The Adirondack Park Agency held public hearings on Boreas Ponds at eight different locations around the state in November and December. Hundreds of people spoke, offering a potpourri of opinions. But one constant was a sea of green T-shirts bearing the slogan “I Want Wilderness.”
BeWildNY, a coalition of eight environmental groups, created the T-shirts to push the idea that Boreas Ponds should be classified as motor-free Wilderness.
Green groups have floated several Wilderness proposals for the 20,758-acre Boreas Ponds Tract, and though they differ widely, they agree that the land encircling Boreas Ponds should be Wilderness, the most restrictive and protective of the APA’s seven classifications for state land.
When the APA released its options for the tract in October, however, all three called for classifying a former logging road leading to Boreas Ponds as Wild Forest, a designation that could (but not necessarily) allow the public to drive all the way to the shore. After an outcry from environmentalists, the agency added a fourth option that classified as Primitive the last mile of the road. Under this proposal, the public would not be allowed to drive to the ponds, but state officials could.
The assumption in all four APA alternatives is that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will use the road to maintain a dam at the foot of Boreas Ponds. And that means maintaining the road as well. This raises two questions: Should the dam be maintained? And, if so, could it be maintained without motor vehicles?
None of the environmental groups is calling for the dam’s removal, though Adirondack Wilderness Advocates argues that it should not be maintained. The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), both members of BeWildNY, do want the dam maintained. Adirondack Wild says it could support only “minimal maintenance” of the structure. Protect the Adirondacks says there’s not enough information for a decision.
“We would like to see a scientific assessment on the retention and removal of the dam,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect. “Neither DEC nor the APA has wanted an open and honest discussion of what the management implications are, what the ecological implications are, and what the recreational implications are.”
The major ecological questions concern wetlands and fish. There are extensive wetlands in and along Boreas Ponds. If the dam were breached and the water level fell, the wetlands and the wildlife frequenting them might be affected. Boreas Ponds also harbors brook trout, a species that dwells in cold water. If the dam were breached, the amount of cold-water habitat would likely shrink. The waterway also is home to a native strain of white sucker, a species that prefers shallow water.
“Based on the information available to date, we assume that maintaining the current water levels and the dam helps protect sensitive environmental resources,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. He agrees, however, that more study is warranted.
The ponds also have been touted as a destination for canoeists and kayakers, offering magnificent views of the High Peaks from the water. Without the dam, though, it’s uncertain how much water would be left to paddle.
John Brodt, a spokesman for Access the Adirondacks, a group formed by the local towns, said the dam is essential for tourism. “It is the dam that created the ponds and gives the property the tremendous aesthetic and recreational values that led the state to buy it in the first place,” he said. “Without the dam, there are no Boreas Ponds.”
Finch, Pruyn & Company built a wooden dam on Boreas Ponds in 1915 to facilitate log drives on the Boreas River, according to Richard Nason, a retired woodlands manager for Finch and the company’s unofficial historian. The dam was rebuilt several times. The current concrete spillway was constructed in the 1990s, decades after the last log drive, with the aim of enlarging the water body for recreational use. Finch, Pruyn also built a corporate lodge (since razed) on the south shore.
Boreas Ponds used to be three ponds connected by a wetland stream. When the water level was raised, they became one water body, but the major lobes are still called First Pond, Second Pond, and Third Pond.
Nason said a timber cruiser who visited the ponds in 1911, before the construction of the first dam, reported that only First Pond had much water. The other two were mostly swampland. Nason said First Pond is forty-two feet deep; in contrast, Second Pond is seven to eight feet deep and Third Pond only three to four feet deep. “You take the dam out, and you’re left with just First Pond,” he said.
An 1895 topographical map does show three ponds surrounded by wetlands. First and Second are joined by a relatively short channel. Second and Third are joined by a much longer channel. E.R. Wallace wrote about the ponds—or, rather “Boreas Pond”—in his Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks, published in the late 1800s:
“The Boreas, a source of the Hudson, by the Boreas River, is in reality two distinct bodies of water connected by short narrows. It is an uninteresting sheet with marshy shores but yields large numbers of speckled trout and commands to the N. a grand and most fascinating mountain prospect.”
Assuming Wallace’s description is accurate, it suggests that if the dam were removed, trout would still live in the ponds (not taking climate change into account) and there would still be a view of the High Peaks.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, believes the dam enhances the paddling experience, but all might not be lost if it were gone. “You’d probably have three smaller ponds; you’d probably have a different wetland. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; I’m just saying conditions would be different,” he said. “If there were channels between the three ponds it might be as appealing [to paddle] and maybe even more appealing.”
Pete Nelson of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates argues that the emphasis on paddling is misplaced. “AWA sees the Boreas Tract as primarily a hiking destination, not a paddling destination,” he said. “Even with the dam the ponds do not offer extensive paddling opportunities.”
Adirondack Wilderness Advocates formed last year to push for designating nearly all of the Boreas Ponds Tract as Wilderness. Under its plan, people would have to hike 6.8 miles along former logging roads to reach the ponds. Adirondack Wild also wants to close the logging roads to motor vehicles.
BeWildNY and Protect the Adirondacks favor allowing the public to drive as far as LaBier Flow, an impounded stretch of the Boreas River created by a second dam downstream from Boreas Ponds. From there, hikers would have to walk the final mile to the ponds. Canoeists and kayakers would have the option of paddling across the flow to reduce their carry by a half-mile. (Nason doubts the flow would be navigable if the LaBier dam is not retained).
Under BeWildNY’s proposal, neither the public nor state officials would be allowed to drive the last mile to the ponds. However, Janeway said DEC could maintain the Boreas dam by flying in materials by helicopter or bringing them in by other means, such as horse-and-wagon.
“Other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, maintain dams in wilderness under even more restrictive federal rules,” he said. “It is not easy, but it can be and is done.”
Though the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan does allow DEC to maintain dams in Wilderness Areas, Bob Stegemann, the department’s regional director, sees Janeway’s idea as unrealistic. “Maintaining dams is not an easy task,” he told the Explorer last fall. “Everything’s feasible, but what is the cost? Is it practical?”
The APA has not fully explained why it failed to include an option with all Wilderness around Boreas Ponds, but it says it consulted with DEC in drafting the proposals. After reviewing the comments from the hearings, the APA will vote on the classification later this year. It could choose one of the four options or come up with a new one. Following that decision, DEC will draft a management plan in which the department will decide what to do about the dam and the road. DEC could prohibit the public from driving all the way to the ponds even if the road is classified as Wild Forest.
Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild complains that the Boreas Ponds dam should not be an issue at all in the classification debate. Rather, he said, that’s a question that should be discussed when DEC drafts it management plan.
“I don’t think it’s in danger of collapse,” he said of the dam. “There’s nothing immediately that needs to be done, and it’s taking up a lot of the discussion over classification, which it does not deserve.”
Photos from above: Boreas Ponds dam by Phil Brown; Map from 1999; Map from 1895; and LaBier Flow by Gerry Lemmo.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.