Just a few hours north of Poughkeepsie lies the Adirondack Park, the largest protected area in the lower 48 states and larger than the Yellowstone, Glacier, Everglades and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. That illusion of abundant wilderness is negated by the fact that less than 3 percent of the Lower 48 is classified as a protected wilderness area. The rest of the contiguous United States is crisscrossed and carved by roads and freeways, and quartered neatly into suburban yards and city blocks.
Wilderness advocate, New York native and hiker extraordinaire Tyler Socash came to Vassar on Dec. 5 as part of a tour of several colleges around the state, where he has been speaking about how his passion for outdoor adventure has recently developed into an ardence for wilderness protection. He is spreading the word about an opportunity to help save Boreas Pond, one of the most critical ecosystems in the Adirondacks, which is currently under threat of human development.
Socash hails from the Adirondacks, where his love of the outdoors began. “I hope to explain how I developed a wilderness ethic for the backcountry because I grew up in a beautiful place,” he remarked. “Aldo Leopold said, ‘You can only develop a land ethic if you have a love for location.’”
After graduating college, Socash found his passion as a hiking guide, and spent two years completing challenges such as hiking all 46 peaks higher than 4,000 feet. “If you can discover where your attributes and your passions align, you’re in your element and you should pursue that professionally, because then it’ll never feel like work,” he urged. Then he discovered a love for thru-hiking; “I developed a reckless sense of confidence which changed me forever,” Socash described. Eventually, after working a desk job for a few years, he decided he needed to return to the wilderness and embarked on a great adventure: thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Te Araroa (TA) Trail in New Zealand, and the Appalachian Trail (AT), a total of 6,600 miles, in just one year, a feat that had not been accomplished to date.
He impressed the crowd on Monday with tales of his adventures, his struggles and joys, and the fantastic fellow thru-hikers he befriended—who eventually convinced him to spend an extra month on the trail, making the total journey 13 months, which, Socash assured, he does not regret. Some of the trails were more remote than others, but the AT was the most shocking because of the through road built along the entire range. “You are never out of earshot of the hum of civilization, and this stood in stark contrast to the TA and the Pacific Crest Trail,” he said. “Let me put it into perspective: you cross a road every four miles when you walk the Appalachian Trail, on average. On the Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,650 miles long, you walk through four towns.”
Another unpleasant surprise awaited him at the end of his odyssey. “I returned to the Adirondacks deeply disturbed because I found them overused,” Socash lamented. The woods were littered with waste, due to an increase in hikers in recent years combined with a lack of what Socash calls “wilderness ethic,” an understanding for the intrinsic value of untamed land. He decided then that the next stage of his dedication to the outdoors would be as an active protector of the remaining wilderness in New York.
He and some like-minded friends founded the nonprofit Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, and their current mission is to protect the Boreas Pond tract. The area is the largest and highest elevation wetland ecosystem in the state of New York, and home to a variety of endangered species, but the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has proposed expanding the surrounding area for recreation use. They offer four options, with varying levels of access to the pond, but Socash and his associates are advocating for the consideration of a full wilderness option, which would allow no vehicle access to the delicate pond habitat.
On Dec. 6 the APA hosted the penultimate public hearing in a series of eight around the state, in the Bear Mountain Inn in Tomkins Cove. Citizens crowded the room to hear APA officials explain the land classification plans for the Boreas Pond tract, and to offer their thoughts on the matter.
Several Vassar students who had been inspired by Socash’s talk the night before accompanied him to the hearing, and took the stage to endorse the wilderness option. Vassar Outing Club (VOC) Co-President Hailey Steichen ’17 stated, “I’m from New Mexico, so you can imagine when I came up here for college and I got to visit the Adirondack Park, I was blown away by the pristine waters, the beautiful leaves, and this very unique, beautiful area that you all have here. I believe that having motorized access to [the pond] would eliminate a lot of these magical things.” She concluded, “I think that this area, the high wetland complex, especially needs to be preserved and protected.”
Other speakers were more concerned with access to the pond, particularly those who are elderly or physically unable to access the high elevation area without motorized vehicles. Many of these citizens remember passing time by the pond in their youth, or enjoy using snowmobiles in the area, and argued for an option that would include at least partial road access to the pond. However, refuted VOC Co-President Emily Burke ’18, “There are plenty of places to snowmobile, over 8,000 miles in NY state alone. But Boreas Pond is the only wetland of its kind.”
Wilderness advocates reasoned that the pond should be protected for its value as an ecosystem as well as for its serenity and aesthetic beauty. “It’s an important ecological community and it’s going to become ever-increasingly important as climate change affects the regional area. We’re going to see flora and fauna migrate to higher latitudes and higher altitudes, and places like this that are on high elevation are going to become more important ecological communities,” explained Dylan Finley ’17.
The fate of the Boreas Pond tract will be decided at the end of the month. Anyone who still wishes to help protect it can write to the APA at this address before Dec. 30: classificationcomments[at] apa.ny.gov. More information about the Boreas Pond and its importance can be found on the Adirondacks Wilderness Advocate Facebook page.