“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.