Monday, January 9, 2012

Phil Brown: Do Dams Belong in Wilderness Areas?

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has decided against rebuilding the dam at Duck Hole, but the future of Marcy Dam in the High Peaks Wilderness remains up in the air.

The decision won’t be made until after engineers inspect the dam, and it will be based in part on the condition of the dam and how much it would cost to fix it.

Aside from these practical considerations, there is a philosophical question: do dams belong in Wilderness Areas at all?

In the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer, I report that there are at least four other dams in Wilderness Areas: at Lake Colden and Henderson Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness, at Cedar Lakes in the West Canada Lake Wilderness, and at Pharaoh Lake in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. That was based on DEC’s inventory of dams in the Forest Preserve, but there may be more. For example, someone e-mailed me recently that there is a dam at Moose Pond in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness.

The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan defines a Wilderness Area as a region “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The document forbids the construction of new dams but does permit existing dams to be rebuilt with natural materials.

A DEC policy manual seems to take a stronger position against dams in Wilderness Areas, asserting that in most cases they should be removed when they become unsafe or need to be replaced or reconstructed. Nevertheless, policy provides several loopholes for keeping a dam, such as maintaining a fishery, preserving a view, or providing recreation.

The view of the surrounding mountains from Marcy Dam is one of the iconic vistas in the Adirondacks. Clearly, DEC could justify rebuilding the dam under its policy. But should it?

Christopher Amato, who until recently had been DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, contends that no dams should be rebuilt in Wilderness Areas.

“Either you be true to the definition of Wilderness and not rebuild the dam or if the dam is that important you reclassify the area as something else,” Amato told the Adirondack Explorer.

But Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, told the Explorer that he thinks Marcy Dam should be repaired. “For many New Yorkers, that classic beauty at Marcy Dam is their Adirondacks,” he said. “It serves so many New Yorkers that I feel it is justified.”

Regardless of whether DEC rebuilds Marcy Dam, it does intend to build a bridge across Marcy Brook, either at the dam or another location.

Tropical Storm Irene damaged the dams at the Duck Hole and Marcy Dam Pond and forced DEC to confront these questions now. But the same questions eventually will arise when other dams in Wilderness Areas fall into disrepair. Indeed, the questions can be raised about dams in Wild Forest Areas as well. After all, the state constitution requires that the entire Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Altogether, there are about fifty dams on the Forest Preserve, according to DEC’s inventory.

Click here to read the full story on dams in the Preserve. Then let us know what you think: should Marcy Dam be repaired? What should be done with other dams in the Forest Preserve?

Incidentally, the photo above is from the 1930s. It shows what Duck Hole looked like before the dam was built and presumably what it might look like again in a few years.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine and writes its Outtakes blog.

 

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




20 Responses

  1. aba62018-363e-11e1-a137-000bcdcb471e says:
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  5. Bob says:

    Surprised no one mentioned the obvious one. Right off the Jackrabbit trail, Mckenzie Pond in the Mckenzie wilderness. Concrete impoundment with the the old planks in a pile on shore covered in moss.