Last weekend I did a traverse through the Giant Mountain Wilderness, from Chapel Pond over Giant, down to Hopkins and out to Keene Valley. The trail from Giant’s summit down to the col between Giant and Green Mountain is a favorite, a marvelous, unrelenting descent along a forested slope.
Last Sunday it was more entertaining than usual. Facing north and covered in trees, the slope had preserved a modest snowpack, but of course it had not escaped the cycle of thaws and freezes we have endured during this odd winter. The result was a mighty slippery hike. The Ridge Trail up Giant had its typical rivers of ice but the trail down to the col was considerably more treacherous, coated in a dull sheen, with long, icy slabs and bulwarks often lurking under less than an inch of crusty, fragile snow. Even with microspikes it was a dicey scramble requiring a special level of vigilance.
It occurred to me while I was making my way down Giant that this hike represented a pretty strong metaphor for the political shift that seems to be happening in State land use policy here in the Adirondacks. From my perspective we are positioned on a slippery slope and it is incumbent upon us as citizens of New York to raise our level of vigilance.
The intelligent reader can be forgiven for smelling a big, fat cliché in that sentence, but bear with me: “slope,” both upward and downward, is exactly the piece that I think is missing from the intensifying debate over Forest Preserve classification that is currently centered on the Essex Chain, and that will shortly move to the Boreas Tract.
For me, the debate is not about bicycling, bridge materials or access: it’s about the Primitive classification, about how its definition and purpose as given in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) is being abandoned. One can be in favor of bicycling in the Essex Chain and still be deeply troubled by how the intent of the Primitive classification is being abused to accommodate it. Those who assume that the Primitive classification is of lesser importance, sort of an awkward step-child hovering between Wilderness and Wild Forest, miss its significance. The Primitive classification is the political embodiment of slope, of an arrow or vector been that has been absolutely crucial Adirondack Wilderness protection for more than a century.
Much of the discussion about Wilderness protection proceeds along an implicit assumption that classification and protection of Forest Preserve parcels is static: if the land is judged to be in a certain condition, size and context it is Wilderness; if it is in a different condition it is Wild Forest. That assumption in hand, many people have argued that the Essex Chain does not meet the standards for Wilderness: subjected to decades of logging, populated with numerous roads and improvements, it should be classified as Wild Forest. Similar claims are being made about the Boreas Tract.
But the story of the Adirondacks is one of dynamic protection, of recovered wilderness. This legacy is not merely historic, not merely the region’s comeback from the long-past depredations of the nineteenth century. Rather, it has been continuous. Some of the most dramatic recovery lives within the memories of people who still regularly hike the back country. Few would dispute that the view from Flowed Lands towards Mount Colden is primal, but well into the twentieth century Colden’s slopes were laced with clear-cuts, logging roads and structures – even log flumes built up to the high faces. Flowed Lands and Colden would never have made the cut in the 1930’s if the same standards were applied as some want to apply to the Essex Chain. Similar examples dating from even more recent times abound, right into the 1990’s.
The policy instantiated within the SLMP recognized and embraced this dynamism with great intention. In Wilderness areas non-conforming uses were halted and non-conforming structures were systematically identified for removal or remediation. And for those areas that were too damaged or compromised – say, laced with roads, clear-cuts and structures of one sort or another – to qualify as Wilderness, but that should, by all rights, get there, the SLMP had the Primitive classification. It was designed to be a medium-term designation for lands that needed more time and work to recover, but that would eventually be able to be declared Wilderness. The Primitive classification was the very emblem of dynamism in wilderness policy, an unmistakable understanding by Temporary Study Commission that recovery was an inherent part of protection.
Assuming one agrees that Adirondack Wilderness is a precious asset, it is impossible to overstate the importance of State policy that defines an up-slope, a deliberate strategy to move land to a more wild state of being. It is not the particulars of any given Primitive classification that matter: which parcels, the total amount of acreage, the details of the Unit Management Plans. It is the purpose of the Primitive designation that matters. Compromising a few tenths of an acre for vehicle access is not the injury. Compromising the up-slope to recovery because now that road will never be removed is the injury. Compromising the very idea that recovery is fundamental to wilderness protection is the injury. Given the clear intent of those who crafted both Article XIV and the SLMP, the abandonment of the intent of the Primitive classification registers to me as a grave injury.
As it is in hiking, up and down slopes are very different. The courage, conviction and effort it takes to establish and follow through with an up-slope policy towards greater Wilderness protection stands in stark contrast to the down-slope that lets little bits of protection go for political expediency, for “balance,” for supposed economic benefits. That’s easy. But much like my descent to Hopkins, beware the slipperiness. It’s hard to arrest a fall.
I know good folks at the APA who would reject my assessment. They would claim – and indeed some have done so publicly of late – that they will never compromise protection of the Adirondacks. Having met and talked with them, I don’t doubt their sentiments. I also know lots of folks in the community who think this is a brouhaha over nothing: so what if we bend the rules or make exceptions here and there? Look at all the protected land we have, they’ll say. This is all no big deal, they’ll say.
If you wonder about that, watch the fight over classification of the Boreas Tract, which deserves the chance to recover and be protected as Wilderness if any land in the Park does (if you’ve been there you know). Are we on a slippery slope, or is all this no big deal? We’ll see.
Photo: Giant Mountain in slippery splendor.