The recent acquisition by the State of New York of the former Finch-Pruyn/Nature Conservancy lands means many things to many people. While economic, social, and political implications fuel many of the broader conversations occurring over these lands, these issues tend to drown out the quieter voice of the land itself.
Any visitor to the North Country knows that wild places are anything but silent, from the ever persistent hum of the mosquito, to the chittering call of the hunting kingfisher, to the push and pull of the wind through the forested hillsides. At the Adirondack Council we pay attention to these sounds, or more specifically, to the scientist and professionals who study how wild places and wild things are ecologically connected, and incorporate this critical input into our decision making process.
For issues involving classification of State Lands within the Blue Line, science isn’t just a cute way of making a point. It is one of the driving elements within the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP). Physical characteristics of the land or waterways, including the type of soil, slope of the hillsides, elevation of mountain peaks, and the condition of the streams and lakes are fundamental considerations in the classification process.
Biological considerations go hand in hand with these physical characteristics and are also a key element in deciding what classification these new lands receive. These considerations are as diverse as the species of fish in a lake, the types of wetlands found on the land, to specific wildlife habitats that may be associated with rare or threatened animal or bird species.
Many considerations, such as intangible perceptions, social uses, or existing infrastructure play an important part in the classification process, the physical and biological uniqueness of the land form the foundation for understanding the types of uses that will be allowed on the land in the future. The SLMP guides this process by stating that lands classified in the Forest Preserve shall be determined by “their characteristics and capacity to withstand use.”
In advocating for a wilderness classification on these few tracts of the Finch lands, the Adirondack Council doesn’t discount the importance the land had as a working forest, the historical use of hunting camps, or the enormous recreational potential for the surrounding communities. The Council views the land through the lens of the SLMP and the sheer volume of scientific data that underscores the incredible ecological value this land has.
As noted in the Adirondack Park Agency’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the region where the Finch lands are located is in one of five areas of Temperate Deciduous Forest identified for restoration or protection in the United States. These forests “represent the most fragmented and degraded … forest habitat on the planet” with the “largest area of unbroken forests greater than 100,000 acres is in the Adirondacks.”
Known as “matrix blocks,” these forest blocks combine a number of physical characteristics such as elevation, geology, and being relatively unfragmented, with biological considerations such as forest health and valuable wildlife habitat, including over 180 miles of rivers and streams, 175 lakes and ponds, 465 miles of undeveloped shoreline, and over 1,800 acres of wetlands, to create conservation priorities of the highest order. Ten of these high-value conservation forest blocks intersect within the Finch lands current undergoing classification.
As the first step in a classification process that will eventually include over 65,000 acres, the uniqueness of the forested lands and water bodies of the Essex Chain Lakes and other associated tracts, only hint at the biological richness the additional lands hold. The New York Heritage Program has identified 64 rare species and natural communities, including 13 globally significant species of plant and animal and 37 additional species of significance within New York State, on the full 65,000 acres.
For the biologists who have surveyed these lands and spent hours in the field cataloging the species found there, the story of these lands and how the next chapters will be written depends greatly on how much of their work gets incorporated into the current narrative. Conservation work has always depended greatly on the work of the biologist and ecologist, and the data acquired through their efforts, to drive the process forward.
The true story of the Finch lands is how closely the attributes of this terrain matches the core scientific principles of the SLMP. It is a compelling story, hopefully one with an equally compelling and wild ending.