Groups name top five threats to the Adirondacks

A scuba diver holds up a bag of freshly harvested Eurasian watermilfoil from Fish Creek Pond in the fall of 2017. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

In late 2018, the Lake Placid News conducted a poll of more than a half-dozen groups, including two state agencies, on what the biggest threats to the Adirondack Park are.

After tallying responses, the News determined invasive species, climate change, pollution, lack of funding and staff for state agencies and overuse were the top five threats within the Blue Line.

The News asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Adirondack Park Agency, along with the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks, plus the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute for their thoughts on threats.

In addition to the top five, some groups also said that environmental laws and protections need to be updated. Others said the state’s lands are suffering from a long-running lack of planning. Others brought up issues at the federal level such as the Trump administration’s weakening of clean air and water regulations.

The threats are listed below in order of importance, as determined by the organizations:

Greg Borzilleri, of Lake Placid, paddleboards on Mirror Lake on Dec. 23, 2015. It was an exceptionally warm start to the winter of 2015-2016. (Enterprise file photo)

1. Invasive species

Each of the groups and agencies polled said invasive species are a threat to the Adirondack Park, and some went so far as to say that mandatory inspections for boats entering the park should be considered.

Invasive species can take many forms, including plants, animals, insects and pathogens. Each type of invasive poses its own threat, but the Adirondack Park, as a highly visited tourist area, is susceptible to introduction of new invasives at any time.

Brendan Quirion, program director for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program based in Keene Valley, said some invasives could fundamentally alter the Adirondacks if introduced or left unchecked. Quirion said forest pests and diseases pose the greatest threat to the Adirondacks, such as hemlock wooly adelgid and emerald ash borer. But he and others also cited invasive aquatic plants and pests as a threat to the region’s economy as well.

A crowd of people take in the view from the summit of Giant Mountain in the fall of 2017. (Photo provided — Adirondack Mountain Club)

State and local governments, along with APIPP and the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute, are actively working on reducing the spread of invasive species. AWI has scores of watershed stewards who inspect boats at launches, and there are several free pressure-washing stations around the Adirondacks.

Earlier this year, the state awarded the AWI a five-year, $9.3 million contract to implement the Adirondack Park Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program, a regionwide watercraft inspection and decontamination program to stop the introduction, spread and transport of aquatic invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussels and spiny waterfleas.

One other tool is a state law that made it illegal to transport invasive species, but that law is about to expire. Several groups are calling for it to be reauthorized permanently.

2. Climate change

A state police helicopter helps forest rangers rescue a pair of hikers near the summit of Algonquin Peak in December 2016. (Photo provided — NYSDEC)

Although the Adirondacks are known for harsh winters, climate change is having noticeable and measurable impacts on the park already.

“As the planet warms up, the Adirondacks have been warming with it,” Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager said. “The ice seasons on lakes have been shortening at both ends. We know that because ice records for Lake Champlain go back 200 years.

“It’s like an oil tanker,” he said, “slow but massive and hard to stop.

“It’s not like climate change is wiping out life in the next 12 years. Except for the occasional big storm, it’s subtle. In the coming decades, people will be born into a world with warmer, wetter weather and more storms. Most scientists say by mid-century, the planet will be recognizably different.”

“In areas like the Adirondacks that rely on heavy winters for economy and ecology,” Adirondack Wild managing partner Dave Gibson said, “we’re seeing less snowfall and fewer ice-overs on lakes. It affects the lives of natural and human communities in a very dramatic way, even if it’s subtle at first. It might be a slightly shorter ski season, or there are fewer areas to ice fish, but it builds up over time.”

In the last 40 years or so, road crews have applied nearly 7 million tons of salt on roads within the Adirondack Park, according to Dan Kelting of Adirondack Watershed Institute. (Enterprise file photo)

“As far as we know, there’s no clear pattern of hurricanes getting worse,” Stager said, “but heavy rains, yes. If you look back at the past 100 years, we’re getting more storms, and the storms are getting bigger. A thing like Irene hit us and then stood still over the funnel-like landscape of the mountains.

“Our baseline infrastructure has to change because of it, and that means making higher, sturdier bridges and wider culverts every time a devastating storm hits.”

3. Pollution

In the last 40 years or so, road crews have applied nearly 7 million tons of salt on roads within the Adirondack Park, according to AWI’s Dan Kelting, and that salt is having an effect on roads and bridges, lakes and ponds, residential drinking water wells, home appliances and vehicles.

“We use too much salt,” Kelting said. “Roughly one-third of our lakes have road salt in them. Fifty-two percent of our streams have salinization. … Salinization has effects on ecosystems, human health and property values. Your property values could be affected if your water’s polluted.”

“As we rethink how to keep our roads clear, and to what extent, and our speed levels, it’s something within local controls — state and local — in terms of how we calibrate trucks and snow removal equipment, to pretreat our roads or not, and how much salt is applied or whether alternatives are applied,” Gibson added. “The state is demonstrating leadership in places but not in a systematic way yet.”

Pollution that comes from outside the Adirondacks, such as acid rain and other air pollutants, are also an issue, and one that is tougher for state and local officials to deal with, especially as the Trump administration weakens environmental protections at the federal level.

“The park is too special to write off one threat and just focus on another, and the Adirondack Council thankfully has the breadth and the depth, the experience to be able to simultaneously conduct a campaign on acid rain, fight invasive species, and we’re just the Adirondack Council,” the Council’s Willie Janeway said. “New York state, with multiple agencies, has the capacity and the will, I believe, to try and protect clean water and clean air from air pollutants, from road salt, from invasive species and fund more research and monitoring.

“Bald eagles are back. Loons are back. A lot of lakes are recovering. There is not a single Adirondack lake that is considered 100 percent recovered to preindustrial levels. We are in sight of the finish line, and now we are being tripped up (by the EPA).”

4. Boots on the ground

The union that represents DEC forest rangers has been pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to add more rangers to the force of just over 100 state-wide. While individuals and towns across the park have supported that effort, Cuomo’s 2019 state budget proposal does not include an increase in the number of rangers. Some groups say DEC as a whole, along with the APA, simply don’t have enough staff to effectively manage millions of acres of land.

“We should make major investments in the High Peaks to protect natural resources but to also ensure that people that are coming to the High Peaks are having the best experience possible,” Peter Bauer of Protect the Adirondacks said. “I think one of the things we need to see is many more people working on trail crews.

“We need to find ways to have more DEC boots on the ground, more DEC personnel who are actually not sitting at a desk, not drawing lines on computers, not finding ways to subvert New York state’s long-standing environmental laws.

“They need to be out in the Forest Preserve building water bars, rebuilding trails, rerouting trails, rebuilding footbridges, improving drainage. Trying to fix those trails makes no sense. We need a comprehensive reroute that is sustainable and will protect the natural resources, not just slow the degradation down.”

“As we have been experiencing ever-increasing search-and-rescue episodes, the ranger force has been under a lot of stress because it’s rare that a rescue just involves one or two rangers,” Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth said. “So what’s happening is that a lot of rangers are putting in overtime; they’re physically stressed. The force at that level is just not big enough of a blanket to cover those needs.”

“It really comes back to this issue: the boom in outdoor tourism and a lot of resources going to marketing, but not a corresponding increase in resources for stewardship and education,” said Josh Wilson, of Barkeater Trails Alliance, which manages the Jackrabbit Ski Trail. “It always comes back to funding. We’re doing a really good job marketing the Adirondacks but not a good job keeping up with the resulting increase in visitation.”

5. Loving the Adirondacks too much

The DEC has recently taken a number of steps to manage a dramatic increase in visitors to the Adirondacks, specifically in the High Peaks and Tri-Lakes region. Some groups have gone so far as to call for a permit system as trails erode, human waste piles up and parking becomes increasingly dangerous.

“Because of overuse, water quality and wildlife habitat are threatened,” Janeway told the News in an email. “Roadside parking spills out of overflowing trailhead lots and causes a public safety problem along Route 73 and other local highways. Crowds may discourage people who expected more solitude to go to another park. Overuse degrades the very Adirondack Wilderness the state is responsible for preserving for current and future generations as ‘Forever Wild.'”

But the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Woodworth said he’s not worried about overuse as much as some of the other threats because the overuse is concentrated in a few spots.

“The overuse issue has been hyped up to be larger than it really is,” Woodworth said. “The reality is many areas of the eastern High Peaks are not experiencing overuse. Marcy, McIntyre (Algonquin), Mount Colden and some of the other peaks in the heart of the High Peaks are busy but not every day of the year. On popular weekends, yes, you can have too many people at the summit of Marcy. There are certainly issues that must be addressed at six to 12 of the High Peaks, but there are many places on the same kind of day where I can find solitude.”

Andy Flynn and Griffin Kelly of the Lake Placid News contributed to this report.