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Time to take another look at wilderness bike ban

May 26, 2010
Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist

I recently met with Josh Wilson and Matt McNamara, members of a new local grassroots organization that is working to develop a new multi-use trail system suitable for mountain bikes throughout the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.

    Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) has already submitted a proposal to the DEC for consideration in the upcoming Saranac Lake Wild Forest Unit Management Plan. The organization’s intent is to develop an easily accessible, multi-use trail system that will serve as a connector between local communities.

    The effort has the potential to alleviate some of the dangers of navigating the busy Route 86 corridor between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, which according to the state Department of Transportation, is the most heavily traveled stretch of highway in the entire Adirondack Park.

    The effort to establish a new trail from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid must be focused exclusively on Wild Forest lands, since bikes have been banned from Wilderness. BETA will have to cut numerous trees and bridge at least four streams just to route the trail through the hamlet of Ray Brook.

    State lands of the Saranac Lake Wild Forest on the south side of Route 86 are bounded by tracks leased to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. Any new trail development would have to be located south of the tracks and on the south side of Ray Brook, a popular trout stream.

    Unfortunately, lands encompassing the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Area bound the Route 86 highway on the north. While the Jackrabbit Trail through McKenzie Pass would seem like a natural fit for use as a mountain bike connector with little environmental impact, an Adirondack Park State Land Use Master Plan amendment has banned mountain bikes from the wilderness since 1994. The ban was instituted when mountain bikes were still known as “fat tire” bikes.

    It was instituted as a precaution, before the use of bikes actually became a problem in the park. Yet, it has proven to be an unnecessary attempt at proactive prohibition. Bikers in the east have never lived up to the bad boy reputation of their western cohorts.

    The bike prohibition did not come about as the result of abuse or overuse, rather it came about because the Adirondack Park Agency has long applied federal wilderness standards when making decisions in the park. Federal standards prohibit the use of motorized or mechanized travel in wilderness areas.

    However, even federal standards have been tinkered with, when necessary.

    Rather than reinvent the wheel (no pun intended), the APA should work with groups such as BETA to revisit the bike ban decision where appropriate. What is the environmental sense in cutting an entire new trail when there is a perfectly good trail already established and maintained across the street?

    Regrettably, the bike ban was based on the aesthetics of bikes in the wilderness rather than on any research or studies of their environmental impact. It was explained to me by an individual involved in the process, who prefers to remain anonymous, that “some people just felt that the presence of bikes degraded their wilderness experience and they rammed the amendment through before there was a constituency to fight it.”

    Indeed, only one bike proponent was in attendance at the APA’s public hearing on the bike ban amendment. It wasn’t a fair fight. The decision had been made well before the hearings.

    However, with the recent APA rulings — from fire towers to boathouses — demonstrating that common sense can trump land use ideals, maybe it is time to reevaluate the ban on bikes in wilderness. Certainly, horse trails, old logging roads or fire truck trails could accommodate bikers with little user conflict.

    A case in point is the Fish Pond fire truck trail. Once considered off limits to bikes, the road has been open to bikers for almost a decade. The area has not experienced any environmental degradation, no overuse and no user conflicts.

    In the High Peaks Wilderness, over 50 miles of horse trails are being reclaimed by the forest as a result of lack of traffic. In addition, many fire truck roads are in jeopardy of becoming overgrown for a lack of maintenance, rendering the roads impassable if needed for fire protection.

    Bikers could serve to keep these vital routes open, maintained and ready for use if the occasion required motorized access.

What were they thinking?

    If the citizens of New York need any further evidence of Albany’s dysfunctional governance, they need to look no further than Assembly Bill A-5272.

    If passed in the Assembly and the Senate, and signed by the Governor, the legislation,  “Prohibits the attendance of children under 18 years of age at gun shows or stores by classifying such attendance as unlawfully dealing with a child.”

    In essence, if a parent takes a child to a gun shop, or even the sporting goods section of Wal-Mart, the criminal law charges the parent faces are the equivalent of being charged as a child molester.

    Obviously, the Assembly sponsor doesn’t get out much or he/she would realize that New York now permits children age 14 years and over to participate in the Regular Big Game Hunting Season under the recently passed Hunting Mentor Bill.

    And those 14-year-old hunters don’t go after whitetails or black bear with a slingshot. Before taking afield, the teenagers must complete a Hunter Safety Education Class.  I wonder if a similar course could be required for legislators, especially in the Assembly?

Fantasia on the Boquet

    “I feel like I’m trapped in a Disney movie”, exclaimed my friend John as a cloud of yellow and black butterflies fluttered by on the breeze, “Any moment now, I expect the Little Mermaid will pop out of the water, singing a song.”

    We were paddling the Boquet River near Elizabethtown when we observed several large groupings of tiger swallowtail butterflies assembled along the sandy shore. They appeared to be milling about in an attempt to form a tighter cluster.

    If we approached too close, the entire rabble would take to the air, fluttering erratically on the river’s breeze.  Against the dark backdrop of cedars along the riverbank, they lit up the corridor like a blizzard of giant yellow snowflakes.

    I recognized the sight as a common occurrence for early June, when butterflies seek out locations with a combination of water, salt, cow dung or other sources of the minerals they require for reproduction purposes.

    The behavior, known as puddling, often occurs along roadside streams and ponds where road salt and other minerals accumulate or in pastures where cows or horses make their regular deposits.

    Male butterflies, the majority of the participants, drink from the puddles to ingest nutrients that serve to supercharge the sperm that they later pass onto the females. I can imagine a butterfly guy explaining to its mate, “Excuse me dear, but I’m just leaving to share a Viagra moment with a few hundred of my best pals.”

    The process continues when the female passes the supercharge onto her eggs, which increases their chances of survival. The eggs eventually hatch so that a new batch of boys can eventually return to their streamside-sipping bar. It’s a fascinating process to observe, even though it has occurred nearly two weeks ahead of schedule.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
A rabble of tiger swallowtail butterflies are seen puddling along the sandy banks of the Boquet River. If disturbed, the entire group instantly takes to the air.



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