Mountain Biking and the Adirondack Park Wild Forest Areas
by Gary Thomann (February, 2002)
I would like to argue that promoting mountain biking in the Wild Forest (WF) areas of the Adirondack Park (park) is in the best interest of the park, in both a recreational and an environmental sense.† To do so, I will first discuss the current status of these WF areas, based on eight years of riding, on perhaps 50 trails in most all of the named areas (I have not yet ridden in some of the small areas in the northwest)
Before beginning, I will present some very basic facts about the park.† Many of the intended readers of this letter already know these facts, and may want to skip the next section.
Basic Park Facts
According to Adirondack Park Agency (APA) August 2000 statistics, there are 1,290,216 acres of WF classified land in the Adirondack Park, which is 22.2% of the total park area.† By comparison, there is 3,101,226 acres (51.7%) private land and 1,071,236 acres (18.4%) wilderness.† The wild forest is distributed throughout the counties as listed below
Clinton†††††††††††† ††††††††††† 49,816 acres
Essex††††††††††††† ††††††††††† 175,146
Franklin†††††††††† ††††††††††† 155,859
Fulton††††††††††††† ††††††††††† 74,684
Hamilton††††††††† ††††††††††† 313,653
Herkimer†††††††† ††††††††††† 207,522
Lewis†††††††††††††† ††††††††††† 50,480
Oneida††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††††††††† 6,479
Saratoga†††††††† ††††††††††† 14,443
St. Lawrence†† ††††††††††† 93,956
Warren††††††††††† ††††††††††† 126,787
Washington†††† ††††††††††† 21,392
Oneida, Saratoga and Washington counties have only small areas inside the park, and as a result have little wild forest acreage.† All of the other counties have significant wild forest (Essex and Hamilton counties are entirely within the park).
The wild forest areas are named.† If the park is divided north/south by a horizontal line approximately through Long Lake and Newcomb, and east/west by a vertical through Paul Smiths and Indian Lake, the distribution of wild forest areas is as follows.
Moose River Plains
Watsonís East Triangle
I do not have data on the size of each of the wild forest areas; it is easy to see their distribution by looking at the APA classification map.† Even a cursory examination illustrates that the great majority of the wild forest area is in the southern part of the park.
Present Status of the Wild Forest
Wild Forest Users, Winter and non-Winter
In the winter, the southern WF areas are probably most used for snowmobiling, with some cross country skiing, snowshoeing and mountain biking.† In the spring, summer and fall, the users are ATVís, hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians and hunters.† (I will just use the term ATV rather than ATV user or ATVer.† I am also including motorcycles, trucks and jeeps in the term).† The relative number of users varies from area to area.† In the Lake George WF I expect hikers are most numerous, followed by bike riders and horses.† In the Wilcox Lake WF the ATV is most popular, followed in order by bike riders and hikers.† Since I am concentrating on trails here I have not included paddling, and have also omitted mention of birding, rock climbing, ice climbing, dogsleds and simple sightseeing.† I do not mean to diminish the importance or enjoyment of them.
With the exception of some of the Lake George trails and a few other isolated trails, my experience is that the WF has very few hikers.† Apparently on a summer weekend you can encounter a hundred hikers on top of Mt Marcy.† In my experience, you could go out on wild forest trails every day of June, July and August and not see a hundred hikers total.† Maybe two or three hundred ATVís would be encountered, and maybe a hundred or so mountain bike riders.† In terms of total numbers the WF is practically a user desert in the summer.
There are probably a variety of reasons for the dearth of hikers.† Because of the relentless publicity of the wilderness areas produced by NY tourism, ADK, ANCA and similar organizations, the wilderness areas (particularly the High Peaks) are probably seen as romantic, while the less publicized WF as dowdy.† The WF trails are often wet and muddy.† The experience of meeting ATVís probably discourages many hikers, who wish a quieter experience.† Finally, there are some vast tracts of recently logged (in the past 40 to 60 years) land in the WF on which hiking may seem to be a little dull.
User Caused Trail Damage in the Wild Forest
Although the total number of ATVís in the wild forest may not be great, the trail damage they cause is signifcant.† In my experience you sometimes encounter a solitary user, at other times a pack of 15 to 20 machines.† As with other users, their trail behavior varies.† Some just cruise down the trail, others spin circles on the shores of lakes and marshes.† ATVís have several bad effects.† Their width results in wide trails, their power enables spinning the wheels that tears up and lowers the trail surface, and their weight cause ruts which close off any water drainage that might be there.† In addition, it is impossible to pick up an ATV and carry it around blowdown, so every time a tree comes down across the trail, ATV users will make a new wide trail around the obstruction.† Because of this, a consequence of ATV use is often extensive trail braiding.† Although it doesnít directly impact the trail condition, ATVís are noisy and cause air pollution, especially the 2-cycle models.† It is probably not a stretch to say that the effect of ATV use on trails is totally negative.†
It is often claimed that snowmobiles cause no trail damage, which is not quite true.† The problem I see most often is the widening of trails so they can be groomed.† The result can be wide wet highways through the woods rather than trails.† The 2-cycle engines in most snowmobiles are also heavy polluters, although as mentioned this does not affect the trail surface.
I have never seen any trail damage that I could attribute to a hiker or mountain biker.† I have seen post holes created by horses, although these probably have little lasting effect on the trail.† In comparison to the impact of the motorized users, and in relation to water damage that will be discussed later, the consideration of trail damage by non-motorized users is irrelevant.
The Design and Construction of the Present Wild Forest Trails
The great majority of the trails in the WF are snowmobile trails.† There are exceptions, such as the Lake George trails on the Knapp Estate and Tongue Mtn.† Some of these existing trails may have been designed and constructed specifically for snowmobiling.† That I donít know, I wasnít around when they were built.† Anyway, the original purpose for building them is not relevant to the current discussion.† How good are these snowmobile trails for hiking/biking?† In my experience there is no single answer, the trails are too diverse.† I will give some examples.
There are three trails that go into Dexter Lake (in the Shaker Mtn WF north of Caroga Lake).†
The two trails into the lake from the east and west are on a side slope and beautifully bench cut, and can be excellent for hiking and biking.† Conversely, the trail from 29A north into Dexter Lake via Fourth Lake, Third Lake and Spectacle Lake is so wet it is virtually useless in the summer.† The trail Between Georgia Creek and Cod Pond on the east side of NY8 (north of Wells) is also wet to the point of being unusable.† Many sections of these latter two trails could have been made much more durable and summer friendly by moving them a couple hundred feet up the slope and bench cutting them.† However, constructing a proper bench cut trail is a lot of work, and this may be the reason for putting them where they are.
The snowmobile trail into Chase Lake (east of Caroga Lake) is reasonably narrow and excellent for hiking and riding.† The Stewart Landing loop west of Caroga Lake is a rocky adventure, but during most seasons of the year a user must be prepared for waist deep water.† The Irishtown snowmobile trail (north of Minerva) has some wet areas, but is still a good summer trail.† The trail into Pine Pond south of Lake Placid is usually full of mud holes.† The trail to Tioga Point in the Sargent Ponds WF has wet areas but is still a good summer trail.† The trail eastward from Meacham Lake to Debar Meadow is very wet.† All three trails into Baldwin Junction (northern part of Wilcox Lake WF) are so wet they have limited summer usefulness.† The trail into the Pine Orchard is a wonderful summer trail, as is the trail from Brownell Camp north along East Stony Creek.† The two trails out of the Pumpkin Hollow trailhead near Wells (one to Wilcox Lake, the other south past Murphy Lake) are wet, but usually useable.† The McKeever/Bear Creek loop in the Black River WF is wet in the summer.† To summarize, variable for summer use, in many cases wet.
Maintenance of the Existing Wild Forest Trails
In my experience, the lack of maintenance is significantly damaging the trails in the WF.† The basic problem is water, either standing in the trails, or running down them.† Even the well designed snowmobile trails are usually wet, because they have no drainage.† The result is that ATVís produce huge ruts in the trail which compound the damage by closing off any damage that is there!† As I ride the trails and encounter a big mudhole, I usually look at it to see if it could be drained.† Suprisingly, a good percentage of them could be emptied by good drainage work, and others could be fixed with minor trail rerouting.† Of course, you would still have to worry about the motorized users closing off the drainage with their heavy machines.† Some wet areas are impossible to fix, the two trails I mentioned before (north into Dexter Lake and east of Highway 8) are in the bottom of valleys and need a complete reroute.
The second problem is water running down the trail and removing all the soil.† It is a particular problem on steep trails, although it also occurs on surprisingly shallow slopes.† The problem here is not drainage, but lack of water diversion structures (waterbars or rolling dips).† Spectacularly ugly examples of water damage can be seen on the top half of the Tongue Mtn trail going east up the slope from Clay Meadows, on the trails around Shelving Rock, and on three downhill sections of the trail along the west side of Bennett Lake.† These trail sections look like dry (or not so dry) stream beds; there is no soil on the trail.† It is difficult to fix such severe damage, and parallel trails often develop to bypass the damaged section.† There are now parallel trails around the three damage sections alongside Bennett Lake; in turn, these new parallel trails will probably begin to erode.† Primarily what is need is waterbar construction and maintenance to slow this type of damage.
Snowmobile clubs do some trail maintenance.† In my experience this is removal of blowdown and construction of bridges over moving water.† The blowdown is often removed in late summer and fall.† The bridges are constructed because the running water does not freeze reliably.† Trail wetness by itself is does not seem to be a concern for snowmobiles; as long as the water is nearly stationary it will freeze and be covered by snow.† If a trail is so wet it wonít freeze reliably the solution seems to be throw corduroy in it.† The corduroy is wet and slippery in the summer, difficult to hike and bike over.† I always try to ride over corduroy, my experience has been that riding it is easier and less dangerous than walking on it.† One example of a trail with a lot of corduroy is the Irving Pond loop east of Caroga.
Summary of Present Status of Wild Forest Trails
The present trails vary in usefulness for summer use.† They are wet.† There are not a lot of non-winter trail users, but even the limited number of ATVís are causing significant damage.† The trails are degrading from lack of maintenance.
Any solution needs to reduce the ATV impact and greatly improve trail maintenance.† To a certain extent better trail maintenance would reduce the ATV impact, but I believe any solution should directly try to lower the number of ATVís using the trails.† Probably any timber company, power line right-of-way manager, farmer or other type of rural land manager will tell you that illegal ATVís cannot be kept off the land by law enforcement.† The enforcement density is not available, ATVís are difficult to apprehend, and the trespassing penalties are not severe even if an apprehension is made.† I think the only way to reduce the ATVís is by displacing them with another user group.† Over a period of time this new user group, if numerous enough, can push the motorized users out.
Maintenance also requires a user group from which labor can be drawn.† There are not enough hikers in the WF to solve, by themselves, either the ATVís or maintenance problem.† Mountain biking is a relatively new activity that is becoming very popular, and someday it might supply enough users to start solving the WF problems.† Mountain bikers are rather energetic, and, in my experience, much more ready to do trail maintenance than other groups.† Criticism of mountain bikers seems to be that they cause trail damage and go too fast.† I will address that briefly in the next section.
Impact of Mountain Biking
There have been several studies that indicate a mountain bike on a trail does no more damage than a hiker.† These studies are a bit disingenuous because per hour a mountain bike can cover more trail than a hiker.† In any case, however, the experience of mountain bike use on trails around the Capital District shows them to be compatible with both the environment and other users.† There is extensive bike riding on multiple use trails at Grafton Lakes State Park and Moreau Lake State park.† There have been no significant problems at either park, and the mountain bike users are doing most of the trail construction and maintenance at both places.†
Like other users, an overwhelming number of mountain bikes in a sensitive area will cause trail problems.† A current example is the Pine Bush Preserve in Albany, where a 3000 acre park is surrounded by 300,000 people and there is a trail into the preserve from every housing development alongside it.† The preserve has little ground cover, so a new trail can be made in a few minutes.† The problem in the preserve is trail widening, braiding and development of many new bootleg trails.† The organized mountain bike community is presently working with the Pine Bush Commission to try to solve these problems.† The Pine Bush type of problem will not happen in the Adirondacks, the user density will never approach that of in-town Albany.
The 2nd criticism sometimes heard is that mountain bikes go too fast.† This can happen on incorrectly designed trails, i.e. wide trails with gentle curves and easy smooth surfaces.† A correctly designed mtn bike trail is narrow, has a lot of sharp turns, and a non-smooth surface (how non-smooth often determines whether it is beginner, intermediate or expert rated).† Fortunately, most Adirondack trails have features of the correctly designed trail.† My riding experience, with one exception, has been that a good hiking trail is a good mtn biking trail, and vice versa.† Also, a poor hiking trail is a poor mtn bike trail, and vice versa.† The one exception is extremely steep trails, where a user needs to use both hands and feet to ascend.† Examples of such trails are probably the trail up Black Mtn in the Lake George WF, the trail up Vanderwhacker Mtn, the trail up Hadley Mtn, and the trail up Prospect Mtn.† I say probably because I have never tried to ride them; they just look too steep.† Trails of this type could probably be reserved for hiking only.
At this point I have gone far enough, and I hope my arguments have at least partly persuaded you of my thesis; the Wild Forest areas need a good user group, and the mountain bike riders are ideal for this purpose.