Small species slithering unseen within the forest leaf litter, or croaking and peeping from the edge of wetlands rarely take center stage in either conservation or Adirondack land development discussions.
In fact, they are often completely overlooked, but that is changing with the leading work of Dr. Michael Klemens. An internationally recognized biologist, herpetologist and scientist-advocate for conservation design, Dr. Klemens has been retained by Adirondack Wild to give much needed attention to frogs, salamanders, and reptiles – key to the base of our Adirondack forest ecosystem and food chain.
“These smaller, seemingly insignificant species play a major role in ecosystem function in Adirondack forests,” Dr. Klemens said. Indeed, amphibians and reptiles in a functioning Adirondack forest ecosystem comprise much of the animal biomass – greater still than the biomass of ungulates like deer, moose and other larger wildlife like bear, otter, fisher, marten, bobcat, and coyote.
“Frogs and salamanders represent a critically essential biotic energy system for entire ecosystems,” he said. “Without them, forest ecological integrity and function is highly compromised.” Not only are these amphibians essential parts of the forest food web, serving as the base of the food chain, these smaller denizens of the Adirondack forest, waters and wetlands also provide many other critical ecological services. They convert decomposing leaves into biomass and transport energy between wetlands and uplands. The ramifications of their widespread decline globally raises alarm bells for ecologists, scientists and conservation policy makers worldwide.
A leading cause in the decline of these small species is the loss or degradation of their aquatic and terrestrial habitats – often through land use and development actions that carve up, or fragment landscapes severing migratory pathways to wetlands and back. These challenges occur not only within the front country within communities and hamlets, but also in the more remote rural backcountry lands that, in the Adirondack Park, form critical buffer areas to State Forest Preserve. Addressing fragmentation in the Adirondack Park and throughout our region through conservation design of development – which retains the land’s ecological integrity through better design and placement of structures – is essential.
“Conservation design requires using proper site assessment and good scientific data up front on areas proposed for development,” Dr. Klemens said. “Critical aquatic spawning habitat, annual life stage terrestrial habitats and the connecting corridors or lands in between are preserved first and foremost along with wetland, riparian zone, ponds and lake systems. Only then can appropriate housing sites be located and often in tight clusters that permit as much as 75-80% of the tract to be conserved in an ecologically connected manner. The vast majority of the lands should serve as functional ecosystems and provide values for wildlife, watershed character, recreation, open space and other critical values. Furthermore, there is much evidence that well-designed conservation developments are more marketable, and retain their property values with far less ecological impacts and long-term costs to local communities.”
Highlighting these strategies as a far better alternative to the outdated sprawling development design of the Adirondack Club and Resort (ARC) Project in Tupper Lake was at the core of Adirondack Wild’s testimony during the adjudicatory hearing phase of that controversial project. In a single day and night during the hearing, Adirondack Wild, joined by Dr. Klemens and concerned landowners, identified eleven species of frogs and salamanders which the developer had completely overlooked. Subsequently, Dr. Klemens testified to the implications of the developer’s complete failure to undertake an inventory and analysis of wildlife and wildlife habitats on the project site.
Dr. Klemens recalls the hearing: “We were forced to spend time at the hearing debating the lack of biological data without which you cannot identify adverse impacts. Instead, the hearing should have discussed the implications of a robust set of ecological information that actually informs how and where to site development. The absence of that data in the application was extremely disappointing and unnecessary given the seven years that the application had been under review… Instead, the developer and the Adirondack Park Agency that eventually approved the same project design, in fact, supported sprawl on steroids that, if built out, would only fragment and degrade critical amphibian and wildlife habitat over 6,400 acres of backcountry land.”
Despite the major deficiencies of the ACR application, Adirondack Wild’s role and testimony in the hearing played a key role in securing a requirement in some of the ACR permits for an after-the-fact amphibian survey. Based on these surveys, an assessment of the impacts of some of the subdivisions on these amphibians, and the potential for mitigation to reduce those impacts was required. Recently, Adirondack Wild with Dr. Klemens assessed the quality of the initial wildlife and amphibian studies undertaken in April-May 2013 by the developer’s consultants.
Sadly, the gaps in applied science and impact analysis remain as stark as ever because the developer’s consultants failed to undertake the proper survey methodology at the right times of the year, and thus failed to gain the data needed to make a comprehensive assessment. As Dr. Klemens wrote: “We conclude that the studies submitted lack sufficient data, and are an inadequate baseline from which to conduct any meaningful impact analyses. Mitigation measures that will better sustain existing populations of amphibians and their seasonal movements to and from lowland and upland habitats should definitely not be assessed in the absence of a more comprehensive study.” Click here to view the entire letter.
In the face of these ongoing inadequacies in wildlife studies, Adirondack Wild has appealed to the APA to improve the baseline survey in order to better safeguard the ecological integrity of the ACR site, not only for resident amphibians, but for the entire ecosystem that relies upon them, including humans. We hope to encourage a sea-change in critical thinking at the Adirondack Park Agency. Only in this way can we see stakeholders across the board and regulating state agencies like the APA and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) begin to take steps to truly safeguard and protect the rich biota and ecological integrity, including these species and all their functions, which makes living and recreating in the Adirondacks so worthwhile.
While many species of amphibians and reptiles are widespread within the Park, there are other species that are localized and vulnerable to land-use and climate changes. For example, the mink frog is a high elevation species that may be adversely affected by climate change. The wood turtle relies upon river bottomlands, which often place it in harm’s way from roads and development. Other species are rarely seen within the Adirondacks and much more basic research on their distribution and abundance is needed. These include the blue-spotted and four-toed salamanders. Proper management and impact analysis requires knowledge of the locations and populations of these rarer species.
“Good science and site-specific data should be fundamental baseline requirements prior to approving development in the Park’s landscapes,” Klemens said. “We can’t move this world-class Park forward if don’t know how we are impacting ecological functioning of species whose survival depends upon unfragmented, wild habitats during all phases of their life cycle.”
Photo: Michael Klemens sampling for amphibians.