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Debar Lodge may be worth saving

Debar Pond Lodge (Provided photo — Zach Floss)

The impetus behind heading into the backcountry is often to gain some space, to find solace in a place where time is measured more by erosion of soil or the decay of tree stumps than by clocks or construction schedules. There is a certain peace to be found, especially when one leaves even trails behind and wanders off into a place where the actions of humans hold little visible sway.

This week I had the privilege of exploring a different sort of space, however — the Debar Pond Lodge and its attendant property. If you’ve never been, I strongly recommend it, and further recommend that you go there soon.

A defined road leads from the parking area past the barrier to an open, grassy expanse dotted with outbuildings. A stop by the tiny green house or the old stable builds curiosity before you arrive at the main lodge.

This structure is incredible — with its classic, Adirondack, great camp feel, it sprawls across the better part of an acre and includes what looks to be a derelict hot tub room overlooking Debar Pond. All told, it has aged incredibly well, with the main structure having been completed 80 years ago.

Even in the cold November wind, this place felt inviting and warm. It seems that, with some love and attention, it could easily be morphed back into a visitor center, a summer camp or even a proper lodge. With trails winding outward from the open area on the lakeshore and a beautiful expanse of state land stretching away in all directions, it was astonishing to me that we had the place to ourselves that day.

Sadly, as we’ve seen lately, there are pending plans to raze the lodge and replace it with a day-use area. Ostensibly, this would mean adding pavilions and repurposing whichever outbuildings aren’t destroyed, while leveling the lodge itself. From the front patio area, you can almost feel the joy and awe of past visitors who surveyed the expansive scene that rises before you.

As I stood there, frustrated that such a beautiful piece of history may be slated for destruction, I couldn’t help but think of the project to convert the old historic railroad corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid into a multi-use trail. I’ve personally felt some excitement at watching this project move forward. To me, the old rails and ties are just barriers to more practical use for that space. They seem to prevent or hinder use by a variety of different recreators, simply laying there as relics of a bygone age. As I stared at the Debar Lodge, I couldn’t avoid the notion that there are certainly those in the community who place a similar value on those old rails. Perhaps for historical reasons, or with an eye on a future where trains might ferry passengers along the scenic route, giving them access where they otherwise might not feel they have it. Was I just engaging with another version of this sort of historical romanticism?

The rails, just like the lodge, offer a view back into a past that continues to define the Adirondacks. These are both parts of projects that brought early waves of tourists to the region to experience the grandeur of New York’s northern wilderness — projects that continue in our own time, despite new challenges. While I don’t see the future prospects for a return of locomotives to the region, I can see how some would be equally skeptical that the state would dedicate the resources to restore the Debar Lodge for similar reasons.

Does the new plan for using this space fit the state Department of Environmental Conservation mandate more cleanly, for example? Would the removal of the lodge improve access for more recreators, create the opportunity for more Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and enable more people to enjoy this beautiful site? Is this an opportunity for the DEC to offload a potentially troublesome relic of the past? Frankly, its rather pristine condition and lack of outward signs of vandalism or forced entry were quite surprising to me. Does the state view this place as a liability, an accident waiting to happen? Or do they truly see it as negatively impactful for local wilderness?

Perhaps the most pressing question is the financial one. With all the other challenges facing the DEC, could we reasonably expect that resources be diverted to rehabilitate this property? I’m no expert in the economics of demolition, but it certainly seems to me that repairing the existing structure would be less resource-intensive than demolishing and removing all these buildings. That said, restoring the space would most likely mean having to do something with it. Could it stand alone, like another Camp Santanoni? Would it prove to be another fiscal black hole like the Frontier Town project? I can’t pretend to understand how the DEC prioritizes its monetary resources, but I can see how taking on another restoration project which won’t necessarily produce any returns could be problematic.

If I could have my wish, I think that the Debar Lodge and the surrounding property have incredible potential as an education center and front-country point of contact for visitors looking to learn more about the wilderness surrounding the lodge. A partnership with Adirondack Architectural Heritage, the creation of a “friends of” group, and perhaps some private philanthropic donations could turn the lodge into something like Great Camp Sagamore. People could once again stand on that front patio and gaze out over Debar Pond, awed by the beauty of yet another distinct and unique corner of the Adirondacks. But reality is more nuanced and complex than that.

Fortunately, we live in a state that at least acknowledges the complexity of these issues. If you’d like to see the extent to which that is the case, please read the text of the Debar Scope Document here: https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/debarscope.pdf. It certainly speaks to the consideration involved in a project like this, even if the period for public comment was rather brief. Whether or not the state follows through with the removal of the lodge, we do at least have the opportunity to weigh in on issues such as these. While the initial public comment period ended on the 12th of November, we have only to look at the rail-trail project or the land use classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract to see how much deliberation may go into such decisions. My hope is that, in the case of the Debar Lodge the state moves with deliberate slowness and that passion and practicality are both weighed carefully in whatever decision is made.

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