The Adirondack Park Agency’s promise to consider allowing mountain biking in the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area has generated a broader discussion – with much disagreement – of the place of bikes in the Forest Preserve.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan allows bikes on trails in tracts classified as Wild Forest Areas but prohibits them in Wilderness Areas. They are allowed in Primitive Areas only on old roads used by state officials for managing natural resources.
Under these guidelines, bikes would not be allowed in the 9,940-acre Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area. However, when the APA classified the Essex Chain tract in 2013, it promised to look at amending the State Land Master Plan to permit bicycling on the tract’s network of old roads.
Local officials see mountain biking as a tourist draw. They also want bikers to be able to ride between Indian Lake and Newcomb on a proposed snowmobile trail on the edge of the Essex Chain Primitive Area. The snowmobile trail would require construction of a bridge over the Cedar River. The APA is also considering amending the master plan to allow the bridge to be built with steel beams or other non-natural materials.
“Mountain biking has gotten to be extremely popular and has been a game-changer in Vermont in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which has a non-voting seat on the APA board.
The Essex Chain area has more than ten miles of dirt roads that can accommodate bikes without damaging natural resources. The roads might not interest hard-core mountain bikers – who typically prefer narrow trails with lots of turns and hills – but they could attract casual riders and families with children.
However, Monroe has more than the Essex Chain in mind. He wants the State Land Master Plan changed to allow bikes on old roads in Primitive Areas and Wilderness Areas throughout the Park where appropriate – that is, if natural resources would not be damaged.
“Mountain biking is one of our biggest economic opportunities in the Adirondacks. It’s really in demand,” he said. “We have a lot of places where roads are perfectly suitable.”
Consider the William C. Whitney Wilderness near Little Tupper Lake. The tract is crisscrossed by wide, flat gravel roads built for logging trucks. They don’t attract many hikers, but Monroe says the old roads (which are closed to vehicles) would be ideal for mountain bikers looking for an easy ride.
The idea of opening up Wilderness and Primitive tracts to mountain bikes, even on a limited basis, is anathema to some environmental activists. Wilderness is the strictest of the APA’s seven classifications for the Forest Preserve. The State Land Master Plan defines Wilderness, in part, as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
The biggest difference between Wilderness and Wild Forest (the two most common Forest Preserve classifications) is that motorized use is banned in Wilderness, whereas some motorized use, including snowmobiling, is allowed in Wild Forest. Biking also is allowed on Wild Forest trails (unless specifically prohibited), but few trails have been designed for biking.
Under the State Land Master Plan, only “primitive” recreation – including hiking, ski touring, hunting, and, in a small number of places, horseback riding – are allowed in Wilderness.
Dave Gibson, a partner in Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, contends that biking violates the spirit of Wilderness, apart from concerns of resource damage. “That’s a mechanization of Wilderness. It would essentially remove Wilderness conditions,” he said.
Gibson also opposes biking in Primitive Areas. The master plan envisions most Primitive Areas as Wilderness-in-waiting: tracts that could be classified as Wilderness if not for some non-conforming structure or improvement, such as a fire tower or a road to an in-holding. Given the temporariness of the Primitive designation, Gibson argues that it makes no sense to allow recreational uses that would have to be discontinued if the classification were upgraded to Wilderness.
Nevertheless, Gibson said he might support biking in the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area if there is little chance that the area could be upgraded to Wilderness. A major reason that the region was classified Primitive, not Wilderness, is that floatplanes are allowed to land on two lakes. Gibson contends that the state could rescind the floatplane permits, but this is a matter of dispute since local towns own the floatplane rights to the lakes.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said old roads in Wilderness and Primitive Areas should be allowed to regrow. “We need to have some places with lines drawn around them where natural resources within those lines are fully protected,” he said.
“I don’t see how mountain biking and Wilderness mix,” Bauer said. “It’s like snowmobiling in Wilderness. It’s a very different type of use.”
The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), however, favors an amendment to allow some biking in Wilderness and Primitive Areas. In fact, that has been the club’s policy since the early 1990s, according to Executive Director Neil Woodworth.
“We’re not arguing to put them on trails,” Woodworth stressed. Rather, ADK wants to open designated roads to bikes, providing such use will not damage natural resources or lead to conflicts with hikers or other recreationists.
Woodworth cited the Whitney Wilderness and the Essex Chain area as suitable places for biking. In contrast, he said allowing bikes on the Marcy Dam Truck Trail in the High Peaks Wilderness could lead to overuse of the already-popular Marcy Dam area.
Josh Wilson, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition, offers a different perspective as an avid mountain biker. Although the coalition supports opening the Essex Chain roads to biking, Wilson said, most mountain bikers prefer trails to old roads. Thus, he doesn’t think opening the roads to biking will do a lot to boost tourism.
“If I lived in Vermont and I wanted to go mountain biking in the Adirondacks, I would not go to the Essex Chain just because there are dirt roads to ride on,” Wilson said. On the other hand, Wilson travels a few times a year to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to ride its large network of bike trails. “They have a wide variety of trails. I can park my car and ride all weekend,” he said.
For several years, the Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) has been striving to bring a similar experience to the Adirondacks. The group helped build and now maintains about fifty-five miles of bike trails in Wilmington, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake and hopes to add more trails in the future. As a result of BETA’s work, the town of Wilmington hosts a mountain-bike festival every June.
Wilson said the next step is to link the trail networks. “This creates a different kind of riding experience, so you can do a longer-distance ride between communities,” he said.
However, the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness lies between Wilmington and Lake Placid, posing a legal obstacle. BETA, which Wilson belongs to, and the New York Bicycling Coalition favor amending the State Land Master Plan to allow Primitive Bicycle Corridors in Wilderness Areas so cyclists can ride on a trail from one community to another.
“This is not about reversing the ban on mountain biking in Wilderness Areas,” Wilson said. “We certainly don’t believe there needs to be a Primitive Bicycle Corridor in every Wilderness Area.”
He added that old roads—such as those in the Whitney Wilderness and Essex Chain region – also could be designated Primitive Bicycle Corridors. “It’s a management tool that can be applied to Forest Preserve units on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Bill Ingersoll, publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks guidebooks, sees the Primitive Bicycle Corridor as a form of spot zoning. He likened it to the APA’s carving out one-acre Historic Areas on the tops of St. Regis Mountain and Hurricane Mountain to permit fire towers to remain in place. “You’re using these micro-designations to get around restrictions,” he said.
He also opposes allowing bikes on old roads in Wilderness and Primitive Areas even if the natural resources would not be imperiled. “By changing the mode of transportation, you’re changing the fundamental purpose of what a Wilderness Area is,” he said.
If the APA wanted to allow bicycles in the Essex Chain region, he added, it could have classified it Wild Forest.
Another solution, Ingersoll said, is to create a new zoning classification where motors are banned but bicycles are allowed. Federal lands have such a category, called Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized. Ingersoll proposes a more succinct name for his classification: Backcountry.
“It’d be a third major state-land classification that would exist between Wild Forest and Wilderness,” he said. As in Wilderness, no roads would be open to motor vehicles (except for owners of in-holdings). As in Wild Forest, bicycles and fire towers would be OK. Also, snowmobiles would be allowed on the periphery, say within a thousand feet of the tract’s boundary. By adopting a Backcountry classification, Ingersoll said, recreational objectives can be met without diluting the meaning of Wilderness or Primitive.
APA attorney James Townsend said the agency will consider all reasonable options in determining whether to open the Essex Chain roads to bikes. These could include amending the State Land Master Plan to allow biking on designated roads in Wilderness and/or Primitive Areas throughout the Park.
The agency received public comments through December 5, and Townsend said a draft recommendation may be issued as early as February. A final recommendation could be adopted in the spring.
Mountain Bike Proposals
The Adirondack Explorer asked the Park’s four largest environmental organizations and the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board where they stood on four questions:
1. Should mountain biking be allowed on designated roads in the Essex Chain Primitive Area?
2. Should the State Land Master Plan allow biking on designated roads in Primitive and Wilderness Areas throughout the Park?
3. Should the plan allow Primitive Bicycle Corridors in Wilderness Areas where desirable so mountain bikers can ride between communities?
4. Should the APA create another land classification, Backcountry, where motors are banned but bikes are allowed?
Photos by Nancie Battaglia.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.
Personally I would love to be able to bike on the Essex Chain roads as well as the Whitney Preserve roads. Keeping the bikes to the established roads would create less of an impact on the land while allowing more access to it. The roads are there, why not use them?
I enjoy mountain biking quite a lot but, I believe that it does not belong in wilderness or primitive areas. There is an abundance of wild forest lands that are ideal for that form of recreation. Keep wilderness as pristine as possible.
As an avid mountain biker and member of BETA, I agree with what Josh Wilson spoke of in the article. It’s not about getting mountain bikers deep into every part of the park’s wilderness areas. For us, it’s about creating an attractive, sustainable, and interconnected trail system. Even with the Mackenzie Wilderness area, while we would love to see a connector trail linking Wilmington and Lake Placid, we’re not advocating the development of trails in the entire area. Most of our trail systems are never that far from a road/golf course.
I think that is where some of the conversation breaks down. The difference between developing one trail through an area vs. developing trails over the entire area. And that’s really not feasible.
A dream of mine would be to see a connector bike trail that links Wilmington, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake. That would allow all three communities to serve as a hub for riders.
Of course, we need to balance all of that with protecting this beautiful home of ours.
My understanding is that Santanoni is a designated Wilderness Area, but bicycles are allowed to access the historic site via the Santanoni Road. How would the Essex Chain roads differ from that?
I would like to draw your attention to the Chequamegon National Forest in northwestern Wisconsin, an area well known for hiking (North Country and Ice Age National Scenic Trails) and Nordic skiing (American Birkebeiner and others) opportunities.
Since 1995 the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) has built, marked and mapped over 300 miles of trails from the very beginner, dirt-road type to double-black diamond expert-only singletrack, that has become a mecca for mountain bikers from Chicago, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and across the country. In 1997, the University of Wisconsin did an economic impact study on the effects of mountain biking on the local economy, which showed 17 years ago, that the sport millions of dollars into the local economy. (http://www.cambatrails.org/page/show/501874-resources-and-information)
The Chequamegon area is remarkably similar to the southern Adirondacks, and also in it’s proximity to major population centers. I am currently planning a mountain-bike oriented trip to the Old Forge/Inlet/Indian Lake area in the summer of 2015. I would love to be able to include the Essex Chain into my plans.
Mountain biking, horses, and disabled access must be allowed throughout the Essex Chain of Lakes and everywhere else in forest preserve lands. Also motorized access on all existing roads and waters for those less than physically fit. All 250 plus roads illegally closed by the DEC and APA must reopened to allow those with disabilities or handicapped motorized use, access to all forest preserve lands. All Wilderness classified lands must be restricted to those lands above 3,000 feet elevation.
The guiding information from the state legislature and Governor when the APA was created made it clear “the complementary needs of the environment and the economy should be balanced”. Mountain biking has no more impact than a hiker. Mountain biking should not be classification driven, it should be based on if the road or trail is conducive to that type of activity. Biking was not banned until sometime in the 80’s. It’s time to restore this activities on select areas throughout the park. Business owners in the Adirondacks need to be able to promote and have the variety of activities other states have to attract visitation.
I don’t see how mountain biking can be compared to motorized vehicles… A non-motor bike is more like a tool… The Native Americans used tools everywhere…
I love biking on dirt/logging roads where legal. My biggest fear, however, is seeing horrible gullies and ruts dug by bikes. I cannot agree with David Olbert that “mountain biking has no more impact than a hiker.” Check out the Wilmington mountain bike trails sometime. I also fear if access to places like the Essex Chain roads is opened, bikers might want to leave the road for some off road adventure. The Essex Chain has been heavily logged, leaving a lot of open woods.
What is feared is that the bikers will deviate from the designated trails. What us wilderness seekers don’t want to see is a bike in a wilderness setting. They are not condusive to the area and just don’t fit in. We don’t want to see a tire track on a trail as it is part of the mechanized erra. Thus destroying the sense of “being the first person here”.I was upset on one of my paddle trips into the “wilderness”to my dismay some lazy camper had a chain saw.Who wants to hear that? The same as seeing a bike out there.They are not traditional to the wilderness!
I do not agree at all with you that a bicycle has any comparison to that of a chain saw. Bikes are quiet and human powered. They just get you to a desired destination quicker or are a preferred method of maintaining personal fitness in a setting that just makes you feel good.I think most people that like the type of riding the Essex Chain has to offer will stick to the trails. The competitive serious single track rider will go to places like Wilmington.
lLike Dave, I do not agree with your comparison of a bike to a chainsaw. Bikes are quite, and no more harmless to the environment than hiking- I do not see how people say biking is more destructive to the env. Has anyone ever hiked in the High Peaks? How about the Blue Mtn. trail? Those trails are rutted and wide all because of hikers….
Without causing a pi**ing match… saying, “What us wilderness seekers don’t want to see is a bike in a wilderness setting” is a very opinionated argument. Maybe others do not want to see a canoe paddling a remote pond, or a bright yellow tent pitched in the woods– Its all just a matter of perspective.
Mtn Bikes should be more welcome in the ADK Park.
troutstalker – a chainsaw would be compared to a motor bike or a snowmobile… A bicycle is more comparable to a hand saw or a hand axe…
I think if you compare use intensity you would find that the impact of hiking and biking would be quite similar.You only need to take a hike to the more popular approaches to the High Peaks region to see the impact of heavy use. I have not been to the Wilmington trail system but have herd only good reviews.Still I assume it gets heavy use and that can take a toll on any trail regardless of the trail construction process.Based on a study by Thurston and Reader(2001) in Ontario, Canada hiking and biking were not significantly different in term of impact to plant density,diversity, and soil exposure. I also think that most of the bikers would stick to the existing road system in the Essex Chain which is good gravel based riding.Most of the skid roads are thick with raspberry and don’t look like much fun.
a bike is really a bit like a crampon. just makes it easier to get places and leaves a few marks. at least a bike has a rubber tread.
You all missed the point. When I am seeking the wilderness experience,I do not want to see a nice shiny object that doesn,t fit in with the surroundings. I don’t want to see or hear anyone. I just want to be immersed in the naturalbeauty of the Adirondacks! I like the trips best when I see no one for 4 or5 days! You all can ride the dirt roads and logging ttrails.
I think bikes are harder on a trail than boots, so that is a concern, but as for not wanting to see a shiny object, what about a blue tent, or a loud MSR stove, or a red backpack . Those also deter from the wilderness feel, but I don’t think we can ban all technology. I think the comparison to crampons or snowshoes is a good one. Bikes could cause trail problems in some areas and should be regulated appropriately, but they are an environmentally friendly way of getting around, just like hiking and unlike snowmobiling.
Because of the almighty dollar,our beloved Adirondacks are going to be ruined to the point of no return. Are there biking trails in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota? Our paddling waters have been compared to that area but that is going to change.When are the skyscrapers going up in Old Forge? Maybe China should buy the Adirondacks like in the book “The Raven”. Colvin Verplanke,French Louie,Alvah Dunning are all rolling over in their graves in disgust!
Good Morning troutstalker,
I seriously don’t think you have much to worry about. Certainly understand your quest for solitude in the wilderness and your willingness to accept some concessions so other users can enjoy remote areas of the park in a different ways. As ADKNative said we all have our opinions. With many of us so passionate about our beliefs, compromise is very hard to achieve. Kind of like our entire country, very polarized. With 1,161,265 acres of wilderness classification lands in the park I am sure you have special places to go that meet your wilderness experience criteria. 97 days to trout season.
Have a healthy and Happy New Year.
I hope DEC factors in safety concerns. Last winter, I was hiking up Thomas Mtn (in the Lake George Wild Forest, which mountain biking is authorized). I was nearly run over by a mountain biker whizing down the narrow trail
Like Brian I have been on trails shared with mountain bikers and it was hazardous as we were going uphill and the bikers were flying downhill at a high rate of speed. The only option was for hikers to leap off the trail to get out of the way as it would have been impossible for the bikers to stop. I have done a lot of cycling and I have to admit that parts of the biking community have a sense of privilege that they should be able to do this or that (think running red lights and stop signs on roads) and everyone else needs to get out of their way, and I would be sorry to see that invade wilderness.
I agree that irresponsible users are a problem. They give the entire community they are a part of a big black eye. The same thing can be said about the users of snowmobiles, the 4 wheeler. the motor boater, and the list goes on.
This is exactly the problem with mechanical and motorized usage of land. It isn’t that these activities can not be done responsibly. They can.
The problem is that it only takes a few bad apples to cause real, serious damage when doing those activities.
And it is just reality that all groups have at least a few bad apples… ergo, those activities can almost always be expected to cause problems and damage.
Lower impact activities also have bad apples. And the mechanical/motorized crowd will be the first to point this out!! The difference is that the damage 5 bad apple hikers can cause is far, FAR less than the damage that 5 bad apple ATV riders/mountain bikers can cause.
Even without being irresponsible it can be hard for different users traveling at different speeds to coexist on the same trails. Bikes just travel faster, take up more room, and inherently require hikers to give them priority passage. I wouldn’t go hiking around the bike trails in Elizabethtown and expect to have a good experience. I think in most cases it would be better to search for more biking opportunities that don’t coincide with hiking trails. Probably the old existing roads in many parts of the park would be suitable, but the biking community would have to police itself to prevent bikers from using hiking trails.