Sunday, June 8, 2014

Assessing a Wilderness at Risk

 As I've said many times before, I would follow Evelyn Greene anywhere in the Adirondacks.  After all, she had climbed all 46 high peaks by the time she was 16, and by now (some 50-plus years later) she knows just about every hidden pond and bog and cedar swamp where the rare plants grow, and I've never yet lost my way by following where she leads me.  Last Friday, I followed her once again, only this time we were led by a perhaps even more intrepid woodswalker, the noted wildlands advocate John Davis. John, shown above checking our map against his GPS device with Evelyn and another friend, Bonnie Vicki, has dedicated his life to exploring North America's wildlands by bicycle, kayak, or on foot (see his website Wildlands Network: TrekEast), and today he was helping us find our way around a 200-acre parcel in the Jay Wilderness Area near Lewis.

This particular parcel, called Lot 8, is the wilderness land that NYCO Minerals may have access to for possible mining.  According to a constitutional amendment that was passed in last November's statewide election,  NYCO may be allowed to conduct exploratory drilling for wollastonite, a calcium-containing mineral used in ceramics, paints, and plastics. If the mineral is found here in amounts that merit mining, it is possible that NYCO may then proceed to dig pit mines in this area of the Adirondacks that had once been declared by New York's constitution to be lands left forever wild. As stipulated by the amendment, NYCO would then trade land of comparable value to the state, as well as restore the mining sites to a natural state after the minerals have been extracted.

Needless to say, not all conservationists are happy with this situation, and some have pointed out that although constitutional restrictions concerning this land may have been amended, other non-constitutional regulations are still in effect that could prevent industrial incursion into this highly protected wilderness parcel.  Many legal questions remain.

Our purpose in walking this land last Friday was to attempt to document the plant and animal life that would be affected by such industrial incursion.  And so we set off, tract map and compass and GPS unit in hand, to explore this trackless wilderness on foot, climbing steep rocky ravines and pushing through Hobblebush-thick woodlands, noting on checklists the plants and animal signs that we encountered, as well as measuring trees whose size might indicate old growth.

We were serenaded on our journey by the sweet songs of many birds, including the exquisite coloratura of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the very start of our trek.  I recognized the "zee zee zee zoo zee" of the Black-throated Green Warbler that accompanied us much of the way, and my friends called out the names of the many other singers as we heard them.  We didn't find any plants of such rarity that might stop the proposed disturbance (or merit rescue transplanting), but we did enjoy the beauty of such woodland flowers as these Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia).

The flowers of Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) usually dangle hidden beneath the top tier of leaves, but this particular plant had its dainty little flower resting on top.

Solomon's Plume (Maianthemum racemosa) was abundant throughout the woods, its fluffy plumes of bright-white flowers standing out against the dark green of surrounding foliage.

The moonwort called Rattlesnake Fern (Botrychium virginianum) is usually an uncommon find, even in woods as calcareous as these, but we were astounded by the abundance of its lacy fronds at almost every step along our trek.

The Rattlesnake Fern has a spore stalk that rises vertically from the juncture of its three fronds, and a close look reveals the tiny spheres that resemble bunches of grapes, a structure that hints at why this fern is sometimes called Grape Fern.

Most of the land we walked along was dry underfoot, if also thick with shrubs and ferns and understory trees, as well as mature trees of substantial girth that Evelyn measured and documented.  And then we came upon this small wetland of astounding beauty, with masses of deep-purple Marsh Blue Violets (Viola cuculata) set among tall spikes of False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) and curling fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis).  We just had to pause to admire this exquisite scene.

The Marsh Blue Violet can be recognized almost immediately by its habit of holding its flowers on long thin stems above its leaves.  Plus, it blooms in wet places, even in standing water.

Ah, but another, even more spectacular floral display still awaited us!  Bonnie was the first to spot a smallish cluster of Yellow Lady's Slippers across a small stream, and we had no sooner gasped with pleasure at the sight than we looked around and found dozens and dozens more, shining like little golden lamps in the dark of the forest.  Ultimately, we counted around a hundred.

The Larger Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens), one of New York's nearly 60 species of native orchids, is found only in woodlands that are rich in calcium, such as this tract that is thought to be underlain by the calcium-rich minerals sought by NYCO.  All of New York's orchids are protected by state law, but the fine for destroying them is so small as to pose no impediment to a corporation seeking the riches beneath these orchids' feet.  Too bad.  And they are not usually transplantable either, since they require a particular fungus in the soil where they grow that may not be present in their new location.  Again, too bad.

We were lucky to gaze on such beauty.  The abundance of Yellow Lady's Slippers here certainly belies the dismissive statement by one state official, who supported the suspension of this parcel's wilderness status by claiming it was just a "plain vanilla" woods.

And of course, it is not just the plants that would stand to suffer from industrial incursion.  All kinds of creatures would be likely to find their homes and habitat destroyed.  Just because we didn't see them around us in the woods on this day, doesn't mean they are not living there.  Some, like this tiny Spring Peeper, are so well camouflaged we could walk right by them and never see them.  Until, as this little critter did, they jump.  And then we could catch it.  Just for a moment, though.

Do Spring Peepers always return to their natal ponds to mate and winter over?  If so, what do they do when their natal pond has disappeared?  Or is poisoned by pollutants?

I guess I'm glad we didn't see the creature who left these claw marks while climbing up this tree, since we had been hiking into these woods for a good long time, and it would be a good long way to run if we were to be pursued by a Black Bear.  (Not likely. More likely the bear would run from us!) Perhaps it had climbed this tree last fall to fatten up by feasting on the beech nuts that bears crave before hibernation.  Do bears go back to the same hibernarium each year?  Let's hope this bear can find another cozy place to spend the winter and other beeches to climb for food, should this woods be found to be rich in wollastonite and should the legal hurdles preventing its exploitation possibly be cleared.


Uta said...

Thank you for taking us on another wonderful trip into the woods.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful lady's slippers.

catharus said...

'Great to come along your exploratory walk onto a new site. Thanks!!

The Furry Gnome said...

It's SO frustrating when decisions like that are made! Why does money always win? Hopefully it won't come to that, and very useful to document the 'before' in any case. My mother was involved in a rescue transplant of Yellow Lady Slippers nearly 50 years ago, and they are still flourishing after two further transplants. They were mom's favourite flowers.

threecollie said...

A peeper! I always love your posts and photos, but a peeper is extra special.