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ON THE SCENE: Our fractured landscape

September 15, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

One of the lessons coming out of Harvey is that the unchecked development in and around Houston led to vast acres of fields and pastureland paved over, blocking the earth's ability to absorb much of the water pouring out of the skies. Yes, there would have been flooding in any case, but the severity and the resulting damage would have been far less. Possibly some lives would have been saved.

The state and our visitor agencies have done a great job of selling the joys of hiking in the Adirondacks, but a lack of pre-planning has left some of our communities and the state Department of Environmental Conservation unprepared for the onslaught resulting in Keene taxpayers footing a $10,000 bill for port-o-sans at trailheads and its fire departments out on so many rescue calls that it's impacting local fire and rescue volunteers' quality of life. Further, DEC is grossly understaffed; it doesn't have enough rangers to meet the combined demands of rescuing and educating our visitors, and being a visible presence in the woods.

Another shocker - not so apparent driving around but very evident from a scenic flight over Lake Placid, Keene, Wilmington and other communities - is the breakup of the land into a crazy patchwork of houses and roads. As we are not the only creatures living here, this fractured landscape provides a formable challenge for wildlife, blocking many of the smaller creatures' ability to move from their vernal pool breading grounds to their summer habitat higher on hillsides.

Article Photos

Dr. Michael Klemens out in the field looking for salamanders
Photo provided — Naj Wikoff

Looking out the window, we see lots of trees, but it's important to keep in mind that half the land is in private hands and all, to a greater or lesser degree, is broken up by paved roads, and beyond that by gravel roads, old logging roads and paths, and within all that by housing development. Each year, state, town and county highway crews mow thousands of acres of roadsides, eliminating millions of milkweed plants, the only food source of the monarch butterfly caterpillars. How hard would it be to delay this mowing until late September, after they climb out of their chrysalises to begin their long journey south.

That we are not willing to make that effort is a major contributing factor to sightings of monarchs becoming increasingly rare. Imagine the challenge a gravel road, much less a paved highway, poses for a toad seeking to get to the other side on its journey from a vernal pool to its summer upland habitat. No cover from hungry birds overhead, it can be hot and dry, and then there are those cars. A paved road adds such formable obstacles as curbs, hot pavement and stormwater drains, plus all the oil, salt and other pollutants on and adjacent to the roadway.

Such barriers lead to the death of millions of amphibians, insects, reptiles and smaller mammals each year, resulting in a significant reduction in the food sources of the larger animals that feed on them. That, in turn, impacts our quality of life.

According to conservation biologist Michael W. Klemens, founder of the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, the increasing fragmentation of the Adirondack landscape is the largest single threat to the region's ecological continuum. Klemens is an advisor to Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and the lead author of their recently released booklet "Pathways to a Connected Adirondack Park: Practical Steps to Better Land Use Decisions." On Tuesday evening in a public forum held at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, he made the pitch for changing the focus of our land-use planning from one that encourages fragmentation to one that is a win-win for humans and the creatures that live around us.

"Fragmentation is probably the largest challenge that we're facing in the Adirondack Park and nation in terms of protecting ecosystems," said Dr. Klemens. "Fragmentation is amplified now by climate change, which is making the impact of fragmentation more serious. Biodiversity provides us our natural capital for resiliency, our ability to bounce back from events such as Hurricane Irene. Fragmentation creates a disconnect between humans and the environment. Fragmentation creates conditions that are not sustainable and then require large infusions of capital because fragmented habitats often create more drain on resources, society dependencies and, more importantly, compromises human physical and spiritual health."

As an example, in Keene, a lot of people live up gravel roads on the hillsides. Runoff from these roads has substantially increased the amount of sand in the East Branch of the AuSable River, which has destroyed fish habitat, resulting it no longer being the fishing destination it once was. In my neighborhood, considerable capital is spent maintaining the gravel road network where I live. After Irene, a significant amount of money was spent repairing the roads and putting in new, larger culverts. If our homes were all closer together, if proper culverts were installed in the first place allowing brook trout to go up higher in the summers, and if the remaining land was placed under a conservation easement, our annual costs for road maintenance and snow plowing in the winter would be significantly reduced, fishing habitat would improve, and we'd benefit by having our own communal forest to enjoy.

Another driver of fragmentation is the 40-foot building height limit in hamlets set by the Adirondack Park Agency. Does St. Agnes Church offend anyone? It's considerably over 40 feet. Well-sited taller buildings in a community's core could help reduce the pressures to live further out; plus, communal living can reduce the amount of energy, water and building materials used on a per-person basis. The issue isn't height; it's design and shifting our mindset from individual rights to embracing a more communal approach toward how we live. Consider how much more pleasant boating, fishing and swimming in Lake Placid is with its mix of private and state lands than one surrounded by houses with its now-compromised water quality.

"The benefits of sustainable planning apply to us," said Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson. "We need a real toolkit on how to revise our local planning document. Ours is out of date. How can we take Dr. Klemens' thoughts, guidelines and expertise, and turn it into a legal, practical document that we can use here in Keene? Our land is getting fragmented by more and more subdivisions. People want to build by the rivers, in the views and on the steep slopes. We as a community have got to decide how much development do we want, and how big or small do we want it."

"We need to think about land use planning in a bigger way," Pete Nelson of Keene said after the presentation. "The science has changed unbelievably in the last 20 years, and that's changing conditions on the ground. I don't think we have to take sides here; there are lots of advantages for everyone. We just need to understand the threat of a fractured landscape and the opportunities conservation design provides."

"I appreciated his stress on the importance of local involvement," said Jack Miller of Malone.



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