Split Rock Wildway, Part Two: Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor
By John Davis, Rewilding Earth editor, Split Rock Wildway steward
A mother Black Bear with cubs waking from winter hibernation beneath a snow-covered spruce/fir thicket in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York may serve her family well by leading her young down and east toward the fertile, equable Champlain Valley, on the west coast of the Northeast’s longest lake and the eastern edge of the East’s largest park. She will be wise to find a safe sunny spot for her cubs to nap while she climbs the tallest nearby tree to scout a broadly forested route from the cold snowy mountains down to the valley, where wetlands are already melting and plants putting out new growth. If the big Yellow Birch she climbs has the right vantage point, she may choose a path from the Jay Mountain Wilderness east through smaller mountains to the North Branch of the Boquet River, thence down-river to one of the few relatively safe crossings on I-87 (the river’s span under the highway being broad and free of houses), east to the saddle-like pair of hills known as Boquet Mountain, southeast to the oaky bumpy ridge called Coon Mountain, and east again (through my family’s land, Hemlock Rock Wildlife Sanctuary) to the wildest part of Lake Champlain’s lengthy shoreline, Split Rock Wild Forest. Mother bear and cubs will thus have traversed Split Rock Wildway – a critical wildlife corridor linking the highly productive (for wildlife and people) Champlain Valley with the rugged High Peaks to the west.
(c) Matt Foley
Fortunately for bears, Bobcats, birds, otters, and trout, geology has afforded habitat connections from the High Peaks to Lake Champlain. Among such critical natural links are rivers — particularly the Boquet, AuSable, and Saranac — and a section of the West Champlain Hills that conservationists know as Split Rock Wildway. This wildlife corridor runs southwest through the Split Rock Range on Lake Champlain, west over Coon Mountain, northwest over Sprig and Cob Hills and Boquet Mountain, then west to Poko-Moonshine, Eagle Mountain, the Jay Range, and the High Peaks. A southerly fork of it runs southwest through the Westport Woods. It runs from habitat of Lake Sturgeon, Landlocked Atlantic Salmon, American Eel, River Otter, and Bald Eagle to that of stunted spruce & fir, American Marten, Blackpoll Warbler, and Bicknell’s Thrush, with Brook Trout plying the waters between, and our bruin friends moving up and down on land and by water with the seasons.
Adirodacks (c) Darren Burkey
Split Rock Wildway roughly corresponds with an arm of igneous bedrock, anorthosite, reaching from the High Peaks through the Champlain Valley in a wide band of rocky hills. This swath of rugged ground remained largely forested, while fertile valley soils to the north and south were converted to agriculture. This geologic and ecologic corridor is analogous to another vital wildway not far to the west – the Algonquin Park to Adirondack Park axis (A2A), where Precambrian bedrock links southern Ontario’s great park with New York’s great park and provides a relatively intact wildlife corridor to and across the vast St Lawrence Seaway.
Black Bear (c) MasterImages
Split Rock Wildway, and much of A2A, is set within New York’s Adirondack Park, which at 6 million acres in size is the largest park in the Lower 48 United States. It is an unusual park, though, in that it is more than half private lands. About 2.8 of the 6 million acres are state-owned Forest Preserve, guaranteed “Forever Wild” protection by the New York State Constitution: some of the strongest land protection in the world, especially for the 1.1 million of those 2.8 million acres given the additional layer of Wilderness protection. Adirondack Park is set within the even larger Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve, an honorary (not regulatory) designation bestowed upon the Champlain Valley in both Vermont and the Adirondacks as well as the Adirondack Mountains, and adding up to more than 9 million acres, making it one of the largest Biosphere Reserves in the world.
Peregrine Falcon (c) Darren Burkey
The biggest conservation land-owner in Split Rock Wildway, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (with about 4000 acres in Split Rock Wildway and 2.8 million across the Park, plus another half million throughout the state, the second biggest complex being in Catskill Park), has the potential to become a player of national significance in wildlife corridor protection and in climate stabilization. Jerry Jenkins, author of the Adirondack Atlas, Climate Change in the Adirondacks, and the upcoming Northern Forest Atlas series, has found that the West Champlain Hills are botanically one of the richest areas in the Northeast, rare in this region for their dry yet rich oak/hickory/hophornbeam community. Jerry has catalogued dozens of fertility indicators and xeric specialists here that are rare or absent elsewhere in the Park, including White and Chestnut Oaks, Rafinesque Vibernum, Douglas Knotweed, Round-leaf Gooseberry, Leatherwood, and Woodland Sunflower.
Spotted Salamander (c) MasterImages
The West Champlain Hills are also rich in animals; and Split Rock Wildway is home or movement habitat for many shy, sensitive, or wide-ranging species. Among focal species seen here are Black Bear, Bobcat, Coyote, Ermine and Long-tailed Weasel, Mink, Fisher, River Otter, Red and Gray Foxes, Moose, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Great Blue and Green Herons, Timber Rattlesnake, Five-lined Skink, Spotted Salamander, at least seven frog and toad species …
The great water off Split Rock Wildway, between the Adirondack and Green Mountains, Lake Champlain, is itself worthy of top conservation attention. Historically, Lake Champlain supported populations of American Eel, Landlocked Atlantic Salmon, Lake Sturgeon, Lake Trout, Brook Trout, Sauger, Brook Lamprey, and even Harbor Seal. The seal and several of these fish have been eliminated or greatly reduced by past over-exploitation and dams on lake tributaries. Some of the same groups leading land protection efforts in Split Rock Wildway are also turning attention to the related needs of aquatic species, which will greatly benefit from forest protection but also need removal of artificial dams and exotic species.
A rewilding victory was recently won when – with strong support from local officials and anglers – conservationists succeeded in getting the lowest dam on the Boquet River removed. This opens many miles of spawning habitat for salmon and other diadromous fish.
We gratefully acknowledge paintings and photographs contributed by friends of Rewilding Earth. Larry Master contributed all images in Part One of Split Rock Wildway and the black bear and spotted salamander in Part Two. Darren Burkey contributed the paintings of wood ducks and the Adirondacks and the photograph of the peregrine falcon. An anonymous contributor allowed the use of the bobcat, and Matt Foley prepared the map for this series. ~ editors
John Davis is executive director of The Rewilding Institute and editor of Rewilding Earth. For Rewilding, he serves as a wildways scout, editor, interviewer, and writer. He rounds out his living with conservation field work, particularly within New York’s Adirondack Park, where he lives. John serves on boards of RESTORE: The North Woods, Eddy Foundation, Champlain Area Trails, Cougar Rewilding Foundation, and Algonquin to Adirondack Conservation Collaborative.
John served as editor of Wild Earth journal from 1991-96, when he went to work for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, overseeing their Biodiversity and Wildness grants program from 1997-2002. He then joined the Eddy Foundation as a board member and continues to serve as volunteer land steward for that foundation in its work to conserve lands in Split Rock Wildway. This wildlife corridor links New York’s Champlain Valley with the Adirondack High Peaks via the West Champlain Hills. John served as conservation director of the Adirondack Council from 2005 to 2010.
In 2011, John completed TrekEast, a 7600-mile muscle-powered exploration of wilder parts of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada—sponsored by Wildlands Network and following lines suggested in Dave Foreman’s book Rewilding North America—to promote restoration and protection of an Eastern Wildway. In 2012, John wrote a book about that adventure, Big, Wild, and Connected: Scouting an Eastern Wildway from Florida to Quebec, published by Island Press.
In 2013, John trekked from Sonora, Mexico, north along the Spine of the Continent as far as southern British Columbia, Canada, again ground-truthing Rewilding North America and promoting habitat connections, big wild cores, and apex predators—all of which would be well served by fuller protection of the Western Wildway he explored. John continues to work with many conservation groups to protect and reconnect wild habitats regionally and continentally.
John is available to give public talks on rewilding, conservation exploration, and continental wildways, as well as to write and edit on these subjects. He is also available for contract field work, particularly monitoring conservation easements, documenting threats to wildlands, and marking conservation boundaries. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org (for his land-care work).