DEC’s decision not to rebuild the structure at Duck Hole raises questions about the future of other artificial lakes in the Forest Preserve.
By Phil Brown
Before Tropical Storm Irene, hikers had urged the state to repair the old logging dam at Duck Hole to preserve its impoundment, a charming brook-trout pond ringed by mountains in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. When Irene’s floods broke the dam, emptying most of the pond, the state Department of Environmental Conservation was forced to make a decision, and it chose not to rebuild.
In part, the department’s rationale was practical. Given the remoteness of Duck Hole and rules restricting motorized access in Wilderness Areas, getting materials to the site would be problematic. Also, reconstructing the timber-crib dam to modern standards would be expensive (it’s estimated that an engineering study alone would cost $100,000).
But DEC’s decision was philosophical, too: the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan defines a Wilderness Area as a region of primeval character “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
Nevertheless, the State Land Master Plan does allow for the reconstruction of existing dams in Wilderness Areas. Christopher Amato, who resigned in December as DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, sees this as a contradiction.
“The very definition of Wilderness is that the human imprint on the environment is not evident,” Amato said. “I can’t think of too many things that are as intrusive and manipulative of the environment as a dam.”
Amato and some environmental activists believe that dams have no place in Wilderness Areas.
And yet they are there. All told, the state owns about fifty dams in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, most of them built decades ago when logging companies owned the land. Besides the one at Duck Hole, five dams are in Wilderness Areas (six if you include the broken dam at the Flowed Lands west of Lake Colden). The rest are in areas designated as Primitive or Wild Forest, where rules against man-made structures are not as strict.
The Duck Hole situation raises questions about the future of other dams in Wilderness Areas and, indeed, throughout the Forest Preserve. Article 14 of the state constitution requires that the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Are dams consistent with this mandate?
“I don’t know,” Amato said. “It really depends on how you interpret ‘forever wild.’ Does a dam contravene the obligation that the Forest Preserve be kept as forever-wild land? There’s no black-and-white answer. I can see a court ruling either way.”
Although the State Land Master Plan allows dams in the Preserve, it does not trump the state constitution. In fact, the plan’s introduction advises that “no inference as to the constitutional appropriateness or inappropriateness of any given structure” should be drawn from the document.
Regardless of the constitutional question, DEC is not inclined to maintain or rebuild dams in Wilderness and Primitive Areas. A departmental policy manual declares that in most cases such dams “should be removed … when they become unsafe or are otherwise in need of replacement, reconstruction and/or rehabilitation.” But it goes on to list a number of reasons that might justify keeping a dam, such as maintaining a fishery, preserving a view, or providing recreation.
DEC is not considering dismantling dams in Wilderness Areas (that would be too expensive), but Amato and others contend that the structures should be allowed to deteriorate and not be reconstructed.
“Either you be true to the definition of Wilderness and not rebuild the dam or if the dam is that important you reclassify the area as something else,” Amato said. “But you can’t have it both ways.”
Since the dams in Wilderness Areas are not in imminent danger of collapsing, DEC is not under pressure to make any decisions right away—with the exception of Marcy Dam, a popular stop on the way to Mount Marcy, Avalanche Lake, and other places in the High Peaks.
The floods of Irene ripped out the sluice gate at Marcy Dam. As at Duck Hole, most of the water in the impoundment drained, leaving only a sluggish stream flowing through mudflats. Before Irene, Marcy Dam Pond with its backdrop of Wright Peak, Mount Colden, and Avalanche Pass had been one of the iconic scenes in the Adirondacks—and one of the most photographed.
No doubt many hikers would like to see the familiar vista restored, but DEC now is more worried about the loss of the bridge that once spanned the dam. It, too, was swept away by the floods. Since Irene, people have been forced to boulder-hop across Marcy Brook at a place known as the Squirrel Crossing, located about a quarter-mile downstream from the dam.
Given the popularity of the Marcy Dam trail, DEC is committed to building a new bridge, but whether it’s at the dam or someplace else will depend on an engineering study that assesses the condition of the wooden structure and its ability to support a footbridge. The study probably will be undertaken this year.
DEC has not ruled out repairing the dam itself. Tom Wemett, who fought for rebuilding the Duck Hole dam, regards that as a double standard.
“How can you justify rebuilding Marcy Dam and not Duck Hole? It’s in a Wilderness Area, subject to the same rules,” said Wemett, chairman of the Northville-Placid chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, said he would like to see the dam repaired. “For many New Yorkers, that classic beauty at Marcy Dam is their Adirondacks,” he said. “It serves so many New Yorkers that I feel it is justified.”
But if the dam is not fixed, Woodworth said, nature will heal the landscape. He pointed out that hikers created a hue and cry when DEC refused to repair the Flowed Lands dam in the 1980s, but the public eventually came to appreciate the new view.
“Wilderness is constantly changing,” Woodworth said. “I love the view from Marcy Dam, but it will grow into a different kind of beauty.”
John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said his organization opposes repairing the dam but probably would not kick up a big fuss “if it’s just a matter of replacing a couple of boards.”
Both the council and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve believe that, as a general rule, dams should not be rebuilt in Wilderness Areas, especially in the interior.
Other dams in Wilderness Areas exist at Cedar Lakes, Lake Colden, Pharaoh Lake, and Henderson Lake. Of these, the one in the worst shape impounds Cedar Lakes deep in the West Canada Lake Wilderness. Built in 1904, the dam is leaking, according to DEC spokesman David Winchell.
Both Woodworth and Wemett want the dam to be maintained. Like Duck Hole, Cedar Lakes is one of the more attractive camping spots along the Northville-Placid Trail. “It’s not as magical as Duck Hole, but it still has its magic,” Wemett remarked.
Evidently, though, DEC plans to allow the dam to deteriorate. “DEC will continue to monitor the dam and the dam will remain until it is removed by natural forces,” Winchell told the Explorer in an e-mail.
Without the dam, Cedar Lakes probably would revert to a series of three small ponds. Judging from a hydrographic map, DEC expects that the largest pond, about thirty feet deep, would be located at the southern end of Cedar Lakes.
The Lake Colden dam, rebuilt in 1980, shows no signs of failure. Like Marcy Dam before Irene, it impounds a water body with spectacular views in the High Peaks Wilderness and is very popular with backpackers. If the dam ever fails, Winchell said, “it appears that two smaller ponds approximately fifteen feet deep would remain.”
Likewise, the Pharaoh Lake dam, built in 1965, is in good shape. If it were to rupture, Winchell said, “most of Pharaoh Lake will remain … and it will still be plenty deep.” In other words, there would be no need to rename the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness.
The Henderson Lake dam is the odd one in the bunch. Whereas the others are relatively small structures, the Henderson dam is 250 feet long, constructed of earth and rock fill. It impounds a two-mile-long lake with breathtaking views of Wallface, Mount Colden, and other big peaks.
The state acquired the lake when it bought six thousand acres of the Tahawus Tract from the Open Space Institute in 2008. OSI reserved the right to generate electricity from the dam, but it has not done so. Although Henderson now lies within the High Peaks Wilderness, it’s hard to imagine the state ever allowing the dam to fail and the lake to shrink to its former self. In a nineteenth-century photo by Seneca Ray Stoddard, Indian Pass, from Lake Henderson, much of today’s lake appears to be a marshy wetland.
Woodworth said the state acquired the Tahawus Tract in part for the recreational value of Henderson Lake. “It would be a great loss [if the lake shrunk] and certainly not what the state bargained for when it purchased the property,” he said.
The Lower Lows Dam and Upper Lows Dam on the Bog River are in a somewhat similar situation. They are large dams (made of concrete) that greatly enhance the enjoyment of paddlers on the Bog River, Hitchins Pond, and Lows Lake. Even though the dams are in a Primitive Area, DEC plans to maintain them for the foreseeable future.
DEC could face more dams-in-wilderness conundrums in the years ahead. For instance, the state has plans to buy Boreas Ponds from the Nature Conservancy and add them to the Forest Preserve. Environmentalists already are saying that this water body should be classified as Wilderness. Yet it is enlarged by a dam.
Woodworth asserts that the dam enhances the recreational value of Boreas Ponds and so should be maintained. He contends that “reasonable” facilities that enable the public to enjoy the Forest Preserve do not violate the spirit of Article 14 or the State Land Master Plan.
“If you were a purist about Wilderness, we would not have any man-made structures in Wilderness, including trails,” he said. ■