Saturday, September 18, 2010

Adirondack Development: A Naturalist’s View

You know, we aren’t half lucky, those of us who live in the Adirondacks. I drove home this weekend to visit my folks, and even though they don’t live that far away, and I do go home a few times each year, I still find it stunning to see all the development that has taken place during my lifetime, especially in the last ten years. Fields that were pastures, land that was once forested, all now converted to housing developments, strip malls, car dealerships, storage units.

I read an article recently about the houses that are going up on the mountainsides up around Keene and Keene Valley, and how the creation of these homes, with their driveways and parking areas, altered the watershed(s) enough that streams at the base of the mountain(s) are no longer filling.

This in turn has a direct impact on the invertebrate life that lives in those streams, invertebrates that not only feed the next level in the food chain (fish, amphibians, larger invertebrates), but invertebrates that also clean the water by filtering out particulate matter. The impacts of a single house go beyond its immediate footprint on that mountainside.

When a house/airport/mall/road, is built, the patch of land it covers is “removed” from the surrounding landscape. Anyone who gardens knows that the vitality of the soil is the key to a good garden. It is also the key to a healthy ecosystem. When we cover the ground with impermeable surfaces, it cannot be good for the life that was once there. If water can no longer penetrate that patch of ground, then the life that once lived there either dies or moves away.

At the Newcomb VIC we have a recorded dramatization of the congressional meeting at which the 14th Amendment, the Forever Wild Clause, was created. It plays in the background in one of the exhibits, and staff sitting at the front desk can hear those parts in which the actors are making loud, emphatic points. Certain phrases stick out, like the gentleman describing how logging has led to erosion, where the water, now unimpeded by vegetation, “sweeps down the mountain, carrying away the soil…ruining our rivers and destroying our commerce!” For those who don’t know, one of the driving forces for creating the Adirondacks Park, and the enclosed Forest Preserve, was to protect it as a watershed. Okay, it was to protect the water source for the folks downstate, but still, the point is that even then they knew about the importance of the watershed.

In my line of work I often hear people grouse about the restrictions that are put on development within the Blue Line. But one only needs to drive beyond this invisible boundary to see just why such restrictions are important. Every year more and more open space is converted to developed land. New homes are built faster than people can occupy them. Roads are built, shunting ever more rainwater and snowmelt (with their attendant pollutants) into streams at accelerated rates.

I know that I lean towards the green side of philosophy, but I like to think it is because I try to look at the bigger picture and keep an eye towards the future. We are but one species living on this planet, and as far as we know, it is the only habitable planet in the neighborhood. How selfish it is of us in the here and now to create/destroy things for our own wants and desires without taking into consideration the impact it will have on those whose time has not yet come. Just because we are of “greater intelligence” than those invertebrates filtering the streams, ponds and rivers, does that make us more important? Truthfully, I think those invertebrates are contributing a whole lot more to the betterment of the planet than we are.

But I know I am not above my fellow humans, for I also drive a car (although I drive the most energy efficient vehicle I can), I live in a development (although I have filled my yard with native plantings, and I do not treat my land with chemicals so I can have the perfect lawn), and I own way too much “stuff.” I do try, however, to make decisions that have the least impact possible on the land around me. Would I like a bigger house? Yes, but I don’t need a bigger house. And I think that is what it often comes down to: need vs. want. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

I know that living in the Adirondack Park can be a hassle. It is often a long drive to the grocery store, or to get new pipes for the ruptured pipe under the kitchen sink. And it can be well over an hour to the nearest hospital in an emergency (I used to be an EMT, and believe me, an hour plus in the back of an ambulance can seem like a lifetime). With unemployment in my future, finding a replacement job will be well nigh impossible. But, despite these drawbacks, I know that the Adirondack Park is a very special place and not one I would change to accommodate a few whims. I moved here knowing the limitations. If I wanted conveniences, I would live somewhere else.

As a naturalist, I hope that the integrity of the Park and the Forest Preserve, lasts in perpetuity. An intact ecosystem is important, and even though we see ourselves as pretty advanced here at the beginning of the 21st century, I’d be willing to bet that in a couple hundred years (or less) we will have discovered even more about how important it is. With all our advanced knowledge, we do not hold all the answers yet. By keeping this bit northern forest intact, we may find that we’ve done the planet a greater service than we ever could have dreamed.

Related Stories


Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





28 Responses

  1. Eliza Jane Darling says:
  2. Eliza Jane Darling says:
  3. Ellen Rathbone says:
  4. Ellen Rathbone says:
  5. Patrick Ashley says:

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.