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).