One of the biggest Adirondack issues of the year will be the debate over how to classify the Boreas Ponds Tract. Anyone who has paid attention to land-use squabbles in the Adirondacks for the last fifty years can describe the lineups on either side just as well as I can: recreation, access and the welfare of local communities on one side and wilderness preservation, aesthetics, non-mechanized travel and ecological protection on the other.
But what if this debate is false, predicated on outdated ideas and a fading history? What if adherence to this old narrative is detrimental to the natural world and to the residents of the Adirondacks in equal measure? Suppose instead that Wilderness protection and the welfare of local communities is in fact a synergy ripe with opportunity? Lots of evidence from across the country tells us what ought to make sense looking at how Lake Placid, Keene and Keene Valley thrive: proximity to grand wilderness is an economic asset, and the grander and better protected it is, the more valuable the asset.
A recent study by Clarkson University attempted to make that very point. The study showed a strong statistical correlation between higher property values and proximity to areas classified as Wilderness. This result in itself is not enough to make a compelling argument, as property prices do not necessarily translate to economic benefit for residents. However, there is much more evidence than just the Clarkson study. Headwaters Economics has been studying the relationship between local economies and federally protected Wilderness lands out West for years. Their research has consistently shown that counties with or near protected federal public lands support faster rates of job growth and higher levels of per capita income. Those are much stronger parameters and they make a powerful argument for the economic benefits of Wilderness.
The strongest evidence, at least as concerns the High Peaks Wilderness Area specifically, comes right from within the Park. A comprehensive destination marketing study conducted for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), the leading marketing organization in the Adirondacks, showed that it was Lake Placid’s proximity to High Peaks Wilderness recreation (specifically hiking) and not its Olympic cachet, that was responsible for its thriving tourist economy. Other evidence supports similar benefits to Keene and Keene Valley.
Add it up and it becomes clear that none of this is about roads, motorized recreation or any of the red herrings surrounding “access.” It’s about grand, wild areas that take hiking, climbing, camping and paddling to visit. The Adirondack Loj trail head does not feature the kind of access favored by some for the Boreas Tract and the Garden trailhead is downright inconvenient. No matter: both are used beyond capacity.
So what does this say about the debate over classifying the Boreas Ponds Tract? Here is a specific idea for how the communities near Boreas can benefit .
First, the Boreas Tract needs to become part of the High Peaks Wilderness. I’m on record as favoring a true Wilderness classification with Gulf Brook Road closed at the gate. If ever a parcel acquired by the State deserved Wilderness protection it’s Boreas, and short of spot zoning strategies that are anathema to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, Wilderness classification will not allow of the road for other than a foot, ski or horse trail. That’s okay: as the aforementioned evidence shows us, that kind of access is not needed.
Think for a moment of the traffic that Lake Placid and the Keene Valley get for High Peaks adventure. Think also of the drive it takes to get to any of those trail heads from outside of the Park. Now imagine a “High Peaks South Gateway” facility right at Interstate 87’s Exit 29, at the Blue Ridge Road in North Hudson. This is the location of the former Frontier Town, a large, abandoned property which is mostly owned by Essex County. It’s a perfect location for a comprehensive tourist facility.
Imagine that visitors driving the Northway would see signage directing them to this primary access point for the High Peaks Wilderness. Upon exiting they would find a broad collection of amenities, along with ample parking and access to the community connector trail. The Boreas Ponds Tract and hiking access to the High Peaks would be ten minutes away.
Imagine a High Peaks Wilderness Welcome Center located there, jointly sponsored by the major Adirondack environmental groups. It would have information and displays on the environmental, recreational, cultural and historical assets of the High Peaks Wilderness and the Adirondack Park. An outing planning service would be available to help visitors make the most of their desire to explore the High Peaks. Educational materials would provide a wealth of information on different topics including safety, back country etiquette, how to help protect the Park, local communities and regional history. The Welcome Center would present the High Peaks as a grand wilderness, on a par with and marketed like the National Parks.
Other amenities for visitors would include a gas station (already there), restaurant, motel, outfitter, and guide service. All of these businesses would share a High Peaks Wilderness identity and theme. The outfitter and guide service would function as resources for the Welcome Center’s outing planning service.
The heart of the “High Peaks South Gateway” would be state-of-the-art transportation network that would support green travel, eco-tourism, guided trips, exploration of historical sites and every kind of recreational activity there is. Electric shuttle buses would run a regular route schedule along the Blue Ridge Road to several destinations: the Boreas Tract trail heads, featuring everything from short hikes with stunning vistas to the Ponds, to through trails into the heart of the High Peaks from two different directions; Elk Lake, a private jewel and a perfect destination fro eco-tourism; Tahawus, where the Adirondac Historic district would be featured as never before; the Essex Chain, for paddling and bicycling; and Santanoni, another eco-tourist destination waiting to happen. EV charging stations would keep the shuttle buses operating but also be available to visitors with plug-in vehicles. Last but not last, a fleet of electric cars, inclduing self-driving cars, would be available to take visitors to any destination within a hundred miles with a few taps of a smart phone, at a cost far less than a traditional rental car. This would be a crucial asset, since transportation has always been a challenging constraint in the appeal of the Adirondacks, and the geographical size and population density in the Park will never allow any kind of traditional mass transit to be feasible.
The transportation network I describe may sound like fantasy, but all of it except the self-driving feature is feasible right now, and at considerably less cost than most people realize. The self-driving feature is two years out, maybe less.
Everything about this idea fits with modern demographics and travel trends. It fits perfectly with the desire for people to experience true Wilderness but from a base of operations that offers what they need. It fits perfectly with the burgeoning eco-tourism industry. It promises a convenient proximity to major urban centers unequaled in the region save for Lake George. Finally, it offers a rich economic opportunity for North Hudson and Newcomb while promoting and protecting Wilderness.
Nothing about this idea fits with or supports the usual debate between Wilderness preservation and recreation. Let Boreas be what it should be. People will seek its Wilderness out, especially with such a convenient access point and amenities. Current High Peaks usage numbers, which show heavy overuse of many High Peaks trail heads, support a market for it. Relieving the pressure on Adirondac Loj and the Garden would be a good thing.
So why not investigate the possibilities? Towns ought to get on board with something like this. Environmental groups ought to get on board with something like this. “Pie in the sky,” some will say. They’re wrong: work to look at the feasibility of these ideas will be happening; some is already. So stay tuned: I’m optimistic that the old debate has a real chance to change. If so, it’s about time.
Photo: View of the High Peaks from Boreas Ponds (courtesy David Gibson, Adirondack Wild).