Sunday, December 27, 2015

Does Boreas Ponds Dam Belong In A Wilderness Area?

Boreas Ponds aerial - Carl HeilmanWhy do they call it Boreas Ponds? After all, if you look at an aerial photograph, such as the one at left, taken by Carl Heilman II, it’s just one water body. This fact is also evident from the 1999 USGS map below.

The reason is not mysterious. Like many Adirondack lakes, the water level of Boreas Ponds has been raised by a dam. As an 1895 map indicates (it’s shown farther below), Boreas Ponds used to be three ponds connected by narrow channels.

When the state acquires Boreas Ponds from the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, it must decide whether the concrete dam should be retained.

Although no decisions have been made, the state Department of Environmental Conservation suggested in a December 2012 memo that the state should continue to maintain the dam “to provide for water based recreation and fishing.”

The Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Wild, and several other environmental groups agree with that position. It’s part of their proposal to expand the High Peaks Wilderness once the state buys the 20,500-acre Boreas Ponds Tract. In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the groups say the dam is needed to preserve “a special brook trout fishery, and a remarkable paddling destination.”

1999 Marcy mapPeter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, notes that Wilderness Areas are supposed to be largely free of man-made structures. He also questions whether the Boreas Ponds dam is needed to protect fish or provide opportunities for paddling.

“We think there should be a real conversation about whether there should be dams in a Wilderness Area,” he told the Adirondack Explorer in an article that appears in the January-February issue of the newsmagazine.

Bauer says we should have a similar conversation regarding a smaller dam at LaBiere Flow, about a mile from the ponds. In DEC’s memo, the department suggests that the public should be allowed to drive on an existing dirt road (known as Gulf Brook Road) as far as the flow. From there, paddlers could paddle up the flow and then portage or paddle the rest of the way to the ponds. Hikers would reach the ponds by continuing up the dirt road on foot (this stretch would be closed to motor vehicles).

In an interview with the Explorer, Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, contends that brook trout in Boreas Ponds will be better protected if the dam is left in place. “With climate change warming Adirondack lakes and streams, we know deeper waters are more likely to provide refuge for brook trout,” he said. “The information we have seen to date has led us to believe that it is ecologically important to preserve the Boreas Ponds. We will continue to evaluate the science.”

If the dam were gone, Boreas Ponds presumably would shrink and once again become three distinct water bodies. Would it be possible to paddle from pond to pond? I don’t know, but the 1895 map leads me to think so. The channels between the streams bordered wetlands, and usually wetland streams are flat and smooth and don’t require a heck of a lot of water to paddle. Of course, paddlers could line their boats between ponds, if necessary.

1895 Marcy map“When the dam eventually deteriorates to the point of no return, its breach will cause the ponds to revert to a lower level, new wetlands will be created, and a new equilibrium will be reached as has occurred at Flowed Lands, Duck Hole, and Marcy Dam,” said David Gibson of Adirondack Wild.

Under the proposal of the Adirondack Council et al., DEC would be allowed to drive on Gulf Brook Road all the way to Boreas Ponds to maintain the dam. Because the road would pass through a Wilderness Area, where motor vehicles are prohibited, the road would be designated a Primitive Corridor.

Bauer thinks creating a Primitive Corridor would set a bad precedent for the Forest Preserve. A better idea, he says, is terminating the Wilderness Area at the road. The road and the land south of it would be Wild Forest, a state-land classification that allows some motorized use.

“We think it’s an important principle in Forest Preserve management to keep public motor-vehicle use in Wild Forest Areas,” he said in an e-mail to the Explorer. “It’s far more logical to maintain the dams by using the Gulf Brook Road as the Wild Forest-Wilderness boundary.”

“If the dams are far inside the High Peaks Wilderness, then they should be allowed to fall apart, just like the Marcy Dam, Duck Pond Dam, and the Flowed Lands dam,” he added.

DEC says it plans to analyze historical fishery data before making any decisions on what to do with the dams.

The state is expected to buy Boreas Ponds this fiscal year, which ends March 31.

Boreas Ponds Dam photo by Carl Heilman/Wild Visions, Inc. courtesy of the Adirondack Council.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

28 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    What does the state land master plan say about dams in wilderness areas? I thought that they are allowed to remain if they pre exist it being designated as wilderness.

    • Boreas says:

      Good question. I believe the SLMP states that non-conforming structures need to be removed – pre-existing or not. But usually, it comes down to a decision in every case by the DEC whether to remove a structure, let it collapse and don’t repair it, or maintain it. I think in general this approach has worked reasonably well, but certainly adds a lot of confusion and legal uncertainty to any questionable structure, such as Ranger cabins, dams, fire towers, roads, etc..

      Dams are tricky because allowing a dam to breach during flooding can be disastrous downstream, while gradually removing it over several years may be preferable. Or in some cases, it may be better to maintain it depending on the ecology of the area.

      • Tim says:

        No. I mean what does it say about dams soecifically. I believe it says they are allowed to remain, probably for reasons you mention.

  2. Todd Eastman says:

    Nuke the dams and let nature fix the screw-ups…

    … again Peter nails the issue!

  3. Jay says:

    What about the poor fish?

    • WrenHawk says:

      The brook trout will have greater ability to migrate and use a broader range of their habitat WITHOUT the dam. Dams do not improve natural fish habitat in the long run. Using the viability of brook trout as a reason to keep the dam is a red herring. From a stream health and brook trout health point of view, the dam should be removed or allowed to deteriorate. There are of course other issues at play that can trump the health of the stream and its biota.

      • Bruce says:


        My question concerning the brook trout would be whether or not any stocking or introduction of other species has occurred in that watershed. If the brook trout are a heritage strain and native to that watershed, and no non-native rainbows or browns are mixed in with them, then it would be better to keep the dam to preserve the fishery. If other trout are in those ponds, then it probably won’t matter much if the dam goes.

      • Boreas says:

        What hopefully would happen after removal of the dam would be beavers placing several dams on the stream instead of one. They are free and maintenance-free for humans and allow a little more diversity of plant and animal life.

        • Bruce says:


          All true, but it has been found that waterfalls and/or dams less than 5′ straight or nearly straight drop will not prevent rainbows especially, or browns from migrating upstream past them. Few beaver dams meet that criteria, and we know brown trout are stocked in the Boreas River.

          The wild card is what, if any stocking the former landowner may have done.

          • Boreas says:

            That I knew. I was just saying that with the dam removed, natural ponds are likely to reappear. What species remain into the future will be mostly up to the DEC and their non-native stocking and reclamation programs.

            • Bruce says:


              I know what you’re saying. My point only concerns premature dam removal in the event the Brook Trout in there turn out to be an untainted heritage strain. That would be a treasure worth protecting for the future

              It would be easy enough for the DEC to electroshock some fish and take DNA samples. I’m in the process of writing directly to the DEC just to see what I can find out.

              I was instrumental in discovering one such strain of Brook Trout in a beaver pond on private property. Read this story I wrote for the Conservationist’s April 2012 issue, and perhaps you’ll understand my passion on this subject.


  4. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Here we go again….”wilderness”, “wilderness” and more “wilderness”…………never enough. Hopefully common sense will prevail and the dam will stay and “be maintained” so “everyone” can enjoy it!

  5. Bruce says:

    Has the area been officially classified as Wilderness, or are some just assuming (or wishing) it will be, as in the case of the Essex Chain and the Polaris Bridge controversy?

  6. bill says:

    Legally, if it is wilderness, the dam(s) should be removed, intentionally breached to de-water the ponds to natural levels then completely removed leaving no trace. If it is not wilderness, then they can stay. These are the options.

    This should be standard practice, an easy decision, with many more breached dams to follow (sorry if you thought you owned waterfront property, soon to be a mud flat because your lake’s dam is in forest preserve).

    Having it both ways is a fine example of the choices we want to make that get us into trouble legally. Lawyers made our tangled mess of classification laws. They’re all excited about wilderness until it hurts the experience of fishing or paddling they seek. In this case, they lust after a giant High Peaks wilderness for bragging rights if nothing else. But they want to fish and paddle in those ponds.

    Also, we buy roaded, cut over, industrial timber land and suddenly deem it ‘wilderness’ while it obviously is not, and was not the week before when logging trucks roamed and timber removed before the sale closing. This makes a mockery of the whole classification process. We should classify land for what is is, not what we wish it to be, then change it as conditions develop.

    Personally, I think our classification model is all broken and needs re-thinking. The High Peaks, so heavily used, ought not be called a wilderness (or a wild forest). Visitors won’t care what you call it anyway. It needs a new classification, a new word with a new definition. There are plenty of examples to review from other parts of the world.

    The advocacy groups and lawyers make plenty of money fighting over these outdated rules – ‘send money now’, ‘send our form letter to the governor’ blah blah blah. So broken. Such a sad waste of time, trust, and social energy. Why can’t we do better, I wonder? I guess the powers-that-be are simply too invested in it to be able to see that it is so flawed.

    • Scott says:

      I think Bill has an accurate assessment here. Wilderness Areas should not have roads, dams, fire towers, buildings, boardwalks, bridges, or ladders. I understand wanting the highest level of protection. Classify it correctly and they can still ban everything unwanted. As an example, most of the old DEC roads in Wildforest Areas are closed to vehicle use.

      • Tim says:

        I just read the master plan. Dams are allowed in wilderness areas in the Adirondacks. Where do you people come up with this stuff?

        • Scott says:

          I’ve read it too. SLMP makes too many exceptions for wilderness areas. The SLMP should not allow those exceptions in wilderness. That’s my preference and I think that is what Bill was suggesting above.

          • Tim says:

            Nope. Bill said “Legally, if it is wilderness, the dam(s) should be removed”.

            Clearly Bill wrote a nice legal analysis without knowing the law. Very nice Bill.

            • bill says:

              Sorry to confuse. Yes, our legal definition of New York Adirondack Park wilderness accepts dams. There are other exceptions. Spot zoning has become common.

              But, in normal english, dams and roads are not wilderness except here in New York because we say they are in the SLMP. Nor is a roaded cut over area a wilderness.

              This is my point. We make up legal definitions for words that do not fit the real world normal usage of the term. Then we hire professional advocates and lawyers to figure out our tangled legal fictions. Outside of a small circle, few know the details.

              This is what I mean when I say our classification system is broken. It is based on romantic notions of, for example, wilderness. I believe our classifications should reality on the ground.

              The SLMP should be re-written using normal english; perhaps land managers should write it, not lawyers.

              Lastly, I’ll mention the SLMP can be changed with just the Governor’s signature. No big deal. No vote of the legislature is needed. Just a Governor’s signature.

            • Tim says:

              I agree that by common undertanding of the word, dams would not belong but you said that LEGALLY, if it is wilderness, the dam should be removed. That completely baseless. We can argue about what the law should allow, but under current laws it does not have to be removed – exactly opposite of your statement.

              The state classification system is essentially a zoning system that determines how the land is managed. It has rules that you may not agree with, but like anything in life, just because YOU don’t agree with a rule doesn’t make it illegal, and you should not go around claiming it so.

  7. Wally Elton says:

    This really comes down to whether we are willing to continually erode the protections of legally-designated Wilderness on a case by case basis in order to get more of it. It is a battle playing out at the national level, too, where even groups like the Wilderness Society seem more than ready to allow exceptions the law in order to get more Wilderness designations. Over time, Wilderness becomes less and less meaningful.

    • Boreas says:


      I think the reasoning for groups such as this striving to get as many acquisitions classified as “wilderness” is that once it is classified as wilderness, albeit imperfect, it typically will be afforded the highest level of protection into the future. I am not sure their ideology is as much to achieve absolute wilderness as it is to save as much land as possible from development, deforestation, mining, etc., and to avoid habitat fragmentation.

    • Bruce says:


      We call it Wilderness, then construct 4′ wide hiking trails, bridges, boardwalks, lean-tos and campsites.

      I wonder how well real Wilderness would go over, meaning no human amenities. If you want to go in, bushwhacking and leaving no trace will be the watchwords.

      • Boreas says:

        That would be an interesting experiment in more remote areas. But in my experience, bushwhacking has it’s own pitfalls with flagging tape and meandering herd paths. Part of the reason DEC marked trails up “trailless” peaks in the High Peaks Wilderness area. They figured there would be less overall impact with marked trails.

        But keep in mind, there are many areas now with no trails – especially where no water features are present. An area with no ‘destination’ typically gets little usage. When doing NYS bird breeding surveys those areas are visited throughout the state every 20 years. Very interesting.

  8. Charlie S says:

    “Over time, Wilderness becomes less and less meaningful.”

    Just like the lives this society leads hey Wally?

  9. Bruce says:

    Please forgive this being a bit long. I wrote to the DEC concerning the possibility of a heritage strain of Brook Trout in the pond and if so, the necessity of keeping the dam for preservation.

    Here is the response I got from the Region 5 Fisheries Manager, Lance Durfey…

    I agree with your thought process. But trout-wise, this water has a long and varied stocking history. Previous stockings include brook trout, rainbow trout and brown trout. At least five different brook trout strains have been stocked. So we are not dealing with a native Heritage strain of brook trout. There are certainly competing fish species in the pond including cutlips minnow, pumpkinseed sunfish, white sucker, brown bullhead, eastern blacknose dace, northern redbelly dace, golden shiner and common shiner. Unfortunately, given the large size of the water and its extensive tributary system, it does not make for a good reclamation candidate. Most of the pond is also very shallow. The pond does contain an unusual white sucker variant which is very small and spawns later in the season relative to typical white suckers. We are currently working on determining the genetic uniqueness of this form of sucker, though it appears the dam is not necessary for its continued survival. So while we have not yet made a final determination on the fate of the dam, even in its relation to fisheries management, it appears that at least for heritage brook trout management purposes the dam is not necessary.

    While the facts aren’t what I hoped, and I’m sure the response will do little more than fuel the debate, it’s better to have some facts than not.

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