife Forest with Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) faculty who helped me gain some understanding of dynamic predator-prey interactions in the central Adirondacks. A lot of the prey constitutes tasty Adirondack hardwoods, consumed by its predator, white-tailed deer, which in turn faces its great killer each winter – deep, long snowpack. Dick Sage, Ranier Brocke, and Bill Porter generously provided us with many ecological insights, such as how to do shelterwood cutting of forests on private lands to benefit wildlife, insights from decades of faculty-student work at this unique wildlife field station.

Indeed, those three stalwarts from ESF might remind us that we could have more “common ground” in the Adirondacks if we consciously recognized our collective fascination with the Park’s wildlife, and thought about working together to benefit from this common passion.

I especially wish to thank Professor Bill Porter, who will soon leave his professorship at ESF for new adventures at the University of Michigan. I was fortunate to join the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks when four of its board leaders considered visits to Huntington Wildlife Forest as essential background education for any staff that sought to protect the Forest Preserve and the Park. Prof. Bill Porter not only welcomed these engagements with advocates for the Park, he pushed his small staff to schedule as many as possible.

The very first speaker I ever invited was Bill Porter, at Paul Schaefer’s behest, in 1987. Bill spoke about the fact that the central Adirondack black bear, that lover of berries and veggies, was also adept at catching and eating white-tailed deer fawns in the spring. He presented an image most of us had never thought about, the black bear as ambusher and meat-eater. It was the first of many presentations about Adirondack wildlife that made people sit up and take notice. It dawned on me that to get people into a stuffy room and out of the beautiful Adirondack outdoors, make wildlife your topic.

As Bill’s responsibilities increased, he pushed all the harder on his public communications. He went on to chair the Adirondack Research Consortium, and made the College’s wildlife research more accessible. His presentations on wildlife ecology were fun and interesting. Remember the gas molecule theory in high school, he would ask his audience? Most people would squirm uncomfortably. Well, forget it when it comes to deer biology. Ah. We relaxed. Deer, Bill informed us, do not simply disperse from areas with lots of deer to fill the least concentrated areas of their habitat. Females, or does have a complex social structure called kin groups which greatly effects their affinity for an area, and includes their faithfulness to the places where they were born. So, deer are not distributed uniformly on the landscape at all. Central Adirondack deer societies, like our politics, are local.

Bill Porter’s ability to convey the broad story lines and myriad details of Adirondack wildlife ecology have never failed to amaze me. Later, I learned what an excellent strategist he is. Porter had long believed NYS DEC was flying blind when it came to managing the Forest Preserve because they lacked a thorough digital inventory using GIS (geographic information systems). ESF had the equipment and skilled students to help digitize the data and train DEC in how to access it for more informed public lands management. What Bill needed were advocates to push DEC and the Governor’s staff to fund the work, and make use of the data. With Audubon, the Association, ADK, WCS and Adirondack Council, Bill found his advocates. Here was a partnership to improve understanding and management of the Park’s Forest Preserve we all could believe in. In the last ten years, the GIS project has resulted in greatly improved State Land inventories and much stronger working relations between academia, DEC and private advocates for the Forest Preserve.

This success was followed by Bill’s visionary creation, backed by ESF President Neil Murphy, of SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute, acquisition of Masten House above Henderson Lake as a future wilderness training center and ESF’s decision, announced last month, to manage the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center in 2011.

So, thank you, Prof. Bill Porter. I will miss you. You have made my Adirondack experience so much more meaningful. You have made partnerships for the more than human world tangible and productive. Thanks to your efforts, young people with your thirst for knowledge and passion will be communicating in new and exciting ways about Adirondack wildlife for years and years to come at the Northern Forest Institute, the Masten House, and the Newcomb VIC.

Photo: The view from Goodnow Mountain, Rich Lake in the foreground.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




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