The importance of Adirondack wilderness

At the statewide hearings on the classification of the newly purchased Boreas Ponds and thousands of acres of other Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondack Park, the theme of “balance” was popular. Calls for balance were purported to show moderation and a willingness to compromise. The Boreas Ponds hearings saw vocal support for more wilderness lands on the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where motor vehicles and bicycles are prohibited, as well as for more wild forest lands where snowmobile trails, roads and bike trails are allowed.

Across the Forest Preserve today, there are 1,184,894 acres classified as wilderness or canoe (which is also a largely motorless Forest Preserve unit) and 1,298,209 acres classified as wild forest. At current rates, it will take years to reach a 50-50 “balance” between motorized and non-motorized Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondacks.

Outside the Adirondacks, wilderness land is hopelessly outnumbered. Less than 1 percent of all lands east of the Mississippi River is designated wilderness. The 26 states east of the Mississippi total more than 573 million acres, and there are around 4.8 million acres of federal and state wilderness. That means that for every acre of wilderness there’s roughly 120 acres of cities, suburbs, small towns, highways, farms, shopping malls, golf courses, parking lots and so much more. I see little hope that there will ever be “balance” for wilderness east of the Mississippi.

Outside of wilderness in the Adirondacks, there are another 143,000 acres of wilderness in the Catskill Forest Preserve. Other than these lands, there are 1,380 acres of federal wilderness on Fire Island, outside New York City, called the Otis Pike High Dunes Wilderness. In the 26 states east of the Mississippi River, there are 1.3 million acres of wilderness in the Florida Everglades, 354,000 acres in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, 132,000 acres in Isle Royale in Michigan and 79,000 acres in the Shenandoah Wilderness in Virginia. The closest large wilderness area to the Adirondacks is the 61,000-acre Wild River Wilderness in New Hampshire.

All told, in the 26 states east of the Mississippi, there are just under 3.3 million acres of federal wilderness lands. There are another approximately 150,000 acres of state wilderness areas beyond New York’s 1.3 million acres in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves.

The Adirondack Forest Preserve is managed jointly by the Adirondack Park Agency and the Department of Environmental Conservation. When new lands are purchased by the state, these agencies undertake public hearings to officially classify these lands. State policy guidance documents place a premium on “wilderness” land because of its scarcity in the eastern U.S. The 120-1 ratio for non-wilderness to wilderness lands shows the importance of existing Adirondack wilderness lands and of creating new wilderness areas in the Adirondacks.

Wilderness is not about the past but about the future. In fact, Wilderness management sets about erasing the past as the forest is allowed to reclaim logged lands, roads, logging landings, culverts, building sites and other vestiges of the industrial past. Wilderness management deliberately reduces human impacts on a landscape so that the forest can recover. It’s about letting nature restore a landscape year after year, decade after decade.

The paltry state of wilderness lands east of the Mississippi River shows a world out of balance. Outside of the Everglades, the Adirondack Park provides the greatest wilderness opportunities in the East. Local governments and many Adirondack businesses have started to see the long-term benefits to the economy from the “forever wild” Forest Preserve and its wilderness areas. The High Peaks Wilderness has experienced a massive surge in visitors, doubling historic levels, which has helped to expand tourism in communities around the northern edges of the High Peaks.

The Cuomo administration has a great opportunity in the Boreas Ponds classification. It can classify the Boreas lands as wilderness and add these lands to the High Peaks Wilderness Area. It can add other lands to the High Peaks Wilderness near the Tahawus Upper Works. It can create a new wilderness area in the southern Adirondacks west of Northville called the West Stony Creek Wilderness. It can set the stage to combine the Dix Mountain and High Peaks Wilderness areas into one massive 275,000-acre wilderness area — which would be the third largest east of the Mississippi. It can do all of this while carefully drawing boundary lines to add new snowmobile trails and limited road access to the Forest Preserve.

The Cuomo administration has a great opportunity to create new wilderness lands in a world that badly needs more wilderness.

Peter Bauer lives in Blue Mountain Lake and is executive director of Protect the Adirondacks.