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Seeing the forest for the trees

One of many great places to pause and reflect as a busy summer winds down. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

There’s something about the changing of seasons that tends to prompt reflection. As we’ve had our first few chilly nights of the summer, fall feels right around the corner now. Maybe I’m looking too hard for signs of it, but it seems that leaves are already changing, 8 p.m. darkness still comes as a surprise, and everything feels like it’s slowing down. Over the past week as I drove past Cascade, headed toward Keene, I saw open parking spaces in those roadside lots for the first time in what seems like forever. Though it feels like just yesterday that cars were overflowing every lot, even the summer crowds are starting to thin out a little.

Over the past few months, there has been so much breathless concern about the number of people out on Adirondack trails. The impacts this has on the local ecosystem, the response of the local community, and the changes that need to be made for the future have been all-consuming topics this season. I’ve certainly written about them with alarm, but suddenly, it seems that in seasonal change there might be reason to pause and take a deep breath.

This summer should not go understated. In the years since I moved here, having driven into the High Peaks hundreds of times, I’ve never experienced the same sense of competition for space that I did this summer. Numbers of visitors were up slightly, year-over-year, despite the near-total absence of Canadian tourists. This means that next year, we may be looking at a pretty epic spike (though that’s speculative at this point). Another point for consideration is the type of visitors we’ve been seeing. Many have been new to camping and hiking – pushed in the direction of wilderness by the pandemic we’re facing and a lack of other healthy recreation options. Some of these took to the woods like ducks to water, but others struggled to adapt and have created no small amount of negative impact in the process.

But despite all of the above and the totally justifiable concerns we have for the future, the Adirondacks have survived another summer. Scores of new people have fallen in love with this incredible place, and a new batch of would-be stewards learned valuable lessons about how to protect this place as well.

Despite the challenges of operating during a pandemic, summit stewards, DEC educators, local guides and volunteers have spent all summer spreading Leave No Trace messaging and sharing their love for the Adirondacks. Their efforts, though understated, have paid dividends and will continue to do so moving forward. Coupled with expanding recognition of the issues involved in overuse here, I think there’s reason to be hopeful for the coming years. But it’s not just human action we have to be hopeful about.

Looking back 150 years, before Adirondack wild forest was protected by law, we can find images of a landscape abused by people. Logging practices of the day left huge swaths of virgin forest destroyed and the land abandoned once its immediate potential for profit had been exhausted. But if you’re not thinking about that history, you’d hardly know it happened from looking out over the vast expanse of forest that surround Adirondack communities today. From deep within the High Peaks, you can only occasionally catch a glimpse of human habitation. In many more places than not, trails and marker discs are the only notable trace of human impact amidst dense wilderness.

The story of the Adirondacks is one of incredible regeneration and a reminder that wild nature has been adapting, surviving and thriving for a much longer time than humans have walked the earth. Though we’ve created some grave threats to its sanctity in the last few hundred years, wilderness will find ways to hold out and, ultimately, outlast us should we do enough damage to make this planet uninhabitable for humans.

I think it’s pretty obviously preferable that we live in greater harmony with nature now, instead of kicking that can down the road toward much more dire scenarios. But even that notion of harmony is contained within the experiment that is the Adirondacks. This is a place where human communities exist side-by-side with wild Forest Preserve land that is more diligently and permanently protected than land anywhere else in the United States.

With fall approaching and winter not far behind, we’re about to enter into another difficult round of unknowns. A pandemic continues to rage, a vicious and divisive election looms over all of us, and our economy continues to teeter on the brink of a yawning chasm. As we prepare for whatever lies ahead, we would do well to look back with gratitude on the wild lands we’re still able to enjoy here. The strength and perseverance of natural communities here can serve as a mirror for our own as long as we keep looking for ways to be better stewards of both. Finally, the lessons we learned through our concerns this summer can serve to strengthen our resolve, if we let them, as we move toward whatever the future may bring.

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