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In the Adirondacks, the Watershed Flows Downhill

While most of the country is enjoying a spring thaw right about now, in the Adirondacks, it's still very much winter. And that's a good thing. Not just for skiers taking advantage of the season at Whiteface Mountain, but for the daily lives of all New York State residents both in the park and out of it.

Published: 03/22/2018

When he began his 1870 ascent of Seward Mountain, Verplanck Colvin could have never known that he was about to change the world. It was a hike that would spark a life's work in environmental conservation, galvanize a body of state lawmakers to preserve environmental protection with a constitutional amendment and put in motion the first environmental experiment of its kind - the inclusion of a human population in a protected forest preserve.

Establishment of Forever Wild

For hundreds of years, New York City sprung up from the roots of timber harvested from the Adirondack Mountains. Protection of the Adirondack Mountains wasn't a novel idea in 1870, but as Colvin scaled Seward Mountain, he bore witness to the devastating results of clear-cutting by the logging industry –an unintended consequence of the logging industry first presented in George Perkins Marsh's 1864 book Man and Nature. A lawyer, author, illustrator, and topographical engineer, Colvin was in the right place at the right time, and his report of the climb inspired state officials to commission a survey of the mountains. In his 1873 topographical survey of the Adirondack Mountains he illustrated the severity of the landscape's degradation, and the effects it had on the Adirondack Watershed:

"Unless the region be preserved essentially in its present wilderness condition, the ruthless burning and destruction of the forest will slowly, year after year, creep onward ... and vast areas of naked rock, arid sand and gravel will alone remain to receive the bounty of the clouds, unable to retain it."

Colvin argued that if the Adirondack Mountains were not protected the devastation would not only affect the mountains' inhabitants but that if the soil could not hold water the Erie Canal, the lifeblood of New York State economy, would also be under threat. It was convincing testimony. Still, it took the state 10 years to enact legislation. In 1885, the New York Legislature established the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Ten years after that, in response to the sale of lands by forest commissioners, the Legislature enshrined the protection of any state held lands as "Forever Wild" in the New York State Constitution.

Adirondack Mountains Today

When you think of protected parks and forest preserves, names like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Great Smokies immediately come to mind evoking visions of birds migrating, deer grazing, bear grabbing at migrating salmon. What you may not think of is the human presence, and that's because there largely isn't one, not a permanent one, anyway. Bigger than any of them, bigger than all of them combined, the Adirondack Park is a very different animal.

These days, the Adirondack Mountains boast spectacular wetlands and old-growth forest, and are home to 132,000 year-round residents, 220 species of birds, 54 species of mammals, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 74 species of butterflies. The forests have made a remarkable recovery since the near devastation Verplanck Colvin spoke of, and almost everywhere you look you'll find a testament to the resilience of nature. But what about the 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams? What about the 80 species of fish that also call the Adirondack Mountains home? For the answer, I spoke with Dr. Margaret Murphy, Ph.D., founder of Integrated Aquatic Sciences.

Our Unique Mountains

Part of what makes the Adirondack Mountains such a remarkable place is that it has never been done before. It is part state-owned parklands, which are deemed Forever Wild and part privately held lands which must adhere to responsible land-use policies. It's the first conservation area to combine state-owned forest preserve and human communities so thoroughly, and it's this blending of public and private land, explains Dr. Murphy, that makes the Adirondack Mountains so unique. It presents a fascinating opportunity to study the environmental impact of a well-intentioned human population.

It's also unique because of its sheer scale of diverse ecologies present, which offers nearly endless research possibilities and recreation opportunities. As a certified fisheries biologist, Dr. Murphy spends much of her time at this crossroads; monitoring the impact recreation and agriculture has on Adirondack waters. She is working to develop a unique protocol that will allow a specific ecosystem to thrive for generations to come. It's a delicate balance that requires a team of professionals and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Areas rich in phosphorous from agricultural runoff may experience productive water plant growth, leading to murky waters and an explosion in a specific fish population. Whereas lakes close to roads like Lake Placid's Mirror Lake may experience higher levels of salt that can prevent the waters from turning over in spring or fall, reducing oxygenation of lower water levels and putting a strain on bottom-dwelling fish populations.

How can we help?

Whether enjoying Lake Placid and the Adirondacks as a full-time resident or just for a day, we all have a responsibility to be stewards of the forests, rivers, and streams that we enjoy today so that they can be enjoyed by visitors for decades to come. Next Fall, as we approach winter, we'll meet up with Dr. Murphy again to explore how Adirondack towns protect the waterways on an operational level throughout the year, even in winter when, at first glance, the icy surface makes you think Mirror Lake has gone to sleep. For now, there are easy ways we can all be good stewards of waterways both in the Adirondacks and in all communities. Together, we can keep the Adirondack Mountains "forever wild" and the Adirondack Watershed clean.

  • Embrace the three Rs. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Reduce the number of plastics and non-biodegradable, non-compostable items. Reuse and repurpose everyday items and materials that we use. Recycle all products that are labeled as such.
  • Be mindful of natural design. Everyone loves a perfectly sculpted, perfectly maintained lake but over-sculpting and removing unsightly but necessary features like tall grasses may harm or even kill lakes in your community.
  • Participate in resort green initiatives. On the surface, it may seem like environmental programs at hotels are cost-cutting measures, and they are (I don't know about you, but I'd rather the hotels spend extra money on the quality of the towel rather than the number of times they wash it during my two-night stay. My skin demands it!) but there is as much truth in how these programs benefit the environment.
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