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Whether wilderness or not?

August 11, 2012
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does the event constitute noise pollution in the wilderness?

What about the blaring sound of a train whistle in the distance, or the glow of lights illuminating the night sky on the far horizon?

In the process of considering the question of whether there is any true wilderness left in the Adirondack Park, there are a host of critical questions to be considered.

Among such queries are the quality and quantity of truly remote areas and the likelihood of encountering man-made intrusions such as roads, structures or light and noise pollution. Sound, light and air pollution do not respect wilderness boundaries.

For many years, National Park superintendents and wilderness advocates have focused efforts primarily on saving wilderness areas from being loved to death by visitors. However, in more recent times many managers have come to recognize the effects of what people do outside the wilderness areas can have profound effect on what happens to the wildness within.

Other considerations would include the likelihood of encountering fellow travelers and impacts of their use of the land. How many encounters would it take to negatively affect the character of the land?

I certainly wouldn't be pleased to find a tuba parked on a stump next to my campsite, but would the fleeting glimpse of a satellite or a jet passing overhead spoil the perception of wilderness?

The noise of jackbrakes from a semi-truck are legible at a distance of nearly eight miles, depending on a number of factors including barometric pressure, humidity, wind and physical barriers such as foliage, terrain and proximity to water. Sound carries farther over water than it does over land, which amplifies the noise of float planes and jet skis as well as loons.

On a federal level, the protection of acoustical environments has recently received a lot of attention from National Park managers as the result of an increased understanding of the impacts of sound pollution on ecosystem health and visitor perceptions.

While researching the extent of remote lands in the Adirondacks, I drew circles on a map of the park. After setting the protractor for a distance of eight miles, I began drawing a series of circles all over the map. The circles interlocked, while others were barely connected, and the Adirondack Blue Line was soon over loaded with Olympic symbols.

Upon completion of the scribing, it became apparent there were very few places, even on the large tracts of private land as well as on those designated as wilderness, where the circles did not bisect a road.


Road density and wilderness

Andy Keal, co-author of the Adirondack Atlas published by the Wildlife Conservation Society, furnished a valuable insight into the "less than trackless" character of the Park by providing GIS data that revealed lands within the Blue Line are compromised by a road density of .96 miles of road per square mile of land. Essentially, for every square mile of land there is approximately a mile of roadway.

The figure is based on state, county, town and village roads but does not account for private roads, fire truck roads, four-wheel-drive roads or commercial/logging roads. As unsettling as the fact may be, it becomes painfully obvious that with nearly a mile of road for every square mile of land, the likelihood of venturing upon a expansive tract of trackless wilderness is quite unrealistic.

Almost two decades ago, the advocacy group, Defenders of Wildlife, commissioned a study to investigate the suitability habitat in the Adirondacks for restoring wolves to the region. Grey wolves have long been considered an iconic species and they are commonly considered an indicator of the wildness of the wilderness. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, the Defenders' study was aborted before a conclusion could be reached.

However, in another study conducted in northern Wisconsin and supplemented by modern radio-telemetry, it was discovered that road density was the best predictor of grey wolf habitat suitability.

As road density increased in the study area, wolf populations declined and wolves failed to survive when the road densities exceeded .93 mile of road per square mile of land.

Similar studies conducted in Michigan, Ontario and Minnesota found a virtually identical road density threshold of .94 square of road per square mile of land for the occurrence of wolves.

Researchers noted that roads do not deter wolves. In fact, wolves often use roads for easy travel or to prey on the edge-adapted white-tailed deer.

However, roads provide access to people who shoot, trap or otherwise harass wolves. Nearly half of all the known wolf mortality in Minnesota was caused by humans.

Research indicates the quality of a wilderness area is directly proportional to the extent of the road network. The fewer the roads, the less fragmented the tract.


The Queen has fleas

While a host of regional scientists and an assembly of other lake advocates have been working to close the Champlain Canal in an effort to stop the potential spread of spiny water fleas into Lake Champlain, it appears the efforts will be for naught. The state Canal Authority has refused to close the canal to regular boat traffic, and the invasive water fleas, which were likely transported aboard a freighter ship from the Caspian Sea, are now on the cusp of arriving into the Big Lake.

The fleas, which were first discovered in Lake Ontario several years ago, were later found in the Sacandaga Reservoir.

The reservoir outflow later deposited the critters downstream into the Sacandaga River, which flows into a feeder canal near Glens Falls and eventually into the Champlain Canal. The scientists had hoped to contain the pest within the confines of the Champlain Canal, where the captive audience of invasive species could be dealt with before any further damage could be done.

However, before any such actions could commence, the spiny new invasive was discovered in Lake George, the Queen of American lakes. It is a short journey downstream along the LaChute River from Lake George, before a fresh bunch of the newest invasive species makes its way into the Big Lake.

And since Lake George is landlocked, it's apparent the initial introduction had occurred overland via a boat, a trailer, a canoe or some infected fishing gear.

Although the fleas can't fly, there are a host of vectors such as gulls, cormorants, eagles and loons to readily transport the critters into area lakes and ponds.

It's obvious the biological impact of this introduction will be significant, since there are currently no predators known to control spiny water fleas. However, the economic impact of these nasty, new invasives is yet to be emphasized, but it will also be considerable.

And now that the flea has managed to reach such a range, there will be no stopping it from making the journey further inland to other Adirondack lakes and surely the ponds. I wonder if brook trout will be able to feed on them?

From recreational anglers to the bass tournament pros, the negative effects of these fleas will give everyone an itch that can't be scratched. Changing times will continue to change the way we live and play outdoors, and likely for the worse.



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