Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Striking a Balance

One of the most romantic characteristics of Lost Brook Tract is that hardly anyone has ever been there. This is not a wishful abstraction; we know it to be true. Fascinated by having found it to be old growth forest when we first visited it, I plunged into a research project to find out everything I could about the land.

Remarkably, the record is complete enough to paint a fairly thorough picture of its history. I was able to assemble a detailed chronology that shows Lost Brook Tract was simply missed by the surprising volume of human activity that occurred in the park, to the point where it is likely only a handful of people have ever walked on it. I find this a very compelling idea. It is incredibly romantic to imagine that in wandering through it I might set foot on some part where no one has ever trod. But is this a characteristic I am justified in preserving?

In last week’s post I offered my rationale for writing these dispatches. However I see now that what I presented was incomplete. Shortly after it posted one reader wrote a comment that this endeavor seemed self-serving, “praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.” I think this is a valid criticism. I thought so before he wrote in. In fact I have been troubled by this very issue and it is one of the reasons I decided to write these dispatches.

It did not occur to us initially, but my family and I find ourselves deliberating a serious and difficult question about Lost Brook Tract that is an analog of the larger dispute over the Adirondack Park itself: how do we strike a balance between our interests, the interests of the public and the interests of the woods themselves? This is a challenging problem in ethics and aesthetics – that I used the term “primeval aesthetic” in my previous dispatch is no accident. Perhaps I should enlist the help of the Almanack’s resident Philosopher, Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, but in the absence of her input let me share a little bit about how we have tried to sort it out.

First, there are what I would describe as the two extremes. At the one extreme we simply deny access to anyone other than family and keep a shotgun handy to ward off any trespasser who ignores the signs that say “Posted.” This is easy enough to do. All it requires is a typical embrace of the centuries-old European cultural heritage of private property rights. Whatever one might think of this heritage (and it is a bloody one), it has prevailed in almost all the civilized world. From this view there is no debate at all: property ownership is sacred, especially land. This is the case with Lost Brook Tract: we have a deed, you cannot set foot on it without our permission, end of story.

I think most people would recognize this as the default condition (perhaps absent the threatening shotgun, but consider that this right is so sacrosanct as to give me the justification to shoot a trespasser to defend my property). If so, how can I characterize it as an extreme position? My answer to that has to do with context. It is fashionable to think in absolutes these days, especially with respect to political and social rights and morality. But absolutes are never universal. “Thou shalt not kill” seems about as defensible an absolute as there is. But it is beholden to context, lest we rule out war, the death penalty, self-defense, doctor-assisted suicide and even food consumption. As concerns property rights, absolutes are uncommon in practice. The average suburban homeowner makes multiple levels contextual distinction with hardly a thought. Consider a handsome stranger on your property without your permission. If he walks onto your front lawn will your authority as land owner engage at the same level as if he walks to your front door? Through the front door into your living room? Into your bedroom? At night?

Even if we have the force of law and cultural norms entirely on our side it seems to be a problem of context if we choose not to share Lost Brook Tract at all. Virgin forest is a precious and rare resource that is potentially of great importance to others. To hoard it while trumpeting wilderness values raises the damning specter of elitism.

At the other extreme we open the land to all. We go further: recognizing its unique value to the world at large and having preached about the importance of the primeval experience we invite all the readers of the Almanack to come up for a visit, describing its location and the route in, attaching a map and giving out GPS coordinates.

Obviously this is no balance either. For one thing we did not purchase Lost Brook Tract without a good share of self-interest on behalf of ourselves and our heirs. While we like to think we’re as altruistic as the next folks we’re not ready to entirely give up those interests, which include solitude among other things. But of course there is another competing interest in the mix, that of the land itself. Advertising it to several tens of thousands of Almanack readers risks what makes it valuable in the first place. Sixty acres is not a whole lot of land. If one percent of the Almanack’s readers came out to camp in a calendar year the land would be irrevocably damaged.

As always, that leaves the middle ground. How do we sort it out?

Our thinking has proceeded from the idea that Lost Brook Tract’s uniqueness and importance is directly due to its inaccessibility. The idea that a visit to such a place should be earned by effort and skill is not uncommon in the wilderness ethos. But this implies that it can and should be earnable. Therefore we decided to achieve our balance by allowing people to earn the experience of the land on the land’s terms. We’ll give up the romantic notion that no one should walk on it but we’re not going to make it any easier to get to.

Here’s how this has translated into practice.

First, we did not post Lost Brook Tract. Barring a disastrous series of incursions we never will. Instead we have a visitors log posted in our lean-to. The log welcomes hunters, hikers and campers. It has rules that we require visitors to follow; those rules are designed to protect the land. We allow use of the lean-to but not the gear we have stored there. We prohibit camping elsewhere. We allow fires in the fire ring, but only during hunting season and winter. Other rules are consistent with DEC wilderness regulations

Next, we have advertised Lost Brook Tract to important people in the political and environmental spectrum of the park who we think should know about the forest and see it. Several have already visited. We have invited an Adirondack-based ecologist who is currently doing research on old growth forests to come and conduct field work on the land.

Finally, we’re writing about it, for reasons already given. We do so knowing full well that makes it a potential destination for an enterprising reader. If someone really wants to find Lost Brook Tract they will. We have to trust that such an effort would be made with reverence for the land, for its wildness, and that the hike in, compass in hand, would earn it.

We welcome any comments or ideas on this balance.

Photo: Long Pond, in the Saint Regis Canoe Area (Courtesy Wikipedia).

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




14 Responses

  1. Timothy says:

    Looking forward to meeting you! Just kidding. Very thoughtful and I agree with your solution.

  2. RossHWilliams says:

    I think you’ve come to a very elegant solution. When I was a kid I used to wander through the woods behind my house and find an old abandoned sugar shack. There is something magic about finding your destination with no trail to take you there.

    It is great that you’ve allowed the ecologist in. There is a lot we can learn from the environment and field sites can be few and far between. Do you know the source of the brook? I only wonder if it passes through any developed areas before reaching your land. Water unaffected by the presence of man may be another scientific asset of your land.

    I hope your arrangement works out!

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    Ross:

    Our land is quite high in elevation and we are within a few hundred yards of the brook’s source. It is pristine. We don’t even bother to filter it. I would be happy to have someone use it for research.

  4. Raquette says:

    Contrary to what many believe there is an abundance of virgin forest in the Adirondacks, Barbara McMartin estimates that there are “at least a half million acres of old-growth forest in the Adirondacks.”
    A map of these areas can be found on page 187 of her book “The Great Forest Of The Adirondacks” and I would encourage any interested hikers to explore these areas.
    There is no need to venture onto private lands or bushwack your way through the backwoods to experience the forest as it existed before logging.
    For instance, in addition to Lost Brook near Sagamore, vast areas surrounding Raquette Lake are virgin growth.

  5. TiSentinel65 says:

    You bring up an interesting point that often gets lost in the continuing land use debate. Many times it is better that land be privately owned in that, a private land owner takes a vested personal interest in seeing that it is shaped to their vision of it. We posted our land after too many instances of vandalism, poaching and theft. Nobody would care about people that just came and went. I comend you for opening up your land to the public. If people would stick to the adage “take only pictures and leave only footprints” more people would be compelled to share it with the public. Your land should be held in the highest degree of respect by those that visit it as you and your family has for generations. This is a gift to the public not a right.

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    In response to Raquette, while it is true that according to Barbara McMartin there are several hundred thousand acres of old growth forest in the Adirondacks,that is actually not as much as it might sound because there are many different kinds of forest communities in the park and they are quite distinct from each other.

    The forest on Lost Brook Tract (and extending some several hundred additional acres beyond it as far as we can tell) is a classic Mountain Spruce-Fir Boreal community, a different animal than the boreal forest communities found at lower elevations which typically featuring wetlands.

    The vast majority of Mountain Spruce-Fir communities in the park were disturbed, since the red spruce, which is the characteristic tree, was coveted by lumbermen. So in fact virgin forest of this type is exceedingly rare. One of the well-known stands still in existence is found up from Gill Brook in the AMR. There are very few others.

    I’ll be covering this in more detail in future columns, but we recognize we have something that is quite precious and must be protected.

  7. Solidago says:

    Public benefit isn’t measured solely in terms of recreational access, although many people in the Adirondacks seem to do so. As more and more areas of Forest Preserve – even the “Wilderness” areas – are ‘loved to death’ – areas like yours where ecological protection can be given a higher priority than recreational access will become increasingly important. You should unapologetically embrace your role as a steward with the rare opportunity to protect the ecological integrity of this tract to a much higher degree than would be possible if it were public land with unrestricted access. Another way that you are leveraging your ownership for public benefit is by making it available for research – you might want to seek out and and invite projects that require minimal disturbance that might not be possible on public land. Lastly, you are protecting this significant parcel at no cost to the public. Thank you for these significant contributions to the Adirondacks that benefit all of us who love the place and its wild character.

    As for posting, you seem to be lucky in that its remoteness limits access, but under NYS law landowners are required to post if they want to control access to their property. I’m sure if your property were accessible by ATV, you’d want to post it. Although such signs are often seen as hostile declarations forbidding all access under all circumstances, I think people will find that if they just ask permission, access will be granted – after all, trespassing simply means entering a place without permission. Also, you might want to consult with a lawyer to make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for an adverse possession or prescriptive easement claim by not posting and informally allowing access – it would be very unfortunate if the time came when you had to say no to someone, you discovered that you lost the right to do so.

  8. Pete Nelson says:

    Solidago:

    Thanks for the advice. We did know that technically we had to post the land in order provide appropriate notice of our intentions. So actually our visitors log is marked on its waterproof cover with huge letters that say “POSTED.” This is followed by subsequent wording that clearly says that failure to read and abide by the rules constitutes trespassing. That’s the most I am willing to do unless we see serious abuse of our rules (and as remote as this place is, I highly doubt that to be likely).

  9. Raquette says:

    I took a couple hikes back to Lost Brook looking for the fishing camp W. W. Durant built (I found it) at the turn of the last century. He had an elaborate system of foot bridges and wagon paths that no longer exist. At that time (2001) the pH of Lost Brook was 5.06. In other words, no fish thanks to acid rain.
    I am curious to know what more recent measurements show.

  10. Dan Plumley says:

    Pete:

    I agree you have something special and from your two postings I can already gain a keen sense of your stewardship commitment. Private land resources in the park contain jewels of nature and biodiversity every bit as important as core, wild tracts of forest preserve and the question of balance extends far beyond the park. Ours is a global treasure and responsibiity. And key to it is this public and private partnership with wilderness, wild lands, private ownership and stewards and communities. There are few such places in the world where the bulk of an entire ecoregion is held within a thin Blue Line of park law, land use oversight and constitutional protection.

    I would love to visit you and the Lost Brook Tract any time. I’m sure my partners would as well as we work to encourage the promotion of wild land values on both state and private lands in the park. Have for a quarter century so far.

    Congratulations to you and your family for your stewardship and your writing which is both thoughtful and encouraging at a time when we need both!

    Dan ([email protected])

    Dan Plumley, Partner
    Adirondack Wild

  11. Pete Nelson says:

    To Raquette:

    My apologies, I can’t answer your question as ours is a different Lost Brook than the one to which you refer. Based upon the look of our red spruces I think prevailing winds must have spared our territory from much of the effects of acid rain, although I am not an ecologist or botanist and would not know for sure.

  12. Paul says:

    “At the other extreme we open the land to all.”

    We already have over 2 million acres in the Adirondacks that falls under this extreme (including some neat old growth tracts).

    Don’t wreck what you have.

    Keep the place just to you and your family.

  13. catharus says:

    I’ve very much appreciated your sharing of your relationship to this sacred jewel of deep primal forest, from your very first post. You’ve also gone beyond what most anyone else would do in having this discussion at all, with readers of this blog. You’ve clearly come up with a creative experiment that hopefully allows you to embrace the various dimensions of your conservation ethos. I hope it works out well for you and proves rewarding. From the first read, the tract sounds very special and alluring.

  14. Paul says:

    Pete, this is the east coast. Keep it a secret. You already have too many people interested in “visiting”.

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