I Grieve for the Trees

The Azure Mountain Friends are going to offer a free, one-day course on responsible outdoor recreation - but unfortunately the enrollment is only open to the four young people who camped out on the summit of the mountain the night of July 11, 2008.

For anyone who's never climbed the one mile trail, Azure is a small mountain between Santa Clara and St. Regis Falls, 2,518 feet in elevation. July 29 will mark the 90th anniversary of the construction of the fire tower. "W. H. Finney, Keeseville, July 29, 1918" is carved into one of the cement tower leg supports. As a member of the Azure Mountain Friends, I volunteer 2-3 times every summer to spend a day up on the mountain. I put an American flag up on the restored fire tower, like the observers used to do, pick up litter (there's normally very little), greet hikers and answer their questions, and enjoy the fantastic view for 6-7 hours. The Azure Mountain Friends, in partnership with the DEC and AmeriCorps, and with the generous donations of many other supporters, restored the 35 foot tower in 2003 and currently maintain it and the trail through an Adopt-A-Natural-Resource agreement with the State.

The summit of Azure is partially open and encircled by some massive cliffs, with a grand panorama of the the High Peaks to the east and south, and unbroken forest to the west. (A 360 degree view is possible from the cab of the fire tower). The winds that sweep around this lonely little mountain are brutal. The summit is covered with ferns, blueberries, and grasses and what few trees that manage to get a grip in the meager soil and hang on for dear life. Behind the fire tower, where it's a little more sheltered from the harsh west winds, birch, maple, and cherry trees have struggled to survive - probably for the 90 years since the fire tower was built. Some of those hardy trees may not survive much longer.

Perhaps the four who camped in the shelter of the woods behind Azure's fire tower just didn't know any better. Maybe they'd heard that birch bark makes good tinder for fires (it does!). They probably wanted to prove their self-sufficiency by cutting their own firewood. It is very clear, however, that they had never heard of "Leave No Trace" outdoor ethics or "Take only pictures, bring home only memories".  At least 6 of the veteran birch trees that have held their own against wind, snow, ice storms, insects, bears and even 90 years of people climbing the mountain, have had their bark stripped. Not just little pieces, but 4 - 5 feet of the entire trunk, all the way around, through all the papery layers of bark - right down to the wood. It even looks like someone climbed one of the gnarly old trees to strip bark higher up.

Branches were sawed off and even a living tree, 8-9" in diameter, was chopped down with an axe - 3 feet from the ground. One of our volunteers carried a saw up and trimmed it off at ground level so it is not such an eye sore anymore. Other volunteers cleared the many cut branches and debris left in the fire pit.

Some members of the Azure Mountain Friends have expressed anger and outrage at this outright destruction of natural resources. I grieve for the trees. They did nothing but provide shelter for wildlife and help anchor the thin layer of soil to the bedrock. They might have been growing during the Depression. They probably were here when the grand fathers, or great-grand fathers of the campers likely served their country in WWII. For all these years they've borne the brunt of the howling north wind in winter: heavy layers of ice and several feet of snow. Rather than growing tall and stately, they are short and squat, hugging the ground for security.

Birch bark is good tinder - but you want to use the stuff you find on the forest floor, that trees naturally shed. Dead or downed wood is abundant, due to wind and ice storms, and much better for campfires than living trees. Ideally, after you've camped in the Adirondacks, or anywhere, you will leave the place like it was when you found it - or better. Pack it in - pack it out. Respect the natural environment. Enjoy it - but take care of it.

If you know who camped out on Azure Mountain the night of July 11, we'd like to meet them. The Azure Mountain Friends would be happy to give them a free day on the mountain. Perhaps teach them how to do trail work - maybe have them help carry rocks to the summit for the erosion control that we do. We'd like to help these young people learn to be better stewards of the environment. If you hike the mountain, walk back into the woods behind the fire tower and express your condolences to the birch trees.

Sandy Hildreth
Azure Mountain Friends