Thursday, March 5, 2015

Watching the Forest Preserve Reclaim an Old Road

Burn-Road-1It’s slow work for the forest to take back a road, but once the forest gets started, its work is relentless. The State of New York has owned the Burn Road on the north side of Little Tupper Lake (part of the William C. Whitney Wilderness area) since 1997 when it bought the 14,700-acre north end of the larger Whitney tract. It was classified as Wilderness soon thereafter, though the road remained open for several years to honor access agreements with neighboring landowners to haul out logs.

Fifteen years later, young maples, white pines, alders, white birch, and striped maples, among other trees, work daily to break apart the long-packed gravel road bed. Leaf litter and the detritus of perennial ferns, grasses, and sedges bury the road in many places. The thick forest edge grows inward to narrow the road corridor as trees unpruned and unfettered grow laterally as they grow higher.

The Burn Road is a designated foot trail today and maintained by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The road extends a half dozen miles and connects with a trail network to a half dozen remote ponds. Blowdown is removed and there is a clear foot trail track from moderate use down the middle of this abandoned road. The forest reclamation process would be quicker if fallen trees were allowed to rot in the road corridor.

In many places only a narrow pathway is evident through thick stems of young trees. In other places the gravel road bed is bared. There are places where half-acre former log landings or road maintenance sand and gravel pits have not seen much change and stand as grassy fields dotted with a few brave trees. Stumps are visible in the surrounding forest from its logging past. Most trees in the forest beyond the roadside are young, though the canopy is largely closed.

Other remnants of the Whitney land’s industrial forest management past remain. A large double culvert is plainly evident at one point. That one side is clear while the other is clogged by beavers shows it’s being maintained. The DEC has stabilized and repaired the trail above the culverts after wash-outs. The reclamation work of the forest would be quicker if the beavers were let alone to do their jobs. That the large culverts remain in a Wilderness area is a sign that after 15 years, the DEC has failed to draft a Unit Management Plan (UMP) for this area and address a variety of issues, such as natural resource rehabilitation.

The remains of roads can persist in the Forest Preserve for a long time. In the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area, stretches of the old Buntline Road can still be seen today. Legend has it that this road was cut from Indian Lake to Eagle Lake to haul out manuscripts for fans of Ned Buntline’s pulp fiction. This road was cleared as snowmobile trail in the 1960s and some old snowmobile bridges are rotting away today. Part of this road is used today as a hiking trail, while other parts of the road have been reclaimed by the forest. On the parts of the road maintained as a hiking trail remnant tread lines, from tires or wagon wheels, are visible today.

CranePondRoad-11Each acquisition of new Forest Preserve is accompanied by calls that logging roads should be kept open. This is an irresistible siren song for many state officials. Closing old roads on new Forest Preserve lands is always difficult. It’s even difficult to close roads once the state says they should be closed as we’ve seen with the Crane Pond Road (at left) in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness and the White House or West Roads in the Silver Lake Wilderness. Both remain open despite UMP dictates to close them.

One of the main reasons for opposition to Wilderness is the desire to access forest lands by road and automobiles. Wilderness takes us out from behind the wheel of our automobiles, a very comfortable place for many. Another reason is that Wilderness is a place where people have to walk or use a boat without a motor. It’s a place where each footstep or paddle stroke takes one farther away from the human-dominated world.

When former tote roads or haul roads are gated and let to revert back to forest, Wilderness supporters are accused of “manufacturing” Wilderness. Here, the argument is that we’re forcibly and artificially transforming lands used for logging or hunting camps to another purpose. In fact, we’re just making a decision as a civil society for a new use of the land. Generally, we’re swapping tree cutting, intensive mechanized forest management, and motorized recreational uses for letting the land alone, hopefully forever, as a place where natural ecological processes can proceed unbothered by human activity, save for some foot trails, campsites, pit privies, trail signs and lean-tos.

The framers of the National Wilderness Act searched for the perfect words to evoke the principle of how Wilderness lands would be managed. Were these lands to be unbothered by humans – or untrampled, unfettered, unbound, unhampered, unconfined, uncontrolled, or unmanipulated? “Undisturbed” was written into early drafts of the Wilderness Act. Of course, Howard Zahniser, principal author of the Wilderness Act, famously determined to use the word “untrammeled.” The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” A trammel is a “net for catching fish” or a “hobble for confining horses.”

Wilderness is a forward-looking management policy. Wilderness management is all about what happens on the land in the years and decades ahead. Wilderness management deliberately ignores the past and pushes ahead. In Wilderness areas we proudly try to bury the past beneath the cover of tall trees, beaver ponds, leaf litter, accumulated duff, witch-hobble, and much more. Stubborn remnants of the past dot the landscape, but they grow fainter each season.

Burn-Road-AlmanackMany people use Wilderness areas recreationally; some bushwhack, but most stick to trails. Some of the most popular hiking trails and mountain summits in the Adirondacks are in Wilderness areas. Some of the most heavily used campsites and lean-tos are in Wilderness. Yet, these are secondary purposes to long-term natural resource protection provided by Wilderness management. The main purpose is to let natural ecological processes shape the future of these lands.

I’ve always seen Wilderness management as fitting with national historic lore about America as a land of redemption, new beginnings and self-invention. In Wilderness areas we give nature an opportunity to obliterate the past and start fresh. It’s the great second chance. It’s a hopeful management policy. We sever the chains of history and we don’t let the past hold back the present or shackle the future.

The abandoned Burn Road in the Whitney Wilderness area tells this story. The business of taking back a road is slow work for the forest, but the last 15 years have seen the forest get a foothold that now secured won’t be given back. In the years ahead, the grassy meadows will give way, the gravel patches will be buried over, and a new forest will possess the land.

Photos: Above, the entrance to Burn Road; middle, Crane Pond Road last summer; and below, Burn Road. For more pictures of the Burn Road click here.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

14 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll says:

    My first visit to the Whitney purchase was in June 1998, just a week or two after the property opened to the public. At the time I was driving an ’88 Ford Escort, and Burn Road was then in such good condition that had it not been gated, that little car could have easily made the journey to Rock Pond. That is to say, Burn Road at the time of state acquisition was almost as well engineered as a town highway. Most of the branching routes were in a comparable condition. Hiking past Bum Pond to Lilypad Pond in 2000 reminded me of following a country road, as if a dairy cow might be grazing around the next bend.

    I’ve been visiting the area ever since, and the regrowth of the forest has been interesting to observe–although it still has a long way to go. What hasn’t happened yet is the development of a forest canopy. The area was logged so extensively by the Whitneys that the trees surrounding the trails still aren’t quite tall enough to provide much shade. It might require another 17 years before tree limbs grow long enough to reach over the old roads to form a canopy. When that happens, these trails will become more aesthetically appealing and more people may be tempted to try them out. Until then, most visitors will be content to stick to the canoe routes.

    But if anyone doubts the restorative effects of forest growth, you only have to seek out the old logging railroad grade near Rock Pond and Hardigan Pond. This was abandoned in the 1930s and is now thickly overgrown.

    As I’ve explored the area, I try to envision what the land will look like in future decades. The Moose River Plains are a good model; that area was purchased from a logging company in the 1960s, and by all accounts it was in a similar condition. Many (but not all) of those roads were opened to motor vehicles, and others became hiking trails. In the 1980s Barbara McMartin still described the trail-side woods as “scrubby” and not always aesthetically pleasing.

    Now, 50 years after that purchase, several of the roads originally opened to motor vehicles have been permanently closed. For instance, it was once possible to drive all the way to the Indian River, although that road has aged so much that it is now hard to visualize–but if you have any doubts, you can still find a few concrete fireplaces at what used to be roadside campsites on the semi-abandoned trail to Horn Lake. The woods on the trail to Brooktrout are by no means old growth, but they have been big enough to form a canopy ever since I’ve been going there. Most of the old gravel pits that you see beside these trails are covered by thick carpets of lichens.

    So I expect that in the 2040s the forest of the Whitney Wilderness will resemble the Moose River Plains of today. The people who will be seeking this place out then–myself included I hope, as well as a generation of wilderness enthusiasts not yet born–will probably regard the pre-acquisition logging practices as some vague piece of historical trivia, only tangentially relevant to their hiking and canoeing trips.

    • Rick Fenton says:

      Bill, a little aside. As part of the development of the Moose River Plains WF UMP, I pawed through the towers of old files near my desk to construct a rough land acquisition history. The result is a map, included in an appendix. I was as surprised as any to discover that large chunks have been part of the Preserve since before 1900. Check it out:

      • Rick Fenton says:

        P.S. The map was made before unit boundary changes made in the eleventh hour.

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        Yep, I have that map saved down on my hard drive for future reference! I wish there were more maps like this, because they are very useful for people like me. A similar map exists for the Five Ponds and maybe one or two other areas, as I recall.

        However, because the Adirondack habit is to mark trails along existing logging roads, most of what the public sees is what the state bought from Gould in the sixties. Most of those older tracts have no trails, and therefore the average person never gets there.

        As for those eleventh-hour boundary changes, I’ve vowed to never let Walt Linck live down that damn Otter Brook wild forest corridor, haha.

        • Bruce says:

          Speaking of old maps, you can go to the University of New Hampshire Library website, and find topo maps made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s of practically all areas of NYS, listed by township and/or county. Since the maps were created by the government, private and commercial use is freely allowed.

          I found these maps invaluable (I have a whole raft of them in my HD) for tracing the wanderings of Nessmuk on his 3 tours of the Adirondacks. It is interesting to note the old railroad tracks (Raquette Lake RR for example), and the development of roads over time.

          In addition, I forget the website, but there is a church organization (I believe it is the same folks who operate the church on St. Hubert’s Island in Raquette Lake) which has old photographs and postcards of many places throughout the Adirondacks.

  2. Hawthorn says:

    It can be a fun wilderness activity to try to follow the path of an old road some decades removed from use, and surprisingly difficult in many cases. Often in the southern Adirondacks in what is now deep forest I stumble upon the remains of a farm, or an old stone wall, or a line of big trees that obviously once paralleled a road. Myself I don’t think of the term “wilderness” only having the meaning of a pristine old-growth forest that has never been touched by man. Rather it is a place far removed from today’s civilization, where animals and plants dominate life, where the sounds of the modern world fade, and where one can imagine what it must have been like on Earth for millions of years before mankind became so numerous and history recorded our every move.

  3. Dan Crane says:

    The old logging roads in the Wilderness Lakes Tract of the Five Ponds Wilderness, just northwest of Stillwater Reservoir is another excellent place to see how the forest reclaims old roads. The state took possession of this area in the 1990’s and the remnants of a network of logging roads remains. In some places, the young trees have closed in to such an extent that all that remains is a ribbon of dirt winding through. In other places, the road is a wide ribbon of grass, sparsely seeded in with young trees.

    Some of the photogrpahs in my article about the area show how the reclaiming of old roads can vary even between sites fairly close to one another:

  4. Jim S. says:

    It would be great to observe this process in the Essex chain. There is an abundance of roads that really don’t belong in a primitive area.

  5. Charlie S says:

    The road that used to allow passage for vehicles to Beaver River way back on the far end in Moose River,past Squaw Lake,is now a narrow trail where cars cannot possibly pass.My dad used to drive down that road to get to the river. Since the state closed it to vehicle traffic some years ago the woods have taken over. The state closed off that section of road (near Squaw Lake) that leads to the (now) trail to Beaver River just a few years ago and I’m sure within a few years a narrow dirt path will have taken over what once was that dirt road.

    If nature is left to its own devices it will prosper tremendously.We never give it a chance to prosper though,except for the rare exceptions in places like the Adirondacks and other state-protected areas where species are thriving only because of the protections.

  6. Justin says:

    Great piece and comments.

    “Wilderness is a forward-looking management policy.” Very well put. The Whitney Wilderness is a testament to the fact that if it is designated Wilderness, it will become wilderness. I’m completely confident that when I explain to my grandchildren that the barely noticeable roadbed we happen upon was once traveled by 18 wheeled logging trucks, they’ll look at me with disbelief.

  7. Pete Nelson says:

    My favorite old forest road, due to its historical significance, is the road to Lake Jimmy cut by the proprietors of the McIntyre Iron Works in the 1840’s. The dam that powered the old McIntyre blast furnace had a road on top that connected to the Lake Jimmy road. If you proceed from the ruins of the dam on the east side of the river you can pick up the Lake Jimmy road as it suddenly angles to the southeast.

    The private clubs that succeeded the McIntyre works into the 20th century used the road, as various dump sites can testify. In the decades since, the forest has reclaimed and canopied it. But it was a significant enough construction that its oval-shaped cross section, the ditches and berms on the side, even wagon ruts – not to mention the different forest makeup growing on the road bed itself – all mark its course clearly. One is sometimes led astray by the remnants of a profusion of old logging roads that criss-cross the area, though those are harder to pick up and do not sustain very far.

    About halfway down along the Lake Jimmy road, on the south side, there is supposed to have been an old church from the mining days, the Church of Tubal Cain. It appears on at least two maps drawn at the time, though not with enough accuracy to have allowed me to find any trace. I plan to look again some time, following this fading thread of 19th-century industry back in time.

  8. Wally Elton says:

    Let there be more such reclaiming!

  9. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I’d like to watch the road to Boreas Ponds be reclaimed by nature…

  10. common sense says:

    The town road that I live at the end of is being “reclaimed by nature”! I wish it was because of preservation.