Wilderness Drop Zones: A Poor Management Practice

Maintaining wilderness facilities such as trails, footbridges, and lean-tos is an important responsibility for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the agency in charge of managing the forever-wild Adirondack Forest Preserve. This has been an ongoing task ever since the state began constructing facilities for public use in the years after World War I. Without these basic accommodations, visiting the wilderness would be a difficult task for many people.

However, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates has become concerned about a recent trend in the way DEC fulfills this responsibility: the reliance on helicopters to deliver materials to remote work sites.

To be clear, helicopters are nothing new to the Adirondack backcountry. Indeed, the State Land Master Plan endorses their limited use, even in the protected wilderness areas where motorized access is otherwise forbidden. If, for instance, there is a need to deliver a supply of new roofing shingles to a lean-to that is miles from the nearest road, we agree it makes sense to deliver those materials by air, if there is a natural opening nearby where the load can be dropped.

This has been a standard practice for decades – and that’s fine. The issue comes when state employees manufacture an opening in the forest to facilitate a helicopter drop where no natural openings exist. This action creates small clear-cuts in our protected backcountry areas that may take many years to grow back in.

I first observed such a site in 2015, on a hike to Brooktrout Lake in the West Canada Lake Wilderness. Here, DEC had cut a number of mature trees beside the trail for the purpose of dropping lumber that was later used to build a small footbridge. The trees had been felled and left on site to decay, for no other reason than to facilitate a momentary aerial maneuver; the bridge that resulted from this project was only about 20 feet long and wide enough for only a single hiker. In other words, the long-standing visual impacts to the forest were disproportionate to the resulting trail improvement.

The Brooktrout site was relatively small, and by the time I discovered it the deed had already been done. Had this been a one-off event, it might not have been worthy of comment. However, this turned out to be just one of several such projects.

Along the trail to Brooktrout Lake

The Big Otter Experience

In 2017 we learned of a series of trail improvement projects DEC planned for the Big Otter Trail in the Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness. In this case, the state planned to replace four washed-out culverts with large bridges, each built out of dimensional lumber – three of which would have their own, dedicated “drop zone” cleared to facilitate delivery by helicopter.

AWA actively intervened in this action. We arranged a field visit with DEC staff that also included representatives from Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve and the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. During that visit the DEC foresters defended their proposal by stating the bridges were necessary to protect the resource, and that using the nearby wetlands as “natural” drop zones was not something park regulators would approve.

We countered that the proposed drop zones, which would each be at least 1600 square feet in area, were a heavy-handed practice unnecessary to accomplish the task. Indeed, one of the proposed zones was a recovered gravel excavation near Indian Brook forested with a scrub growth of Scotch pines; although of seemingly low value, removing this growth would have undone eighty years of natural recovery – in a protected wilderness area no less, where the primary goal is to achieve natural conditions as much as possible.

One happy result of this meeting was that DEC agreed to investigate alternate methods for delivering the building materials to each project site. Instead of three drop zones cleared within the wilderness, the state contracted with a teamster skilled in traditional forestry methods. At the cost of only a few thousand dollars, the materials for two of the bridges were hauled in by horse. This saved the state money and resulted in no lasting visual impacts.

The remotest of the bridge sites, however, was several miles from the trailhead, and apparently farther than the horses were capable of dragging these heavy loads. Therefore this one site on the back side of Moose River Mountain was cleared for a helicopter drop.

During that field visit in the spring of 2017, when we met with DEC staff to voice our concerns and discuss alternative solutions, the state foresters explained the difficulties of making an air drop: the weather had to be calm, the drop zone had to be no smaller than 40 by 40 feet, and snags outside the drop zone also had to be felled to clear the rotors’ draft. Windy conditions would make it hard to place the load within the drop zone, and might result in the delivery being postponed.

So here’s the irony: at this one bridge site on the Big Otter Trail, where DEC cleared its drop zone despite our concerns, the helicopter missed.

That’s right. When the helicopter dropped its bundle of logs and lumber, the material landed outside the drop zone in the uncut woods. A patch of forest had been cleared for absolutely no reason, and the state had been able to deliver its load in the deep forest. When I made a site visit in April 2019, I found an almost empty drop zone and bundles of lumber scattered through the woods.

Missing the mark: scattered building supplies along the Big Otter Trail

A Park-Wide Concern

In addition to Brooktrout Lake and Big Otter, we have discovered similar drop zones in remote areas across the Adirondack Park, from the High Peaks Wilderness to the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. A few of the larger sites can be summarized as follows:

  • West Stony Creek: Located in the southernmost corner of the Adirondack Park, this large drop zone was felled circa 2017-18 to build a new lean-to on the Northville-Placid Trail south of Benson.
  • Ouluska Brook: Farther north on the N-P Trail, a large drop zone was cleared at the point where Ouluska Brook flows into the Cold River in the western High Peaks Wilderness, at one of the remotest sites in New York State. Mature spruce trees were toppled into the river, and materials for a new footbridge still sat in the remaining scrub as of August 2018. The site had probably also been used when the nearby Ouluska Brook Lean-to was rebuilt.
  • First Peak in the Tongue Mountain Range: A large area on this summit was cleared prior to 2016, apparently in conjunction with a ground fire. This was probably an emergency action, although the cleared trees were not in the direct path of the fire – rather, the clearing extends along a mountain ledge that was probably a landing site for firefighters.

To be sure, there are emergency situations in which the potential costs to human life or the surrounding forest outweigh the visual impacts to the wilderness resource. This might be the case on First Peak, noted above. And it was most certainly the case on Wallface Mountain in the High Peaks; although we haven’t inspected this site, it is AWA’s understanding that at least one helicopter landing zone was cleared by forest rangers during a highly publicized search-and-recovery event in September 2017.

These instances are regrettable, but when a life is at stake then it’s hard for anyone to credibly intervene and insist the state hire a teamster instead of going in by helicopter.

However, the other projects have all been routine matters of facility maintenance. While necessary, these are hardly “emergencies.” Nor are they new. There are hundreds of trail bridges and lean-tos throughout the Forest Preserve, and until this past decade DEC had never felt the need to resort to such ham-fisted means to build them. Or when helicopter drops were necessary, the state had been efficient enough to utilize an existing clear spot, such as a wetland or shoreline.

Since we organized AWA in 2016, we have had discussions with state foresters on this topic, and the recurring defense of this new drop-zone practice is twofold: a desire to deliver more durable materials with less labor costs.

The old practice of, for instance, building a footbridge out of materials found on site has fallen out of favor, because a natural-grown spruce log is structurally inferior to pressure-treated lumber. Thus a bridge built out of untreated logs is likely to have a shorter lifespan.

And the idea of dropping logs in a natural opening such as a vly or pond may require a crew to be present to receive the materials and move them to the project site; this is an extra labor cost that could be eliminated if the materials were air-dropped beside the construction site.

To be clear, we remain unconvinced of these arguments.

We do acknowledge that these are honest attempts to provide practical solutions to recurring dilemmas. However, as a wilderness advocacy organization AWA’s role is to serve as a private check against state action; when we see an activity occurring that might run counter to the public interest, it is our duty to speak up. This is our reason for existence; it is the reason why wilderness supporters contribute to our cause

In this case, our concern is that the uber-efficiency DEC foresters are hoping to achieve is not needed in areas that by constitutional intent should be rugged and unspoiled.

Building in the Backcountry

Clearly, DEC’s preference is to build its way out of its short-term management issues. One can see this at work in the High Peaks, where wooden steps now lead up and down both sides of Mount Colden. Likewise, it is the state’s clear policy that no major stream should go unbridged lest hikers muck up the banks looking for a way to keep their feet dry.

It is incorrect, however, for DEC to assume that bigger-better-cheaper is the most appropriate model for the Forest Preserve, or that it is entirely up to DEC to bear every cost and pound every nail.

People seek out the backcountry because of the contrasts these experiences offer to the everyday world; instead of cubicles, or strict schedules, or the unpleasant companionship of obnoxious coworkers, we flee to the forest to find freedom. And instead of hard edges and cheap plastic, we are drawn to the sensuousness of native wood and rock. The people who don’t need these things know who they are, and these fellow New Yorkers are free to spend their weekends shopping or watching Netflix. Those of us who need the forest are fleeing modernity as much as possible.

Therefore it may be that by building better bridges and cheaper lean-tos, DEC is missing the point. Perhaps the bridge is necessary for public safety, and perhaps the lean-to is a comfortable reminder of the region’s past, but ultimately we all come for the natural beauty. If you punch holes in the forest, you are punching holes in the beauty.

To some people, we may be parsing some very fine points here; if the lean-to keeps my head dry, why should I upset myself over a patch of felled trees? It’s not like we’re talking actual clear-cuts, or permanent despoilments that will forever mar the landscape.

But the offensive notion here is that of laziness. The use of helicopter drop zones is a solution that results in long-term impacts to solve short-term issues. It speaks more to the quicker-faster-cheaper mindset of our current age than anything else, and it does not represent the best possible practice. As an organization of concerned citizens, it is a civic duty to speak up and try to change the process for the better.

And so we are here to point out that this drop-zone-clearing practice represents an intrusion to the wilderness experience that we the public would prefer not see expanded. Defaulting to use of a state-owned helicopter is not the same as considering a full range of options, because this method fails to include the various alternate solutions offered by private enterprise. And to the extent labor costs are a concern, this obstacle can be sidestepped by considering the vast amounts of volunteer labor that would love the chance to have a crack at these challenges; all that’s required is someone to organize and guide them.

Building Bridges, Literally and Figuratively

What we have seen is a relationship between the state bureaucracy and an environmental community that has grown so litigious that productive communication between the two sides is no longer possible; when the two parties assemble in the same room, the proverbial wagons are circled. Speaking for myself, I have no patience to engage in that kind of adversarial nonsense.

To me, the act of meeting with DEC staff on a wilderness trail and discussing logistical barriers and pragmatic alternatives is one of the most productive ways to reach an understanding. The state employees charged with managing the Forest Preserve need to trust that the public has a legitimate concern in the way DEC executes its duties. The public, meanwhile, needs to understand that DEC personnel are people who take their jobs seriously, and that lefty/righty politics can only cloud topics that should, theoretically, transcend such concerns and appeal to a broad range of people.

With that in mind, the first step is to recognize that what we all have in common is the desire to preserve a high-quality wilderness experience, for anyone in the Adirondacks with the wherewithal to seek one out. The second step is to concede that no one entity has a corner on all the solutions. From this comes the beginning of collaborative relationship, and hopefully a better, wilder future for the Forest Preserve.

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