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A large diameter white pine in an old growth forest.

A large diameter white pine in an old growth forest.

While hiking in a remoter section of the Essex Chain, I had the good luck to stumble, quite accidentally, upon a stand of old growth. This stand was contrary to everything I had here to for known about the Essex Chain tract. The Finch and Pruyn company, having owned the parcel for over one hundred years, had cleared just about every marketable tree, at one point or another. The evidence of some of the oldest cuts appear to have decayed, but there is pretty clear evidence of 50 year old cuts and 30 year old cuts, sometimes in the same stands. Finch Pruyn took only softwoods (that I know of), so it is not uncommon to see some sizeable hardwoods, though in some stands even those are gone. Once the paper company knew they were going to sell the land, they, like most extractive companies, pulled every marketable piece of timber, leaving huge swaths in a state of early succession, with degraded, nutrient deprived, acidic soil.

So, imagine my surprise, when I hiked up a steep lakeside embankment, and cresting it, meandered into an open, mature, northern hardwood stand. In this forest, there are only occasional ground cover plants, such as hobble bush, maple leaf viburnum, wood and bracken ferns, and more rarely, stripped maple. Along the ground there is an abundance of wood sorrel, dew drop and gold thread, with occasional red and painted trilliums. More rare, there are showy lady slipper orchids in the damp and shady places. Also in the shady places there is shin-leaf pyrola, and Indian pipe. But, amidst this glorious show of rich northern hardwood plants, stand the most impressive site of all.

Intermediate Wood Fern

Intermediate Wood Fern

Dew drop

Dew drop

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe

Shin-leaf Pyrola

Shin-leaf Pyrola

I was first drawn to a White Pine, Five feet in diameter. This tree, by my estimates, would be between 200 and 250 years old, predating the Finch Pruyn acquisition, and the only known clearing on this tract. Amidst the pines were similarly large Hemlocks and some smaller but still impressive Black Spruce. The spruce grows more densely and thus does not achieve the stately diameter of the pine. Further into the stand, Yellow Birch were reaching their peak and dying of old age. Wherever a dead stump marked the spot of a once stately tree, the associated dead fall lay near by, victim, most likely of wind or ice loading. On the stumps, new, shade resistant, hemlocks had colonized the canopy gap, using the nutrients of the downed logs to fuel their growth. Perhaps most impressive were the White Ash, of similar diameters as the pines, with trunks nearing 150 feet tall, and growing perfectly straight. From so far below the canopy, these giants seemed to whisper and groan, each catching the gentle breeze in their ample limps.

Despite all I had heard to the contrary about habitat preference, there amidst the rolling wooded topography, a moose appeared between two pines, looming six feet tall, but still dwarfed by the trees. She shook her head confusedly, before lumbering off into the deep woodlands. An impressive sight, to cap my peaceful afternoon in the cool, breezy quiet of the old growth timber stand.

Finally, a pair of black-capped chickadees descended to ward off my intrusion into their nesting area, and I was reminded that here, I am only an admiring visitor.

Forest sunset

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Some of the first people to recreate in the Essex Chain of Lakes were sports brought in by hunting and fishing guides in the late 19th century, from the old farmhouse on Chain Lakes Road South. This later became known as the Main House at Hutchins, and was established as the first Gooley Club Camp. Up the road, on the shore of Third Lake, the club (at the time of  my writing this) still has a camp, originally founded by the Chain Lakes Sportsman’s Camp in the early 1800’s. This camp consists of several roughly hewn rustic camps, some of them more than 60 years old–the remnants of a lease granted by the Finch Pruyn paper company, which allowed hunting and fishing by club members on the Essex Chain of Lakes tract. The lease allowed recreation and industry to co-exist in a delicate balance for the better part of 100 years. The lands have since been sold to New York State, in the largest acquisition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in more than a century. By 2018, the Gooley Club will be gone, and the lands will begin the long trek back to their wild state.

 

Most visitors to the Essex Chain, in the first few years of being open to the public, are canoe paddlers. After my first week of being a Backcountry Steward, it was not hard to tell why there were not more hikers. The previous owners, Finch and Pruyn, did not tread lightly on the land. Most of the “trails” in the area are just old logging roads, which traverse clear cuts every so often, which are, I must say, less than scenic. Still, there is some value of a clear cut, to the ecosystem of the Forest Preserve. Since natural disturbances such as fire are suppressed, and micro-burst blow-downs are fairly rare on a large scale, clear cuts are about the only disturbance that provides for early successional habitat. Early successional habitat is both regenerative to forests, as well as providing habitat for many birds that would not be present in a fully forested environment. Yet, there is a good deal of concern because logging removes nutrients and energy from the enviroment, and causes a high level of entropy in the inefficient dispersal of energy and resources from a concentrated system operating at dynamic equilibrium. Since logging cannot occur on forest preserve lands, the hope is that these clear cuts will follow the normal pattern of succession… That is provided invasive species do not take over the vulnerable early successional habitat in the interim. Ideally, these meadows will fill in with grasses and herbaceous plants, followed by scrub brambles, eventually to be invaded by early colonizers such as Aspens and Birches, before growing into a forest again.

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Early successional habitat is anti-entropic, in that it uses more energy than it releases, in order to fuel growth. This will continue until the forest reaches a sort of homeostasis known as dynamic equilibrium, in which the amount of energy taken up by all of the organisms in the ecosystem is equal to that which is released by the ecosystem as heat. (See Tom Wessels’ “The Myth of Progress”).

Still, as this process occurs, the indelible mark which human activity has left behind, will persist. Even in the section of forest, where the DEC has placed primitive campsites, one can still see stumps cut more than fifty years ago. Even as those decay, and new forest grow around it, there are certain signs of logging, such as forest age continuity and trees with multiple trunks, where the cut tree stump sprouted. These impacts will disappear with time, but it will take a long time, until we can no longer perceive them.

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Yet, to the untrained eye, these sites are primitive, and the area appears in many places to have a reasonable level of wilderness condition. From a canoe, on Third Lake, the only sign of disturbance is the stunted height of the trees, and with the backdrop of Dun Brook Mountain beyond the lake edge, it is hard to tell that man’s hand has ever touched this environment.

The campsites along the water’s edge prohibit fires, in order to maintain vegetative screening, that is otherwise lost, as campers pluck all the low lying branches from the trees, and trample the understory, in search of viable firewood. These impacts are measurable, and measuring them is my job. By using a radial transect, we can define the area of a campsite and determine if that area is increasing year after year. By collecting data on ground cover, at both the campsite and a control site, we can tell if human impacts are significantly damaging the condition of the area.

Here the Perimeter of the campsite is established using Global Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems data.

Here the Perimeter of the campsite is established using Global Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems data.

Metrics recorded at the site, systematically express the level of human impact.

Metrics recorded at the site, systematically express the level of human impact.

One of the myths that seems to perpetuate itself amongst hikers and paddlers and campers, is that if you are surrounded by trees you are in an undisturbed environment, and that human recreation is not damaging the resource in the way that industry had. While the scale of impacts, from say logging, are much less, to say the millions who visit the Adirondacks each year, or the thousands of people who complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, are not damaging the resource or stressing the environment, is patently false. If it were otherwise, organizations like Vermont’s Green Mountain Club of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, would not have to hire caretakers and ridgerunners, whose job is almost solely to clean up after less than considerate recreationalists, who often consider themselves beyond the scrutiny of conservationists, or even worse… part of the solution.

As the number of people recreating in the outdoors continues to rise, these resources are becoming ever stressed, and the impacts are spreading to a greater number of places. As one place is degraded, pioneering recreationalists search out more pristine areas, not realizing that such activities enable the sort of impacts that made their original haunts undesirable. We often call this “site creep,” as impacts gradually extend beyond their original extent by the effects of crowding and degradation.

Ideally, recreation is limited, in order to suppress impacts into reasonable, manageable, concentrated areas. However, with more people making the argument that public land is there to do with what individuals want, since it is their’s by way of taxes, we now run into an insidious type of impact, that negates conservation efforts, often perpetrated by individuals who are in favor of conserved land. However, many do not understand that conservation is for the perpetual preservation of the land itself, and recreation is a loosely associated benefit. Such a collective mindstate has been perpetuated by the National Park Service, which increasingly has to justify itself to congress in terms of economic growth produced. Economic growth is necessarily counter to conservation, as the idea of perpetual growth is fallaciously based on infinite resource availability, the very thing conservation recognizes to be false. Without recreation, public lands would not benefit economic activity, unless you consider industrial uses, which are perhaps the only thing more impactful than recreation.

 

As the Essex Chain tract shows, forests are resilient. When impacted by human or natural forces, the woods have a regenerative cycle of succession. However, I have heard this as an argument for why “sustainable” logging should be allowed on forest preserve lands. The counter argument is based largely on the second law of thermodynamics. When we remove trees from the woods, the energy stored in concentrated organized ways within the biomass, is inefficiently converted, where some of that energy goes to human benefit, but the majority is released into the atmosphere and then space. While early succession is anti-entropic, it is not enough so to negate the energy that is released as heat. Furthermore, carbohydrates are broken up and carbon that was stored in the tree’s biomass is released into the atmosphere contributing positive feedback to global climate change. Lastly, nutrients, which would be reabsorbed by the ecosystem, in the case of natural disturbance, are removed from the closed system, degrading the quality of the soil, and often contributing to extended denuding of the forest. If there is any doubt of this effect, take a walk on the woods roads in the Essex Chain and observe the barren places.

 

The Essex Chain now has a chance to recover from the dominion of human history, and revert back to natural history. In 300 years, there may again be old growth, in a state of dynamic equilibrium. We will only know if we take care of the land and avoid contributing to negative impacts. It is vitally important that those who choose to recreate on conserved land follow Leave No Trace principles, as we allow natural processes to dominate the landscape again.

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