Tuesday, December 14, 2010

John Warren: Protecting Our Open Forests

Taking a look at the discussion on Phil Brown’s piece yesterday – largely a debate over whether we should open roads in wilderness areas to mountain bikes and other uses – I found myself thankful that there are still a few people like Dan Plumley and Adirondack Wild who have a larger and deeper understanding of what wilderness is and why it’s important. Here’s some of what Plumley had to say in that discussion:

“It is all too easy for us to think of our own recreational desires first and forget about the long term goals of gaining, over time, truly wild conditions of relatively intact wilderness protected by law and our state constitution. Given the biodiversity values, the potential for moose, possibly wolf and mountain lion recovery eventually, watershed preservation and truly remote – by foot and paddle – experiences without mechanized vehicles (including like it or not, mountain bikes), these rare opportunities are too important for the future to short cut.”

Plumley’s right. I’m afraid there are far too many who are willing to buy into the idea that we have enough, or that what open forests we have should be opened to every purpose under the sun, essentially no restrictions except on houses and highways.

For the individual purpose it could be argued we do have enough. Any one of us can travel out for miles in virtually unbroken forests, and many will get our fill. But those areas are facing increasing use, from more and more constituencies. For our collective use, now and in the future, we don’t have nearly enough, and we never will. All we can hope for are a few islands of open forest in a sea of eventual development.

Even today, the small wilderness areas we have designated are surrounded by development pressures from people whose concerns all too often seem limited to their own desires, not needs, but often simple desires for recreation opportunities.

The most vocal (lately) argue that we can’t afford open forests preserved from development for future generations. They complain about taxes, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the Department of Environmental Conservation, state land purchases, the Nature Conservancy. They seem to forget the simple and cheapest approach for us all is to just let it be, leave some open forests. If we had left it up to them, there would be little open forests at all. McMansions would by now dot the hillsides in ever remote area accessible by road.

Others argue that we are in danger of losing some amorphous “culture” of the Adirondacks, as if that culture hasn’t changes dramatically a half dozen times since the human race made it’s first footprints here. Or, for that matter, even in the last 400 years or so.

In 100 years, or 200 years, will those who follow us be destined to use overcrowded forests with 4x4s, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorboats, floatplanes, and large weekend overland races of hundreds of mountain bikes, trail runners, and whatever else the next mode of transportation or recreation fad is that comes along? In what year will they take a deep breath and realize that every wilderness area set aside in the 20th century has been filled to capacity, or reached the overuse levels of today’s Eastern High Peaks Wilderness?

We need a vision for the future, one that doesn’t include our needs and wants, one that is selflessly tied to what those in the future might need and want.

There has been a longstanding proposal to create, as Dan Plumley described it, “a 400,000 acre plus wilderness core area over time.” This Bob Marshall or Oswegatchie Great Wilderness Area is a laudable goal.

Each year the APA and the various recreation constituencies chip away at the open forest areas we have for new trails and recreation opprtunities. Can’t we leave just a half million acres untouched from here on out? When the eastern seaboard megalopolis finally reaches the edges of that half million acres – we’ll be glad we did.

Map: Adirondack wild lands within 2 miles of a road c.2009 (Adirondack Park Agency map).

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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