News of a helicopter sightseeing tour operating out of Lake Placid spawned much discussion this past summer. Unlike a traditional scenic airplane flight high above the landscape, this business promised ridge-running flights at low altitudes above protected Wilderness Areas, as well as aerial safaris in which backcountry wildlife would be buzzed in their natural habitats — all for the thrill of a few paying customers.
This was scary enough for those of us who routinely visit the Forest Preserve for our weekly dose of wildness. But then in the September/October 2017 issue of the Adirondack Explorer, John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council suggested that in the Wild Forest areas, “it may be appropriate to fly in some places at lower heights” — with the stipulation that “some sensitive areas” should be avoided “as much as they can.”
Frankly, I’d be just as dismayed by an unwanted helicopter encounter regardless of where I was, especially if that helicopter was simply giving somebody a joyride. The Wilderness and Wild Forest designations are not polar opposites of one another. They are degrees of the same thing, and each provides subtle variations of the wild experience so many of us need in our lives. Many things that are undesirable in one classification are just as unwelcome in the other.
I suppose it might be tempting to draw a parallel between low-elevation helicopter tours and the long-standing practice of backcountry seaplane landings, which are permitted on many Wild Forest lakes. If the seaplanes are already allowed, the additional presence of helicopters won’t be noticed, in theory.
But I see a major difference between the two. Seaplane access is in low demand, limited mostly to the fishing and hunting seasons, and restricted to backcountry lakes long enough for landing and taking off.
And after one or two trips to transport gear and clients, the intrusion comes to an end. A sightseeing helicopter, however, could patrol its chosen route on a regular basis, every hour on the hour. Not that I’m a fan of seaplanes, but the potential reach and impact of recreational helicopter usage is much worse.
My main point, though, is not about helicopters. It’s that we demean Wild Forest when we treat it as a place to dispose of our Wilderness controversies. While there are distinct management differences between the two, visitor expectations are often identical. And certainly, Article 14 of the state constitution recognizes no preference.
Wilderness is certainly a rare resource, worthy of all the attention it receives, but sometimes the fervor we display for it comes at the expense of the rest of the Forest Preserve. While it is easy to inspire passion over something that impacts the quality of our most protected areas, it can spawn a tendency to over-compromise in Wild Forests, or otherwise neglect them.
My mentor Barbara McMartin viewed herself as a champion of the Wild Forests in an era when all the attention seemed to be given to Wilderness. She illustrated one such example in her memoir Perspectives on the Adirondacks. In 1990 the Adirondack Council published a booklet entitled Completing the Adirondack Wilderness System, the second volume in its 2020 Vision series, which was intended as a six-volume boxed set that would eventually showcase council’s thought on the subjects of Wild Forests, river corridors, travel corridors, and lakeshores. However, as Barbara wrote, the Wilderness volume almost became the last when the group’s attention wandered after its publication. “I lobbied Council strenuously,” she wrote, “to encourage the group to quickly publish the Wild Forest volume to minimize criticism that Council was only interested in wilderness preservation.”
For some, the idea of a Wild Forest is simply not that sexy. The Wilderness classification was an historical milestone when it was first implemented in 1972; Wild Forest, on the other hand, was a necessary compromise on the road to that achievement. And it seems some watchdogs cannot resist the temptation to continue making those compromises, even today.
Part of the problem is that outside of the fire-tower summits and a few other popular sites, many people have little firsthand knowledge of the Wild Forests. And without that boots-on-the-ground experience, it is easy to assume that all Wild Forests are the “vanilla” to the Wilderness “rocky road.” Too many people equate the relaxed restrictions with a reduction in value, therefore making it easy to condemn Wild Forests to a future filled with wider snowmobile trails and low-flying helicopters.
Managing the Wild Forests to their full potential requires more effort than some people prefer to give. All of the larger ones have pockets of high-quality backcountry that are wilderness in all but name. Not only are these places just as outstanding as any other part of the Forest Preserve, they might be more worthy of our concern precisely because they are unrecognized and undervalued.
Photo of Wilcox Lake Wild Forest by Bill Ingersoll.
This article appeared in the January/February issue of Adirondack Explorer.