Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dan Crane: What’s So Wild About Wild Forest Areas?

ATV Trail Damage in the Black River Wild ForestLand classification battles are a common feature of new Forest Preserve acquisitions in the Adirondack Park these days, with the Essex Chain of Lakes property being a prime example. Typically, the disagreement boils down to Wild Forest versus Wilderness, the two most common land classifications in the Adirondacks. While Wilderness remains the more restrictive, Wild Forests are supposed to maintain a wild character despite the presence of dirt roads, snowmobile trails, etc. Unfortunately, this wild character seems to be slowly fading away in many cases, making room for increasing (and often illegal) human uses.

According to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, Wilderness are areas dominated by natural forces, where the Earth and its communities of life remain relatively untrammeled by man, while Wild Forests allow for a greater impact from humans, supposedly due to their lack of remoteness and ability to absorb the impact from such activity. The subjectivity of these definitions allows for a great deal of interpretation though. Often the classification of a new area appears mainly political, with the appeasement of certain user groups sublimating all other considerations.

My preference is for Wilderness over Wild Forest when it comes to new additions of the Forest Preserve. That is why I spend most of my backcountry time in the Five Ponds and Pepperbox Wildernesses these days. This was not always the case. My humble beginnings as a backcountry explorer started in the Black River Wild Forest. In addition, several of my field biologist positions over the years took me into many other Wild Forests, including Watsons East Triangle, Ferris Lake, Jessup River, Wilcox Lake and the Moose River Plains, among others.

Unfortunately, in the battle for land classifications, the Wild Forests appear to be winning. Currently, there are more acres classified as Wild Forest in the Adirondacks than Wilderness. Based on Adirondack Park Agency numbers as of May 2014, Wild Forest accounts for 22.3% of the area within the Blue Line, or a total of 1,298,209 acres, while Wilderness is only 19.9% of the area or 1,161,257 acres. That amounts to difference of 136,952 acres in favor of Wild Forest. Even when adding in the paltry amount of Primitive and Canoe Areas, which are managed similarly to Wilderness, the difference is still a significant 80,331 acres.

So, why all the whining by the Wild Forest proponents when new lands are classified as Wilderness? Why the calls of elitism directed at those preferring Wilderness? Especially given that the majority of all the new conservation easement lands are managed similarly to Wild Forest. What amount of area will satiate their thirst for motorized vehicle access?

Some Wild Forest proponents argue that there is not much difference between the two, other than the Wild Forest affords more accessibility via its dirt roads, snowmobile trails, etc. Although deep in the interior of the forest this may very well be true, it does not hold up along the many miles of trails in my experience. Typically, I see more dumping of garbage, inappropriate use of trails by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and mountain bikes, as well as other illegal activity in Wild Forests, presumably due to increased access afforded by dirt roads, snowmobile trails and the like.

The differences between Wilderness and Wild Forest stood out for me on a recent trip into the southern portion of the Black River Wild Forest. This was my first time back to the area since I used it as a training ground for exploring the Adirondack backcountry on my own decades ago. In those early days, it was an ideal place to test my skills and equipment before exploring any of the more remote areas in the Park.

Back then, before I ever journeyed into any Wilderness Areas, my experiences were too limited, which made comparisons between Wild Forests and Wilderness Areas impossible. In my ignorance, the Black River Wild Forest seemed wild enough, but still close to civilization where I could escape any unfortunate circumstances, if the need arose. Luckily, it never did.

ATV Use of trails in Black River Wild ForestThis recent trip into the Black River Wild Forest was another matter entirely. The human impact on the area was obvious from the very beginning. Deep ruts carved in the trails by ATVs were annoyingly frequent, despite the ban on their use. These messy ruts occupied nearly every wet area along the trails, each one filled with its own stygian slurry, which required frequent detours, unless one wanted to risk a lost boot, or worse.

A lack of enforcement is the only explanation for this increased ATV activity, but whether it arises from a lack of personal or a political decision by the Cuomo administration to turn a blind eye is anyone’s guess. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has been hamstrung by budget cuts for decades, resulting in less people to patrol the Forest Preserve that has only increased in size over the same period.

Then again, the NYSDEC and the Adirondack Park Agency under the Cuomo Administration appears more interested in moving forward a political agenda than managing the Forest Preserve for this or future generations. Given these agencies’ actions involving the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake, the Essex Chain of Lakes classification and NYCO’s acquisition of Lot 8 in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, there is a clear indication that appeasing certain political groups is much more important to our current state government than protecting the Adirondacks for future generations. Ecological considerations seem to be the least of their concerns.

The impact did not stop with the messy trails though. Multi-colored flagging hung from trees everywhere, like cheap ornaments decorating a forest of Christmas trees. Many hung near the trails, others farther off into the forest. Cryptic writing featured on most of them, which I failed to decipher despite numerous attempts.

In addition to the flagging, lines of string crisscrossed the forest frequently, appearing as a ghastly giant spider web, waiting to capture anyone or anything reckless enough to leave the trail. These strings were not alien to me, as I used them before to measure distance within a forested area. These ones may have been made of cotton, which the manufacturer claims decomposes rapidly and therefore pose no immediate threat to wildlife. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, as I observed at least one unlucky hermit thrush entangled and dead in the line while I worked as an ornithological field technician in the Adirondacks one summer many years ago.

Rutted and murky trails, flagging decorated trees and cotton string littering the forest are not my idea of maintaining a wild character. These visions are more appropriate for a backcountry nightmare than the sights I journey into the Adirondack backcountry to see. They certainly do not instill any feeling of wild that I can imagine.

Then again, perhaps I have interpreted the term “wild” incorrectly. Instead of meaning living and growing in a natural environment, it may mean something entirely different. It might mean going beyond normal or conventional bounds, as in referring to the reckless human behavior, the effects of which I witnessed. Or perhaps it indicates not subject to restraint or regulation, uncontrolled or unrestrained, as in the Wild West. Certainly, the total disregard for the restrictions on ATVs fits that definition, as do much of the State agencies’ efforts to undermine land management in the Adirondacks.

Regardless of the definition, I keep asking myself whether these areas are managed in such a way as to maintain a wild character. The Black River Wild Forest with trails covered in murky ruts, where flagging is more common than ferns and string emanates in every direction like something out of the mind of Tim Burton.

What is so wild about that?

Photos: ATV slurry along trail and dry trail showing more evidence of ATV use, both in the Black River Wild Forest by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

28 Responses

  1. scottvanlaer says:

    The string may have been from a recent search.? Great article. Can you respond to me via email please. Have some questions and don’t want to take up the comment section asking.

  2. Charlie S says:

    >> “why all the whining by the Wild Forest proponents when new lands are classified as Wilderness?”

    Because the wild forest proponent mentality is what a major chunk of this society is composed of Dan…it’s about a weakness due to being convenienced the whole of their plastic lives.It’s about having it their way at the expense of all things else.It’s about sunshine not rain or snow or heaven forbid a few clouds should pass over.It’s not about frogs or deer or salamanders or even mosses,which are simple and ancient plants that have survived nearly unchanged since the Permian Period. We are a complicated lot who will see to it that mosses will not much longer sustain their means of support.

    They would rather have a highway moreso than a footpath to get to where they are going because creature comforts are what they are accustomed to and they’ll be darned if they have to get their shoes dirty,or their flip flops damp. Were it not for all of the modern utilities you’d see less communion with the natural world Dan.

    Why do you think our leaders get away with the outright pillaging they allow corporate developer donors to carry out? Because most people just don’t care.Give em a tv,Hollywood,sports and all of the sensationalism and violence that comes with those and before you know it you have a numb electorate (if they vote at all.) Numb to real beauty,to sacredness,to things that matter the most!

    >> “there is a clear indication that appeasing certain political groups is much more important to our current state government than protecting the Adirondacks for future generations. Ecological considerations seem to be the least of their concerns.”

    We don’t have real men in office Dan we have puppets.When they are on their podiums you can almost see the strings attached to their dull mannequin figures.

  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I’m guessing you were at Bear Creek Road, based on the reference to the string. I haven’t been there this summer, but there was a well-publicized search and rescue effort near Gull Lake, when an elderly hiker failed to return home on time. He was found alive, after an extensive search. The string might have been left by the SAR teams.

    As for ATVs, off-trail riding is just as illegal in a wild forest as it is in a wilderness. However, the wild forests tend to have lots of private inholdings–the Black River WF in particular. DEC Region 6 has traditionally been tolerant when it comes to allowing the owners of inholdings to use ATVs across ancient roads, regardless of whether those landowners have a deeded right to do so. The Gull Lake trail near Bear Creek Road is chewed up, I am told, because the owners of a nearby inholding would prefer to ride the state trail than use the old ROW further to the east.

    Not that I’m saying that there should be more wild forest and less wilderness, only that the purpose of the wild forests is frequently misunderstood. People assume that if wilderness means “motors nowhere,” then wild forest obviously means “motors everywhere.” The more roads and snowmobile trails, the better, they think. But if you read the SLMP, this is not what it says. Motorized use is allowed, but should not be encouraged, and the amount of roads and snowmobile trails should be capped.

    The Essex Chain could be designated a wild forest and still have zero roads, zero snowmobile trails. The point of such a designation would be to allow group camping and bicycles, both of which are prohibited in wilderness. However, there is no likelihood of that happening in 2014, because this is the age when everyone wants to drive deep into the woods to enjoy their motorless pursuits–completely oblivious to the logical contradiction this represents.

    On a recent drive through Watson’s East Triangle I couldn’t help but notice how much better that area looked in 2014 than it did a decade ago, when local ATV riders rode freely on any trail they wanted. There were now informative signage and effective barriers. A trail to Rock Lake that I noted in my journal was an ATV trail in 2001 was a beautiful footpath in 2014. I’m curious to see how Keck’s Trail is doing these days, because that’s where I had a direct confrontation with ATV riders back in 2003.

    If you want to see the worst possible destruction of a trail, take a look at the Wagonbox Trail in the Aldrich Pond WF. Most. Destroyed. Trail. Ever.

    In the southernmost Black River WF there is a large chunk of land that meets wilderness criteria, and should be redesignated. In the north central Ferris Lake WF is a tract of land that was so far from the center of the logging universe at Glens Falls that it was sold to the state in the 1890s as virgin timber. (Some of this land also extends into the aforementioned Black River WF.) The Shaker Mountain WF borders the Silver Lake Wilderness at the Fulton-Hamilton county line, but by the time you bushwhack to it the distinction is so irrelevant that you stop caring what side of the line you’re on. The Wilcox Lake WF has several large chunks of land that could be managed as wilderness without the need to close a single road or snowmobile trail.

    So I guess my point is that if you go to a wild forest looking for ATV trails and ruts, you will find them, because most have private access ROWs of some kind. But if you go to a wild forest looking for a wilderness experience, you’ll find that too. You just need to know where to look; it’s a glass half empty/full kind of thing.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I remember well the mess along Bear Pond Road when that road was designated an ATV Trail back in the 2000’s. I found the level of destruction along the trails in the Black River Wild Forest to be worse, although it did seem to be concentrated along the trail for the most part.

    • Justin says:

      Great “glass half full” perspective!

  4. Dan Crane says:

    The two of you are probably right about the string and flagging being left over from the recent search, but can’t they pick up the mess afterwards? I’ve never seen such a mess in other places where they’ve done a search in the past.

    The string was everywhere, not just along Bear Creek Road. I remember seeing the most between Gull Lake and the Chub Pond Trail.

    • Bill Ott says:

      Hi Dan,

      You said no comments lately, but I keep getting interrupted by girlfriends calling me while I try to Post.

      None the less; if I came across a bunch of strings,etc., I would feel obliged to leave them there in case they actually were important. However, since we want to keep the woods wild so further people can be lost and searched for, perhaps some of these strings could have a date attached thereto.

      Otherwise, send me where to go (any kind of gps coords), and I will go and pull the strings myself. I now try to give back a little to the woods from which I have derived my independent spirit for so many years. I have lots of time and patience. I always wanted to get from here-to-there. Now I realize that usually I am already there.

      Bill Ott
      Lakewood, Ohio

    • Bill Ott says:

      I cannot wait for your next boot discourse.

  5. catharus says:

    Great post!

  6. Scott says:

    The main photo shows Black Creek Road that is open to vehicle use. The second photo shows the Chub Pond Trail, a foot and snowmobile path. That area was the location for a five day intensive search two weeks ago for Donald Combs who was lost seven days and found alive. Dozens and dozens of rangers, troopers, conservation officers, and search volunteers, combed thousands of acres looking for Mr Combs for five days. The string and ribbon and plates with cryptic writing are the result of intensive that search. As much as the string and ribbon should be removed, that is not feasible and it will decay in time. ATVs and UTVs were repeated run up and down all the trails off Black Creek Road to ferry search teams deeper into the wildforest. These trails will look like ATVs have used them for a while but they too will recover. What the main photo really shows is poor road maintenance, and incidentally the road is being repaired and refurbished now.

    • Dan Crane says:


      Neither of the photos are of Black Creek Road. They are both from the Chub Pond Trail between Black Creek Road and Chub Pond. The second one is near a stream crossing just east of Bear Creek Road, the other one was much farther east.

      I realize there was an intensive search done in the area recently (although it was a terrible oversight of mine not to at least mention it), but I feel they should make an attempt to clean up the mess afterwards. They could have at least cleaned up the area near the trail.

      I have been been through areas where search and rescues had occurred (or in one case was ongoing), but I have NEVER seen such extensive an impact before. I should have taken some photos of it (another oversight of mine). At one point, I kidded the person I was with that the string all along the trail was for the benefit of blind hikers.

      Although the string might decay over time (like I said, IF it is cotton and not nylon), the flagging seemed like the standard cheap plastic variety, which will probably take hundreds of years to degrade.

      Again, I feel they should at least make an effort to clean-up the area afterwards.

  7. Richard says:

    I agree with most of what Dan has to say, as usual. However, I am getting older…with any luck, it happens to the best of us. I have tramped all over the western Adirondacks for decades. I have lived my life neither as “weak” nor environmentally “numb” nor as any of the negative broadsides hurled by Charlie S in his comment. However, in the past few years I have discovered that my walks in the woods have necessarily become more constrained than in the past.

    I deeply appreciate the wilderness areas–Five Ponds and the Pepperbox come to mind–but I am also thankful for the wild forests such as Watson’s East Triangle, Aldrich Pond, even Independence River–because these places allow me to still get pretty deep in the woods, find pretty deep solitude, and find some really nice native trout.

    If only four-wheelers had never been invented….seems to me that the misuse of those machines does in fact constitute most of the problem. And even then, only a small percentage of the users are misusers. But they cause so much damage…..

    • AnotherBill says:


      Don’t worry about Charlie S. He issues broadsides like this regularly. They are always the same. When you first read them, they bug you. Later they annoy you, you respond and he rips into you for being a weak, not a ‘real man’ and all that. After a while you skip them. Then a while later you begin reading them for a chuckle. Then you begin to think he could be a great character for a TV sitcom.

  8. Bruce Van Deuson says:

    Dan asked the question about why Wild Forest proponents keep wanting more of the same, instead of Wilderness. Based on what I’ve witnessed in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, it seems like these folks move in with their ATVs, and 4WD vehicles, even where prohibited, tear up the roads and landscape to the point where no one wants to be there, so they need new, pristine areas to ravage. ATVs incursion always seem to be followed by trash dumping. To be fair, horseback riders sometimes leave trash behind, but to a lesser degree.

    To help alleviate some of this, the NF managers will leave certain forest roads closed until they harden up after the spring thaw. The gates generally don’t keep out ATVs though.

  9. TrekAdk says:

    Great article Dan. I think you nailed it w the political angle. Our current governor is trying to pad his economic resume at the expense of the environment. The ACR and NYCO issues are perfect examples.

  10. Hawthorn says:

    The DEC forest rangers as a group have been decimated. When I was young I can remember running into rangers deep in the most obscure backcountry. A friend of mine and I accompanied some of them on their patrols as part of a high school program and we were impressed at the places they went, the wild places they were watching over, and their tremendous knowledge and skills. Today they are mostly forced to spend time in their offices or trucks, with a phone glued to one ear and a computer fired up. A few years back I discovered they were locking the front door of one of the regional offices during the day to prevent the public from impeding their important duties filling in forms and reports. You couldn’t raise them on the phone either. A former high-level DEC person confirmed to me that was the case, and when I heard how many people he had left to patrol the huge region and run the office I was appalled. He said they were now reactive to events, rather than proactive in preventing problems. It is no wonder that keeping ATVs and snowmobiles under control is low down their list of things to do, particularly when those activities are promoted and participated in heavily by the locals.

    • Dan Crane says:


      I agree with you completely. Obviously, when it comes time to slash budgets the politicians we put in office feel environmental protection is either the least important function of New York State government, or has a less vocal constituency.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      I agree with most of what you are saying. There have been a million acres added to the Forest Preserve and easement lands with no increase in Forest ranger staffing. However,…”Today they are mostly forced to spend time in their offices or trucks, with a phone glued to one ear and a computer fired up.” is fiction. The vast majority of my time is spent in the woods, as it should be.

      • Hawthorn says:

        Scott, I’m glad to hear you spend a lot of time in the woods. My personal experience is that I no longer run into Rangers in the woods, but only see them in their vehicles and occasionally near trailheads. When I have called to report specific problems I almost always get them in the office or they call me back from the office. I suppose the cell phones have freed you up to work more from the field, which is a great thing. What are the numbers–100 or so? Covering six million acres? Just driving from place to place must be a significant portion of your day, or else you patrol a tiny area in relation to the resource.

        • scottvanlaer says:

          There are around 50 Forest Rangers in the Adirondack Park, I believe there are 106 “items” state wide. I am assigned to District 5-4, commonly called the “High Peaks” district. There are 6 rangers and 1 supervisor assigned to 5-4. We cover Most of the High Peaks wilderness, Dix Wilderness, Giant Wilderness, All of the Mckenzie Wilderness, Sentinel Wilderness, Wilmington Wild Forest, Whiteface Mountain intensive use area, Wilmington Notch campground, Meadowbrook campground, 3 interior outposts and part of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. We also have the highest incidents of search and rescue operations in the state. You can draw your own conclusion on the appropriateness of the staffing level.

  11. I generally prefer Wildnerness areas to Wild Forests, particularly in the winter. Nothing’s more quiet than a winter hike and nothing more jarring than a quiet winter hike interrupted by snowmobiles. But I don’t think Wild Forests are necessarily a natural catastrophe. I think the greater issue is, as one commenter above alluded to, that the forest rangers corps has been decimated. If laws and regulations are being ignored in Wild Forests, the problem is the lack of enforcement not the classification itself.

  12. Justin says:

    So… when is everyone going to band together and demand more money for DEC? What’s the surplus Cuomo is claiming we have? It’s not as sexy as money for new acquisitions, but it is at least as important.

    Isn’t this something that all the environmental groups, and perhaps the local governments can get behind?

  13. Greg says:

    If ~22% of the park is Wild Forrest and ~22% Wilderness (including Canoe areas,etc), what is the goal? They are currently virtually equal. Should they be? Should their be a 2:1 ratio? 5:1? Currently all discussions stem from one camp saying we xxxx land to be wilderness and other camp saying wild forest.

    I think that certain parts of the park should be open to motorized activities (including ATVs and snowmobiles), while others wilderness. I enjoy both lands for different reasons. More importantly, the land belongs to New Yorkers, and a large percentage want the ability to recreate in a wilderness setting. Also, a large percentage want the ability to recreate in a wild forest setting. I fit both…many reading this probably do too.

    Let’s be honest, any damage seen is a wild forest (I do not agree with the illegal behavior) is minimal compared to the size of the given forest. The environment is not in any danger.

    Nine Corner’s Lake is a good example. The trail is heavily used, widened to allow for snowmobiles in the winter. There is far more trash than I’d like to see. Is that not a good thing? (minus the trash) I mistakenly hiked (walked?) in on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon. There were probably 50 people there, but more importantly to me was they were from all different ethnicity, economic backgrounds, etc. To much of our of our environmental efforts exclude groups…”because I don’t want to hear a snowmobile” or “if the parking lot is close to the pond, then others will be there and then I won’t enjoy it”.

    To me, I think we need more wild forest, mostly because it encourages usage, and in non-obvious ways will spread out people more, which would be a win-win for everyone.

  14. Bill says:

    A couple of years ago I had ventured into the Downerville State Forest near Russell. I came across an extensive area plastered with brightly colored flags and ribbons as if I has stumbled into an amusement park go-cart track. Bicyclists had taken over the area. Whatever happened to leave it as you found it? I haven’t nor will I be back.

  15. Wayno says:

    “Then again, the NYSDEC and the Adirondack Park Agency under the Cuomo Administration appears more interested in moving forward a political agenda than managing the Forest Preserve for this or future generations.” I think there is another way to look on that. Remember although constitutionally “Forever Wild” the continuance of that constitutional protection exists at the will of ALL of the citizens of the state. Changing the constitution is not easy but it is not like the US constitution, it happens frequently. If there is enough of an outcry that the ADK’s are not accessibly enough or that all that Wilderness is not of any value to the vast majority of the citizenry then that kind of change becomes more likely. I personally think that the more people who can enjoy the Park the better chance the entire Adirondack idea has of lasting “Forever Wild”. I do not think anyone should ever take that for granted. The Park is sustained by the entire population of NY taxpayers and as such it needs to accommodate all types of activity, some of which many of us may not identify with. I think the Cuomo administration, with the items cited in this article as examples, is trying to compromise and strike a balance between all the demands of the the various groups that have an interest in the Park and in the end that may be the very best way to insure the continuance of the Park for future generations.

  16. Charlie S says:

    Richard says:I have lived my life neither as “weak” nor environmentally “numb” nor as any of the negative broadsides hurled by Charlie S in his comment.

    There is a heap of optimism in me Richard.It diffuses through and penetrates every pore in my body at times, mostly when i’m out in the woods or in some other natural setting.Animals and insects and trees instill in me a sense of hope…they fascinate me. When it comes to people though, my hopes are generally shattered…. forgive me for being so humble.

  17. Bev stellges says:

    Talk about misplaced agendas and funding! Just drove through the moose river plains from Inlet to the Cedar River Flow and ALL the roadside campsites, only about six being occupied, had brand new picnic tables, brand new out houses and brand new cement and mortar fire places! Yet not enough funds to keep our forest rangers.

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