Boreas Ponds deserves to be classified as wilderness

It was gratifying to see the enormous public turnout for the Adirondack Park Agency’s hearings on the classification of newly acquired Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondack Park. The agency received more than 11,000 comments from the public, including many providing detailed facts and citations supporting the science and rules relevant in this decision.

If the governor’s Park Agency follows the science and applicable laws and policy, including the State Land Master Plan, then the majority of the Boreas Ponds tract, including the Ponds themselves, must be protected from motorized uses within an expanded High Peaks Wilderness. This tract is among a handful of new state purchases that are large enough, wild enough and special enough to merit a wilderness classification.

An overwhelming 84 percent of public comments supported a wilderness classification (no motors, snowmobiles or bicycles) on or close to the Boreas Ponds, adjacent to the High Peaks Wilderness. Those 84 percent urged that no public roads be opened closer than a mile to the south of the ponds. Many wanted more wilderness. Only 15 percent of commenters wanted motorized access.

And while these numbers are important, ultimately, classification of new lands is not a vote. The governor and his Park Agency are required to classify the state lands according to “their characteristics and capacity to withstand use.” Only the waters and lands that demonstrate exceptional qualities and meet specific criteria are classified as “wilderness” and receive the highest level of protection. The characteristics that determine a land’s capacity to withstand use are defined in state law as the physical, biological, social/psychological qualities. Established facilities are also a consideration.

¯ Physical: Soil, slope, elevation and water are the primary considerations. These characteristics affect the carrying capacity of the land or water both from the standpoint of the construction of facilities and the amount of human use the land or water itself can absorb. The Boreas Ponds tract has steep slopes and poor soils. The ponds are at high elevation and are a part of one of the most sensitive and highest ranked (Value I) wetlands in New York. This resource’s physical ability to absorb human recreational impacts is quite limited.

¯ Biological: Fragile wetlands, the habitats of rare, threatened or endangered species, and sensitive wildlife habitats are supposed to be protected by the APA. Boreas Ponds contains the largest high-elevation wetlands in New York and is home to protected species such as Bicknell’s thrush, common loons and northern bog asters, along with other rare and threatened species.

¯ Social: One of the principal values of wilderness is its ability to restore peace and stability to the human spirit. Stress relief is a significant portion of the Adirondack tourism and hospitality trade. The Adirondacks were among America’s first vacation spots, where people could escape the noise, traffic and pollution of a major city and regain their health and vitality. In today’s modern world, the healing value of silence still remains one of wildernesses greatest, and most threatened, qualities. Parcels as important as Boreas rarely come on to the market. The last such opportunity was in 1997, when Gov. George Pataki created the William C. Whitney Wilderness to protect the much smaller 14,000-acre Little Tupper Lake tract.

¯ Established facilities: Boreas Ponds has been closed to the public for 150 years. Without regular maintenance, many of its former logging roads have reverted to foot trails or have disappeared into the forest. There are no remaining loops that can support wheeled traffic in their current condition. The parcel is as large as Manhattan, and while it contains two dams with small spillways and some unpaved roads, the rest of the property is poised to revert back to a primitive state. As we have seen in other parts of the Park, dams are allowed and can be maintained in Adirondack wilderness areas.

Finally, the APA is supposed to protect the Park’s most remote and wild places by choosing classifications that ensure that those places remain wild or are restored to a wild state. There are very few places remaining east of the Mississippi River where peace and solitude dominate a landscape as they do in Adirondack Park wilderness areas. Failure to classify the Boreas Ponds and a buffer as wilderness will compromise the ecological integrity and wild character of this special region of the Adirondacks.

If the governor’s team rejects wilderness for the Boreas Ponds and a buffer of forest, they are not following the rules, not honoring the legacy of the Adirondacks, not making a decision consistent with the science, and not listening to the majority of New Yorkers.

We urge the APA and Gov. Cuomo not to squander this opportunity to protect the Boreas Ponds and a buffer as wilderness.

Rocci Aguirre is director of conservation for the Adirondack Council, an environmental advocacy group based in Elizabethtown.