Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dave Gibson: The Challenges of ‘Wild Forest’ Areas

Paddling downstream of Canada Lake, with Kane Mountain framed in the backgroundThe other day some friends and I enjoyed a day in the Forest Preserve, paddling on the waters leading out of Canada Lake, eating our lunches at a primitive campsite along the shore, and walking down a trail into a vly or large wetland flow. We were in the Forest Preserve unit known as the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, one of several large Wild Forests in the southern Adirondack Park. Ferris Lake WF is 147,500 acres in size, spanning parts of four towns in three different counties.

As we arrived at Stewart’s Landing and dam holding back Sprite Creek, the outlet of Canada Lake, we noticed a number of all-terrain vehicles parked and ready to ride. As we put our canoes and kayaks in the water near the dam we noticed and appreciated this Forest Preserve reminder:  “Carry it in, Carry it Out.” This is a shared, public-private resource. One side of the flow is Forest Preserve, the other private Adirondack camps. Upstream, many kayakers and motor boaters were enjoying the Forest Preserve. With their motors turned off at their campsites, wildlife and their own awareness and appreciation of this beautiful wooded shore, held sway.  A minority raced their boats as fast they could, kicking up waves and making paddling difficult.

Later, I walked the trail to Tamarack Vly and marveled at the towering silver birches, sugar maples, black cherries, and eastern hemlocks, and observed no interior trail damage from public use of ATVs, which had skirted the area to the north. The gate at the head of the trail was locked.  At the Vly, beavers had flooded the trail with a fresh dam, a beautiful sinuous structure, controlling conditions in this wild place.

On this day, people truly seemed to not only enjoy themselves, but be receptive to the nature of our Forest Preserve,  the privilege it affords us and the responsibility to pass it on unimpaired to those who come after us.

But the area is vulnerable. There is no unit management plan yet in place to guide planning and future stewardship  of the Ferris Lake Wild Forest in compliance with the State Land Master Plan. Since 2006 the plan remains in draft form due to lack of DEC staff and other, more urgent priorities. Forest Preserve trail signs are old and unpainted. Trail registers are few. The DEC Forest Ranger force is truly stretched here and elsewhere. Budget shortfalls and retirements resulted in this district being vacant for several years, although I am told this area is now patrolled once again. Rangers are the public’s ambassadors for the woods and are sorely needed in heavily used locations like Stewart’s Landing and Nine-Cornered Lake. For years, ATVs have torn up the four-season trails throughout the area, including through sensitive, wet, wildlife rich locations like Hillabrandt Vly.

In fact, Wild Forest areas are vulnerable throughout our Forest Preserve, to overuse, abuse and neglect of our State Constitution. “Shall be Forever Kept as Wild Forest Lands” are the words, the forever promise, from Section 1 of Article XIV. All Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve is protected by them, but designated “Wild Forest” can become a second-class, fragmented,  and uncared for Forest Preserve compared with Wilderness, Primitive and Canoe areas – if we allow it. That is one reason why Adirondack Mountain Club and Friends of the Forest Preserve volunteer Larry (Lawrence H.) King produced his film The Adirondack Adventure, which he is still showing to selected audiences.

Barbara McMartin lived in this very area, off of Canada Lake, and championed  Ferris Lake and all Wild Forest areas. The late, noted Adirondack advocate, guidebook author, and former Chair of the DEC’s Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, wrote in Realizing the Recreational Potential of Adirondack Wild Forests in 1990:

“The people of New York own tracts of Wild Forest as undisturbed as any solitary hiker could desire. Other tracts are laced with gravelly old roads that entice horseback riders and those who favor motorized recreation. Wild Forests abound with small lakes and ponds, wooded hills, and ranges of open rock summits affording marvelous views. Yet, only a few blocks of Wild Forest have been given adequate consideration for other than motorized recreation.”

“Few trails have been constructed for family outings… A large percentage of DEC’s budget for trail maintenance has been concentrated in the popular High Peaks, a response to legitimate needs… Meanwhile, less fragile summits in Wild Forest have been neglected. In much of the Wild Forest there remains an overall shortage of marked foot trails to mountains, lakes, ponds, waterfalls… Good stewardship and wise management should include marking new trails, creating marked footpaths requiring little maintenance and building lean-tos, trail head parking and new snowmobile routes. It involve making sure that snowmobile trails are located and constructed so as to attract different kinds of use in warmer seasons; marking little-used snowmobile trails for cross-country skiers and advertising their availability; creating primitive campsites, hardening some existing trails for ease of access, and building some trails for handicapped access on suitable terrain”

Barbara’s challenge for Wild Forest areas largely remains, although part of her vision has been steadily adopted by our DEC and by volunteers, for example the Fire Tower program with local support organizations, and the DEC program for access by persons with disabilities, both of which have blossomed since Barbara wrote.

The timeless words of Justice Harold Hinman, writing in 1930 of the Forest Preserve and Article 14 of our Constitution, still apply here in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest:

“’We must preserve it in its wild state, its trees, its rocks, its streams. It was to be a great resort for the free use of the people in which nature is given free rein… It must always retain the character of a wilderness. Hunting, fishing, tramping, mountain climbing, snowshoeing, skiing or skating find ideal setting in nature’s wilderness. It is essentially a quiet and healthful retreat from the turmoils and artificialities of a busy urban life.”

Photo: Paddling downstream of Canada Lake, with Kane Mountain framed in the background.


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

7 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Great essay.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time in this region lately, making a point to spend a lot of time in the wild forests. On the one hand these were the areas that were expected to see the most recreational development, to divert people away from the wilderness areas. On the other, most discussions about how the wild forests should be used recreationally tend to get hung up on the topic of snowmobiles.

    The Ferris Lake draft UMP called for some really interesting foot trail and lean-to ideas, which of course have all been stalled along with the plan. Same thing with Wilcox Lake. The Shaker Mountain plan managed to get through the approval process, and there you will find new lean-tos and new foot trails. The new NPT segment currently being built near Gifford Valley is beautiful.

    One of my quibbles with Ferris Lake is that its core trail system near Pleasant Lake is maintained with snowmobiles in mind, but with little thought given to hikers. There is no bog bridging over the wet areas; the signs at trail junctions point to the surrounding towns, not the interior destinations; there are gaps where snowmobiles go off across the ice in winter, leaving no place to go the rest of the year. If DEC corrected these issues, and added a lean-to here and there, you’d have a wonderful four-season recreation area.

    The lack of mountain trails in the southern Adirondacks can probably be attributed to the lack of a climbing culture that places like Lake Placid and Keene Valley saw in the 19th century. No one there waited for the state to cut a trail to Mount Marcy–the guides took care of that themselves. In the southern region, the emphasis was more about hunting and fishing, so all the trails lead to ponds and streams. There was never a “peak bagging” culture in Wells, for instance, so no one ever cut any trails to any mountain in that region except the fire tower summits… even though I could rattle off a list of beautiful summits in that area with excellent views. I just visited three more this weekend!

    The wild forests in the eastern Adirondacks are good examples of how these areas can be managed without an emphasis on snowmobiles–in this case because the eastern region gets less snow, and because the state acquired certain tracts with elaborate trail systems already in place. I think Hammond Pond, Lake George, and Split Rock are good examples of how wild forests were intended–places with trails, but not necessarily motorized trails.

  2. Nature says:

    If Wild Forest is such a treasure, why the opposition to Wild Forest classification for the Finch land? Part of the original sales pitch for acquisition of the Finch land was an experience similar to what you describe above.

  3. Teresa DeSantis says:

    Thank you for an insightful article. The Ferris Lake Wild Forest is one of my favorite areas, and I have spent
    dozens of nights with boat and pack in the area. The 2006 Draft UMP for the area looks interesting, and
    with this lull in time until a more final version is produced, it seems like it would be a good time for interested parties to put forth proposals for ideas based on the Plan with any refinements which may be desired (perhaps bridges over the boggy sections, lean-tos, hiking trail retention, and retaining the water accessible campsites at Sand Pond, which I believe were eliminated from the Draft Plan. (Also of concern is the possible elimination of trail outlined in the plan- I believe part of an effort to re allocate trail miles in the snowmobile trail network to other areas. This would eliminate trails to some favorite areas for hikers.)

    This is the perfect time for volunteer effort in the woods. The DEC has a volunteer program- all that is needed is us. With the State cutting back budgets, it is important that the forests and state assets which we have all enjoyed continue to be there to be enjoyed, and for us to share with future generations.

    Teresa the Cartographer

  4. David Thomas-Train says:

    Another smaller area with similar problems is at Jabe Pond in the Lake George Wild Forest. It is a lovely highland pond with bays, campsites, islands and resident loons. It’s road-accessible and small motors on boats are allowed. But this leads to overuse and occasional abuse, and the same issue of the overstretched Ranger force comes into play.
    DEC does not need more, or any, funding cutbacks

  5. David Thomas-Train says:

    Another smaller area with similar problems is at Jabe Pond in the Lake George Wild Forest. It is a lovely highland pond with bays, campsites, islands and resident loons. It’s road-accessible and small motors on boats are allowed. But this leads to overuse and occasional abuse, and the same issue of the overstretched Ranger force comes into play.
    DEC does not need more, or any, funding cutbacks.

    Perhaps DEC can institute an “Adopt-A Lake or Pond” program just as it has done with leantos, trails and other Forest preserve resources.

  6. scottvanlaer says:

    Thanks for the great article. I grew up just down the road from the landing and have many great memories canoeing, swimming and camping there.

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