The State of New York has completed purchase of the Boreas Ponds Tract, the final stage of its acquisition of the former Finch Pruyn lands from the Nature Conservancy. Now the classification process will begin. As with the Essex Chain acquisition the debate will be over recreational access and protection of its biological assets and its aesthetic experience as a wild place. As with the Essex Chain the debate will largely come down to roads, in this case Gulf Brook Road, a dirt and gravel road that provides access to the interior of the tract from Blue Ridge Road.
It’s obvious why arguments between wilderness protection and recreational access so often come down to roads, but I think that’s unfortunate. I think it distracts us from the larger issues of land use and protection with which we should be more concerned. The issue of Gulf Brook Road in the Boreas classification makes a perfect example. So let’s look at it in a little more detail.
Various combinations of Wild Forest, Primitive and Wilderness classifications are included in the different proposals that have been publicly floated, all of them attempts to accommodate use of at least part of Gulf Brook Road. As far as I can see they break into four levels, ranging from most access to least.
At the high end of road access is the proposal to keep Gulf Brook Road open to vehicular traffic, allowing direct access to the Boreas Ponds and potential use of logging roads beyond for bicycling and other activities. This approach, in which the Boreas Ponds Tract would be classified as Wild Forest, is favored by a number of local officials in nearby towns who are interested in maximizing the recreational potential of the tract.
At a more restrictive level of road access are two proposals favored by environmental groups that would have vehicular road use preserved as far as LeBiere Flow, about five miles in. From there hikers could walk to the ponds and paddlers could paddle and portage the flow to the ponds. These two proposals advocate for a Wilderness classification for the majority of the tract, but differ in how the road, which would be prohibited in a Wilderness area, would be accommodated.
The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Wild propose creating a Primitive Corridor around the road, as the Primitive classification can allow for a road as a non-conforming exception while otherwise managing the land as Wilderness. PROTECT proposes designating land from the Blue Ridge Road north to Gulf Brook Road as Wild Forest, which allows roads. This option addresses PROTECT’s concerns that the Primitive designation is being abused to conveniently “spot-zone” exceptions to Wilderness protection, a purpose for which it was not intended. Such a use of the Primitive classification was made by the State for the Essex Chain and there are those who see that as the beginning of a slippery slope.
At the most restrictive level of road access is the proposal to classify the entire tract as Wilderness and close Gulf Brook Road at the existing gate, about a hundred yards in from Blue Ridge Road. This would mean a hike or portage of several miles to reach the ponds (roughly five miles to the LaBiere Flow, seven miles or so to the Ponds themselves). This proposal is favored by a number of Wilderness advocates including Bill Ingersoll, author and publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks series of guidebooks.
There are other factors in this classification debate in addition to Gulf Brook Road, among them logging roads, dams and an existing lodge, but you can be sure the road will be front and center in an increasingly contentious discussion. It’s as though all the important stuff we have to decide centers almost solely upon it. Does it really?
If Gulf Brook Road didn’t exist we’d still have all the issues on the table – access, recreation, protection, aesthetics – but the focus would properly be on the nature of the land itself, not tortured classifications and road-based arcana (if you find that description unkind or exaggerated, have a gander at the various maps generated by these proposals).
So how about this: let’s pretend Gulf Brook Road does not in fact exist. Then what? I think we would discover what the history of Wilderness preservation in the Adirondacks has already taught us: losing a road is not that big a deal.
We no longer enjoy the many roads that once led into the interior of the High Peaks from different directions, yet that fact has not prevented the High Peaks Wilderness from being overused. There are no vehicular shortcuts to Lake Colden, Flowed Lands, Indian Pass, Duck Hole or Johns Brook Lodge, yet trails to those destinations are among the busiest in the Park.
In comparison to other communities in the Adirondacks, Lake Placid thrives, in large part because of its proximity to the Adirondack Loj trailhead. If you doubt that, know that marketing studies clearly show that it is Placid’s recreational cachet, not Olympic cachet, which generates the majority of its traffic. And what outdoor recreational activity is by far the most popular? Hiking. Keene Valley gets a similar bump. People want these Wilderness experiences, they will work for them, and they’ll do so in such volume that pressure on the High Peaks is a significant ongoing management problem.
How do folks in North Hudson and Minerva get a cut of some of this action and at the same time relieve some pressure on the northern and eastern trailheads? How about an access point with one of the most beautiful trail networks in the Park leading to world-class vistas, situated mere minutes from the Northway? How about signage that leads visitors to a lovely Interpretive Center, visible from the road and equipped with a store for supplies? Are we concerned that some people might not be up to the rigors of a seven-mile hike? Establish intermediate trails. There’s a stunning lookout that would be a half-mile trail and a 300-foot climb from the gate. There are lovely streams and cascades only a short walk away. High ridges and intimate scenery abound from the very first steps onto the tract.
What about paddlers? How about a guide service that could help people get their gear back to the Boreas Ponds? If canoe access is a sought-after deal then that stands to be a money maker for some entrepreneur, plus it has the added appeal of historical tradition. How about a DEC caretaker facility at the Ponds, much like at Lake Colden, but equipped with a small stash of canoes for rent or short-term use? These are only a few off-the-cuff ideas; there are many more.
Maybe this approach wouldn’t have legs if the Boreas Ponds Tract was a run-of-the-mill destination. But it isn’t – it’s a marquee destination, quite incredible and utterly worthy of being a mecca for hikers and paddlers. Upper Works is a fine access point for High Peaks excursions, but it’s a long drive. The Boreas access is more scenic and only seven miles from I-87. I have no doubt of a future of heavy use, given a well-planned implementation. So why do we need Gulf Brook Road? As a recent Adirondack Almanack commenter noted, an interpretive center, signage, and parking situated right at Blue Ridge Road would draw more people than a similar arrangement buried five miles into the interior.
Some say that because the Boreas Ponds lands (or Essex Chain lands, or lots of other places for that matter) are run through with miles of roads they don’t constitute Wilderness anyhow, so why not use the roads that are there?
That’s another counterproductive facet of the road fixation. The majority of Wilderness acreage in the Adirondacks is recovered Wilderness, where the depredations of commercial activity, roads and all, were allowed to return to their natural state., and it doesn’t take long. I saw that wandering around the McIntyre East Tract last week. It has plenty of logging and mining roads, some of which were used until quite recently, but the rapidity with which they are being reclaimed by nature is heartening.
The practiced eye can make out the remnants of roads almost everywhere in Adirondack Wilderness areas, and that’s okay. The history of the park is what it is, and the telltale sign of an old road is evocative of our history. Yet the barely-discernible presence of an old road bed going up into Railroad Notch for example, does nothing to take away from the experience of that territory as an exquisitely wild place.
A just-completed biological inventory makes a strong argument for a Wilderness classification for the Boreas Tract. Its size, location and grandeur support a Wilderness classification. The debate over Gulf Brook Road threatens to overshadow these more important factors. From what I’ve heard, motor vehicle access on a good stretch of Gulf Brook Road is a done deal, but for the record, I’m with Bill Ingersoll: close it.
Photo courtesy Dave Gibson, Adirodnack Wild.