The Grass River — or Grasse, as most now spell it — is one of the most beautiful rivers in the northwestern Adirondacks, though few know it well. That may change now that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has issued management plans for the 288-square-mile Grass River Management Unit.
As one who’s been lucky enough to explore this river drainage for a half century, I feel we’re at a turning point on this land. For about 20 years, conservation easements have allowed timber companies to cut trees and their taxes. In exchange, New York State gains public access for much of the year and the land is kept free from development. Some hunting clubs who have leased the lands for over a century have maintained hunting rights and exclusive access. Others have lost their camps in less favorable easement arrangements. Unfortunately, there’s a strong resentment against encroaching outsiders. I’ve heard reports of cyclists being chased off the roads. But I know of others who have been treated well at local camps.
The new DEC management plans will need to clarify boundaries to share the Grasse River among those who love it. What happens here may set the tone for the rest of the park’s public-private interface. Will we safeguard the ecological integrity of the land and respect historic uses, or will the land be cut over by each successive timber company and splintered from its forest past?
Today, the DEC is attempting the unprecedented. Never before has the Grasse River been treated as a complete unit. Open space is protected from development. A sustainable forestry program is set up for private profit. Wildlife habitat and a complete ecosystem is protected to provide clean air and water for all of us. And never before has the Grasse River been managed to preserve historic traditions like private hunting and yet allow the public to experience this mix of wildness, active timber management, trout streams, ponds and old-growth forest. Though everyone will need to give a little, I think the DEC is on the right track.
“Good fences make good neighbors” says a Robert Frost poem. The DEC management plans offer a chance for clear boundaries, “good fences,” to help clearly define where traditional hunting camps have exclusive rights, where motors are not allowed on the forest preserve, where an ATV multi-use trail will be allowed. All parties here could coexist and even thrive, but I’m wary of either the public or private clubs expecting too much of the DEC. Promises of trails to remote lakes like Church Pond, or boat launches on the North Branch, or bike trails at Lampson Falls, can only be accomplished with funding and staffing, which has been thin lately. Those venturing onto these lands need to be aware of the complex history of resistance to outside control, and to respect private camps. Welcome signs are unlikely. And those expecting High Peaks scenery will be disappointed. Grasse River beauty is subtle.
The DEC management plans make a clear link between popular forest preserve lands on the west with those on the east. Waterfalls like Lampson, Harper and Rainbow see heavy visitor use, but forest preserve parcels like Stone Dam and Church Pond are seldom visited and take effort to reach the old trees and quiet ponds. And the new DEC plans open extensive links to miles of biking, hiking and horse-back riding as well as roads for ATV and snowmobile use. Mutual respect and tolerance will be needed at a time when they seem in short supply. The Grasse River is part of the ongoing Adirondack experiment. We’ll need private clubs working with the public and DEC to actively manage and protect this unique region.
This spring I’ll walk to a lookout over the deep gorge of Gulf Brook and be grateful for the easements that allow me to do it. The Grasse River country may never attract many visitors, but its protection is a critical thread in the Adirondack fabric. This is country worth protecting and sharing.
This viewpoint was written by Tom Van de Water, who also provided the photo.
This essay 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.