Some recent events started me thinking about land classifications in the Adirondacks, and their possible inadequacy to preserve biological diversity in the future. With the twin threats of climate change and invasive exotic species, new strategies may be necessary. One such strategy is a new land classification, one where human beings will no longer be welcome.
I started thinking about the necessity of a new land classification when I read recent articles by Bill Ingersoll and Pete Nelson proposing their own new classification categories. Where their proposals were for a new category wedged between the current Wilderness and Wild Forest classes, mine would be the most restrictive land class in the Adirondacks, essentially preserving the land exclusively for the use of the other living organisms.
Virtually no one, not hikers or paddlers, nor motorized outdoor enthusiasts, will appreciate this new classification idea, if fact, they most likely will hate it. This universal distaste will not deter me though, as it just convinces me this is an idea before its time. And like investing for retirement, being before your time can pay off big dividends in the future, that is, if you survive to see it.
The genesis of this idea started with the controversy surrounding the classification of the former Finch Pruyn properties in the central Adirondacks. I advocated for the Wilderness designation for much of the new property, which would require the closure of many of the roads currently crisscrossing the property, reducing the probability of invasive exotic species getting more of a foothold than they already have now.
The Wilderness designation, currently the strictest of the land classifications in the Adirondacks, maintains as a central tenant that such an area is “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man–where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” No forms of motorized access are allowed, yet non-motorized recreation is permitted, and in most cases encouraged. Hiking, paddling and camping are all allowed in wilderness areas, including facilities that facilitate such activities. Are these areas truly living up to the concept of man being only a visitor? Or are they just being set aside as a different kind of playground?
There are clearly not enough areas set aside for all the other living organisms with which we share this amazing planet. Humanity has selfishly ensconced more and more global resources for themselves, at the expense of not only other living organisms, but the health of the very planet as well. Anyone who thinks differently need only spend their time taking a flight across the eastern United States, looking out the window down on a land covered with roads, houses, swimming pools and strip malls.
The recent news about the discovery of an emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) in Onondaga County, nearly at the doorstep of the Adirondacks Park, is a warning shot across the bow for biological diversity within the Blue Line. This tiny green beetle is native to Asia and East Russia, but was found in southeastern Michigan in 2002, and since has moved quickly east, arriving in New York in the spring of 2009. The way these tiny insects are distributed within New York suggests they may be traveling with the assistance of motorized vehicles rather than just by their own two wings.
All ash species are susceptible to these little beetles, as their larvae burrow underneath the tree bark, disrupting the tree’s ability to move water and nutrients, eventually causing death. These exotic beetles have killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in their wake, with tens of millions dying in New York State alone.
Go ahead and kiss your ash good-bye, upstate New York. Stop smirking Adirondacks, you are next!
This may seem as little concern in the Adirondacks, where ash remain a minor component of the forest, but it got me thinking about the constant onslaught of exotic pests threatening the northeastern forests. The emerald ash borer, Asian long-horned beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid, and gypsy moth are just a few such insect pests, not to mention the many pathogens, such as sudden oak death, white pine blister rust, butternut canker, red pine shoot blight and oak wilt. As our forests lose their battles against these foreign invaders, largely brought here to satisfy our insatiable appetite for cheaper products, the future forests will appear vastly different from the ones we see today.
Typically, the Adirondacks area has counted on its colder temperatures and furious winters to keep such exotic pests at bay, although this rampart may degrade with a changing climate and its accompanying warmer temperatures. Unfortunately, roads and trails, not to mention waterways open to the public within the Adirondacks, make forests even more vulnerable, as these invaders hitchhike on our clothing, vehicles, firewood, etc., allowing even deeper penetration into the backcountry.
Wilderness areas, lacking roads for easy human access, are thought to act as a barrier to the intrusion of invasive species. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as a plethora of exotic plant species surrounds nearly any lean-to, regardless of its location in a Wild Forest or Wilderness area.
A new land classification is obviously needed, one where the earth and its community of life are not only untrammeled by man, but undisturbed as well. These areas would be off limits to human visitors, even bushwhackers like me (gasp!), prohibited by law to visit under any circumstances. The only exception would be for enforcement purposes and by permit, obtained only for research, and not easily obtained.
These areas would start as just a minor component of the Adirondacks, perhaps just a patchwork of highly sensitive habitats, either harboring some threatened species, or being unique in some other way. With time, other areas once designated Wilderness or Wild Forest could be reclassified so as to protect even more area from adverse human impact.
Do I think such a new classification is possible, especially in the current climate where some people decry that the Wilderness designation is akin to already locking up the land and prohibiting reasonable use (i.e. motorized access)? No, I do not. However, I do take solace that the majority of comments on the former Finch, Pruyn property favored Wilderness over Wild Forest.
There may be hope for preserving some forests relatively undisturbed in the Adirondacks after all.
Photo: Forest near Middle South Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.