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Is there any true wilderness left in the Park?

July 28, 2012
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

Despite more than two centuries of forest harvest and the combined and increasingly brutal onslaughts of floods, wind storms, wildfires, invasive species, climate change and ice storms, the Adirondack forests of 2012 remain "the most continuous they have been in over 150 years," according to the Adirondack Atlas published by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Although stressed by disease, damaged soils and airborne pollutants, the state's forested lands have proven surprisingly resilient. Young trees are doing well, while the Adirondack Park also contains a collection of the largest stands of old growth forest east of the Mississippi.

Since the early 1870s, the state has acquired more than 2,000 parcels with a combined total of nearly 1.3 million acres that held either virgin forest or lands that were once lightly cut for spruce, according to research by the late Barbara McMartin.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
Does the evidence of an crumbling foundation or an old gristmill stone diminish the quality of wilderness lands?

As a result of New York's aggressive land acquisition programs, which have been accomplished through a combination of fee purchase and conservation easements, the amount of protected acreage in the Adirondack Park is currently at an all-time high.

However, despite such conservation efforts and the collective force of nearly two dozen advocacy groups pressing for preservation, the park remains a disjointed conglomeration of independent private and public parcels of land.

Although it has been recognized as one of the country's oldest and grandest parks, the Adirondack Park of 2012 does not offer a vast and seamless wilderness. In fact, the park consists of a noncontiguous assortment of small wild forests, protected wilderness areas and similarly zoned preserves that are dispersed around a variety of small communities.

This combination of wild lands and settled communities exemplifies the park's uniqueness while also revealing its most inherent weakness.

It has been said that a park with people, represented as permanent residents, can never become more than a trial wilderness as the roads and power grids that link the dispersed communities serve to divide the landscape and disrupt the connectivity which is vital to a true wilderness.

Light and sound pollution do not respect arbitrary boundaries drawn on a zoning map, nor do migrating species of native flora and fauna recognize such park-wide incongruities. This fact is commonly evidenced by the roadkill that results when migrating species are faced with the unnatural partitions from highways, clearings or other artificially maintained travel obstructions.

"These are islands in time, with nothing to date them on the calendar of mankind," said Harvey Broome, a Tennessee lawyer and environmentalist who was instrumental in efforts to preserve the wilderness of the Great Smokey Mountains. "In these areas, it is as though a person were looking backward into the ages and forward untold years. Here are bits of eternity, which have preciousness beyond all accounting."

Addressing the crucial need to protect wilderness, Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, wrote "A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself."

Wilderness by definition is a sizable area where natural ecological processes continue to evolve with as little human interference as possible, according to a federal statute established by the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the Adirondacks, of all the land classifications, man has impacted wilderness areas the least. Accordingly, wilderness areas have the most restrictions placed upon their use with only conforming "structures and improvements" such as lean-tos, outhouses and pre-existing dams allowed.

In order to foster access, foot trails, log bridges and signboards are also permitted. The use of all motors is prohibited, which restricts the use of off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, float planes, ATVs, chains saws and even electric trolling motors.

Fifteen separate parcels, each consisting of a minimum of 10,000 acres, were initially established as wilderness areas when the Adirondack Park Agency was established in 1973.

Today, the Park encompasses more than a million acres of protected lands, which constitutes over 85 percent of the total wilderness remaining in the eastern United States.

However, the park's wilderness lands still present a conundrum of disjointed public parcels that remain dissected and bisected by a combination of highways, hamlets, private parks and villages.

According to a Draft Map of Primitive Class Areas in the Adirondack Park, developed by the Adirondack Park Agency, "The preliminary estimate of potential Primitive Areas indicates the truly remote areas of the Adirondack Park are a relatively small and therefore precious resource."

By utilizing the US Forest Service's Recreational Opportunity Spectrum methodology, the map illustrates key primitive areas that are greater than 3 miles from most motorized uses (roads and snowmobile trails) or 2 miles from waters where motorboats are permitted. The total sum of these primitive areas, as measured by such methodology are estimated to include less than three percent of the park's 6.5 million acres, or roughly 180,000 acres. This total is a far cry from the accepted 1,030,000 acres.

Do these lands indeed furnish the vast, contiguous expanse of wild forests, solitary lands and savage waters that are to be expected of an authentic wilderness or are they simply "reclaimed wilderness areas" fashioned through a process of regulations, restrictions and zoning?

Does the intrusion of an airplane overhead, a firetower above or the evidence of a long forgotten foundation along a lonely trail diminish the wilderness character of the land?

And what about people? When a small community of campers sets up shop in an otherwise desolate location, is this any less invasive than the sound or sight of manmade appliances or structures?

What is your opinion? Is there any true wilderness left in the Adirondack Park?

If you would like to voice your opinion, please email me at



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