Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Adirondack Almanack: An Onion River Lesson: DEC Needs Our Help

People who oppose the state’s acquisition of land in the Adirondacks often complain that the state can’t manage the forest it already owns. So, the thinking goes, why buy more?

That argument always struck me as risible. Forests can manage quite well without our help. They did so for eons before homo sapiens existed.

I assume, then, the critics mean that the state has done a less-than-superb job creating and maintaining recreational facilities on the public Forest Preserve—trails, parking lots, signs, and the like. In this, they have a point. It was driven home to me last weekend when I paddled the little-known Onion River.

The Onion is part of a Forest Preserve parcel that also includes Madawaska Flow and Quebec Brook. The parcel was purchased by the state in the Champion International transaction in 1998—the first big conservation-easement deal engineered by Governor George Pataki. In all, the state acquired twenty-nine thousand acres outright and protected another 115,000 acres through easements that permit logging but prohibit development.

To reach Madawaska Flow, the put-in for trips on the Onion River and Quebec Brook, you have to drive for six miles on a dirt road through easement lands. The road begins at a wooden DEC sign on Route 458 west of Meacham Lake.

Complaint No. 1: On the way to the parking area, the road passes three junctions where the way is not obvious. None of them is marked by a sign. I guessed wrong once and eventually ended up on a muddy logging track.

Complaint No. 2: When you arrive at the parking lot, there are no maps, signs, or trail markers to indicate where the portage is. I walked down a gated woods road for 0.4 miles to reach the water, but I’m told there is a shorter portage with a different put-in. The carries should be marked.

Complaint No. 3: There are many places amid the pines that would be ideal for pitching a tent, but I saw no official campsites. In a comment in the trail register, another visitor also complained about the lack of campsites.

In short, more than a decade after the state purchased the Madawaska tract, DEC has failed to provide such basic amenities as signs, trail disks, and campsites.

I’m not going to criticize DEC. We all know how short-staffed and underfunded the department is. And last week the governor announced that the department’s budget will be cut even more.

So the critics are right. DEC lacks the staff to adequately “manage” the forest. I disagree with their conclusion, though, that the state should stop buying land. The primary purpose in preserving the Adirondacks is the protection of wild habitat and natural ecosystems. Recreation, however important, is secondary.

That said, we ought to make the Forest Preserve more user-friendly. In this era of austerity, we cannot expect DEC to do everything. Hikers, paddlers, cross-country skiers, anglers, hunters, and others who use and love the Forest Preserve need to pitch in.

DEC already relies on volunteers recruited through its Adopt-a-Natural-Resource program. Among other things, the volunteers maintain trails and repair lean-tos. But this approach can be greatly expanded with the help of the Internet.

Here’s my idea: DEC, perhaps in conjunction with the Adirondack Mountain Club, should create an interactive website listing Forest Preserve projects that need doing and solicit volunteers to undertake the work. At the same time, the public could submit suggestions for other projects. The aim would be to match volunteers with projects that they are highly motivated to undertake. It might be clearing blowdown on a favorite hiking trail, marking a portage, or snipping brush on a ski trail.

Those who love the Forest Preserve are willing to give generously of their time to make it a better place to visit. Just this week, DEC gave its annual stewardship award to a passionate hiker, Len Grubbs, who has devoted 2,336 hours to trail work over the years. For another example of the dedication of volunteers, check out the story about Lean2Rescue in the September/October issue of the Adirondack Explorer. (The Explorer story is not available online, but the Almanack also covered their award-winning work last year last year.)

The passion is out there. DEC just needs to harness it.

Anybody out there capable of building a few signs to point the way to Madawaska?

Photo: The Onion River by Phil Brown, editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. A description of Phil's trip on the Onion is online along with another possible trip at Madawaska.

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