Monday, October 27, 2014

Commentary: Make Ecology Cornerstone Of State Land Plan

Slide BrookThe 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.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

17 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    “Give science an upper hand”.

    Well said Pete. I agree. However, should Emerald Ash Borer arrive in Wilderness, shall we cut down and remove all the ash trees within X number of feet from the infected specimen, or just let it run “wild”? I don’t have an answer, but I predict that the next 50 years of Wilderness protection will be defined by how we answer questions like this, and it has the potential to redefine how we understand Wilderness, and ourselves.

    To persist, Wilderness mustn’t exist in a Vacuum, nor should it only be treated like a museum. This will likely freak a few people out, but nothing good ever happened that didn’t piss someone off. The Diversity discussion is a fine example, as is Cronon’s controversial essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      The emerald ash borer is an excellent example. How to handle that invasion is a difficult, controversial question.

      I fall strongly on the side of preservation over, say, increased recreational access (last I checked you can walk into any Wilderness area and recreate to your heart’s content). But I think there is something wise in how you say “nor should it only be treated like a museum.” I think that’s right. I think wilderness is too precious to be simply roped off. The days are past when that strategy was the best thing for it. Climate change is but the biggest example why.

      • Peter Bauer says:

        Matt and Pete —

        Tree cutting is a Constitutional issue, not a SLMP issue. The SLMP states it’s Constitutionally neutral. There’s a joint APA-DEC policy on managing terrestrial invasives on the Forest Preserve, but is covers use of chemicals/spraying for things like knotweed, etc., that grow along roadsides.

        I agree that we will face major issues in the years ahead with management of invasive pests on the Forest Preserve, but I think this will force Constitutional actions, not necessarily SLMP actions.

        Whether it’s Wild Forest, Canoe, Primitive, Wilderness, trees should have the same Constitutional protections, though there is legal history/precedent for paving the Forest Preserve in Intensive Use areas.

        • Pete Nelson says:


          No argument here: protection of the trees is absolute in the entire Forest Preserve. But there are other actions – tinkering, if you will – that could be taken to arrest ash borer spread. Here the waters are murkier, with a decades-long (and sometimes very unfortunate) history of tinkering.

          True, legal interpretations of Article XIV have tended to fall on the side of “hands off,” but not exclusively. Article XIV itself establishes “forest conservation” and “wildlife management” as official State policy, so long as Forever Wild is not violated.

          I think we need a strong scientific basis for the policy actions we take within the leeway granted by Article XIV. This leeway is given full expression in the SLMP. It will be interesting to see if control of invasives does indeed become a constitutional issue.

  2. Bruce says:

    I’m with you, Pete, but Matt also makes a good point. Trees die from whatever causes, and something else springs up in their place. Do we endeavor to preserve the wilderness as it is now, or allow it to change as it will? Invasive species will come in, some without man’s help. Case in point: Fast growing Black Locust in the Southern Appalachians. On one hand they are considered to be an invasive species in the strictest sense, but on the other they are becoming endemic and a symbol of the region. I don’t even have to mention the fate of the American Chestnut. I’ve seen Chestnut stumps in the National Forest which are some 4 feet across.

    I think the worst thing we can do is allow commercial interests, such as logging to gain a foothold because those interests are never-ending and clamor for more, never less, citing economic growth and jobs as the ultimate benefits. In Western NC, we are surrounded by about a million acres of National Forest. Under USDA mandate, the intent is to have a sustainable and carefully managed resource (lumber). Lumber companies always want more, and managers have a difficult time balancing commercial and esoteric needs.

    It’s good to be able to see and experience wilderness as it is and will be, without man’s interference.

  3. Paul says:

    Pete, What do you think are the practical applications of what you propose? It seems to me that if you draw a tight line as far as impacts to the ecosystem even a hiking trail could have a major impact to the ecology of the system. The science might indicate that something like a snowmobile trail would probably have a lesser impact in many respects depending on how it is constructed (if undisturbed for most of the year when there is no snow). In the end some of the recreational activities on these lands wether Wilderness or Wild Forest (or whatever you want to call them) will have any impact there is simply no way to get around it. If you switch to a purely science based system of looking at ecology more closely then limiting the number of hikers in places like the HP Wilderness seem like an necessity at some point. Along with many other restrictions and road closures etc.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I do think that promoting the primacy of ecological integrity might hinder recreation, even “traditional” forms in some cases. I also think it is naive to suggest that wilderness without man is the only true version. Even animals make trails, for example.

      The right balance needs the hand of science, the guiding conscience of aesthetics and an unwavering appreciation of how important it is to strictly protect such wilderness as we have.

      • Paul says:

        I agree. I have always thought conceptually of the Adirondacks as a “wilderness” where man is not a visitor (like in the true definition of Wilderness) but an intricate part of the natural landscape. To me that is really what the Adirondack “experiment” is all about. If snowmobiles (I have none) are required for some parts of the Adirondack economy to survive then I think, even if science tells us that they have an impact on the ecology of the system, they should be allowed. The same goes for other uses that are not “compatible” with what would be considered a Wilderness. In the end it again comes back to the same type of judgment calls that we have had to deal with for decades. I don’t think any change to plan is ever going to change that.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Wilderness, like beauty, is often in the eye and mind of the beholder.
    Where I have a problem with the arguments over wilderness vs. wild forest is the idea of excluding humans as much as possible from places designated as wilderness as opposed to places designated as wild forest.
    My problem with these two ideas excluding each other goes back much further.
    Before there was what we call civilization, there were humans. We lived in small tribes, much like all the other animals continue to do. Civilization grew as a direct result of farming. It was farming that made cities and civilization possible.
    Now we set aside places where farming and cities are not allowed. Forests where lumbering takes place are basically tree farms. If you keep farming trees out of the mix you have what can be called either a wild forest or a wilderness. The net effect is the same. No one can live in a wild forest or a wilderness.
    The only real difference between a wild forest and a wilderness is whether or not you can access a portion of it (never the entire area) by car, truck or snowmobile.
    One could say that even a wilderness area is accessed by car or truck in the sense that you drive to the trailhead to begin your hike. And even the wilderness doesn’t really begin until you walk off the trail that gives you access into the wilderness, which is something you can do in wild forest.It’s called bushwacking.
    I’m saying its all in our head. Wilderness is what we imagine it to be.
    Stay on any trail and you will never find yourself lost in a wilderness. Go off any trail and it is very easy to get lost in what is a wilderness to you – and that even includes cities.

    • scottvanlaer says:

      Pete I very much agree with your conceptual idea of “wilderness” and I have experienced that in many of the park areas classified as Wild Forest. I think one of the problems is that once a unit is classified as Wild Forest it seems automatic that a snowmobile trail will be constructed. What Wild Forest areas don’t have one? Motor Vehicles are prohibited on all Forest Preserve lands except on trails designated for it’s use. If they want to allow Mountain Biking or keep a non-conforming structure they could easily do so by classifying it as Wild Forest without building Snowmobile trails. However, that never seems to happen. Wild Forest classification seems like a mandate for a snowmobile trail and that is unfortunate. I think green groups now feel they have to have a wilderness classification to keep motors out and that is not legally the case but appears to be the pragmatic answer.

  5. Bill Ingersoll says:

    To be clear, there is little ecological distinction between Wild Forest and Wilderness in the Adirondacks, because Article XIV implicitly forbids habitat manipulation. A Wild Forest is just as wild as a Wilderness, just as well forested, and contains many of the same natural features. Therefore the ONLY distinctions between the two classifications are their recreational usage. If the Bombardier and Arctic Cat companies never existed, the entire Forest Preserve would be Wilderness.

    Not that ecology shouldn’t be an important consideration, but since the Forest Preserve requires “hands off” management in terms of its natural resources it’s to say how land classification has much of an impact. If ecological sensitivity was the primary factor when determining a land designation, then every vly, bog, and old-growth forest would be Wilderness, and every mundane run-of-the-mill mixed forest would be Wild Forest.

    As you may recall, the ecology debate had its opening a few years ago when the Moose River Plains Wild Forest unit management plan was being discussed. At the heart of the Plains is a key deer wintering habitat… but the road through the area is one of the most heavily used snowmobile trails in the Adirondacks. Some preservationists tried to make the case that the snowmobile traffic was disruptive to the area’s wildlife, but no one had any evidence to back this claim, just theories and assumptions. The data didn’t exist, because no one has ever studied the subject. The UMP was approved without any amendments to the snowmobile usage, and in fact the road system was later reclassified from Wild Forest to Intensive Use to accommodate the high density of campsites. The higher elevations around Sly Pond were reclassified Wilderness as an offset.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      A couple points:

      First, with respect to land classification, I think it’s important not to confuse the basis of the policy with its practical effects. As a practical fact recreation is certainly the primary issue in debates over land classification. But the SLMP establishes scientific criteria as the basis for land classification, not types of recreation.

      The confusion arises, I think, from the fact that the vast majority of human activity in the woods can be categorized as recreation. But the SLMP’s basis is carrying capacity first, then other scientific and ecological factors. It even refers to scientific field work undertaken to support its policies. However there is at best a nascent understanding of ecological integrity, so I think it can be stronger.

      Second, the SLMP has more purposes than just land classification. Land acquisition is another major component. The rationale for land acquisition contains multiple layers of criteria. Once again, my reading of these criteria is that ecological integrity could be elevated in importance to the benefit of the park. There are Wild Forest areas of less than 10,000 acres which harbor both bogs and old growth forest, to use Bill’s examples, that should arguably be reclassified as Wilderness for reasons having nothing to do with recreation.

      I think Bill is right to point out the dearth of data in his story of the Moose River Plains UMP. We need more research and more information.

  6. scottvanlaer says:

    There are other issues with a wilderness classification besides motors. We have all sorts of bridging and ladders to aid hikers in wilderness areas. We have dams, a cable system on Gothics…are these really appropriate for wilderness? The concept that Wilderness means no Motors and Wild Forest means Motors is a very narrow view of what they intended it to be. However, that unfortunately does seem to be the main difference today. I don’t think Wild Forest = Snowmobile trail was ever the intent when the classification system was implemented. I would like to see someone check and list all the Wild Forest areas and find one that doesn’t have a snowmobile trail. Are there any?

    • Paul says:

      It seems like dams would certainly have to be ruled out (with the exception of the beaver variety) if we went with an “ecological cornerstone” type of approach.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    I believe some of the worries about more snowmobile trails are missing a critical fact.
    Snowmobile trails cost towns and snowmobile clubs money to maintain and groom. The towns and clubs are probably near the limit of the number of miles they can afford.

    • Paul says:

      There is also a cap on the number of miles of trails. At some point to construct a new trail they will have to abandon some older trails.

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