Nature & Naturalists, an Ode to Adirondack Color

by | 12.8.2011 at 10:19pm
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There was a nice article in the NY Times on the Adirondack State Park whose title initially focused readers on how climate change could alter the park’s ecosystems. However, by the time you get to the end of the article, and luckily for us, you get to know Jerry Jenkins, one of the best naturalists I’ve ever met. It might be that only recently did this researcher become known outside the region and outside the legion of naturalists in the northeastern United States. For many reasons, I was thrilled to see this article. Primarily, the Adirondacks are my ecological home. It houses the forest that must have shaped my feelings for trees (while finalizing this post, I received a snail-mail from my mom with a clipping of the NYT article). Mostly, it is great to see Jenkins get his due.

View from Algonquin Peak, second highest mountain in N.Y. State. Photo: Neil Pederson

The Adirondack State Park is one of the oldest and largest preserves in the lower 48 states; as the Clinton Administration was in its last throes, a larger preserve was created in the American Southwest. The Adirondacks have been a vacationland for the rich, famous, and otherwise since the 19th century. It was never, and I sincerely mean never, much of a home for those who wanted to make a living off of the land. This was especially true for locavores.

See, one of the best interpretations of the word “adirondack” or “adirondac” is “bark-eater.” Apparently, it was a cool nickname for first nation people living outside the Blue Line.

But for those who wanted or needed a break from it all or for those who wanted to get away from it all so they could ponder it all, the Adirondack region was/is the place to be.

As you see in the N.Y. Times article, the region is also the place to study it all if you consider Nature at all. Jerry Jenkins is one of those people. You will not find his name name on a faculty roster at any college or university. But, what he says about our environment should be given the same weight as the words of any full professor. Like any good naturalist, he’s been out there for a long time. Not only has he been out there, he has been paying attention to what he sees. And better, he thinks about what he sees.

Jenkins was the first one I heard say that there has been no sugar maple regeneration in certain areas of the Adirondacks and that this is likely due to acid rain arising from the coal-fired power plants in the midwestern United States. When a person in the seminar audience asked why he thought that, he said that on sites with high pH (more basic soils), there was plenty of sugar maple regeneration. On sites with low pH (high acidity), there was no regeneration. He figured that the high pH sites buffered the calcium-loving sugar maple from the ravages of acid rain (acid rain leaches calcium from soils. High pH soils generally have more calcium). That care in observation and experimental design (comparing acidic sites to higher pH sites) is what all scientists strive to replicate in their research. I was lucky to talk to him at this meeting. His knowledge and logic were humbling.

Jenkins is not alone as a New England naturalist in terms of quality and intensity. I was reading a grad student’s poster on the damage and regeneration of old-growth forest in the western Adirondacks at this same meeting when Dr. Charlie Cogbill walked up. Like Jenkins, Cogbill is a “free-lance ecologist,” to borrow Cogbill’s term. As the student was explaining the project’s results, Charlie started nodding and said, “Yes, that is correct.” When the conversation proceeded, a question arose about a particular species. Cogbill reached into his backpack, pulled out a worn, spiral-bound notebook and pulled out his raw data from the SAME place where the student had conducted research. Not only did Cogbill have the same data, he has a ream of data from the same area from about a decade prior to that day. My mind marveled at that data set.

The natural history research that he and Jenkins conduct is of high value. It can aid in solving modern ecological issues and inform modern Earth-system models, which is what their massive data sets are doing. Natural history is not dead!

So, why are the Adirondacks such an attraction? It is hard to quantify, though I will give it a shot. The combination of water, mountains and intact forest is nearly unmatched. I’ve been fortunate to have visited and lived in many areas of the globe. Nothing seems to match the Adirondack region in the ratio of water to woods to mountains. Vermont is lovely, but it does not have the wetlands and waterways of the Adirondacks. As Jenkins notes in the Times article, it is this combination of ecosystems that makes it unique. From the boreal forests and wetland ecosystem that are home to the re-surging moose population to the oak and hickory forests like Virginian forests on warm, southern slopes in the southern Adirondacks, the Adirondack region has a wide variety of biota. I’ve even seen American chestnut saplings in the Adirondacks.

Adirondack woods & water. The green, white and blue are classic Summer ADK colors. Photo: Neil Pederson

The impetus for the creation of the Adirondacks is likely the result of many factors: preservation of watershed for downstream communities, preservation of forest from the onslaught of industrial-scaled logging during the late-1800s, preservation of wilderness. In fact, the Adirondacks are preserved in New York State’s constitution as “Forever Wild.” It would take a majority of New York citizens to vote for any change to the Adirondacks (somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3/4ths vote).

The clause was so effective that the Adirondacks contains the largest amount of old-growth forest in the northeastern United States. In fact, the late Barbara McMartin thought that if you considered areas of the park that were lightly picked at by coniferphiles as old-growth forest, areas where only a handful of spruce, pine and fir were logged before preservation, there could be significantly more old-growth forest than what is currently recognized. In today’s human-dominated landscape, perhaps we can overlook these small-scale intrusions.

Thus, given the significant disturbance in the late-1800s and subsequent preservation soon after, the Adirondacks might be one of the best natural laboratories for the study of “natural” ecosystems. Natural is in quotes because it is time for northern North Americans to recognize humans as a part of Nature. And, in local proximity of uncut ecosystems, people can compare how ecosystems recover after heavy logging over the course of 100 years. There are few places in the eastern United States where such large tracts of forest can be studied in the same way.

The Adirondack natural laboratory also seems like a factory for the production of Earth scientists. At one point during the end of my dissertation I was attending a workshop for students who were part of the Department of Energy’s Global Change Fellowship program. Through that program I met approximately four other students who grew up within 2-3 hours of the Adirondacks and spent a significant time in the park either at a family cabin or through hiking and camping. At around the same time I met another young Earth scientist at Lamont-Doherty whose parent’s cabin was less than a 15-minute drive from my folk’s cabin. It is likely that our connections to the Earth in the Adirondacks influenced our direction as we moved through school. Obviously there is value in natural areas beyond ecotourism and wilderness for their own sake.

OK, I love the place and have gone on far too long, much longer than planned.

What about the title of this post and the focus of this blog? While Adirondack Forest is loved for its piney, boreal and coniferous atmosphere, they are truly loved in autumn for the often spectacular show they give us. That colorful show comes from the graces of broadleaf species: orange to yellow sugar maple leaves, red to yellow red maple leaves, yellow birch leaves, yellow to purplish ash leaves, etc. See for yourself in the untouched picture below.

In Autumn, the Adirondacks are glorious. Sept. 1999. Photo: Neil Pederson, captured on AGFA 35 mm film

Go! Go visit the Adirondack Wilderness. Photo: Neil Pederson

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