Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Brendan Wiltse: Time to Lead on Wilderness

High Peaks by Brendan WiltseNew York State is one of the birthplaces of the American idea of wilderness. The Adirondack Park stands with Yellowstone and Yosemite as iconic landscapes that helped shape our ideas of the value of wild places. The Adirondacks served as inspiration to many of the early champions of wilderness preservation, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and his compatriots at the famed Philosophers’ Camp to Bob Marshall and Howard Zahniser, who pushed to create a national wilderness-preservation system.

Indeed, the Adirondack Park is of global significance. UNESCO recognized the value of these lands and waters when it established the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve in 1989. It is one of just thirty Biosphere Reserves in the United States.

We should expect the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is responsible for protecting the Forest Preserve, to be a leader in wilderness management. The work that went into the 1999 High Peaks unit management plan (UMP) reflected a management philosophy that valued natural-resource protection and recognized the necessity of robust planning for such a valuable Wilderness Area facing numerous pressures. Unfortunately, since the original UMP, the state has failed to maintain itself as a leader in wilderness management.

Many of the issues discussed today existed at the time of the original High Peaks UMP, and management actions were proposed to address them. In the decades since, numerous actions have not been implemented and predictably the problems they were meant to address have only grown worse.

DEC’s recent amendment to the High Peaks UMP is a far cry from rising to the level we should expect for such an important Wilderness Area facing complex challenges. The amendment seeks to address problems identified in he original UMP but fails to discuss or analyze why the original management actions were never implemented or conduct an analysis of alternatives for the newly proposed actions. In fact, there is so little information presented in the document that it is nearly impossible to judge the soundness of the proposals.

Perhaps what is most upsetting about the current approach to management of our Wilderness Areas is the apparent disregard for the value of public input. Only a single scoping meeting was held to gather information to help inform DEC staff when drafting these proposals. Notably, this scoping meeting and the short period provided for written public comment did not convey that the amendment would address areas outside of the recent additions to the High Peaks Wilderness. The state went even further in limiting public involvement when, once the amendment was drafted, officials decided to combine the comment periods for DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency and offered just three public hearings.

Thankfully, other wilderness managers are not following the same path as New York State. The Forest Service and a number of stakeholders, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Waterman Fund, have been grappling with issues similar to those affecting the High Peaks on the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains. They set goals for desired conditions and visitor experiences, are studying how visitor use influences those conditions, and have committed to adaptive management and monitoring to remedy problems as they develop. DEC’s recent High Peaks UMP amendments commit to a similar framework, but there is quite a bit of ambiguity. The proposed Wildlands Monitoring Plan is a welcome first step that should have come in advance of the proposed amendments. This plan requires a considerable investment of DEC staff and resources, which raises the question of how thorough of a monitoring plan will be implemented. All of this is symptomatic of a state that values investment in land acquisitions and infrastructure over staffing. The state’s forest rangers are perhaps the most visible work force suffering from these lack of investments. The Police Benevolent Association has been advocating on behalf of the rangers to increase staffing levels with little success. Yellowstone National Park has 330 rangers, while the Adirondack Park only has fifty for an area three times the size. Rangers aren’t the only ones struggling with stagnant staffing levels—this is symptomatic throughout DEC.

Now is the time for New York State to reestablish itself as a leader in wilderness management. DEC needs to take on the challenging task of engaging stakeholders in a robust planning process to address present and emerging threats to the High Peaks Wilderness. We also need the governor and legislature to support expanded staffing and professional development across the department. The Adirondacks are a globally significant treasure handed down to us with the expectation we would continue to be good stewards of these lands. It’s time we started living up to the legacy of those that came before us.

A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Explorer.

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Brendan Wiltse is the Science & Stewardship Director for the Ausable River Association and a professional conservation photographer. He holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Queen's University in Canada. While not out on the water studying Adirondack lakes and streams, he is often roaming the Wilderness with his camera and dog. You can view is photography at www.brendanwiltse.com

24 Responses

  1. Rob Gdyk says:

    The big 3 national parks are Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. The Adirondack Park doesn’t come close in standing or reign supreme to these other national parks. Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee is even more visited. Perhaps New York State legislation also recognizes this and it’s the reason for why they haven’t expanded staffing and professional development levels across the department.

    • john says:

      I think you misread the article. The author does not state or imply that the Adirondack Park is better than the above named National Parks, but that they all played a part in establishing a national conservation ethos and that we can look to other wild areas for new ideas on how to manage and uphold our Constitutional protections of the park.

    • AG says:

      Well yeah those are national parks and promoted nationally. The other issue is people go there to see large animals like bison – wolves – grizzlies and such… NY can’t seem to get elk – cougars and wolves reintroduced into the park. Moose are the only ones that got back naturally – but even those are not that numerous.

  2. Tim says:

    Bravo, Brendan. You mention the apparent disregard for the value of public input. I believe the DEC started renovating the road to Boreas Ponds before the public comment period ended. Wow!

    • Boreas says:

      Yes, it seems the state only had the public input because it was required. Nothing says they have to pay any attention to it. Motorized access to Boreas Ponds was essentially decided before the state even purchased it. It was destined to become “WildernessLand” – just without the neon sign.

      • Paul says:

        Unlike other areas, the Adirondacks has a unique requirement when it comes to the addition of public lands. Since the Adirondacks park (unlike other national parks) is a place where people are supposed to live (not only visit) the towns (the local people trying to make a go of it) are required to have the first public input into the process. They must approve of any purchase prior to the state making the transaction. That isn’t disregarding public input, quite the contrary.

        • Todd Eastman says:

          If not for the Adirondack Park, the region would be like West Virginia North…

          … , and there is public input required for any actions in and near the National Parks under the NEPA process, and it is an important part of the decision process.

        • Boreas says:

          But you have to agree that local citizens aren’t 1. Paying for it. 2.The only users. 3. The only concern.

          I agree they/we should have input, but improving local economies is only one consideration of many to be made. Proper conservation is another.

          What happened here is local desires decided the PURCHASE, not a careful analysis of all concerns. Once it was purchased there was no real discourse, as the final outcome was pre-determined. Motorized access to the heart of BP was always a given, despite what public input favored.

          My point is, shouldn’t this open public discourse occur BEFORE the purchase? BP was in no immediate danger of being developed as long as TNC could hold on to it. I just feel the open public discourse should come before our tax dollars are spent, not as a legal technicality required weeks (if that long) before UMP implementation.

          • Paul says:

            As I have said before I agree. The classification should come first. I think that under that scenario many parcels would remain in private control and be much better protected. No issues of overuse at all.

            There is no argument that these parcels are gems that have been well protected for almost 150 years. The rest is just about public access and how to limit damage.

            This is all a legislative question. Have to change the process. I was simply pointing out what the current input process is.

            Local citizens are paying for this with a loss of the local tax base if that is the outcome over time.

            • Bruce Van Deuson says:


              I agree concerning the tax base, but wonder how many non NY residents like myself visit almost every year and contribute to the tax base every time they buy goods, gas or food,or spend significant time at places to stay..

  3. geogymn says:

    Good article, good title. The Empire State, NY, should look to the future, long term, and lead the country as stewards, to provide future generations the gifts that was bestowed to us.

  4. scottvanlaer says:

    Well said. Thank You. It has been frustrating working in a system that falls so short of it’s mission simply because of the lack of appropriate staffing levels. #AddNYSRangers

    • Dennis says:

      Absolutely! Millions spent to attract tourism, but no increase in rangers for a decade (or more). As short-sighted as it is, I can at least understand why the politicians will not commit/redirect resources to add rangers. What puzzles me (not really) is that the various ADK advocacy organizations look the other way and do not make this a high priority issue. Just some boilerplate statements from time to time, easily ignored, buried deep in some press release, and that’s the end of it. Afraid I guess to actually cite ranger staffing statistics and call out the powers that be.

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Well written, Brendan, and thank you for reminding us that New Yorkers are responsible for funding and upholding the highest standards for a world class set of Parks in the Adirondacks and Catskills with benefits that flow downstream to millions living within and beyond the parks’ borders. Thank you for carrying today’s torch for wilderness.

  6. David Thomas-Train says:

    DEC staff that I have worked with over the years are competent and commited professionals.
    At this time they are extremely frustrated by their massive workload which causes them to principally respond piecemeal to crises reactively rather than than creatively and comprehensively to the issues, as they should be doing.
    It well past time to adequately fund DEC’s land management teams and hire and train additional Foresters and Rangers.

    • Boreas says:

      Absolutely! Albany should be ashamed in their disregard of this issue. Let’s see if this even comes up in the gubernatorial race – other than the fact that even more land has been added to the FP (that needs to be patrolled and managed!).

      • Paul says:

        Even if the DEC were flooded with additional funds it doesn’t mean anything additional would come to the Adirondacks. In these discussions it always sounds like the DEC doesn’t have 10 million other things they have to deal with or could do better if they had additional funds. Look at Long Island’s coastline as an example. NYS has the largest and longest island in the contiguous US I am sure the DEC could use additional funds to maintain and protect much of that coastline. NYS taxpayers are already paying the highest tax in the nation. These departments have to come up with innovative ways to do more with less money, the Adirondacks are no exception. Come up with other funding sources or we might lose everything.

        • john says:

          I think you are mistaken on New York having the “highest tax” in the nation. That aside, in recent budgets and in future projections, NY funding for the DEC has remained flat or gone down. I’m sure that citizens on the Long Island shore and along Adirondack lakes can agree that increased funding for DEC operations are a good idea. One region’s benefit does not have to come at a cost to another.

          • Paul says:

            You don’t have to believe me look at the data we have the highest income tax rate in the nation. We come in at 12.7% just ahead of CT at 12.6%.

            So there is no lack of funds it is just not being spent wisely. You have 300M in the EPF why is it being spent on purchasing Forest Preserve land when we don’t have sufficient DEC staff to maintain what we already have?

            The same people that argue that the DEC is under staffed are the same people saying buy as much FP land as we get get our hands on. It’s insane.

          • Boreas says:

            They don’t keep adding miles of coastline to be patrolled every year!

            But certainly as the coastline continues to move inland, federal funds are likely to be needed. Whether state or federal, we ALL are going to be paying for sea level rise. If you think we have high taxes now…

            • Paul says:

              “They don’t keep adding miles of coastline to be patrolled every year!”

              Nor should we be adding Forest Preserve to be patrolled every year. But many environmental advocates are all for it.

              Are they going to recommend that we not add Follensby to the Forest Preserve when we have the opportunity to do that? I doubt it. Then they will complain we don’t have the staff to manage it. Welcome to this alternate reality we have up here.

  7. George Nagle says:

    That this article and the comments make no mention of the APA reflects how the Park Agency no longer leads in shaping policy for the Park in general and state land in particular.

    The Park Agency has a member who is expert in wilderness policy. Should it chose, it could articulate further wilderness criteria as, for example, expanding the meaning of “untrammeled”. This is not to denigrate the planning effort of the DEC but to inform it with clearer policy guidance.

    The APA Act gives the APA responsibility for developing policy for the Park.