Monday, May 16, 2011

Dave Gibson: Wild Forest Lands Do Need Our Help

Phil Terrie’s essay in the current Adirondack Explorer, “forests don’t need our help,” rebuts those who claim that no further land acquisition is justified because the state “can’t take care of what it already has.” Phil is absolutely correct to call the list of unmet recreational maintenance projects on a given unit of Forest Preserve, such as a trail or lean-to in rough shape, as a lame excuse for not adding additional strategic lands to the Preserve.

He is incorrect, however, in asserting that the “forever wild provision of the state constitution provides a perfect management plan. It costs nothing and provides the best guarantee possible for healthy, aesthetically appealing, functional ecosystems.”

Article 14, the forever wild clause of our Constitution, has never been self-executing. Its implementation requires both a vigilant defense to prevent bad amendments from being passed, as well as an offensive team of alert citizens and principled and funded state agencies to proactively carry out its mandate that the forest preserve is to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” Call it field management, if you will. Over time, you can not preserve wilderness, or shall I say, Forest Preserve without actively managing ourselves, the recreational user. This prerequisite demands that we have management principles, plans and objectives in place, and that we oversee and measure the results.

I don’t mean a lean-to here, or a trail there that may be out of repair and needing maintenance, and not receiving it. What I mean is that the underlying philosophy, principles, plans and objectives for managing our uses of “forever wild” land are vitally important if you expect to still have wild, or natural conditions years hence. Remember that a part of the Wilderness definition in our State Land Master Plan (which echoes the national definition) is to “preserve, enhance and restore natural conditions.” Howard Zahniser, author of the National Wilderness Act, was inspired by New York’s Forever Wild history. He always maintained that our biggest challenge, once Wilderness was designated, was to keep wilderness wild, especially from all of us who could, and often do love wilderness to death. The same applies to the Forest Preserve. Of course, restoring “natural conditions” in a time of climate change is a significant challenge that wilderness managers are facing across the country.

Remember the way Marcy Dam used to look? Restoring that area from the impact of thousands of boot heels and lean-to campers took decades of effort. The High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan established clear management objectives of, for example, restoring native vegetation at heavily used lean-to and trailhead sites, and redistributing and limiting the heavily concentrated camping pattern that once existed. It then took additional years to actively carry out those objectives, measure their progress, and achieve the desired results.

So did the efforts led by Edwin H. Ketchledge, ADK, DEC and Nature Conservancy to ecologically restore the High Peak alpine summits. In the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the UMP is seeking to restore wilder conditions in the central core area, and move some of the dense snowmobile traffic to the perimeter of that unit.

In the Siamese Ponds Wilderness and Jessup River Wild Forest, it will take years of well directed management effort to restore parts of the western shoreline and islands of Indian Lake to achieve “natural conditions” after decades of uncertain management and overly intensive day and overnight use. Without a Siamese Ponds Wilderness UMP, there would be no clear wild land objectives, and no timetable to achieve them. Yes, those timetables are often exceeded, but these UMPs hold our public officials feet to the fire, and accountable to the State Land Master Plan and to Article 14 of the Constitution.

Our Constitution’s assertion that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” are, in these myriad and laborious ways, carried out for future generations. And yes, wild land management requires financial resources and devoted personnel. That is why it was so important a decade ago to establish a land stewardship account in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Yes, these funds are insufficient, so a stronger public-private partnership for Adirondack wild lands is needed.

Lost so far in the debate over whether and how to acquire some 65,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn lands for the Forest Preserve is the good thinking that should be underway about how to best manage these lands as wild lands, for their wild, ecological and recreational values. Assuming that some day these lands will be part of the Forest Preserve, time and effort needs to be devoted now to management planning that may help keep these lands as wild as possible, preserving their ecological integrity while planning for recreational uses that are compatible with the paramount need to care for these lands as part of the Forest Preserve.

For example, public access will need to be closely managed if wild land and natural conditions are to be preserved, enhanced or restored. During a visit sponsored by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, I was impressed, for example, with the extensive logging road network leading to the Essex Chain of Lakes south of Newcomb. This beautiful chain of lakes offers a fine future canoeing and kayaking attraction in the central Adirondacks, as well as an ecologically interesting and important aquatic resource.

State and private natural resource managers are giving quite a bit of thought, as they should, to how and where the paddling public might access the chain of lakes. Closing off some of the roads to motorized traffic, turning these into narrower trails, and requiring paddlers to carry or wheel their boats longer distances to enter or leave the lakes would create or restore wilder and more natural conditions along these sensitive shorelines, conditions which would appeal to paddlers from across the Northern Forest and Canada. Special fishing regulations may also be required to preserve the fishery long treasured by the private leaseholders here. The same level of planning thought will be needed to assure or restore both wild and natural conditions at Boreas Ponds, the Upper Hudson River and other former Finch lands and waters that merit Forest Preserve status.

Photo: Paddling on the Essex Chain of Lakes, south of Newcomb, NY, as guests of The Nature Conservancy.

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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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