Land 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.
This 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.