In November, I made the trip from my home in Ithaca to speak at the public hearing that the APA organized in Rochester concerning classification of newly purchased state lands. My purpose was to advocate for maximum wilderness protection of those tracts, particularly the Boreas Ponds tract.
In the 1800s, reports of a place of fire and brimstone in what is now northwestern Wyoming were thought to be exaggerations. A formal expedition was organized in 1870 to explore the area. The explorers discovered the area that is now known as Yellowstone with its hot springs and geysers. Recognizing the natural beauty of the place, leaders of that expedition were quickly successful in convincing Congress to pass a law declaring Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park with laws protecting the land from exploitation.
There was considerable local opposition to the Park during its early years. Some of the locals feared that the regional economy would be hurt and numerous bills were introduced in Congress that advocated for reducing the size of the park so that mining and logging activities could be developed. We are fortunate that those efforts failed and because of the long view and strong sense of stewardship of national leaders at that time, the Yellowstone area has been protected as the wild place that we can still experience today.
Exploring wild lands has been a passion of mine since my first backpack outing in Big Bend National Park in west Texas in the 1970s. Since then, I’ve spent time in many spectacular places in the western US. When I settled in Ithaca to pursue a career and raise a family, I sought out a place with wild lands within driving distance and discovered the Adirondacks. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were large tracts of wilderness there. I introduced my daughters to backpacking and we explored West Canada Lakes, Five Ponds and Western High Peaks Wilderness areas. Although the Adirondack lands are not as wide open and showy as those in the West, they are truly spectacular in their own quiet way.
However, it became apparent to me that the Adirondack wilderness lands were different from those in the West. While at first I expected that the lands designated as wilderness would be as wild and unaltered as many in the West, they are not. They contain roads and other human-made structures, and almost all have been exploited in some way for their resources. I finally figured out that in the Adirondacks “wilderness” is not a description of the land itself, but rather is a management practice. It is, however, a management practice that if maintained for a sufficiently long period of time, may eventually result in lands that begin to resemble those that were present before exploitation began.
The determination to designate land as wilderness is like paddling against a current — the current being the pressure of economic forces. We humans cannot seem to resist the lure of nature as a treasure to be used, and too often, abused. The present dialog around the Boreas Ponds classification is an example. The basic argument boils down to protection of the land versus ways that the land can be used for economic benefit. In this argument, the land itself is a sort of bystander, dependent for its well-being on the advocacy of those pushing for protection via wilderness classification.
A fundamental difference in perception of land is at the root of the divide in opinion about how the land should be managed. Some see land as property to be exploited. Others, including myself, see land such as the Boreas Ponds tract as a magnificent living thing to be treasured and protected. To many people like me that have spent quiet time in the back country, the land takes on a profound, almost sacred quality. To describe the feeling to someone not familiar with it is very difficult – it is perhaps a bit like trying to describe the feeling that one has for one’s children. The sense is very strong, but tough to translate into language. It is something that must be experienced to be understood.
Growing up in the Midwest, I looked westward when I entertained thoughts of wild lands and the adventure of exploring them. It never occurred to me to look eastward. However, here is this special place called the Adirondacks. It is absolutely extraordinary that such wild lands can be found in this part of the country so close to densely populated areas. What makes the Adirondacks remarkable is the presence of large areas designated as wilderness. I would argue that it is the aura of wilderness that makes the Adirondacks a special place. There are many semi-wild places in the East that will remain important regionally, but the uniqueness of Adirondack wilderness imbues it with global significance.
This leads me to the task that APA faces: how to classify newly purchased lands. It is clear to me that a special place such as the Boreas Ponds tract should be protected in its entirety because of its beauty and inherent ecologically sensitive qualities. I am disappointed that the agency’s proposals for classification do not include one for the entire tract being managed as wilderness. The four proposals put forth are all skewed away from full wilderness protection. In the current terminology, the classification process appears to have been rigged.
I respectfully urge members of the APA to resist the siren call of short-term local economic benefit. Instead, take the long view and act as responsible stewards of newly acquired lands and classify the whole Boreas Ponds tract as wilderness. Future generations will be grateful for your foresight.