The decision by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) is in: by a vote of 8 to 1 the APA Board voted to recommend a classification for the Boreas Ponds Tract that will split the tract between Wilderness and Wild Forest, leaving Gulf Brook open into the heart to the parcel. In their comments many of the Commissioners lauded the “balance” and “compromise” they felt this recommendation represented.
At Adirondack Wilderness Advocates we dispute this notion of balance. So did the vast majority of citizens who weighed in with public comments. They agreed with our position that by allowing motorized access into the heart of the parcel the APA is failing to protect Boreas as the pure Wilderness the tract deserves and the people of New York called for. In an era when roadless areas are all but gone from the Eastern United States, a proportionate and fair concept of balance dictates that we must protect the largest roadless area remaining in the Park as the precious resource it is. What the APA did instead was to rely upon an unexamined and largely unchallenged idea of balance that relies upon a narrow-minded sense of fairness and a startling lack of evidence for the supposed benefits.
The Governor is certain to approve this recommendation, so it is appropriate to ask what’s next for defenders of Wilderness. The first thing we should do is celebrate the many good things that happened today. Looking at the big picture, we owe an incredible debt to the Nature Conservancy, who orchestrated a massive deal that increased the Forest Preserve by tens of thousands of acres. We should also celebrate the classifications that were well-done, including MacIntyre East and West tracts, significant additions in and of themselves. We should be excited that the portion of Boreas to be classified Wilderness is going to be combined with the High Peaks Wilderness, the Casey Brook Tract and Dix Wilderness to make one grand tract exceeding 270,000 acres.
Next, we need to encourage a robust, ongoing conversation about Wilderness and balance in the 21st century. We need to have a substantive debate about access – what we mean by it and what it does. We need to demand that Adirondack stakeholders engage in a critical examination of the aesthetic and economic benefits to Wilderness, instead of relying on empty sound bites about local economies. There will be plenty of opportunities ahead to do this, from Unit Management planning to future acquisitions to Forest Preserve infrastructure. We need to be in it for the long haul.
To think about how to push this conversation forward it is useful to look at what just happened with Boreas. From whence came the Adirondack Park Agency’s rationale that their recommendation is balanced?
Was it public support? Hardly: there were more than 6,800 written comments supporting a larger Boreas Wilderness than any of the four alternatives the APA offered; meanwhile, the APA’s recommended alternative is a variation of Alternative #2, which received – wait for it – 40 comments in support.
Was it about the science? A thorough review of the APA staff’s own scientific analysis of the Boreas Tract answers that question definitively. The portion of the tract slated for Wild Forest designation has a significant inventory of features that call for Wilderness protection.
Was it economic benefit? This is another popular sound bite that virtually every stakeholder uses, but it is completely without evidence. There is no economic analysis that shows the benefits local communities will reap from classifying nearly half the tract as Wild Forest. It’s actually worse than that: factual reality is consistently ignored, even though flexible classification of the neighboring Essex Chain has had virtually no positive economic effect. Facts show that the number one recreational activity by far is hiking. It’s amazing to me that there is an assumed need for access other than by foot at Boreas when a few dozen miles away everyone is concerned that access by foot is overwhelming trail heads and parking areas. More important, there is large body of evidence showing proximity and traditional access to protected Wilderness areas is a trending economic driver so significant that in many counties in the Western United States it is reversing rural flight. The huge increase in visitors to the High Peaks Wilderness suggests that trend applies here too. How can we ignore these facts in favor of mere assumptions? We can because the Boreas recommendation is not really about economic benefit.
What’s left? In a word, fairness, the idea that everyone ought to get a piece. I’m all for fairness, in fact it is a primary motivation for AWA. But fairness is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s behold some uncomfortable reality and see how fair this proposal is in the big picture.
In the Adirondack debates, “fairness” is all about recreational access. Since traditional Wilderness access is apparently not good enough, it’s really about motorized access. That was patently obvious in the Boreas arguments. Now I agree, as do all my AWA colleagues, that people should have the opportunity to engage in any reasonable form of recreation in the Adirondacks, including motorized access. But when wild, roadless areas are shrinking across the planet and are already virtually absent in the Eastern United States, the idea that we need yet another tract to bend to our utterly dominant and overbearing desire for ease and convenience is remarkably self-indulgent.
Here is a peer-reviewed study of roadless areas across the world, from the December 2016 issue of Science Magazine. Click on this sentence and focus on the map of the Continental United States in the upper left:
This map tells a story we all should know already. Note the yellowish blips to the east: the Everglades, parts of Maine, the Adirondacks. That’s it, yet apparently we need more road access.
Next, let us gaze upon a map of the Adirondack Park, courtesy of the Adirondack Atlas:
Major highways appear in orange-yellow. You’ve seen something like this map a thousand times.
Now let’s turn on the layer that shows all the other known roads in the Park:
Note how much of the Park has road access – and don’t forget its context in the national map. It’s easy to see the areas remaining where wild road-less solitude is truly possible. There are three larger ones: the West Canada Lakes area, the Five Ponds Wilderness area and the High Peaks/Boreas area.
Now let’s add snowmobile trails:
I can only hope a picture is worth a thousand words. Because the APA and DEC are telling us that a “balanced” proposal for Boreas means the largest remaining roadless area in the Park needs motorized access as a matter of fairness, as if we can’t engage in these activities in a thousand other places in the Adirondacks.
It’s a fact that we can provide access to the Boreas Tract for a wide variety of people, including differently-abled visitors, without allowing motorized access. In my mind what we cannot so easily do is offer remote, roadless solitude to the millions of New Yorkers, Americans and International visitors, both current and future generations, who might hold dear the idea that at least a few such places exist and are protected. That’s a different rationale for fairness and balance than the State is offering. I stand with AWA in rejecting this unfortunate compromise and pledging to work hard for a better version of balance in future Park decisions.