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.