The Wild Rivers Wilderness Area: a motorless economic engine

The Enterprise (Feb. 7) editorial supported the state’s plan to open many miles of public roads in the newly acquired Essex Chain of Lakes tract. It was critical of the Adirondack Council’s proposal to keep new public roads off of this landscape. However, aside from the obvious environmental benefits, there are many unexplored economic advantages to creating a large Wild Rivers Wilderness Area, with the Essex Chain as its centerpiece.

The Essex Chain is the most fragile and biologically rich tract of land the state has purchased for the Forest Preserve in more than 100 years. It is our responsibility as its new owners to protect it to the best of our abilities.

At the same time, the greatest, most sustainable economic benefit would come from preventing visitors from driving on it, landing a seaplane on it or hauling dozens of rafting parties onto it in buses and trailers. A concentration of interior commercial activity and motorized traffic will lead to a decline in forest health, wildlife and water quality. Healthy forests, abundant wildlife and clean water are the real fuels of the local economy. Octane and motors threaten all three.

There is no justification for saying that wilderness means no public access and no new visitors. The only difference between wilderness and all other Adirondack Forest Preserve is the lack of mechanized traffic. Let us not forget that more than 100,000 visitors a year sign the trailhead registers in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.

They don’t come because they can drive to Mount Marcy or park in Panther Gorge. They come, on foot, to see the wildest places in New York. They park in Keene, Keene Valley and the Adirondak Loj. They support many local businesses.

Managing the Essex Chain as the heart of a new 72,000-acre Wild Rivers Wilderness would help spread some of that business to Indian Lake, Minerva, North River and Newcomb. All would have direct access.

Why spend countless taxpayer dollars to open and maintain interior public roads? The average cost in the Northeast is more than $7,000 a mile per year. Why not place the parking lots in these gateway communities instead? These hamlets can host the signs, interpretive displays, guiding ads and business information not allowed on the public Forest Preserve. Better still, they can direct automobile traffic into downtown for gear, supplies, food, souvenirs and accommodations.

Local businesses could grow based on their proximity to the trailheads and municipal or private parking areas that lead into this mysterious, wild, new landscape – rather than watching visitors drive past on their way to an interior parking lot or staging area. Plus, the fisheries of the Essex Chain of Lakes would be better off if they were far away from invasive-species-spreading bait buckets and outboard motors, carried in so easily by cars and trucks.

We should encourage visitors to hire a local guide to take them down river or into the heart of the wilderness, and stay at a local hotel, cabin, campsite or yurt. Interior campsites should be available for those who have the time and equipment, but should be far fewer than are currently planned. The environment and the public would be better off if visitors were informed that a trip through the Hudson River’s most challenging whitewater isn’t safe for beginners. But it can be the thrill of a lifetime when led by an experienced, responsible person. Our communities are blessed with an abundant supply of such people (and new business opportunities).

The size and mystique of a new Wild Rivers Wilderness Area would set it apart from other adventure destinations in the Northeast. It wouldn’t intimidate experienced backcountry trekkers, but would lure many people who just want to stay next to it and perhaps walk in it for a few hours, as millions do at Yosemite, Yellowstone and other national parks each year.

Conversely, it would be harder to promote the state’s plan for a tiny slice of wilderness surrounded by three other types of state-owned forest – each with different names and management strategies and trail networks. Why pit Newcomb’s Vanderwacker Mountain Wild Forest against Indian Lake’s Blue Mountain Wild Forest, and nobody’s Essex Chain Canoe Area?

A single Wild Rivers Wilderness Area would allow all of the gateway communities to work together, multiplying their efforts and expenditures while they really promote themselves, their local businesses and their nearness to one another and to such a wild and spectacular place.

John F. Sheehan is director of communications for the Adirondack Council. He lives in Albany.