Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness: Big Otter Trail Rehabilitation Project

In the interest of encouraging best management practices in the stewardship of our public lands, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates has been closely following a proposal by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to rehabilitate a section of the Big Otter Trail in the Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness near Old Forge.

This former truck trail spans the wilderness from Herreshoff Road in Thendara to the outlet of Big Otter Lake in Lewis County. It was constructed for administrative access to the backcountry, but when the wilderness was first designated in 1972 it became a multi-use trail for hiking, skiing, and horseback riding. The rolling grades and wide turns of this narrow gravel lane make it a fun ski route, and forty-five years of revegetation have made it a surprisingly green trail for hiking, despite its origins.

Because it was created as a motor vehicle route, the Big Otter Trail features a culvert at nearly all of its stream crossings. In 2015 several of these culverts washed out during a flash flooding event, resulting in the need to address the condition of the trail. One of the washouts is spanned by a temporary bridge that is itself succumbing to erosion. We are excited that DEC is turning its attention to the Big Otter Trail in 2017, but we have concerns about the work that the state has proposed.

In a series of four work plans completed this winter, DEC has outlined its plan to replace the damaged culverts with large snowmobile-style bridges. These bridges would be 6 feet wide, and from 12 to 30 feet long—not counting approach ramps. The treated lumber required to build them would be delivered to the sites by helicopter, and because most of the sites are located deep in the woods DEC plans to cut small clearings of about 1,600 square feet each so that the materials can be lowered through the trees. The state forester who surveyed the sites counted a total of 60 trees that will need to be cut down to create these drop zones.

It is AWA’s opinion that DEC’s proposed work plans do not represent the best management practices for the stewardship of wilderness resources, and that all four plans must therefore be rejected. The proposals violate a nationally accepted practice for the management of wilderness areas called the “minimum tool principle,” which directs wilderness managers to apply only the minimum tools, equipment, device, force, regulation, action, or practice that will bring the desired result. A 30-foot-long snowmobile bridge installed as a replacement for a 24-inch culvert can hardly be justified under the Minimum Tool Principle, especially when 40′ x 40′ clearings are further required to stage the building materials.

We have requested DEC to consider additional alternatives for the Big Otter Trail. Because most of the stream crossings are so small and inconsequential, bridges are probably not required at three of the four sites. We suggest that re-grading the trail would be a far more successful alternative. This action would lower the trail surface to the level of the streams, requiring hikers to step across them. No structures, long-term maintenance, or tree cutting would be required.

In the case of the fourth site at Indian Brook, we suggest that a smaller bridge design be installed—one that does not involve approach ramps or railings. Because this site exists in a semi-open area, a helicopter air drop might be acceptable with little or no need to cut trees.

This is not an isolated incident. A few years ago, DEC created a small clearing in the West Canada Lake Wilderness to drop materials for a small footbridge on the trail to Brooktrout Lake, foregoing the option to use materials found on site. The treated lumber might last longer than a set of spruce logs, but so will the stumps of the large trees that were cut to create the drop zone.

And we are also investigating a similar project that has been proposed for a trail near Gull Lake in the Black River Wild Forest.

Stewardship is an important aspect of wilderness preservation. But the desire to maintain the man-made facilities within these areas—including trails, bridges, and lean-tos—must be balanced with the larger goal of sustaining the landscape in a pristine condition. Constructing 30-foot snowmobile bridges over tiny streams on a secluded ski trail is an over-engineered response to what is essentially a very routine situation on wilderness trails. We hope DEC drops its plans to clear the trees and build these enormous bridges, and looks instead to adopt a solution that is more in keeping with the wild environment.

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