By Phil Brown
I’ve heard it said that they’re not making any more wilderness—meaning that we’ve got to cherish what we have.
That may be true in a general sense, but not in a bureaucratic sense. Just this year, the Adirondack Park Agency expanded the High Peaks Wilderness Area to 274,000 acres. It is by far the largest designated wilderness area in the park and one of the largest east of the Mississippi.
Of course, the character of a landscape is not transformed by APA fiat. The wilderness designation is often aspirational. It’s a management tool whose aim is to allow land to return to a more or less primeval state.
The APA’s State Land Master Plan defines wilderness, in part, as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” It goes on to say that these areas should offer “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
Motorized recreation is prohibited in wilderness areas. No cars, no floatplanes, no powerboats, no snowmobiles, no drone launches. Bicycles are banned too. In contrast, bicycle riding and some motorized use are allowed in the less-restrictive wild forest areas—the other major category of state land in the park.
Wilderness areas are meant to offer an escape from modernity and its hubbub. They are places to nourish your soul, venture deep into the natural world, or test your physical limits. That’s not to say you can’t find these benefits in other parts of the “forever wild” forest preserve. On a summer weekend, you are more likely to find peace and quiet in the heart of the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest than on top of Mount Marcy. In general, though, wilderness is wilder than wild forest.
The park now has 1.16 million acres of designated wilderness. If you add in the St. Regis Canoe Area, the total rises to a little less than 1.2 million acres. In comparison, there are 1.3 million acres of wild forest. Some environmentalists contend that there should be at least as much wilderness as wild forest in the park, and over the years, they have set forth a number of proposals for making more wilderness. Following is a rundown on where these proposals stand. It should be noted that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has not endorsed any of them.
Bob Marshall Great Wilderness
The most ambitious proposal calls for a 408,000-acre wilderness area in the western Adirondacks named after Bob Marshall, who with his brother and family guide was the first to climb all 46 of the High Peaks. Marshall went on to become a founder of the Wilderness Society.
The Adirondack Council first proposed the Bob, as it’s often called, in its 1990 report Completing the Wilderness System. At the time, the state already owned 230,000 acres within the Bob’s boundaries, or 56 percent of the total. Since then, the state has acquired more land in the region, including Little Tupper Lake and environs, but large parcels remain in the hands of owners who have shown no inclination to sell.
Willie Janeway, the Council’s executive director, concedes that the Bob isn’t likely to be realized anytime soon. And he might be OK with that if the land is managed to maintain its ecological integrity and wild character. He noted that moose and other wildlife don’t care who owns the land.
“We are still pushing the idea of a large, intact forested landscape,” Janeway said. “Whether that becomes state-owned wilderness or not is a question we have to ask.”
The Council wants DEC to work with private landowners and other stakeholders to develop a management plan for the region. “Private property rights are to be respected. The principle of forever wild should be honored,” Janeway said. “Implementation of good complex or regional planning is good for wilderness preservation and community vitality.”
The Adirondack Council’s 1990 report also proposed establishing a 73,300-acre Boreal Wilderness in the vicinity of the Jordan River in the northwestern corner of the park. The coniferous and boggy habitat in this region resembles the taiga found much farther north in Canada. In contrast, the rest of the park, with the exception of the upper slopes in the High Peaks Wilderness, is largely temperate hardwood forest.
Most of the proposed Boreal Wilderness is privately owned, though much of it is somewhat protected by conservation easements. Janeway said the region has been logged heavily in recent years, leading him to believe the owners may be getting ready to sell. If that happens, the Council wants the state to buy.
“I am optimistic that a significant piece of the Boreal Wilderness could come to pass,” Janeway said.
The state owns a 12,034-acre tract in the heart of the region known as the Raquette-Jordan Primitive Area, which is managed more or less as wilderness (no motorized recreation). Janeway hopes the state will add to this parcel and reclassify it as wilderness. Meantime, the Council is re-examining its original proposal to determine whether its boundaries should be adjusted based on the latest science. It recently received a $45,000 grant to carry out that work.
Wild Rivers Wilderness
A third proposal in the Council’s report called for a 72,480-acre Wild Rivers Wilderness in the central Adirondacks, including the Essex Chain Lakes, Hudson Gorge, OK Slip Falls, and stretches of five major rivers.
Thanks to the purchase of the former Finch, Pruyn lands, the state now owns nearly all of the land in question. When classifying the new state lands in 2016, however, the Adirondack Park Agency did not consider the Council’s proposal. Rather, the agency established an Essex Chain Primitive Area and Hudson Gorge Wilderness, divided by a wild forest corridor that will be used for snowmobiling. Other lands in the area also are classified wild forest.
“The Adirondack Council accepts that original wilderness vision is not going to happen,” Janeway said.
Nevertheless, he said he can live with the status quo, noting that two of the Council’s major goals have been realized: motorboats are banned on the Essex Chain and the Hudson Gorge is protected as wilderness.
Another environmental group, Adirondack Wild, is less sanguine about the APA’s decision. It sued the agency and DEC, arguing that the snowmobile route would violate the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and other regulations. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year. The matter is now before the state Court of Appeals.
West Stony Creek Wilderness
In 2014, Protect the Adirondacks proposed creating a 12,850-acre West Stony Creek Wilderness in the southern Adirondacks. It would combine former Finch, Pruyn lands recently acquired by the state and pre-existing state land in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest.
Peter Bauer, Protect’s executive director, said the largely trail-less area contains old-growth forests, extensive wetlands, steep terrain, and six miles of West Stony Creek.
“All of the land that we included in our proposal is now forest preserve,” Bauer said. “All it would take is a reclassification.”
The APA, however, rejected the proposal in 2016 and added the Finch lands to the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest.
Bauer remains hopeful that the wilderness area will be established someday, but he doubts it will happen during the tenure of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“We think it has merit,” Bauer said. “We’ll continue to advocate for it.”
APA spokesman Keith McKeever did not answer emailed questions about the proposal.
Cotton Lake Wilderness
As the author/publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks guidebooks, Bill Ingersoll has seen far more of the park than most people. One of his favorite places is a remote part of the Black River Wild Forest in the southwestern Adirondacks. It’s a land of rolling hills with numerous streams and wetlands, and it has only one trail—a dead-end snowmobile route that gets little use.
“I see it as wilderness already,” Ingersoll said. “It’s just a matter of making that the official status.”
He proposes to create a 25,000-acre Cotton Lake Wilderness to ensure the region stays pristine. “There is no guarantee that down the road somebody might not get the brainy idea of running a snowmobile trail through it,” he said.
More than a decade ago, he set forth his proposal in a PowerPoint presentation to APA officials, but nothing came of it. Again, McKeever did not answer questions about the proposal.
Ingersoll, one of the founders of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, vowed to keep a watchful eye on this corner of the park and object if anything threatens its wildness.
Follensby Pond Wilderness
In 2008, the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy purchased Follensby Pond and its environs—14,600 acres, in all—with the intention of selling it to the state. The property had long been coveted by preservationists, most of whom hoped it would be protected as wilderness.
Bauer says the property could be combined with adjacent forest preserve to establish a Follensby Pond Wilderness (or perhaps Philosophers’ Camp Wilderness, commemorating Ralph Waldo Emerson’s visit in 1858). He added that the state also should look into purchasing neighboring wetlands on private land.
“Potentially it could reach 20,000 acres or a bit more,” Bauer said.
The Conservancy, however, is having second thoughts about selling the property to the state. A major concern is that opening the property to the public could threaten the lake-trout fishery in Follensby Pond, the largest privately owned lake in the Adirondacks.
The Adirondack Council’s Janeway understands the Conservancy’s reservations. He suggests that the Conservancy work with DEC and other interested parties to come up with a plan for managing the property to protect its natural resources.
“In the past the Council would say the state should buy it,” Janeway said. “Now we’re not so sure that is the best way to protect the lake trout.”
Bauer contends that the lake trout could be protected through fishing restrictions and other management regulations. “There are ways to protect the fishery even if it’s public forest preserve,” he said.
Another issue is that local officials oppose state acquisition of Follensby, arguing that it would eliminate forestry jobs. Follensby Park is located along the Raquette River east of Tupper Lake.
The six proposals described above do not exhaust the opportunities for expanding the Adirondack Park’s wilderness system.
The Whitney family, for example, owns 36,000 acres south of Little Tupper Lake. Dotted with lakes and ponds, the property would be a desirable destination for hiking and paddling. If acquired by the state, all or part of it could be added to the adjacent William C. Whitney Wilderness, which includes Little Tupper Lake and Lake Lila.
The Whitneys sold Little Tupper to the state in the late 1990s, but the family has not expressed any interest in selling the rest of its lands—to the state or anybody else.
“We don’t foresee this being for sale in the near future,” said John Hendrickson, who is married to Marylou Whitney.
Bauer would like to see another wilderness area established in the Madawaska Flow region of the northern Adirondacks. The state already owns about 5,800 acres, designated as the Madawaska Flow-Quebec Brook Primitive Area. Generally, wilderness areas must be at least 10,000 acres. Bauer wants the state to increase its holdings in the region.
“We look at the Madawaska area growing to the east and to the south to establish a Madawaska Wilderness Area in the range of 15,000 to 20,000 acres,” he said.
Bauer also said existing wilderness areas, such as the Silver Lake Wilderness and West Canada Lake Wilderness, could be expanded through state acquisition or reclassification of neighboring forest preserve lands.
Finally, Bauer encouraged DEC to keep sections of wild forest trail-less. Such places, he said, can offer the serenity and sense of remoteness usually associated with wilderness areas.
“The protection of wilderness areas in the Adirondacks is vital,” he said, “but equally important is keeping the wild in wild forest areas.”