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Of rivers, restoration and hope for all things wild

August 15, 2012
By Dan Plumley , Adirondack Wild

Hereclitus of Ephesus, pre-Socratic philosopher of Greece, was well known for his statement, "You never step into the same river twice" - an ephemeral allegory to our lives and the changing flow of water and its dynamic nature in the form of rivers, streams and brooks here in the Adirondacks and worldwide. Like wilderness, natural rivers and their flowing waters can seem at once always changing and yet timeless and our experiences of them are always different, always unique. In the Adirondack Park, securing the conservation of our state's designated wild, scenic and recreational rivers has been a pivotal goal under New York state law since 1972.

This week, a diverse mix of local highway department personnel, town supervisors, river advocates and the general public have an uncommon opportunity to experience both water and river dynamics associated with one of the most hopeful turnabout projects in Park conservation history from within the bounds of the town of Keene. The Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District will be hosting a tour of the natural river restoration project ongoing now on a 2,500-foot stretch of the East Branch of the AuSable River in Keene Valley. Those who are compelled by the ephemeral mystery of our rivers or those intrigued by our best options to restore rivers after the damage caused by last year's Hurricane Irene would find the two-hour tour, between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16, well worth their time.

The Rivermede Restoration Project, named for the Rivermede Farm upon whose lands in large part the river flows within the project bounds, is being undertaken by a partnership of the district, Trout Unlimited, the AuSable River Association (ASRA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a host of volunteer groups and individuals, including Adirondack Wild. Using knowledge and principles developed by Midwestern hydrogeologists and professors Luna Leopold and his protege David Rosgen, the project aims to reduce erosion and loss of critical farm lands while incorporating natural materials and ecologically sound design that helps sustain and enhance natural and wild river character, fisheries, insect life and its scenic character. The late Luna Leopold was the son of Aldo Leopold, famed Midwestern conservationist, forester and ecological thinker who penned, "A Sand County Almanac," "Round River" and many other writings on observational ecology and nature. These critical essays evolved into his revolutionary "Land Ethic," which incorporates the land into our sphere of ethics as a community of life to which humanity belongs, and not as a commodity we are free to exploit. It formed the basis for modern, ecosystem-based studies, analysis and management.

Article Photos

Tree root “wads” and boulders are among the natural materials used to rebuild the bank of the East Branch of the AuSable River on June 30 near Rivermede Farm in Keene Valley. Planning for the project started in 1998, but work didn’t start until this summer.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

Applying Leopold's land ethic in ecologically-based river and stream management, as in the Rivermede Restoration Project on the East Branch of the AuSable River, offers new hope that we can foster a better relationship between our communities and our rivers throughout the Adirondack Park. Decades of ill-fated dredging, riprap and concrete barrier wall development to "control" rivers and streams, such as the channelizing activity which so damaged more than 40 miles of rivers in the Adirondack and Catskill parks post-Irene, is giving way to a newfound awareness, appreciation and knowledge to apply the principles of ecology and hydrogeology to sound river restoration and management. Pressure upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation last fall by a diverse coalition of river, environmental, community and business interests native to the Adirondacks helped create a sea change in approach, leading up to crucial changes in the long-standing Rivermede Project as well as more training opportunities like the Rivermede Project tour being held on Aug. 16. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens and his staff, in particular, have been responsive to the call for ecologically minded approaches and very supportive of key projects at the local and park levels.

Leading the charge for applying ecologically sound river management and stream restoration knowledge are Dr. John Braico, president of the Adirondack Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and Carl Schwartz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners in Fish and Wildlife Program. Together with the inspiring leadership of Dave Reckahn of the Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District, ASRA, numerous volunteers and local contractors Ward Construction of Jay, a new day is dawning for true river restoration principles in the Adirondacks. Key to the project is a more naturally stable river design in using native materials, trees and their root "wads," as well as native boulders, all of which mimic nature and create more natural riffles, runs, pools and meanders that actually enhance channel stability while restoring and improving trout and wildlife habitat and therefore economic value. In time, natural processes themselves will help restore and recover the wild character of the river and enhance public access and fishing potential. The project will serve to promote and enhance both farm and community tourism within the High Peaks region.

The East Branch project offers hope to be a model for other vital river and stream restoration projects, and has already caught the interest of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Its sister branch, the West Branch of the AuSable River, brings in some $4 million in fishing tourism per year to area communities. That's good incentive to see true ecological restoration used on the East Branch, as well as other impaired Park streams and rivers where communities and waters meet.

Hereclitus was right. You can't step into the same river twice. We can, however, change our minds and our thinking about rivers, and take care how we step into the future in a new partnership with our rivers based not on human control, but on respect and integrated understanding of the dynamic nature of our rivers and streams.


For more information or to register for the Rivermede Restoration tour, contact Dave Rekhan, Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District at 518-962-8225.


Dan Plumley lives in Keene and is a partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. For more, see



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