Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Wilderness Training to Match our Mountains

The stress of our sheer numbers on wild lands, other hikers, summit stewards, forest and assistant rangers and local communities and volunteers bordering Routes 73 and 86 this hiking season – and many before this – easily disconnects and untethers us from the historical and philosophical roots of wilderness preservation and management.

None of what gets debated weekly about the High Peaks is truly untethered from these historical roots. As Almanack contributor Ed Zahniser has written, “take courage for your own work for visitor use management in wilderness. It has a history, a history set in concern for the common good, a history stemming from the American people’s long-standing concern to protect some remnant of our public lands in their wild, natural state. “

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” He traced the roots of the word wilderness to mean self-willed land, or in our modern parlance the entire biota: land, air, water, flora, and fauna. Therefore, it is important that our modern wilderness managers, trail gurus, and advisory groups grasp that the fundamental character of wilderness resides in its self-willed-ness, in its wildness. Howard Zahniser, author of the 1964 National Wilderness Preservation Act, said we must always keep in mind that the essential character of wilderness is its wildness.

Reflections on wilderness: A ‘more-than-human world’

Those historical and philosophical roots are much in evidence within the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (2018 update of the 1972 original) and the High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan of 1999, and many other Forest Preserve management plans. The authors and managers of these plans, past and present, are familiar with these roots. Beginning in 1885, the Forest Preserve itself is where those roots started to spread. As Howard Zahniser asserted many times, the Forest Preserve and Article 14 inspired and instructed him throughout his work with the Wilderness Society, work that included 66 drafts of the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964. We are, Howard Zahniser maintained, where wilderness preservation began in America.

Beyond the frequent headaches of more of us competing for limited parking space, trail space, summit space on a few popular peaks near Keene and North Elba lies work for wilderness management that many seek because it is more-than-human work for a more-than-human world. This is a world that is deeply rooted in human history – as we evolved with and in a wild state, but this is also a world which transports us outside of ourselves and the mechanized, plugged-in world we typically inhabit.

Whether hiker or not, our species longs to reconnect with wildness and with wilderness in thought and in deed, where we do not dominate the land, where we in fact are called upon to exercise maximum restraint.  Most simply want and need to know that such free-willed land and wilderness exists and functions today. As Howard Zahniser said we all in fact are “part of the wildness of the universe.” Aldo Leopold wrote his famous A Sand County Almanac (1947). Leopold also sat on the first governing council of The Wilderness Society (1935-). Leopold said the weeds growing in cracks in city sidewalks teach the same ecological lessons that Redwood trees do. In other words, the wild is ever at hand.

Training and education programs

The naturalist John Hay wrote that wilderness is not just designated areas but “the Earth’s immortal genius.” This is the sense in which Gary Snyder says wilderness is the “planetary intelligence.” Ed Zahniser’s writing reminds me that wildness is as close as the teeming number of mites living on my and your scalp. We come into and leave this world as wild things. Wildness can be that close and that personal.

Moving from the personal to the practical, how do we keep the wildness in wilderness? One way is through user management. How to we obtain excellence in that? Partially, through regular training. As my former board chair Peter Brinkley asserted at a Wilderness Conference we sponsored in Old Forge some years back “nobody with a straight face can tell me that we have today the training facilities and programs for our wilderness students, managers and administrators that match our mountains.” We need training commitments and resources that will match the mountains in terms of prominence, excellence, and permanence. This is not just a state responsibility, but requires and deserves private sector partners, he concluded.

Our conference near Old Forge was designed with the premise that folks are not born to be wilderness stewards. Care and stewardship can be stimulated by our life experiences, but it is also learned activity. Joining our Old Forge conference was the then-director of Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center in Missoula, MT. Connie Myers explained its origins:

“Members of the Congress were appropriating money for training in this area that was not being well spent. These members audited the federal government and this led to an intensive wilderness planning effort, as well as legislation to create a center and research institute devoted strictly to training people for the mission laid out under the National Wilderness Act of 1964. Our mission extends beyond the federal agencies and involves the public in our training.”

She further explained that the Carhart Center, named after a young federal employee who called for wilderness conditions on federal land in Colorado back in 1919, was comprised of just seven employees representing the National Park Service, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. It has a board of directors with university partners. “Networking with others and exporting the training beyond Montana is a critical job at the Center,” she said.

Myers offered to help New York put together a course for and about wilderness here and our needs for wilderness user management. “We are here to help,” she said. She also advanced the concept of a professional organization devoted to the needs of those working in wilderness stewardship and education. “While the Carhart Center does not directly advocate for Wilderness designations and protection, she said, “we train people in awareness and compliance with the National Wilderness Act and strive to always be at the table when wilderness issues are under discussion.”

“Wilderness trainers are too much like the boy and the girl walking on parallel trails and forgetting to hold hands,” she said. In other words, do not feel isolated and do not reinvent the wheel. Instead, “only by holding hands will we be able to move forward for wilderness.”

Echoing her was another conference participant who worked for the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. “We need constant communication and dialogue to preserve and restore the wilderness areas that we enjoy,” said Rebecca Oreskes. She proposed a wilderness stewardship training workshop involving students, trip leaders, rangers, and managers from the White, Green and Adirondack Mountains. “Why not have home-grown, on-the-ground stories and demonstrations of what is working and what is required to be a wilderness steward” she asked. Our planning varies from state to state, but “we have an enormous amount to share with each other.”

Fast forward to today

So, what happened? A few years later, we sponsored a National Wilderness conference at Lake George, the purpose of which was less on philosophical underpinnings and more on case studies of how to preserve, maintain and restore Wilderness resources, and the tough alternative management choices that must be weighed and judged. That conference also brought in state and national wilderness leaders. Dr. Chad Dawson, then professor of recreation at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, led the planning of that event. For the past four years, Chad has served the public as a member of the Adirondack Park Agency, where his advice and assistance on matters of wild land and water recreation management is much in demand. Chad’s deep and detailed knowledge of wilderness user management is always close at hand for readers of Wilderness Management: Protection and Stewardship of Resources and Values (Dawson and Hendee, editors, 4th edition, 2009).

Another point of progress: Walter Linck and Karyn Richards, of the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation respectively, spearheaded in-house Forest Preserve training for their agency’s public land teams. I heard about some of that training and was invited to one of the sessions. It was stimulating. Lots of folks seemed engaged and good questions and answer sessions about perplexing management issues ensued. Unfortunately, this joint APA-DEC training initiative lacked permanence and, to my knowledge, has not been repeated in recent years. However, periodically I hear that DEC sends staff selectively to attend training at the National Fish and Wildlife Training Center in West Virginia. I do not know if that continues.

DEC’s program of backcountry stewards, May-October, did germinate and grow and has sustained itself, as has the department’s once a year annual training for all the stewards, front and backcountry including the Summit Stewards. It was scheduled in 2020 but had to be cancelled due to Covid.  Also, not for profit organizations have stepped up to fill this important need for annual training, from summit stewardship to aquatic stewardship on our lakes. Adirondack Wild contributed with the first wildland stewardship conference in many years at Paul Smith’s College (2012). The Adirondack Mountain Club, Paul Smith’s Watershed Institute and many others have carried the training ball forward since.

Much more to be done

Is the constant communication and training necessary to preserve and restore the Wilderness areas that we all enjoy meeting the challenge set at the Old Forge conference? Do we, as our former chair Peter Brinkley asked, have the training facilities and programs for our wilderness students, managers and administrators that match our mountains? Not even close. Much progress has been made, but it appears insufficient.  The NYS Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, the only constitutionally protected set of forest ecosystems in North America, deserves a prominent, permanent, and excellent training center for wilderness user management and networking. Perhaps this becomes a joint training center with the White and Green Mountain National Forest staff. We do have an enormous amount to share with each other.

For this post I borrowed heavily from Ed Zahniser’s presentation “Visitor Use Management in Wilderness” at a Carhart Center workshop in Sturbridge, MA. titled Working for a Wilderness Forever: The Real Work of Wilderness Preservation for Our Historical Moment. Thank you, Ed.  Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer – a memoir of Hillmount Farms

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

13 Responses

  1. Pete says:

    If we want to look at the ‘philosophical roots’ of the Adirondack “Park” we should note that Verplank Colvin advocated for preservation of the Adirondacks as a natural resource, but the two groups that really supported the creation of the Forest Preserve via constitutional amendment were business/industry and sportsmen.

    Neither of these groups intended it to be “wilderness” that was difficult to access and/or virtually untouched by the hand of man as some environmentalists have been pushed for over the last few decades. The business people were concerned about shipping, i.e. loss of the watershed for the Eire Canal and Hudson/Mohawk Rivers, and the sportsmen were concerned about the loss of hunting and fishing and other recreational opportunities due to excessive timber harvesting / clear cutting.

    I do not believe either group intended to lock up the Forest Preserve from public use to the extent that we now see, particularly in the “Wilderness” classification.

    This is not to say I don’t believe there should be some effort to limit overuse. And there definitely needs to be a better effort to educate the novice users because there is an obvious lack of outdoor ‘common sense.’

    • Boreas says:

      Have I missed something? What part of the Forest Preserve is “locked up”? Where is hiking, hunting, fishing, paddling access prohibited? Weren’t they the primary means of access when the Forest Preserve was created?

  2. Pete says:

    You can’t ride a mountain bike or ride a horse in the “Wilderness.” You can’t snowmobile anywhere on the Forest Preserve but designated trails. Snowmobile trails that were acceptable for 50 years now designated to be closed because they are in the “remote interior” of wild forest. Roads that until a few years ago were used by log trucks closed to anything but foot traffic once the state took over. Environmental groups brought a lawsuit to prevent multi-use trail construction by DEC, resulting in an absurd ruling that any twig is “timber.” Fire towers and interior ranger stations pulled out… The intent of Article 14 was to stop wholesale logging, not stop reasonable access and use by the public. In the 1880s there were really no motor vehicles or mountain bikes so they are not mentioned, but I’m sure if they existed then, there would have been no effort to ban them. Definite bias against anything but people walking or paddling.

  3. CK1 says:

    It seems to me that there is a considerable non- wilderness designated land within the park that is suitable for mountain bike and snowmobile trail development. I say this as an avid mountain biker who would like to see more (any) mountain bike specific trails. Why is there not more effort or success to develop these outside of wilderness boundaries?

    • Steve B. says:

      I think that trail development for mt. biking is very dependent on locals in clubs who can volunteer to do the work to build trails. It’s been a slow process over the decades that this sport has been popular, but it’s slowly happening and I see more and more trail systems getting built. Certainly the state does not have the resources and in any event any trail building is going to go towards hardening and maintaining the heavily used hiking trails in the EHPW.

      So you need locals (or folks who live in the region) who have the time and resources to volunteer. There seems to be too few of those and in reality the answer is if you want more trials you need to step up to the plate and volunteer to get them built. I’ve done that locally (Long Island) and after 30 years starting from nothing, we now have near 200 miles of dedicated mt. bike trials in 15 different systems.

      • Pete says:

        Actually, depending on “locals” for trail building and maintenance is not the way to go.

        Unless you can demonstrate to the “locals” that putting time and money in to building trails will benefit them there is no reason for them to do it. Most of the “locals” are too busy trying to make a living because most jobs (outside of state and to some extent county or local government jobs) do not pay well. It is very much a ‘gig economy’ with people working multiple or seasonal jobs, cleaning ‘camps’ for the second-homers, etc. Mountain bike trails (or hiking trails) are not seen as something that brings in big bucks to the local economy.

        Even snowmobile trails, which local businesses know attract people who spend lots of money, get mixed support; and in fact a lot of the volunteers who work on trails are not “locals.” They come on weekends in the fall to do preseason trail work and they give up actual riding time to operate groomers and do other maintenance during the winter.

        So if you want good mountain bike trails then you have to find a few locals who are interested and form a club with all the out-of-area people who will be the primary trail users. They are going to have to come and give up riding time do most of the trail work. And you also have to convince the state to allow you to build or improve trails for mountain bike use. (Good luck with that.)

        • Tony Goodwin says:


          The “locals” of the Bark Eater Trails Alliance (BETA) have built and maintained several systems of mountain bike trails on several different pieces of wild forest lands near Wilmington. Additional construction is planned near Saranac Lake on the Saranac Lake Wild Forest. We just have to get past the ruling that ‘twigs are timber’ so they can cut a few twigs to create those trails.

  4. Stephen G Rose says:

    I don’t read anything here about Indigenous leadership of wilderness management. White people continue to think that this is their land, when white tenure is relatively recent history. Indigenous people understand sustainable relationships with the land, but indigenous removal was the white man’s approach. Intentional spreading of a pandemic and direct violence were part of that removal. Now we have white people arguing over whose white vision we have to follow. Is it really that hard to see the arrogance in these battles over how we should treat stolen property? Indigenous people don’t see the land as wilderness, recreation venue, or economic resource. White people have much to learn about how to live.

    • Phillip says:

      I don’t believe white people are capable about learning the proper way to live. As a young child i would watch Grandmother, Mother, and sisters make baskets during the winter months.These baskets were sold “roadside” to the tourist during the summer months. Once I observed a well to do white women pay for one basket, yet slip 2 into her bag. As she was leaving I told Mother what I had witnessed. Mother said she Knew, explained that women needs that basket more then we need the money, Let it be. I was confused. How could that obvious well to do white women need a 35 cent basket more then we needed the money? Several nights my siblings and I sat around a single bowl of popcorn as our supper. I never had a real winter coat until I was 12 years old . And this women is stealing a 35 cent basket from us? Grandmother explained it to me this way. White people never have enough. They will take and take by whatever means possible. their punishment for this is they will never know satisfaction. What a terrible way of life that must be.

      • Pete says:

        “White people never have enough. They will take and take by whatever means possible…” What a racist statement.

        • Phillip says:

          Peter, my grandmother, god rest her soul had been called many offensive names over her years by white folk but I think you hit the all time low by calling her a racist.
          Perhaps you should educate yourself by reading a couple books on the matter. May I suggest starting with, Bury my heart at wounded knee by Dee Brown
          When done please come back and tell us who the racist people are!

          • Pete says:

            If I said “Black people are not capable of learning the proper way to live” would that be a racist statement?

  5. David Gibson says:

    Thank you Stephen Rose for your insightful comments. Caucasians who came over and feared the forests and the american indian communities they encountered still, four centuries on, separate ourselves from nature and natural history. Native americans never have. The wilderness/wild lands movement since the 19th century is an ongoing attempt to redefine ethical relations with land and with progress and to leave room for permanence as for change, But living in harmony with our home places, wherever they may be, ona daily basis and viewing ourselves as integral and responsible members of the natural world remains elusive.