Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The tension surrounding wilderness dams

duck hole

Very few structures conform to the rigorous restrictions imposed on Adirondack wilderness areas – unless you are talking about dams.

Largely a remnant of the region’s logging industry, structures that impound the headwaters of scenic and wild rivers dot the park’s most remote corners. While no new dams can be built in wilderness areas, existing ones can be maintained, one of the few structures considered conforming.

Despite management plans that suggest the state should maintain its most remote dams, some have fallen deep into disrepair, while others have succumbed to storms in recent years (see Duck Hole and Marcy dams).

I explored the inherent tension and deteriorating condition of Adirondack wilderness dams for our last story in a series on Adirondack dams.

I visited what has grown up in the once-flooded Duck Hole and checked in on Cedar Lakes in West Canada Lake Wilderness, where dry rock bed marks a slight drop in water level as a dam there continues to fall apart.

I also spoke with recreation and nature enthusiasts about the conflicting views many have about wilderness dams. On the one hand, they maintain scenic vistas, fisheries and important wetlands habitat. On the other hand, they restrict the free flow of the park’s wildest rivers.

The presence of dams have also influenced the outcomes of recent state land classification debates, at times defining the limits of possible wilderness as state officials consider only options that place existing dams into administrative areas – rather than adopt the logistical constraints of managing a dam in wilderness.

Adirondack guide and educator Matt Burnett said the fate of Duck Hole was symbolic of the Adirondack wilderness, both disfigured and protected by humans, always changing. He said the place was both special before and after the dam breached during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“My heart would have said I want it to last forever,” Burnett said on a trip to Duck Hole he guided last summer with a group of local high schoolers. “My pragmatic side says we can still come here, still use it, it’s going on to its next chapter.”

Imperial Mills Dam is expected to see major repairs in the coming years, including a new fish ladder that would allow salmon to reach traditional spawning grounds. Photo by Benjamin Chambers

In other dam news… my colleague Mike Lynch reported an update on a string of dams on the Saranac River. The dams in and around Plattsburgh are stout hurdles for salmon looking to migrate upstream to historic spawning grounds and a potential barrier to longstanding efforts to restore salmon populations in Lake Champlain.

After decades – really centuries – of fighting, anglers will finally see progress soon on a fish ladder at Imperial Mills Dam and the removal of the remains of other dams upstream of Plattsburgh. The work, which could still take a few years, will hopefully ease fish passage upstream.

Also, check out climate reporter Chloe Bennett’s discussion of how climate change could impact dams in the coming decades.

Photo at top: Duck Hole after the dam failed during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo by Carl Heilman II

This first appeared in Zach’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Zachary Matson has been an environmental reporter for the Explorer since October 2021. He is focused on the many issues impacting water and the people, plants and wildlife that rely on it in the Adirondack Park. Zach worked at daily newspapers in Missouri, Arizona and New York for nearly a decade, most recently working as the education reporter for six years at the Daily Gazette in Schenectady.

4 Responses

  1. Verner C Kreuter IV says:

    Do you remember the Duck Hole, Marcy, and Cedar lakes when there was actually a lake. So beautiful, just so beautiful. Ok, if we aren’t going to maintain dams let the on one every other lake in the ADK go. Fourth Lake, Sixth Lake. Let’s see what hundreds of people with real estate say when all they have is a river in front of them vs a lake and their property is worthless. Why then are they repairing Lowes Lake dam. There are no residence there. It is wilderness? Thank God they are. What a beautiful lake with great camping and wildlife and so remote. The nation has almost full employment. That means they are collecting lots of extra tax dollars. Maybe if we required ADK hikers to buy an annual pass for let’s say $10 with no money going to administration and users of lean tos to pay $5 per visit, which could be used to repair and build some new ones, there might be money to fix remote dams, bridges, walk ways. Hey, if you need people, we just got thousands of immigrants who might be seeking work to employ. To many excuses and not enough action in the ADK park. Truly, we need to maintain this park just like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Etc. I and all the 46ers of which I am summer and winter and seasons in-between and average Joe’s emplore you to take care of every existing dam and as couple of the destroyed dams. Marcy Dam is an eye sore getting thousands of visits every year. Hell, if you can build an ice cream stand at Heart Lake, which someone did, up our can fix that dam. Need an administrator, I’m retired but will do it if you can’t find a state employee. Thanks for listening. Please share with Kathy Hokle, Governor.

    • Rob says:

      Nothing should be shared with Kathy. She needs to go!!!

    • Smitty says:

      This is kind of off topic, but heck yes. Why not a $20 reservation fee for lean tos made on line. Maybe $6 for designated camp sites. I really hate the risk factor involved in not knowing if you can secure a camp site and really don’t relish the thought of having to share sleeping quarters with an unknown late night straggler. This isn’t the 1800s anymore. And the fee could support maintenance and construction.

    • D.Webb says:

      Both Verner and Rob, who have hit the nail on the head! Thanks so much.

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