The unfortunate war over New York State’s plan to turn 34 miles of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor into an all-season recreational trail may not be entirely over; certainly no one has surrendered just yet. But for all intents and purposes, opponents of the State’s plan have had their Waterloo.
The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Board has voted to affirm that the plan is consistent with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), clearing the way to proceed. Barring successful lawsuits or an unlikely turnaround, the Tri-Lakes region is going to get its Adirondack Recreational Trail.
With the APA’s decision it’s time to get to the work of maximizing the benefits of this new asset. I have championed the trail, having seen first-hand what a world-class recreational bike trail can do for the communities it connects. I expect the economic benefits to Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid to be significant. There is another benefit that interests me just as much however: this new rail trail will open the door for many to a deeper appreciation of wilderness.
The traditional definition of Adirondack wilderness, reflected both in history and in current practice, mostly excludes mechanized travel. I embrace the aesthetic handed down from Bob Marshall (and other Adirondack advocates) that cherishes wilderness as a haven from machines, and so I support the prohibition of bicycles in designated Wilderness Areas.
The modern bicycle may be a noble form of transportation – healthy, efficient, and non-polluting – but it is a sophisticated machine. It is not of a part with wild terrain in any way I can see, historically or practically. To spend time in wilderness is to connect to a more primitive sense of self – to feel a oneness with the natural world that is transformative. The machinery of a bicycle underneath one’s body, itself neither primitive nor natural, can only impede this connection.
Yet there is a transformative power in bicycling too. For those who support and defend the values of wilderness, the coming recreational trail will offer an opportunity to maximize this power to the benefit of the Forest Preserve. That’s why wilderness advocates, not just advocates of bicycling, should be fully behind the trail.
Bicycling is a uniquely forward-drawing motion – and this draw is psychological just as much as it is physical. It fully involves the self as an engine that is natural and elemental. In this and in its beautiful circular rhythms, its wonderful quiet and its embrace of flowing air, it urges one towards a powerful sense of the natural world. This magnetic movement towards nature is the unspoken magic of bicycle travel.
Wilderness needs allies. It needs to be relevant to more people, appreciated by more people, supported by more people. That is how its benefits and its protections are maximized simultaneously. With that in mind, imagine for a moment how the magic of bicycle travel will work on the imaginations of people as they pedal past the miles of wild forest and wetlands bracketing the trail between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, or the gathering high ridges on the way to Lake Placid. Imagine how silently gliding through these places increase their desire to experience wilderness, and to value it.
Those who have biked recreational trails know what I mean. The short stretch of woods, the passage through marshland alive with birds, the curve that takes one out of the view of telephone poles or streets – these are the desired spots and the memorable moments that bring people back. And they will bring people back to the Adirondacks to try an array of wild adventures.
Why should we care about bicycling in particular? Well, for one thing, numbers. Bicycling is America’s second largest outdoor recreational activity after walking – it’s enjoyed by 47 million Americans. Furthermore, it’s enjoyed much more frequently than the most popular wilderness-based outdoor activities such as hiking. Recreational cyclists enjoy nearly 60 outings per year, more than four times the rate of hikers. By even the most conservative estimates, thousands of people every year will have a new experience of wilderness on the Adirondack Recreational Trail. As a result they will be more inclined to protect it.
I’m not suggesting that we cut bike trails through Wilderness Areas just to increase the goodwill and interest of cyclists in protecting wilderness. We don’t need to, and recreational cyclists don’t want us to. They want a wide, friendly, flat trail with low grades and nice towns as destinations. In other words, they want what the Adirondack Recreational Trail promises to deliver.
In addition however, they will get a lovely encounter with the wild Adirondacks, a discovery opened to them by their own pedal power. No railroad, car, or motorized vehicle can do that with the same magic.
So let’s get going and build this thing – our towns and our Forest Preserve will be the better for it.
Photo: Elroy-Sparta Recreational Trail, Wisconsin.