Thursday, December 19, 2019

Viewpoint: Rethink Boreas Ponds Motor Vehicle Access

Large washout on Gulf Brook RoadThe 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.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




31 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    If you need to make a dirt road that doesn’t wash out or a dirt foot/horse trail that doesn’t wash out isn’t it just a matter of width? Trails like roads are going to require better culverts and drainage design to withstand the impact of more severe weather events.

  2. Tim says:

    What irks me is, they were “improving” that road during the open comments period.

  3. Boreas says:

    I was under the impression that the state was to spend the initial money to “upgrade” the roads, but after that, the town is responsible for repairs. Careful what you ask for…

  4. Scott says:

    A county highway engineer told me that they considered the 2019 Halloween storm and the 5″-8″ of rain in such a short time a once in a five hundred years level event.

    • Steve B. says:

      Which is happening every 3-5 years know. Old convention is no longer valid

      • Scott says:

        Bad storms often, yes. The amount of water from the 2019 Halloween night storm was way beyond anything me or anyone where I live has ever seen. Seven inches of rain in seven hours and we had so much rain in previous days that our rivers and creeks had crested the Monday prior to Halloween. A year ago they raised the bridge on my road ten feet and widened the abutments twenty feet each side (40ft wider). They did this because with our biggest rain floods the river crested the road sometimes 18″ deep. But the river never went over the old bridge. With this Halloween storm the new higher bridge was completely under water. That is just one of many examples from my area.

        • John Warren John Warren says:

          This has happened a number of times over the last 10-15 years. For example, the spring before Tropical Storm Irene, and then the storm itself. Another example is when both sides of the Northway washed out a few years before that. It happens every few years, just typically not at the same places.

  5. Justin Farrell says:

    What a difference a few years makes since it’s been open for public use. The amount of illegal makeshift campsites, littering, and unburied toilet paper that I’ve encountered around the Boreas Ponds during my visits since May ‘16 is enough for me to not care to visit the area again anytime soon. And now there’s a brand new lean-to, which will only attract more people who will recreate irresponsibly, just like the nearby Cheney Pond lean-to. Anyone been there recently & see the amount of trash there? It’s probably only a matter of time before the native Boreas Ponds trout population is compromised also,if it hasn’t been so already.

    • Chris says:

      Yikes. I wonder if there could be a site or wiki for uploading photos and documenting such problems in one place everyone could reference.

      The small picture in this article would really communicate the Boreas road washout situation much easier than a couple hundred word article.

      A reference, citizen-environment collection of photos and problem areas with a map index where one could mouse-over and see these issues, including the Connector tree cutting et al, would probably increase the impact of the sum of these disparate pieces and tie them all together.

    • Kathy says:

      I’m with you if Boreas is being littered and disrespected once it opened up…rather not be able to visit a trashed out once unique area. Saw it at it’s best before access was “improved” how sad it would be now in comparison .

    • Scott says:

      Hope it doesn’t happen but I worry now and have worried all along about the bucket biologists. Unlike trash and toilet paper, invasive fish species can’t be cleaned up.

    • Kathy says:

      No trash in 2017….but then access was limited…..
      if it’s getting trashed now then I would prefer it to go back to where it was unless the supporters of easier access care to organize weekly cleanups.
      Was the road a mess from Blue Ridge on in?

  6. Steve B. says:

    Good article.

    Makes me wonder what kind of continual repairs Finch-Pruyn was doing to the keep the road open ?. As well did the state maybe under estimate how well the road was constructed, combined with a desire at upper levels in the state to make the area an “anybody and everybody is invited” attitude which drove the decision to keep road access high on the list. Maybe time to re-think access.

    Part of me likes the idea of biking in to see what’s there. The other is OK with letting the road go back to nature

  7. Robert Gdyk says:

    Can’t they just pave it like Elk Lake Road? Whatever allows me to utilize my CP-3 permit will get a thumbs up from me.

    • ROBERT DIMARCO says:

      Saddens me that we humans always want something from nature, why can’t we just good mother earth alone, no humans allowed!

      • Robert Gdyk says:

        I’m a disabled veteran who’s only seeking easier access into the tract which accommodates a wider range of users than just the most physically fit. I’m not asking for anything more from nature that’s not already been authorized to everybody else. For argument sake of true wilderness preservation – loving stewardship – perhaps Boreas Ponds should have been off limits to all human traffic, turned over to the Nature Conservancy so that it would be forever wild. Well, that didn’t happen so it’s not my fault now if I choose to play there.

    • Boreas says:

      Robert,

      They could, but with numerous bad culverts, a paved road can wash out just as easily. On grades pavement can also create higher velocity run-off and more damage. Paving a bad roadbed isn’t a good long-term solution.

      Anyone who does much driving on seasonal roads knows washouts are a given – especially on steeper grades. The heavier the storm, the more washouts. It could be 20 years before there is another washout at Boreas, or 20 weeks. On a lumber road, culverts are done on the cheap and replaced when they fail. They aren’t built to DOT standards for high-speed motor vehicle use or safety.

      So DEC already knows many old culverts need to be replaced (or roads removed) because they have become barriers to aquatic life. This needs to be done on all of the existing roads, not just the ones approved for traffic. I don’t know how many were replaced during the recent grading, but it certainly wasn’t all.

      So, paved or not, you should still be able to use your CP-3 permit. We just need to wait until repairs are done.

  8. Phillip Bobrowski says:

    Every road is permanent, right up to the point when it’s not. Drainage. Grading. Repair. Recover. All are needed for every road ever built in America. Any cleared ROW will eventually be reclaimed by nature. Even a foot-trail needs maintenance.

    Each cross-culvert repair could easily cost SIX figures in replacement. With the potential SIX BILLION DOLLAR budget deficit NYS is currently facing, extending wilderness roadways may just be a LITTLE lower on the “requirement” entry under expenditures.

  9. Todd Eastman says:

    Every dime spent on maintaining this road, is ultimately stolen from the funds needed to maintain trails in the High Peaks…

  10. Peter says:

    DEC operations knows how to build forest roads that last. Give the seniors a break.

    • Boreas says:

      The problem is they are not “building” a road, and that is not in the SLMP – only improving and maintaining the current one. The road was closed much of the summer for “upgrading” the road. It didn’t last 3 months. Lipstick on a pig.

  11. JohnL says:

    Wow. How many times is this issue going to be ‘litigated’. We’ve heard all these arguments before, ad nauseum. Aren’t there new subjects of interest to be discussed?

  12. Charlie s says:

    “Aren’t there new subjects of interest to be discussed?”

    Yes! What about fifty years from now, a hundred years from now, when we’re all gone and all the mess we leave behind for those generations yet to be? Shouldn’t we be cultivating ideas on ways to preserve what little bit of undisturbed wildness is left so that they might possibly have some place to go to find peace which is surely going to be a rarity then. Let us talk about the future prosperity and greatness of places like Boreas Ponds, not the murder of them which is sure to come the way we go about with this erroneously conceived ‘old way’ of doing business.

    “is it a good ongoing policy to support car access to the Boreas Ponds?”

    To some of us who have less than an inkling of imagination and wisdom… a big YES.
    To others of us who, more than an inkling, are fair-minded, or know what it is to see ahead…a big NO!

  13. Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

    Take out the dam, let the pond drain naturally and soon the human desire to go there will drop off. After that very few people will care about removing the road. Nature will do the rest in good time.

  14. Mr. Robin DeLoria says:

    I worked for the Newcomb Highway Department for 32 years. Throughout those years we maintained 30 lane miles of dirt roads. One of the longest section was the now blacktopped Goodnow Flow Road leading into the Essex Chain Lakes Complex and Deer Pond. In all those years, I can honestly say, that we had very few major washouts, which would make passage by passengers cars impossible. In fact I can count on one hand the number of times we did and from experience tell the readers why.

    Our roads were properly maintained. The ditches and the culverts were established to carry storm water, the roads were crowned to allow run off and the material base was suitable to withstand heavy driving rain.

    When the Town of Newcomb signed an agreement with the DEC to maintain “public access” to the Essex Chain Lakes Road within the first year we repaired a wash out that was 20 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Then entire road section simply vanished. This “event” was due to inadequate maintenance. The ditches were full of debris, the culverts were plugged and the road was not crowned properly.

    To the “View Point: Rethink Boreas Ponds Motor Vehicle Access“, the Halloween Storm was a simple event. Compared to what I have seen in the past, the minimal washouts are not as dramatic as the author suggest. To an experience highway worker, the damage created by the storm becomes a structural design template so that when the repairs are made in the spring of 2020, the water will be given a place to go, so as to prevent wash outs of this magnitude.

    The Gulf Brook Road, provides access and parking for the handicap and elderly.

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