The Adirondack Park Agency’s decision to classify the magnificent Boreas Ponds Tract to authorize motorized use of Gulf Brook Road is a done deal.
The State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC’s) management plan to improve that road, establish parking, and allow permitted cars to drive to within a couple hundred yards of the Boreas Ponds is in the implementation phase.
In other words, the governmental custodians of the Boreas Tract will be allowing vehicular access deep into the Boreas Tract. Now the only question is whether the Adirondacks itself will allow vehicular access deep into the Boreas Tract. I would not be too sure about that.
During the debate over the Boreas Tract, advocates for motorized access trumpeted the existing roads. We heard that these roads were essentially permanent features, designed to handle heavy vehicle traffic and not bound to disappear any time soon. “This tract can’t be classified as Wilderness because it isn’t Wilderness, it has roads,” went the conventional wisdom. “They’ll last for more than a century,” one commenter said at a public hearing. Well, this fall, Adirondack weather and hydrology took a damned good whack at that line of reasoning.
After the substantial storm at the end of October, Gulf Brook Road was closed by DEC due to “culvert damage and washout.” This happens all the time in the Adirondacks, so in itself that news was not necessarily noteworthy. Still, on the first weekend of December I decided to snowshoe in and take a good look. What I saw on Gulf Brook Road, over the six miles to LaBier Flow, was certainly culvert damage and washout, but that understates it considerably.
I saw more than a dozen washouts along the way, each sufficient to make passage by a car impossible. Some were small and relatively minor, cutting across the road top and creating furrows from a few inches to a foot or so deep, into and across the road bed. Some were major, blowing out culverts, and eroding the surrounding road from the base up. A couple of these had cut the road mostly or completely in two, to a width and depth of several feet.
In two or three spots the water had cascaded downslope and badly damaged a section of road with no culvert underneath. Needless to say Gulf Brook Road did not seem permanent. I imagined how thoroughly it would be decimated if it were unmaintained for a few years, to say nothing of how much that could be accelerated by some scarifying and culvert removal.
I know that the DEC put capital and extensive effort into upgrading Gulf Brook Road this summer. When I snowshoed in, there were dozens of numbered flags along the road marking places where new improvements needed to be made. That is not minor work. I have no idea of the budget impact, but given the State’s reluctance to spend money on heavily used backcountry infrastructure like High Peaks trails, I am more than a little interested.
More to the point, as a layperson, I’m highly skeptical the repairs will do the job. This was a single storm that badly damaged the road at more than a dozen points, including some where the current build had not contemplated the need for a culvert. We know such storms will become more common over time because of climate change. What will the next severe storm do? I imagined a road-access version of whack-a-mole: repair or improve fifty places and fifty more will need repair next time. Gulf Brook Road is mostly cut into hillside and not to great depth or width. It is demonstrably at the mercy of an increasingly volatile climate and a place that has massive water flow (it is no surprise that much of Boreas is world-class wetland).
With that said, I happily admit I could be wrong. I am no road engineer and have no qualifications to professionally assess how bad this damage really is or how likely it is to repeat. But I am pretty sure you will not see Gulf Brook Road open any time soon, and I will bet good money that the ongoing maintenance of this road is going to be a challenge. In the meantime, we will see what spring storms and runoff bring.
None of this is to disparage the DEC and the hard work they do. Rather, I mean to raise a policy question, namely: is it a good ongoing policy to support car access to the Boreas Ponds? Access by foot, mountain bike or horse in summer and skis, snowmobiles and snowshoes in winter, plus CP-3 access via horse or ATV, can all be accommodated without the effort needed to keep the road in a condition to safely support passenger cars.
Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, and thousands of citizens, believed classifying the entire tract as Wilderness and allowing Gulf Brook Road to revert to a foot, ski and equestrian trail would have been ideal, but even under the decided classification we can be smart with the resource. Repeated maintenance and potential rebuilding of Gulf Brook Road is an issue that deserves a closer look.
Photo of a washout on Gulf Brook Road by Pete Nelson.