Pepperbox Wilderness: Protecting the Western Adirondacks

The Pepperbox Wilderness is a 23,813-acre parcel of Forest Preserve located very near the western boundary of the Adirondack Park. Pinched between the Beaver River to the south and the West Branch Oswegatchie River to the north, it includes numerous small ponds, wetlands, and streams. Partly because of its isolated location, recreational use has been very light. There are few marked trails, and the access points are far from the park’s main travel corridors.

For all of these reasons, the Pepperbox (as it is affectionately known) may be among the most exemplary of all the wilderness areas in the Adirondacks – in all aspects except size. It truly is a place where solitude has reigned supreme for many years, and probably will for some time to come, despite containing just a fraction of the acreage of the neighboring Five Ponds Wilderness.

Obviously, this is a place we’d like to see protected for its intrinsic values. We have therefore been monitoring management proposals that would either impact the Pepperbox directly, or affect it indirectly in terms of the way the region is accessed. While we don’t foresee any imminent threats, our goal is to apply our knowledge of the area to ensure proposed management actions will not degrade the existing wilderness experience.

Specifically, we have been engaged with DEC’s management planning process in this region. Currently, DEC is writing a revised unit management plan (UMP) for the Pepperbox, as well as a recreation management plan (RMP) for the adjacent Croghan Tract Conservation Easement. Both documents would govern public use of these lands for years to come, including proposals for new trails, parking areas, and other facilities.

Pepperbox Wilderness UMP

Our primary concern is to protect the Pepperbox against unnecessary development. Demand for recreational access has traditionally been limited, especially after the interior ponds succumbed to the ravages of acid rain decades ago. A few marked hiking trails do exist, but use has always been light. A proposal to install a lean-to at Gregg Lake in 2015 drew mostly opposition, leading the state to scrap the idea.

There is evidence that the ponds may be recovering from their acidic conditions, and DEC recently stocked Sunshine Pond with trout for the first time in decades. This raises the possibility that recreational interest in the Pepperbox might slowly increase in pace with the quality of its fishery. Hypothetically, this might result in the appearance of new “user-created” trails and shoreline campsites, which would be an indicator of a resurging public interest.

If there is a major threat to the Pepperbox, it is in the form of illegal motorized entry. For the most part, the isolated nature of this wilderness makes it well protected, but there are vulnerabilities. In some cases, a modest adjustment to a gate or a bridge could make some entry points impassible to snowmobiles and ATVs. Other entry points have no natural barriers, and motorized trespass has been an issue in the past.

There are several private inholdings within the wilderness boundaries, each serviced by its own access road. The state permits public motorized access to one of these roads, known as the Tied Lake Primitive Corridor. If the private lots were ever acquired for the Forest Preserve, they would be added to the Pepperbox and the access roads would be closed. Given this eventuality, we would prefer to see public motorized access curtailed sooner than later.

Croghan Tract Conservation Easement RMP

This working forest, on which the state acquired recreation rights in 1999, forms a large portion of the Pepperbox’s western boundary. In the summer the public may drive to three interior trailheads that service the wilderness, including a short, universally accessible trail to Sand Pond; a longer hiking trail to Jakes Pond; and a bushwhack entry point south of Sand Pond. During the winter months, however, the main road is used as a snowmobile corridor.

In 2020, the state issued a RMP for these lands that mostly addressed the recreational facilities on the easement itself. However, this plan also called for opening two dead-end roads to snowmobiles as far as the wilderness boundary. In our view, this would add little value to the snowmobiling experience, but it would diminish the wilderness experience by intruding on its natural soundscape. It might also exacerbate the issue of motorized trespass.

Read More

In March 2019, we expressed our concerns to the state regarding the issues that threaten the Pepperbox Wilderness and the direction of its user management.

Planning for a Wilder Pepperbox

Read a brief history of the Pepperbox, including its unusual acquisition history and a discussion of the names of its most distinctive landmarks.

A Brief History of the Pepperbox Wilderness

Haven’t been to the Pepperbox yourself? Enjoy this account of a winter overnight at Sunshine Pond in 2002.