The Adirondack Park Agency has announced that it is opening the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan for review. This is momentous news. Together with the Land Use and Development Plan which governs development on private land in the Park, the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) is one of two fundamental documents used to carry out the will of the people, as expressed in Article XIV of the NYS Constitution, that the Adirondack Forest Preserve should be “forever kept as wild forest lands”.
My interest in revising the SLMP is to strengthen its focus on ecological integrity over more traditional notions of open space. The SLMP, to its credit, already emphasizes science and ecology. But it was written in 1972, when ecology was still very much a nascent science. It can be a stronger document by taking advantage of forty years of maturation in a discipline more relevant to the protection of the Adirondacks than any other.
I can imagine that some who have a deep historical understanding of the forces that shaped the SLMP might misunderstand my intentions here. In the 1950’s there was an intense debate that led directly to the creation of the APA and the SLMP. The debate had the Conservation Department (the forerunner of DEC) on the one side arguing for increasing the utility of the Forest Preserve, both in terms of recreation and forest products. Their argument was portrayed as the “scientific” one: scientific forestry a la Pinchot, game management and so on. On the other side preservationists of the likes of Paul Schaefer saw these proposals as antithetical to the protection of open space, of true wilderness and wilderness character. Leave the land alone they said: protect it and let Nature rule. Their position was more the aesthetic one and it informed today’s Wilderness classification. This argument was emblematic of the larger struggle over the idea of wilderness that unfolded on a national level throughout the 20th Century.
Let me be clear: I’m not refighting this old battle. I am firmly on the side of Schaefer. I think the State should add to its Wilderness acreage. I think Wilderness should be even more stringently protected than it is now. My interest in promoting ecological integrity is to strengthen the argument and impetus to accomplish those things, not in any way make an argument to “manage” the Forest Preserve for human benefit.
It is interesting that New York’s Open Space Conservation Plan has been slated for public review at roughly the same time. A comparison of the bases for these two plans is instructive. Open space, both literally and symbolically, has been the cornerstone of State conservation policy for the better part of a century. Open space is understood to be contextual – open space in a city is different than open space in the Adirondacks. It is also considered to have many dimensions, from ecological to agricultural to aesthetic.
In the Adirondack context, the aesthetic dimension of open space has been most prominent. Stemming from our idyllic and romanticized 19th Century notions of wilderness, the psychological and aesthetic values of open space have been reflected in the language used to describe the Adirondacks and our relationship to it: the fastness of the forest, the escape from civilization and the freedom from mechanization, the bounty of nature, man as a visitor, the harmony of woods, water and mountains. That these values are important is inarguable. But in a time when we face climate change, fragmenting ecosystems, degrading water quality and more, a scientific focus must take equal importance.
The intersection of open space, wilderness aesthetics and ecological health is complex and frequently non-intuitive. A visitor can revel in a forest panorama – a carpet of green uninterrupted for miles – and have no idea that the working forest at which they marvel has been genetically degraded to a critical degree. A paddler can appreciate the beauty of crystal clear water without ever understanding the extent of damage to the lake that such clarity represents. A seemingly innocuous, even “green” structure sitting on back country acreage can produce a disturbance zone of hundreds of feet, disrupting rare songbird populations. We need science to tell us what kinds of culverts to build and where to build them for the benefit of wildlife, or to mitigate the effects of severe storms, even if the psychological impact of a particular culvert may be antithetical to our aesthetic conception of wilderness.
The demonstrable nature of open space can even work against the goal of preserving and enhancing an ecologically rich wilderness. Critics of more State land acquisitions see thousands of acres added to the Forest Preserve when we already have millions, with endless vistas aplenty. They have been heard to say that we have enough open space, that taking working forests out of circulation harms the economy for no good reason. But what if the crucial measure was related to ecological health, not acreage?
The SLMP is a remarkable document. The forward thinking focus, the intelligence and the optimism with which it was crafted is evident throughout. By no means do I think it needs a major revision. It does put a scientific focus front and center. For example, the fundamental determiner it uses for land classification is carrying capacity, a cornerstone of population biology.
But the aesthetic value of wilderness is a strong component of SLMP policies as well. Throughout the plan there is mention not simply of open space, but of “open space character” as a fundamental value. Or consider this, from the SLMP’s Introduction:
“Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context as well as their social or psychological aspects are not degraded.”
Here, “social or psychological” reads as “aesthetic.”
Despite the fact that biological and ecological considerations are granted prime importance in the SLMP, the sometimes awkward tension between science and long-held aesthetic values centered around open space leads the SLMP to make some interesting choices. Consider the criteria for determining the priorities by which the State should acquire private parcels. In the section on Acquisition Policy Recommendations, the SLMP denotes highest priority to protect:
“… (i) key parcels of private land, the use or development of which could adversely affect the integrity of vital tracts of state land, particularly wilderness, primitive and canoe areas and (ii) key parcels which would permit the upgrading of primitive areas to wilderness areas…”
This obviously speaks to enhancing or expanding wilderness character. Third down the list in priority is to protect:
“…critical wildlife areas such as deer wintering areas, wetlands, habitats of rare or endangered species or other areas of unique value….”
In the section on Basis and Purpose of Classification the SLMP has this to say (italics mine):
“In addition, another significant determinant of land classification involves certain intangible considerations that have an inevitable impact on the character of land. Some of these are social or psychological–such as the sense of remoteness and degree of wildness available to users of a particular area, which may result from the size of an area, the type and density of its forest cover, the ruggedness of the terrain or merely the views over other areas of the Park obtainable from some vantage point. Without these elements an area should not be classified as wilderness, even though the physical and biological factors would dictate that the limitations of wilderness management are essential.”
In other words, social or psychological factors must be met in order for an area to be classified as wilderness. Or consider this excerpt from the definition of Wild Forest (again italics are mine):
“A wild forest area is an area where the resources permit a somewhat higher degree of human use than in wilderness, primitive or canoe areas, while retaining an essentially wild character. A wild forest area is further defined as an area that frequently lacks the sense of remoteness of wilderness, primitive or canoe areas…”
The problem of course is that an area that may not meet the aesthetic criteria for wilderness may be vitally important from an ecological standpoint, connected to other parts of the park in ways that are both more important and more apparent in light of four decades of progress in ecology.
The development of relatively new ecological concepts changes the relationship between science and protection of the Adirondacks in favor of a richer focus on biological interconnection and ecological health. The term “ecological integrity” captures this in a strong way. It should be said that while ecological integrity has become a term of art, there is no single definition. I like the definition offered in the research paper “Monitoring and evaluating the ecological integrity of forest ecosystems”by Geraldine Tierney, Don Faber-Langendoen, Brian Mitchell, W. Gregory Shriver, and James P. Gibbs (I like it even more because Gibbs and Tierney are both with SUNY-ESF):
“‘Ecological integrity’ provides a useful framework for ecologically based monitoring and can provide valuable information for assessing ecosystem condition and management effectiveness. Building on the related concepts of biological integrity and ecological health, ecological integrity is a measure of the composition, structure, and function of an ecosystem in relation to the system’s natural or historical range of variation, as well as perturbations caused by natural or anthropogenic agents of change.”
The critical idea here is that ecological integrity is a measure. It establishes a basis by which any potential acquisition, classification or management policy can affect the larger ecosystem. It also provides a framework to measure past and present human impact, from logging to roads to non-conforming structures in a scientifically significant way, not just “sense of remoteness and degree of wildness.”
References to open space and natural character occur throughout the SLMP, whereas there is not a single mention of ecological integrity. That’s because in any formal sense it is new terminology – a descriptor for a “best practice” of sorts for protecting and enhancing the natural health of the Forest Preserve; as such it becomes an essential way to look at the Adirondack Park.
My reading of the SLMP is that it already has a strong enough bent towards science that to establish ecological integrity as the fundamental driver for policy does not require more than a few additions, new wording and some thoughtful tweaking.
I favor, indeed I cherish, the aesthetic values by which we measure wilderness. I am in no way opposed to these considerations and believe they need to be part of the value system that protects the Adirondacks, as they always have, but we need to do all we can to give science an upper hand.
Photo: Lost Brook.