Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Opinion: Adirondack Park Needs More Wilderness

high peaks by carl heilman ii“It’s Debatable” appears in each issue of the Adirondack Explorer.  This essay is a companion piece to “Opinion: Adirondack Park Doesn’t Need More Wilderness” by Matthew Simpson, which will appear on the Adirondack Almanack on Wednesday, January 16th.

Do we need more wilderness? Don’t be silly — yes, of course we do. Wilderness has been a defining element of the Adirondacks for more than two centuries, as much an iconic part of the landscape as loons, black bears and red efts. Even if we can’t always be in the wilderness, we find inspiration knowing that it’s out there, somewhere past those foothills on the horizon.

Wilderness is also part of our national identity. One of New York’s most famous sons, Theodore Roosevelt, regarded the United States as “nature’s nation,” and his travels abroad only reaffirmed his belief that our wildest places were among our most prized assets. Wilderness was something that we possessed in greater quantity and quality than other nations, and the self-reliance learned from strenuous outdoor living was a defining American trait. If sportsmen ever went soft, he believed, so would the nation.

Many other people have also found strength, knowledge, peace, and even self-purpose in our wilderness areas, for reasons that are widely varying and often intensely personal. Very few venture into the backcountry thinking about the State Land Master Plan and its management guidelines, but everyone who experiences a day on an isolated mountain that is free of crowds, or a night at a pond-side campsite miles from the nearest motor, is a direct beneficiary.

In the Adirondacks, not all of our designated wilderness areas are operating at optimum effectiveness, however. We have lost control of the High Peaks to the growing numbers of hikers who, without a base of reference, see today’s crowds and assume these are normal conditions, and therefore keep pouring in. Unfortunately we crossed the line of sustainability in this region the moment we started shooting “nuisance” bears on their own turf, and staffing the mountaintops just to keep people from trampling the vegetation into extinction.

But don’t judge all of our wildernesses by the well-publicized ills afflicting that one. Our biggest victories are the places no one has ever heard of: Aluminum Pond, Terror Lake, Kunjamuk Mountain, Devorse Creek. There are 46 High Peaks, but there are many more spots so quiet and remote that years may pass between human visitations.

So is more wilderness necessary? Desperately, as the global population swells and more people seek healthy, physical outdoor pursuits. And as society’s daily dependence on technology grows, these large and distant refuges will seem ever more appealing.

It has never been my contention that every acre should be wilderness; there are other valid forms of outdoor recreation, and they have their place, too. But none value remoteness in the way that wilderness recreation does. You can create an attractive mountain bike trail network anywhere, even on a suburban college campus, but wilderness has unique requirements of size and distance. The Adirondacks do wilderness well; Poughkeepsie, not so much.

Given the prospect of another four years of Cuomo, I doubt land acquisition will be the primary source of new wilderness acreage, but there are other possibilities. Though it may seem counterintuitive to some, the most intriguing prospect might be in partnering with local government to find areas of common interest, and expand existing wilderness areas through cooperation and mutual effort. Could it be done? Call me foolishly optimistic, but I’d like to think there are opportunities.

Photo of High Peaks Wilderness Area by Carl Heilman II.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Bill Ingersoll is the chairman of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, formed in 2016 to speak on behalf of the wilderness character of the Forest Preserve. He has hiked and backpacked in wildernesses across America, but feels most at home in the grand forests of the Adirondacks. He is the publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks guidebook series, and his articles and photos have appeared in Adirondack Explorer, Adirondack Sports & Fitness, and Adirondack Life magazines. You will find him exploring the North Country with his dog Bella in all four seasons, by trail, snowshoe, and canoe.

21 Responses

  1. Justin Farrell says:

    Nice job Bill. Telling it like it is, as always. Keep up the good work! Looking forward to reading Mr. Simpson’s point of view also, but it’s hard to dispute that the world could use more places like Loomis Pond, or the Metcalf Chain of Lakes, or South Pond, or the Devil’s Washdish…

  2. Timothy Mount says:

    I agree, Bill. Sometimes it’s just the idea of wilderness that thrills me.

  3. Peter Klein says:

    Sorry Bill, but you should know well enough all state land is wilderness once you get off the trails. What it says on maps doesn’t change the reality on the ground.

  4. Har Mar says:

    Last year I was up in Speculator enjoying a weeks vacation I had the opportunity stop in a small Deli and purchase myself breakfast while waiting, another man sat down on the bench he too placed an order for breakfast.
    We struck up a conversation and to my surprise alcohol and a lot of the young people there moving out of that area codes is nothing there for them that includes employment and entertainment
    Without the younger generation what do you have

  5. Boreas says:

    “but you should know well enough all state land is wilderness once you get off the trails.”.

    So if this is true (which it isn’t), why not classify it as such? Being off-trail in a forest is not the same as being in the wilderness or in an area classified as Wilderness.

    At least for now, only state lands within the Blue Line can receive the APA designation of Wilderness. Mr. Ingersoll isn’t advocating making all forests within the Blue Line Wilderness, but rather adding to the Wilderness areas where it makes the most sense. The network of roads within the Park makes large, contiguous areas of wilderness problematic, but not impossible.

    Adding to Wilderness may amount to nothing more than re-classification of existing state land. But this can go both ways. Perhaps re-classifying areas of Wilderness to Wild Forest or Intensive Use (High Peaks?) makes sense as well. But I believe Mr. Ingersoll is right with his assertion that more wilderness (or Wilderness) only enhances the intrinsic WILDNESS of the Park – a concept that should be extrapolated throughout North America and the rest of the world.

    • James Bullard says:

      “Being off-trail in a forest is not the same as being in the wilderness or in an area classified as Wilderness.” Really? When you are in the woods are you thinking about what the DEC officially labels it? Or are you enjoying the wild environment around you regardless of its classification? I am the latter and I think “wilderness” is a subjective POV.

      • Boreas says:


        Well, since you ask, when I am immersed in wilderness, I am thinking I am in a WILD place and a simple forest isn’t. It is a sense of primitive magnitude and expanse. I don’t get that from a 20 acre forest. When I am in wilderness, I do not expect to hear cars or snowmobiles. Nor do I expect a quick 5 minute walk back to a road or even help if I am lost or injured. I pay more attention and am more careful of my actions. When I am in wilderness, I see wildlife on their own terms instead of how they behave around humans they are used to seeing.

        I too enjoy being in the woods regardless of its classification. Where you are getting the idea that people who enjoy wilderness ONLY enjoy wilderness? I can’t think of any outdoors-oriented person who only visits Wilderness areas. But many of us do feel it is a different experience even though you may not appreciate the difference. There is less wilderness in the world every day as civilization and extraction industries encroach on it. Some of us just feel there should be more of it, not less. We’re not trying to take over the world, just trying to keep areas of it in a wild state.

        And I totally agree – wilderness IS subjective. A person who grew up in a big city may feel the woods behind my house is wilderness – it sure looks like it. NYS is simply trying to make wilderness LESS subjective by creating areas that meet their current criteria for a designation of Wilderness. I see no harm in this.

        • geogymn says:

          Good response. Whilst walking in a 20 acre forest I need no preparation, and might bring nothing but my street clothes. I will not enter the big woods without my survival gear. I become much more aware, I need to be much more aware. Life is more acute, sweeter but acute.

  6. Bill Keller says:

    “There are 46 High Peaks, but there are many more spots so quiet and remote that years may pass between human visitations”. Ain’t that the truth,but let’s not publicize it.Keep those visitors in the High Peaks so they don’t ruin the Daks that I enjoy. Selfish aren’t I. But that’s the best way to protect it. Is it really wild when you have 200 people a day using a trail in the high peaks?

    • Boreas says:


      Local communities are beginning to steer people away from the HPW to enhance their experience of the Park, which may lead to some quiet areas becoming less so. So, just like fishing, mum’s the word on our favorite spots – because once Instagram finds them, they are lost!

      • Boreas says:

        John Warren,

        FWIW, I just noticed some of the last few posts were actually logged an hour in advance – at 11:30 am instead of 10:30am. Bill Keller’s post was also advanced an hour ahead. I am writing this at 10:43 am. No big deal – just thought you should know.

    • Tom Kligerman says:

      Now at age 60, my first trip to the Adks was when I was 17 and did a weekend backpack into the (long removed) Plateau leanto, climbing Haystack on Day 1 and Mt Marcy on Day 2. A few years later, I started skiing Mt Marcy a couple times each winter. I recall, I think it was 1989 or 1990, when we skiied to the top of Marcy on a brilliant sunny day, the reflective warmth and zero wind making it even balmy on top. That day, there were perhaps 30 people on top, including a 12 year old girl who had snowshoed with her dad; and a guy in homemade snowshoes, made from Type M copper tubing sweat soldered. We all had a blast talking and enjoying the views and the day – AND NO CELL PHONES! Was that a wilderness experience? You betcha! We were all still over 7 miles from a road, we all got there on foot, and if a freak storm had blown up, we’d have all been potentially in deep doo-doo, being, ya know, in the wilderness. It is the CELL PHONE, not the extra crowds, that has the potential to DILUTE wilderness and the healthy respect people had for it. I don’t think anyone has topped Bob Marshall’s sound byte on why wilderness is necessary – “What use are 40 Freedoms, without a blank spot on the map?” (If Bob were here today, he might add “without a no cell phone reception area on the map.”) And I certainly don’t limit my wilderness trips to High Peaks – one of my favorites was a few years ago, when we paddled across Cranberry Lake, into the Five Ponds Wilderness, made the 4 mile portage over to Grass Pond on Bog River Flow, camped out and then eventually paddled the 13 miles east to the Lower Dam. Another great trip, actually technically in the High peaks wilderness but involving zero peaks, is when a few years ago, we skiied from Coreys to Newcomb – about 22 miles on the horse trail system, to Moose Pond and then out to Rt 28N in Newcomb. And then there’s my fave winter trip in the Siamese Ponds wilderness – start at Kings Flow, bushwhack up Humphrey Brook (20 below temps for a week are needed to freeze the brook properly), then at the height of land, ski down to the two Siamese Ponds and then out on the trail to Rt 8. These trips are just 0.001% of what’s possible now and NO, they Do NOT exist outside of large protected land chunks like we have here in the Adks. It’s a world treasure and don’t take my word for it, as I have met people who have been to every major park in the world and they said they have never seen such an amazing combination of protected land, but where it’s still possible to live and buy a home right in the midst of it. Yes, we need more wilderness.

  7. James Marco says:

    Well, said! So many things need to be balanced with our environment…including the number of people in it.

  8. Dave Bousquet says:

    Park is accessible to only the young and those able to walk, but if your old and disabled your out of luck. Those who don’t purchase any license get to use it all for free.

    • John Warren says:

      False, almost every inch of the park is within 3 miles of a road, you can literally drive to most of the Park, including into most of the large lakes and many of the small ones. There are dozens of trails and campsites designed for those who use wheel chairs across the Park. There are special permits for people with limited mobility and all kinds of accommodations are available.

    • Boreas says:



      Even our newest acquisition, Boreas Ponds, will have reserved parking and access at the closest point vehicles will be allowed.

  9. Curt Austin says:

    I find myself right in the middle of this argument. I favor the status quo, approximately. I expressly reject extreme or alarmist views, or excessive bureaucracy or lawyerly positions. I want the Adirondacks managed reasonably.

    Though a moderate position, I feel strongly about it. I feel justified because I’m old! I have experienced the Adirondacks from many different points of view, beginning in the 1950s. Some feel uncomfortable about holding simultaneous points of view, and choose just one. That’s the definition of narrow-mindedness.

  10. Dick Millet says:

    I’m with you, Bill. Sure Cuomo may not be the best steward of wilderness the state has ever had, but he’s hardly the worst.

    We’re way past the point where we should be debating “is there enough wilderness?”. For all intents and purposes, there is no wilderness left. Anywhere in the world. The answer is NO, there is not enough wilderness. And any opportunity to set aside more, anywhere in the world, should be taken. Realistically, the first world is the only place where this debate can even happen. And we should be arguing for setting aside as much land as is possible. Now, before it’s too late. In fact, it’s actually far too late, but we can still make the effort. Before everything is paved over and all economic value is fully extracted. Save what we can. Maybe someday humanity will realize how much we’ve lost in the neverending quest for profit.

    Someday, all this drive for who can die with the most will seem stupid and immature. Until then, we should be fighting the forces of greed and doing all we can to save the planet for our children and grandchildren. With luck, there will still be enough left for them to understand and to want to do the same.

    Dick Millet

  11. David says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s ironic though, how interest in the wilderness threatens it. How can this energy be made more productive?

  12. Kyle says:

    I think it’s worth mentioning that many areas that are getting destroyed the past few decades are subjected to that treatment by the organizations bent on making the areas more & more accessible to everybody. i.e. long wooden & stone stairs built up the sides of mountains where before you had to have at least reasonable climbing skills and equipment to get through, now just about any couch potato can walk on in. Sometimes carrying kegs of beer and generators. Just waiting to see the first installation of an escalator to the top of Marcy.

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