Boreas Ponds Debate - Timothy Behuniak

View of Gothics and Pyramid from the Boreas Ponds land tract. 

The pending classification of the Boreas Ponds is a matter of heated debate. By now, most from the Adirondack region are familiar with the topic. For those who aren't, let me briefly fill you in with some much-needed objectivity and facts:

The state recently purchased the 20,000+-acre Boreas Ponds land tract from the Nature Conservancy. The Boreas Ponds lie within the Adirondack Park, between the High Peaks Wilderness and the Dix Mountain Wilderness. Other water bodies on the land tract include LaBier Flow, Boreas River, Lellaire Brook, Casey Brook, Slide Brook, White Lily Brook, Andrews Brook, Andrews Brook Tributary and Brant Brook. Additionally, leased camps on the tract may remain until October 2018. 

When the Adirondack Park receives new land, it is up to the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to amend the State Land Master Plan (SLMP), which classifies state land.  The APA was supposed to publicly release their classification decision a few months ago. Four proposals have been released by the APA,  but due to conflicting points of view and back-door politics, the final decision has yet to be made. (I know the link sends you to a website with an obvious slant, but it's a solid way to view the proposals if you ignore the text). 

The State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) asks land agencies to consider a full spectrum of options for land classification. Only four options were given, and all with motorized plans. The APA never gave a full spectrum of options. None include a full wilderness classification. 

Stakeholders in the decision include state agencies, scientists, local governments, sporting clubs, business owners and any one who could potentially visit the land (you and me). 

Currently, there are two main, conflicting points of view on how the Ponds should be classified. One point of view calls for a majority of the land classified as Wild Forest. The other point of view calls for a majority of the land classified as Wilderness.

A Wild Forest classification means that motor vehicles are allowed on the land. In this case, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorboats and cars are all potential candidates. A Wilderness classification means that absolutely no motor vehicles are allowed. In this case, hikers, bikers, snowshoers, skiers, canoeists, and kayakers are the potential candidates.

Before the state owned the Boreas Ponds land tract, the Nature Conservancy purchased it from the Finch Timber Company. Because of this, the argument for Wild Forest is that the land was never a wilderness area - at least since humans arrived. It was private property, which contained (and still contains) old logging roads, bridges, cabins, dams, and other manmade structures. So if it was never wilderness, why try to make it wilderness? Shouldn’t we as human beings utilize the existing logging roads to more easily access the Ponds and the land as a whole. (Currently, the closest accessible parking lot is a 3.5 mile walk to the dam). Additionally, access advocates propose that the chance to advertise the Boreas Ponds as a land consisting of ATV, snowmobile and motorized access would improve the economy of nearby towns.

However, Wilderness Advocates propose the idea that we have a unique opportunity. By classifying the tract as Wilderness, the State could potentially join the High Peaks Wilderness and the Dix Mountain Wilderness area, which would create one of the largest wilderness areas in the Northeast. Additionally, land surrounding Ponds hosts a variety of endangered plant and animal species, including Farwell's milfoil, Bicknell's Thrush, Northern Bog Aster, common loon, moose, brook trout and more. Further, if classified as wilderness the Boreas Ponds would be only the 4th large lake in the Adirondacks to be motor-free and in a backcountry setting. The rest top 100 largest lakes are motorized or accessible. Further, less than 4% of New York State’s land area is protected as Wilderness, and ninety-five percent of the Adirondacks is already within three miles of a public road or snowmobile trail. Lastly, Wilderness Advocates hold the idea that wilderness, too, could increase tourism and improve the economy of nearby towns.

Parking area 3.5 miles from the dam. 

Gate and trailhead at the parking area. 

Old lodge about a mile from the dam.

Old man-made pipe under a culvert near the ponds.

Dam and bridge at LaBier Flow. 

View from the dam

Now, a bit of my personal thinking:

Before you read my thoughts, I would like to express that the following argument is solely my own. Obviously, my opinions have been influenced by past experiences, education and interactions with various people. But, my opinions are independent and do not directly reflect those of my friends, family or past employers.

We all realize how complicated a topic the classification of the Boreas Ponds land tract is. This decision is bringing into play many ethical, economic, environmental and personal beliefs, as individuals and as the Adirondack Park community in whole. This classification is the epitome of human vs. environmental interests.

A little about me:

I am a twenty-year-old resident of New York State. My family has been recreating in and visiting the Adirondack Park before I was born. I grew up just outside of Albany, but have been hiking, photographing, paddling, fishing, camping, etc. within the Adirondacks since before I can recall. I became an Adirondack 46er while in high school and have also been an employee of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Professional Trail Crew for two consecutive summers. Coincidentally, I attend SUNY Plattsburgh. My decision to attend Plattsburgh ultimately fell on its proximity to the Adirondacks.  My love for the Park and its success runs deep and true. Although I am a millennial, I hope to be seen as a "true stakeholder." 

Page one under “Introduction” of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan has stated since 1972 and today still states: “If there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the Park must be paramount. Human use and enjoyment of those lands should be permitted and encouraged, so long as the resources in their physical and biological context as well as their social or psychological aspects are not degraded. This theme is drawn not only from the Adirondack Park Agency Act (Article 27 of the Executive Law - "The Act") and its legislative history, but also from a century of the public's demonstrated attitude toward the forest preserve and the Adirondack Park.”

The main point Access Advocates  makes clear throughout their commentary is that of economic success within surrounding towns  and the Park as a whole as it relates to the classification of the Boreas Ponds. However, the State Land Master Plan was set up to classify land on its capacity to withstand use so that New York’s natural resources would be prioritized over anyone’s economic pursuits.

To say that a portion of the hiking community and wilderness advocates “have little to no tolerance for other user groups in NYS, including people with disabilities” is a falsehood that has been perpetually thrown to the winds by Access Advocates. Allowing access to new land is important. Having firsthand wilderness experiences is what gives people a wilderness appreciation in the first place. But if that access simultaneously degrades the wilderness experiences that people flock to be a part of, then why bother? I believe it is more selfish to think short-term by allowing “access for all” than it is to think long-term by understanding that “access for all” will ultimately degrade the Boreas Ponds land tract, by means of conditions such as noise pollution and overcrowding. It’s quite ironic when one starts to realize they're simply escaping from an overcrowding city or suburbia to an overcrowded mountaintop, hiking trail or lake.

Don’t we all deserve wild, remote wilderness like Boreas Ponds? Horse and wagon and motorized wheelchairs are permitted in Wilderness areas so that we can all have access to places far from crowded parking lots. Access advocates often argue that “… [people with disabilities] … will never get to see the views from the top of our High Peaks…” With this, I’d like to remind readers that there is a highway leading to the summit of Whiteface mountain, the 5th tallest High Peak. Further, access advocates state that the Boreas Ponds should be classified under Alternative 1, rather than a complete Wilderness, so as to give people with disabilities the opportunity to witness “beauty comparable to Avalanche Pass.” I think it's important to remember that horse and wagon and motorized wheelchairs are allowed in Wilderness areas. I would also like to remind readers of John Dillon Park. This Park is managed by Paul Smith’s College and is located in Long Lake, which is approximately fifteen minutes from Newcomb. It is a “fully accessible wilderness facility” which provides “fully accessible trails, lean-tos and other services to accommodate all types of disabilities.” Other accessible locations in the Park in which beautiful Adirondack views can be witnessed: the Newcomb Overlook, the Adirondack Loj Road in Lake Placid, Mirror Lake, Rt. 73 through Keene and Keene Valley, the Tupper Lake Causeway, Long Lake and its beach, Rt. 86 across the street from Donnelly’s Soft Ice Cream, and my personal favorite, the quiet and remote Elk Lake … just to name a few. A place like Boreas Ponds, 6.7 miles from Blue Ridge Road, is an ideal candidate for a Wilderness classification.

With this being said, of course more efforts should be made to increase accessibility for the physically disabled that wish to visit the Adirondacks. However, these efforts should be focused on the 80% of the Park that is already within one mile from a road or snowmobile trail. Efforts to motorize the Park could be done elsewhere within the the Blue Line, not within one of the last remaining fragments of remoteness that we have in the entire Northeast.

Access advocates have mentioned that “Mt. Marcy can be climbed in a day because a Wild Forest region trailhead penetrates deep into the High Peaks Wilderness Area.” They say this is the reason for its popularity and overuse. But could it be possible Mt. Marcy’s popularity is due to it being the tallest mountain in New York State – a fact that would attract any person to any tallest mountain, in any state? Further, Mt. Marcy has multiple trailheads, not one: the Loj, the Garden, Tahawus and even Elk Lake.

Speaking of the High Peaks, it is also important to note that the Boreas Ponds land tract lies just south of the High Peaks Wilderness area. The land tract connects the High Peaks and Dix Mountain Wilderness areas. If classified as full Wilderness, the Boreas Ponds land tract, combined with the other wilderness areas  would increase the High Peak Wilderness area to a total of 284,000 acres. This increased High Peaks Wilderness area would be larger than Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. I believe that a Wilderness area of this magnitude, alone, would greatly increase tourism to the Adirondack Park.

Yes, Access Advocates are  correct in stating that the dam in the Boreas Ponds land tract may eventually breach. However, this is the point of classifying land as wilderness: to restore the land to its original integrity. This is what is currently happening at Marcy Dam, and is what has happened at other popular destinations such as Flowed Lands and Duck Hole.

Access Advocates have sited an Adventure Tourism research venture, which “indicated that millennials are looking for a one-to-three-hour outdoor experience per day of visitation.” They make assumptions based off of the research being accurate. However, I would like to question the validity of this institute’s research. Speaking solely for myself, I can guarantee you that this research is not 100% accurate. Knowing countless other millennials who love to spend long days in the outdoors and the Adirondacks further puts this research to the test. Likewise, the research’s indications are interesting especially when one considers there are many millennials who hike in the High Peaks, where there are few hikes that fall within the one-to-three-hour range. Obviously millennials are the future of the Park and the world, as we are the ones who will be here long after those who raised us have passed. I can confidently say that an overwhelming majority of us are more attracted to wilderness areas than any other type of land classification.

Access Advocates mention that there are some Wild Forest areas within the Adirondack Park that resemble Wilderness areas. This is like saying the Adirondack Park resembles Central Park because there are trees and running water in both. Often times when hiking in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, one does not feel like they are having a Wilderness experience due to the amount of people. However, the main difference between the two classifications is that motorized engines are allowed in Wild Forest, and not in Wilderness. I argue that one can absolutely tell the difference between Wild Forest and Wilderness. When you smell the exhaust, hear the noise of mechanization, and introduce easy access into a no-longer remote place, you know you are in a Wild Forest. Alternative 1 destroys the remoteness and quietness of the Boreas Ponds, which are rare commodities in the Northeast … commodities that are absolutely marketable.

If Boreas Ponds isn't classified as Wilderness, we could never expect any other piece of the Forest Preserve to be classified as Wilderness, either. Only portions of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, Follensby Pond, and the Adirondack League Club offer this type of remoteness, and we can’t guarantee these areas will be added to New York State’s Forest Preserve.

Additionally, another reason for a full wilderness classification of the Boreas Ponds land tract is that the Boreas Ponds are not the only Value-1 wetland habitat on the tract. LaBier Flow, Andrews Brook, Andrews Brook Tributary and Brant Brook are all Value-1 wetland habitats, which all deserve a Wilderness classification. This is a point that I think other environmental groups continue to miss. 

While deciding the fate of the Boreas Ponds, once can look to the recent classification of the Essex Chain of Lakes land tract. The argument over this land’s classification was similar to the Boreas Ponds: Wilderness advocates wanted a majority wilderness; surrounding local government leaders wanted a majority wild forest. What resulted was a “Primitive” classification, with motorized corridors slicing through a large wilderness area. Primitive areas could potentially be changed into wilderness after further discussion, but the odds of this happening in the future, if at all, remain unclear. The result: a mixed-classified land tract with confusing rules and regulations. Some may use motorized vehicles on and near the lakes, others not at all. Because of this classification, no one user group is entirely thrilled with the classification.

According to a recent study by Peter Bauer, former staff member of Adirondack Life Magazine and former Executive Director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, only 447 total users signed into the Essex Chain of Lakes trail registry from June - August 2015, prime hiking and paddling season. Compare the numbers to another study by Bauer, where he discovered that over 500 people hiked Cascade Mountain, New York’s 36th tallest High Peak, in a single September day. Additionally, Bauer discovered that in the newly classified Hudson Gorge Wilderness area, over 800 people signed into the trailhead at OK Slip Falls from February to April 2016 - months that don’t fall into prime hiking season. In the Essex Chain of Lakes, motorized vehicles can be still be used by some users while others prefer a wilderness experience, which could explain the low visitation discovery. “The numbers put up at the Essex Chain of Lakes area, at least for the canoeing public in 2015, could be showing us that the hodge podge of conflicting uses allowed there may be keeping people away,” said Bauer.

Lastly, it sounds pretty ordinary to advertise more roads. Instead, the surrounding towns could proclaim that they have protected the greatest wilderness area in the Northeast - the last sanctuary of solitude and wildlife haven. When you can offer something that isn't found anywhere else, such as NYS's largest, high-elevation wetland complex at the foot of the High Peaks - that's different. Something that's rare can increase its value. Couldn't this be a solid advertisement to increase tourism to the surrounding towns? 

The main argument that wilderness advocates are simply trying to make is that the decision to put environmental interests over those of humans is long overdue. Adirondack forests are among the top three most intact contiguous areas of mixed temperate deciduous forests left on Earth ... why ruin this? Additionally, scientists rank the Adirondacks as one of the most resilient landscapes in the Eastern United States. With climate change becoming a more serious threat each and every year, why diminish an area so resilient to the threat as the Boreas Ponds?  We are attempting to give a voice to the voiceless by speaking on behalf of the environment and species that live within the Boreas Ponds land tract – an ecosystem and species that have been there long before humans. 

I’m completely open to any criticism regarding my thoughts and am not totally ignoring the concerns raised by Access Advocates and others. I simply and truly believe that there is already enough access in the Adirondack Park, and the world. Access should be improved for the disabled within the 80% of the Adirondack Park that is already within one mile of a road or snowmobile trail. The full Wilderness classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract could be a monumental precedent for placing the Park’s interest in favor of the environment, rather than of humans. A fundamental Wilderness Ethic is essentially the reason why the Blue Line was fostered in the first place. A solid environmental ethic is the backbone of the State Land Master Plan, which was created to first protect and preserve the natural resources, not human interests, of New York State.

To quote wilderness activist and one of the first Adirondack 46ers, Bob Marshall, “the sounds of the forest are entirely obliterated by the roar of the motor. The smell of pine needles and flowers and herbs and freshly turned dirt and all the other delicate odors of the forest are drowned in the stench of gasoline. The feeling of wind blowing in the face and of soft ground under foot are all lost.”

If you also think the Boreas Ponds land tract should be classified as full wilderness, please consider sending an electronic letter to the Adirondack Park Agency in favor of full wilderness. You can click the link to do so, and it takes less than two minutes. 

If you agree or disagree with any facts or opinions stated above, please feel free to leave a comment below! I'd love for this to be an open discussion about the Boreas Ponds land tract classification. 

Below are a list of links/resources that I used and researched to help determine my thoughts. I encourage you to explore these links, and even share new ones in the comment section in order to help yourself and others come to your own conclusion! Another great way to come to your own conclusion is by visiting the land tract yourself, if possible! :)

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