On April 3rd, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held a public scoping session in Newcomb, seeking suggestions for managing some 96,000 acres of recently-classified Forest Preserve lands, including the Boreas Ponds Tract. Hours before attending the meeting, I went on a bushwhack.
Armed with a map and a compass, I set out from Blue Ridge Road with an adventurous spirit into a dense coniferous forest. Meandering along the icy outlet of Vanderwhacker Pond, the sounds from the road began to fade as I followed a bearing of 31 degrees. The babbling stream flowed clearly between unstable ice bridges, beckoning me further along its sinuous path. A clearing in the trees signaled the presence of the frozen pond itself. I stepped onto the ice, surprised by the water body’s size, and was suddenly enraptured by wildness.
The unmistakable gait of an animal was seemingly frozen in time on the pond’s surface. Winter brings out nature’s mysteries for us to ponder. These tracks revealed that one of our Adirondack natives, completely unconcerned with classification outcomes and lines on maps, called this wild corner of the Park home. Where he or she was heading is less important than the appreciation of the fact that this creature was there.
Setting the compass to 14 degrees, I continued onward. The long-fingered tracks of a raccoon greeted me in the woods ahead, a flash of a pileated woodpecker darted between the trees, and at the next beaver clearing the screech of a red-tailed hawk surprised me from above. No logging roads were crossed, and I embraced this intact habitat as a temporary, grateful visitor. Wildness enveloped me now as I deviated from my bearing and headed northeast, crossing into the Boreas Ponds Tract.
Included in this corner of the tract is a wetland named Brant Brook. As I approached, the presence of snowshoe hare and marten tracks beneath the tamaracks exposed the natural harmony of this place.
Arriving at its edge, I felt immersed in the intangibles of wildness: silence, solitude, and remoteness. These qualities of the Boreas Ponds Tract and the northern triangle of the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest are rare. Due to the lack of vast, motor-free landscapes in the heavily populated northeast, these intangibles simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. The preciously unique characteristics that currently define New York State’s largest high-elevation wetland complex emboldened me to write now, and underscore the importance of implementing a Unit Management Plan for these tracts that preserves the inimitable quality of the resource.
Much has been glamorized about the eponymous Boreas Ponds themselves, but what about the northern triangle of the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest? What about the remote southwest corner of the Boreas Ponds Tract? What about other currently quiet, pristine value 1 wetlands in the region like Wolf Pond, the Boreas River, Andrew Brook, and Andrew Brook tributary? Aren’t these ecologically significant waterways worth defending? Even La Bier Flow has two additional emergent and deepwater marsh species than its oft-mentioned counterpart to the north. Yet all of these environmental assets and wildlife habitats were somehow considered less important. As I connected with the landscape throughout my walk, I realized one thing: these southern regions are important.
A Community Connector Trail that Strikes a Balance
So isn’t there a solution where we can protect one of the last vestiges of wildness in the northeast – and the wildlife that calls these places home – while simultaneously helping our Adirondack communities? You bet, and it’s actually located inside of the DEC’s Community Connector Trail Plan!
Within the comprehensive plan, which is in conformance with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, is the recommendation of shifting motorized recreational traffic to the periphery of Forest Preserve units and along transportation corridors.
Updated in 2015, Appendix 1 of the DEC’s Community Connector Plan specifically states, “The plan will redirect the level of snowmobile use from interior Wild Forest areas to the peripheral areas, where motor vehicle traffic is already concentrated. This will enhance the non‐motorized user experience in the interior Wild Forest areas while providing better connections with wider trails to the communities. User conflicts should be reduced for all user groups. These factors should result in increased tourism and economic benefits to local communities.”
Appendix 1 goes on to say, “The overall impact of snowmobiles on wildlife is anticipated to decrease as a result of implementing the Community Connector Trail Plan. Snowmobile, horseback and mountain bike traffic will be reduced in interior areas and will be shifted to areas where motor vehicle traffic already exists. Snowmobile trails that are re‐designated as non‐motorized trails will re‐vegetate, narrowing or even eliminating the fragmentation effect that they may currently have on forested areas.”
While I would argue that equestrian use should be permitted in the tract to give users of all ability levels the opportunity to experience motor-free wilderness, the Community Connector Trail Plan does offer a reasonable alternative. Zooming in to the Boreas Ponds and Vanderwhacker Wild Forest section, a potential solution has already been highlighted that preserves the spirit of wildness and remote characteristics of the extensive wetland complex, while also completing a snowmobile connection from Newcomb to North Hudson. It’s called “Alternative A.”
Arguments for Community Connector “Alternative A”
In the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest and the Boreas Ponds Tract stretch of the 2015 Community Connector Trail Plan, Alternatives A & D take a general route along the currently motorized corridor of Blue Ridge Road, with minimal intrusion into the wild interior of the Boreas Ponds Tract and the northern triangle of the Vanderwhacker Wild Forest. While Alternative D would stay along the motorized corridor the longest and require the least amount of new trail construction, I acknowledge that this might not offer the best user experience. Even though it is slightly more intrusive, Alternative A skirts every single value 1 wetland to the south, maintaining wildlife habitats to the north in a rare motor-free landscape. With the exception of the minimally intrusive Alternative D, Alternative A will require the least amount of new trail construction to complete this Newcomb to North Hudson connection (3.5 miles), causing the least amount of environmental damage.
Alternative A will also bring snowmobilers to the southern shore of Wolf Pond, which provides a better scenic view of the High Peaks than any stretch along the route of Alternatives B & C. The APA’s existing infrastructure map from the State Land Committee Classification package reveals how an existing trail to the east of Wolf Pond can help accomplish this community connection with modest trail construction.
Arguments against Community Connectors “Alternative B” and “Alternative C”
Taking the more invasive path, Alternatives B & C would require the most amount of new trail building. While both would use Gulf Brook Road, new trails would need to be constructed to connect the route to the Roosevelt Truck Trail across Blue Ridge Road to the south. Implementing Alternative B (requiring 3.9 miles of new trail) or Alternative C (requiring 5.4 miles of new trail) would patently change one’s experience near Brant Brook and Vanderwhacker Pond. As the APA’s existing infrastructure map reveals, confirming what I learned during my bushwhack, a larger extent of tree cutting would be required to complete these alternatives.
Alternatives B & C would push motorized access into the wild interior, decrease the rare opportunities for remoteness, and encircle everything to the south in motorized noise. These alternatives impact a much larger area and defy the intentions of the 2015 Community Connector Trail Plan. Prudence, wildlife connectivity and this area’s inherent wildness, should outweigh any type of recreational development. The environmental consequences of motorizing the interior should weigh heavily on the DEC and anyone concerned for the lack of remoteness in an ever-developing world.
Less than 5% of the Adirondack Park is currently 3 or more miles away from a road or snowmobile trail. Allowing motorized access along Gulf Brook Road would eliminate the intangibles of wildness that are currently found there. Isn’t that last 5% worth defending?
Protecting the Intangibles of Wildness
“In all our thinking about recreational development,” Russell M.L. Carson once said, “we ought constantly to remember that wilderness and natural beauty are the real charm of the Adirondacks, and that preservation is as much our objective as helping more people to share our joy in them.”
As I circled back to Blue Ridge Road through the currently quiet Boreas Ponds Tract, I cherished the silence, the solitude, and the remoteness. The bushwhack was ending, but this day stood in stark contrast to most days spent in civilized society. I won’t soon forget the immensity of the wildness I was afforded on that trip. In a world filled with roads, noise, and people, I was able to find some peace in the fourth-most populated state in the country. It would be a shame to cheapen that opportunity for future generations, especially when 6,970 miles of Adirondack roads already exist. These roads are replete with pull-offs, accessible campsites, and beautiful vistas. By choosing the alternative requiring the least amount of trail construction and the least amount of remote maintenance, we protect our Adirondack legacy while also succeeding in the Community Connector Trail Plan’s directives. Do we need to turn rare Adirondack backcountry into more Adirondack front country?
With Alternative A, we accomplish nearly everything.
Photos, from above: Frozen tracks across Vanderwhacker Pond; Brant Brook – a value 1 wetland within the Boreas Ponds Tract and Vanderwhacker Wild Forest; Figure 5 of the Adirondack Park Agency’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement; The DEC’s Community Connector Trail Overview for the Newcomb-Minerva- North Hudson region; Community Connector Trail options between Newcomb and North Hudson; The APA’s State Land Committee Classification package – Existing Boreas Ponds Infrastructure; and Remaining areas of the Adirondack Park that are more than 3 miles from a road or snowmobile trail.