When the results for Proposition 5 came in last November, I decided I must visit Lot 8 in the Jay Mountain Wilderness. Since the voters of New York State made this area yet another sacrificial lamb at the altar of greed and profitability, I knew it would only be a matter of time before the chainsaws, bulldozers and explosives moved in and converted a living and breathing forest into something akin to a war zone.
It soon became evident this juggernaut of “progress” was unstoppable, as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) relinquished their roles of protecting the environment and the Adirondack Park. Instead, these governmental organizations engaged in the complete evisceration of nearly every environmental protection law on the books in an attempt to ensure NYCO Minerals, Inc. destroyed Lot 8 as soon as possible.
This left me little choice but to put hastily together a 6-day bushwhacking trip through the Jay Mountain Wilderness, with an entire day allocated to exploring the condemned Lot 8 in all its natural glory before its destruction. I felt it would ease my conscience somewhat for not doing enough to prevent its impending demise in the first place. Unfortunately, despite getting up-close and personal with Lot 8, I only ended-up feeling worse. In between the joy and wonder of experiencing this property for myself firsthand, was a sense of deep sorrow, bordering on moroseness, as the fate of everything I saw, smelled and heard was never far from my mind.
As I thought about this great injustice that a plurality of the New York State voters had approved, I was reminded of a quote by the Californian politician Dick Tuck, who said upon losing a Senate election in 1966: “The people have spoken, the bastards.” After visiting Lot 8, I know how he felt.
When I finally arrived in the area, after bushwhacking from the trail on the west side of Jay Mountain, I found a flagged and cut boundary, that I assumed marked the border to Lot 8. When I finally crossed the orange-flagged boundary, I noticed numerous pink and red-flagged lines perpendicular to the marked boundary. I assumed these flagged lines indicated the location of the drilling platforms and/or the roads between them.
There was little time to ponder the moments’ significance, as darkness encroached, both from a sun sinking low on the horizon and the dark clouds massed above me. My first official task on the property bordered on the mundane – locate an acceptable campsite and get some grub before a downpour ruined the entire experience.
Despite the steady slope to the east, the prospective camping sites were almost infinite, due to a limited understory, consisting mostly of American beech saplings. Access to water was an imperative though, following the day’s long and arduous bushwhack. When I heard a small tumbling stream flowing off the ridge to the west, I knew I found what I was looking for.
The sound of the stream instantly brought thoughts about of the applicability of standard backcountry rules and regulations. I wondered if it really mattered if my campsite was 150 feet from a stream now, if in the near future it will be surrounded by roads and drilling platforms, eventually tumbling into a thirty-foot drop at the bottom of a pit?
In the end, I located my campsite a good distance from the stream – far enough away that my presence had little impact, but close enough for easy access to the water. Darkness and dinner destroyed any opportunity to look around though, so my gallivanting had to wait until morning.
What I did notice of the far northern border of Lot 8, was that the forest looked like any other upland area in the Adirondacks. Deciduous hardwood trees dominated the landscape, the majority were mature sugar maple, white ash, and American beech, with a few aging paper birches in the mix. The understory was mostly beech, with only scattered herbaceous cover, mostly located along the stream and adjacent wet areas.
In the light of the early morning, the trees near my campsite were even more impressive than I thought the night before. Although white ash, American beech and sugar maples dominated, the white ashes were unusually large. I cursed myself for not having the forethought to bring a dbh tape to measure them, but many appeared at least a foot in diameter, with some much larger.
Although impressive in girth, the greatest achievement of these ash was their height. These trees often towered above the surrounding trees. Luckily, there was not another soul around, as the sight of me stumbling around trying to get a view of these monstrous trees must have been quite comical. In a few minutes, my neck ached with the intensity of a serious case of warbler neck, an affliction to which only a birder could relate.
Although not quite as impressive as the ash, the American beech trees around the campsite were impressive in their own right. Large and smooth barked, none showed signs of the beech bark disease that has left many a beech scared, disfigured and partially decayed elsewhere. Evidence of their productivity was apparent by the frequency of black bear claw marks up along their stem from the ground level up, where they disappeared into the canopy. How hundreds of pounds of bruin can climb such heights is beyond me.
Taking note of the trees got me thinking about their immediate fate going forward into the near future. How many would fall for the wollastonite exploration alone? Would they be downed and left in place to return to the soil? Or cut, removed, and sold for their lumber potential? If so, who would profit? The people of New York State or the mining company?
As my neck needed a break, I turned to the understory. Many of the common Adirondack herbaceous plants were present near my campsite. Canadian mayflower, bluebead lily, Indian cucumber root, trillium, coral root, wild sarsaparilla and starflower were growing nearby, just to name a few. There were several species of ferns as well, including a wood fern, maiden hair fern, rattlesnake fern and oak fern. The hobblebush and honeysuckle shrubs grew in low numbers as well.
Signs of wildlife were frequent. The morning bird chorus was full of the usual Adirondack characters; red-eyed vireos sang in abundance, while the songs of winter wrens, ovenbirds, and hermit thrushes rang through frequently. A single Swainson’s thrush sang nearby despite the universal absence of conifers. An occasional eastern chipmunk added its two cents. Moose scat lay hidden in a clump of ferns near the stream. A red eft crossed just upstream on a rock, totally oblivious to my presence, while a dusky salamander retreated from under an upturned rock, escaping before I got a half-decent look.
While I wandered back to my campsite, a leaf leaped a great distance away from me. Not so easily fooled, my pursuit revealed its true identity, a wood frog which relied on its camouflage to hide from my prying eyes. Soon after, a northern spring peeper pulled the same stunt, but I caught it in my hand briefly before it leaped off into the foliage below.
These denizens of the north woods, completely left out of the political process, merely went about their day, oblivious to the future.
Soon a series of ephemeral pools came into sight; their pattern suggested that they once might have been a flowing stream too. Choked with leaves and some soggy edges.
Another sight, a bright orange completely incongruous with my surroundings, tore me away from the ponds. Who would have thought that a large orange snow fence could distract me so easily in the midst of such natural beauty?
The fence indicated the NYCO Minerals property line, marked conspicuously with orange-posted signs, orange flagging and an occasional piece of rebar stuck in the ground. A metal fence replaced the plastic one to the south, as it undulated over the uneven terrain. Since I still desired to catch a glimpse of the mine pit, I followed the property line southwards, not knowing how far I would need to go.
After only a short distance, the open pit came into view through the few young trees. The pit’s edge was a mere fifteen feet or so from the property line, where a shear drop of perhaps thirty feet awaited anyone or anything careless enough to journey too close to the edge.
I wondered about the fate of the streams coming off the McDonough Mountain ridge and their countless occupants. How many unsuspecting salamanders, frogs and other living organisms tumbled over the side of this cliff during the lifetime of the pit? How many more will after it’s expanded?
I moved into Lot 8’s interior to the west, with a level spot as my immediate goal.
As I walked through a sunny spot, two eastern garter snakes made a hasty retreat. Within a short distance, young balsam firs appeared, the first conifers I had seen in the area. The farther west I proceeded, the more level the terrain became and the more conifers I observed, with an additional increase in the trees’ stature as well.
Just as I approached one large conifer, another of a different species would appear within view, distracting me from the first. A larger balsam fir was replaced by an eastern white pine, and then a red spruce, and finally an eastern hemlock.
Seeing the large eastern hemlock, apparently healthy and free of the wooly adelgid, got me thinking about the many mature and healthy tree species present on Lot 8 that are in peril elsewhere due to exotic pests. Stately white ashes remained currently unthreatened by the emerald ash borer, while massive American beech expressed no sign of beech bark disease. With these species in peril elsewhere, these healthy individuals require preservation.
Coniferous trees were not the only distraction. Open water to the north pulled me from the densest part of the coniferous forest and back along the border with the dominating hardwoods. This pond was choked with leaves, shallow in depth, and scattered with islands made of moss-covered rocks, logs and other forest debris.
Upon closer inspection, leaves were not the only thing in abundance here. Penny-sized tadpoles swam through its shallow depths, though large groups of them fled into the leaves when I approached too close for comfort. In addition, a lone red eft crossed a mossy log island, though it picked up its pace when I moved in closer for a better look.
I continued southwest along a swampy stream, though it often resembled nothing more than a large seep choked with an assortment of different ferns. The coniferous forest just to my south was now long forgotten, the flat, vegetation-choked flatlands proved just too much of a distraction. By the time I stopped for lunch, the area all but dried out, though the dry rivulets with exposed mineral soil and lack of leaves suggested it likely flooded during the spring melt.
Farther on to the southwest, the increased moisture that emanated from the ridge to the west was enough to create a continuous stream, which eventually turned southeast. The frequent rocks that lined the stream bank provided another ripe opportunity to search for salamanders. The prize I searched for, a spring salamander, remained elusive, but I managed to find a dusky and a redback salamander before moving on.
As I climbed west away from the stream and the flatlands it flowed through, many scattered flat rocks jutted out of the nearly leaf-less mineral soil. Perfect shelters for woodland snakes; on one sat the scat of a ruffed grouse.
As the late afternoon hours approached and my time on Lot 8 started to wane, I turned to deciding on a location for the night’s campsite. I wanted to stay near a stream again, with the two options being an unnamed watercourse I believed was located with the interior of the property, the other being Derby Brook, off to the south. I headed for the closest stream.
Imagine my surprise, as I entered another coniferous area, with young firs scattered within the hardwoods, and arrived at an orange-flagged property line, where none should be present. Had I stumbled onto the southern border of Lot 8? Apparently so.
An immense American toad leapt into the brush left over from the cutting of the boundary. Unfortunately, it was going into Lot 8, so I left it with a warning and wished it well.
The cut border made an easy route southward, where I hoped it would eventually cross the stream. Unfortunately, it led to the NYCO border, with the stream just a tauntingly short distance away, but on the opposite side. Luckily, the border edged closer to the stream as I continued west, until I found a place to filter water for the rest of the day.
My water needs met, I returned to the orange-flagged border and crossed back onto Lot 8 in search of a campsite for the night. Many more rocks emerged from the ground here, and though not immense they gave the area a more aggressive feel than the other portions of Lot 8 I had visited. Short but steep rises separated level areas, one of which I chose as my campsite for my last night.
That evening, with my chores complete, I stood for a long while and observed the activity of forest during the twilight hours. When the mosquito activity heightened and I contemplated calling it a night, the sound of a northern goshawk rang out just overhead. I got a pretty good look at the large accipiter, though it flew down slope to the east when I moved in for a closer look. Given the northern goshawk’s designation as a Species of Special Concern in New York State, the bird’s presence was emblematic of why the whole notion of Proposition 5 was a massive mistake.
There was no time to linger the following morning. I left my campsite behind and reached the orange-flagged boundary once again. As I crossed the flagged line out of Lot 8, I looked back for one last time. After a moment of reflection, I turned away and headed toward Derby Brook, though my mind still pondered those who voted to destroy this gorgeous property.
“Bastards,” I muttered to myself. I did not look back.
Photos: White ash canopy, massive trees, flat land and stream on Lot 8 by Dan Crane.