News that the Adirondack Park Agency plans to subvert a minimal wilderness designation at Boreas Ponds with both motorized and mechanized access corridors is not just discouraging, it is frightening. This is not a word that I toss out for emotional effect. It is my genuine reaction to the idea that the agency is becoming an obstacle to the wilderness preservation narrative that defines part of the Adirondack Park’s proud history.
Throughout this current land classification process — initiated in October 2016 and still unresolved today — the state has been setting a poor leadership example by pitting so-called user groups against one another, setting the expectation that one side wins and the other loses in this zero-sum game we politely call Forest Preserve management.
The agency is seeking to accommodate the vague and incorrect idea that humans can be demographically divided by the outdoor toys they purchase. Thus the only logical solution is to embrace over-engineered compromises that few can understand and that no one asked for. And the public sees time and again the Adirondack Park Agency tripping over its own implications that wilderness— one of the iconic emblems of this great park — is an impediment to regional prosperity, and must therefore be minimized to every extent possible.
But not for the first time in its history. In 2014, when it designated the Essex Chain and Hudson River region, the assumption was that a wilderness classification would be too exclusive. Opening the area to a broader spectrum of transportation methods would naturally attract a greater number of people, who in turn would hopefully lighten their wallets while passing through the hamlet of Newcomb.
To test this hypothesis, the agency availed itself of nearly every classification option listed in the State Land Master Plan. It manufactured a multi-use recreation area at the Essex Chain by the liberal use of spot zoning, applying landscape-level guidelines on a microscopic basis to individual features, thus accomplishing the type of mixed-bag management that land zoning is intended to prevent.
But in the years since then, has the agency measured the success of this solution? Because by all accounts, the visitation rates for the Essex Chain have been dismal, especially if the expectation was that greater permissions would attract more people.
The fundamental problem with the Essex Chain classification was that the state was unable to provide a clear vision of what this region was supposed to be. I remember well the tone of that public discussion. The agency believed that the tract was something more than wild forest, but certainly less than wilderness — and as a result it has become not much of anything to anybody. On the land use map, this designation stands out as a coat of many colors; when you visit the place in person, the regulations that apply vary depending on which patch of ground you happen to be standing on.
This is not coherent state land planning.
Broad Support for Wilderness
I am one of the cofounders of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, and I am aware there is some perception that we are an extremist group, located at the far left end of some political spectrum where the air is thin and there is no room for compromise. It is true that my group is focused on a singular issue: the Forest Preserve, its significance to society, and especially the health of its wild interiors. We care a great deal about the legitimacy of the State Land Master Plan. We want to see the wilderness areas of the park flourishing — both well-loved and well-managed — and benefiting the communities that surround them.
The money we spend to broadcast our message is financed on our personal credit cards, not some overflowing war chest filled with downstate contributions. Even so, our supporters accounted for 36% of the volume of letters the Adirondack Park Agency received in the closing months of 2016. That’s upwards of 4000 pro-wilderness statements from ordinary people across the park, across the state, across the continent, and across the world — all of them concerned by the lack of a full wilderness option for the Boreas Ponds.
For a group of “elitists,” the followers of AWA strike me as pretty darn mainstream. Thanks to the modern miracle of Facebook, we have an idea who these people are, demographically speaking. If our social media following is an accurate indicator, the people who share our concerns about wilderness are evenly distributed across every age bracket from 25 to 64. When I look at those numbers I see neither elitists nor extremists. If support for wilderness was an elite endeavor, there could not possibly be so many of us. And if we were extremists, the adults would have grown tired of the whiny children by now.
So who are we, then? We are people who have bought completely into the idea that the Adirondack Park is the birthplace of wilderness preservation, and that the protection of our wildest places is one of New York’s greatest civic achievements. Maybe wilderness is more of a cultural construct than a natural phenomenon, but even if that is true, wilderness is a cultural institution that many of us desperately need for our physical and mental health.
This brings us to the Boreas Ponds, and why this one property has captured the attention of so many wilderness advocates. Well for one thing, many of us have already had the opportunity to see it. We’ve been there, we’ve seen the roads, we’ve seen the hunting cabins, we’ve seen the dams, we’ve seen the gravel pits. Despite all those man-made artifacts, we see a landscape that is poised to heal itself if we merely step back and let nature do its thing.
The Problem with Easy Road Access
The Boreas Ponds occupy part of the unifying valley between two of our greatest mountain areas, the Great Range and the Dix Range. All of the natural forest citizens who claim these two areas as their roaming territory will out of necessity pass through this valley. As big as we like to believe the High Peaks Wilderness is, from a biocentric perspective it may not be big enough. The wildlife biologist Rainer Brocke, professor emeritus at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, wrote in his essay “Wildlife for a Wilderness” that the insufficient size of the protected habitat — described as a remote and roadless space shielded from human penetration — was one reason why the 1989 lynx reintroduction failed.
Mr. Brocke also noted that even in our three wildest areas— the High Peaks, West Canada Lake, and Five Ponds wilderness areas — the average road and human population densities are too high to sustain a cougar population. “Road density is perhaps the single best index for a wide spectrum of potential human-induced mortalities,” he wrote, “as road density is directly proportional to the degree of human presence.” Florida, of all places, gets to have a cougar population, but our great Adirondack Park cannot. And yet the APA and DEC refuse to accept the idea of a Gulf Brook Road that is fully closed to motor vehicles!
The proximity of the Boreas Ponds to the High Peaks sets up another highly predictable management problem, because short, easy access to the ponds also means short, easy access to the mountains. One of the top Adirondack stories of recent years has been the crowded, overused trailheads from Chapel Pond to Heart Lake: parking lots adjacent to 55-mile-per-hour speed zones, under-prepared people dying from pneumonia because it’s far too easy to access the peaks without ever encountering a uniformed DEC employee.
Yet making access easier to the High Peaks seems to be the primary management goal. In fact, we are told that DEC is contemplating a newer, shorter, easier trail to Allen Mountain, the remotest of the High Peaks. So is that it, the end result of all this GIS analysis, public hearing after public hearing, and state land master planning? The state purchases a magnificent property, gently touched even after a century of timber management, and the best option is to treat the Boreas Ponds like another Marcy Dam — complete with the inevitability of habituated bears, crowded campsites, and the need for strictly enforced regulations?
Perhaps you can start to see the roots of our concern. It might seem like creative thinking to envision special-use corridors or changes to the State Land Master Plan as shortcuts out of this box canyon in which the agency finds itself; but when the state does this, what we see is a calculated effort to chisel away at one of New York’s greatest achievements.
Wilderness is a Key Part of a Balanced Classification
Really, what are the stumbling blocks to a wilderness classification at Boreas Ponds? Balance, we have heard; the need to provide access to people with disabilities; the desire for easy canoe access to a scenic waterway; increased tourism for local communities.
All of these are good points. Great points, actually. But why must this one tract be made to serve all purposes, like a spoil of war split evenly amongst all the conquering heroes? We have reviewed the entire 2016 classification package, and we see that there are dozens of parcels that require a decision. There are a few instances where a wilderness classification seems strongly warranted for one reason or another, such as MacIntyres West and East, Sugarloaf Mountain near the Cedar River, and Stonystep Pond in Indian Lake.
But who would contest a wild forest classification at Cat Mountain near Lake George, the Thousand Acre Swamp in Saratoga County, or the new parcels on the Independence River in Lewis County?
The point is, each parcel should be weighed on its individual merit. If the agency does this, balance will occur as a matter of course. Do you need to provide an accessible CP-3 road? Sure, but why does that route have to frustrate the larger need to provide wilderness connectivity? Why not a less intrusive location, such as the delightful streamside road east of Ragged Mountain? People want easy access to a new canoe route? Tell me about your plans to develop parking facilities and carry trails on the Hudson River below Sanford Lake.
The truth is, balance was already achieved ten years ago when The Nature Conservancy announced its disposition of the Finch Pruyn lands, with more than half being retained as working forests. If there is a public desire to open motorized access roads to managed forests with higher game populations, then these conservation easements are the places to accomplish that goal. A wilderness classification at Boreas Ponds only seems unbalanced when you look at that one parcel in isolation, completely detached from context.
Therefore if balance truly is the goal of this land classification effort, state officials must step back and look at the entire land use map. The Boreas Ponds Tract is just one piece in a much larger puzzle, a peculiar piece with the unmistakable attributes of remoteness and wildness. Thousands of people — young and old — see this land as wilderness, and have taken the time to tell the park agency as much.
Now, it’s time for the state to listen. The Adirondack Park Agency, like any other body of state government, is a creature of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is not “elitist” when a massive wave of public comment overwhelmingly favors a strong wilderness classification. Elitism occurs when a board of appointees and designees acts against that interest because of its own internal biases.