William C. Whitney Wilderness

For many people, the William C. Whitney Wilderness is known as a premier paddling destination. The fact that it ranks among the smallest protected areas in the Adirondacks is beside the point, because within its boundaries are three of the largest lakes in the Forest Preserve. With over fifty designated campsites to choose from, and with miles of waterways to explore, this area is nothing short of a gem.

Named for a nineteenth-century businessman and politician, the Whitney Wilderness was pieced together in 2000 from two blockbuster land purchases, both of them the choicest fragments of former private parks. The state had previously purchased the west end of this tract in 1978 from the heirs of William Seward Webb, a land speculator best known for building the Adirondack Division railroad. The centerpiece of that purchase had been the 1400-acre Lake Lila, which remains the largest Adirondack lake in full public ownership.

Some 20 years later, New York State closed on the second of the two major purchases, adding thousands of acres to the Forest Preserve acquired from Whitney Industries in 1998. This tract included most of Little Tupper Lake and all of Rock Pond, as well as a ribbon of forest that created a land bridge with the Lake Lila parcel. Though far from complete, this was enough wilderness acreage to satisfy the State Land Master Plan.

Between these three major water bodies are a dozen baby ponds and an array of navigable streams. But as a protected wilderness assembled from what had long been managed forests, Whitney is something of a paradox – and the area is not without its blemishes. This is an example of how a wilderness classification is not always an observation of what the land is, but sometimes a statement of intent about what it should become. If the lands and forests weren’t completely pristine at the time of the wilderness designation in 2000, nature has been given a free hand to make restorations as it sees fit. And so far, the results have been outstanding.

Please click through the tabs below to learn more about the William C. Whitney Wilderness.

William C. Whitney Wilderness at a Glance

Size: 16,041 acres

First Designated: 2000

Unit Management Plan Status: A brief stewardship plan was published in 1998, but an approved UMP has never been issued for this area

Special Regulations: Special regulations apply — see tabs below

This is a wilderness defined as much by water as it is by land, with the combined surface area of its lakes, ponds, and other waterways accounting for 28% of the total acreage. The largest lakes, of course, are Lila at 1400 acres – the largest Adirondack lake entirely within the Forest Preserve – and Little Tupper, a 2300-acre waterway that is managed as part of the wilderness despite the presence of two private properties along its shoreline.

Indeed, these are wilderness lakes, with miles of undeveloped shoreline. Windswept pines grace natural sand beaches, and groves of spruce and hemlock cap the various small islands. Noteworthy streams radiate outward in all directions, some providing water flowing in from the adjacent private properties, and two major streams flowing out. Lake Lila in particular deserves mention for being the starting point of the Beaver River, one of the major drainages of the western Adirondacks.

Lila’s fishery is celebrated by sportsmen mostly for its bass, a feature that draws numerous people every June despite the prevailing black fly situation. The Little Tupper watershed, including Rock Pond and Bum Pond, is home to a genetically unique strain of native brook trout – one that has been widely stocked across the Adirondack Park. While this strain will survive because of that stocking program, it is unfortunate that it has been threatened in its home waters by the illegal introduction of bass. This act of ecological sabotage probably occurred soon after Little Tupper Lake was opened to the public.

Between these two lakes is a stretch of remote forest bearing nine other named ponds, the largest of which is the outstanding Rock Pond, whose name belies its remarkable size. This area constitutes the bulk of the William C. Whitney Wilderness, in terms of its geographic area. Although the total acreage ranks among the smallest of the park’s protected areas, it nevertheless achieves a significant appearance of remoteness – by virtue of the fact it is a “land bridge” spanning a region that is otherwise off-limits to the public due to private ownership.

Forest quality would be unremarkable and otherwise consistent with neighboring areas, except for the unmistakable human history on display here. The twin tracts surrounding both Lila and Little Tupper were constituent parts of private preserves dating to the 1890s, each owned by wealthy businessmen who viewed their lands equally as investments as much as sporting grounds.

The result is a forest that shows the distinct marks of a century’s worth of active (and sometimes intense) forestry management. Although mostly undeveloped, what is now a public wilderness was heavily logged prior to state acquisition, and many of the impacts of those activities will linger for years to come. These include areas of open meadow created by a devastating 1908 forest fire, dozens of gravelly clearings, miles upon miles of roads and skidder trails, and the overall youthful appearance of the trees.

Somewhat more subtle are the pockets of Norway spruce and Scotch pines; as their names suggest these are not native North American tree species, but they were nevertheless the favorites of past foresters. Because they were planted frequently, pockets of both European conifers can be found at random places throughout the wilderness.

Fortunately, decades of hands-off management has resulted in significant regrowth, and the future health of the forest seems assured. Combined with the almost rampant beaver activity all across this wilderness, William C. Whitney is a prime example of how natural forces can undo the works of man when given both time and opportunity.

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