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Natural Selections: Pristine lakes revisited

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Martha Foley talks with Dr. Curt Stager about his ongoing quest for a pristine Adirondack Lake -- one not affected by stocking programs, liming, logging, mining, etc. He thinks he has found one.

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Martha Foley: How are you doing on your search for a pristine Adirondack lake? We have talked before about how hard it is to find a lake in the Adirondacks that hasn’t been somehow tainted by man. Have you found one?

Dr. Curt Stager: Kind of. It’s sort of been a personal project of mine. At Paul Smiths College a lot of us study the effects of humans on lakes, and it can get a little depressing sometimes. You hear a lot about acid rain, or road salt getting into the lakes that are next to the roads.

MF: Or fish stocking way back in the back country.

DS: Yeah stocking non-native brook trout from hatcheries or non-native yellow perch and golden shiners getting into them. Two-thirds of the lakes now have these kinds of fish in them. It was getting to be kind of a bummer, and I thought “Are there any lakes that have had nothing done to them? “ and then we said “Gee I don’t know, let’s start looking,” and it was really hard to find one.

Just to give an example: we think we have found one; it’s on private land—which actually sort of makes sense because lakes on public land tend to be managed for fisheries and that’s a manipulation. So certainly there are not going to be any totally untouched lakes in the parks because global climate change and atmospheric pollutants are coming in, and you can say those are human impacts. But there are lakes that are the next best thing. This one is down near Newcomb in the Huntington wildlife forest—private land, with a gated road access so the public can’t get in.

MF: So how far back in time are you going, to say untouched or unaffected or relatively unaffected by human impact?

DS: Well that’s true. You have to designate a time period you are talking about. None of the lakes are going to be the same as they were at the end of the last ice age. I decided that I had to choose a time of reference for this, and I chose 1800 A.D. And the reason for that was, it’s just before heavy settlement in the Adirondacks, it's just before the industrial revolution and the CO2 and acid effects, and it’s later than the little ice age and medieval warm period climate fluctuations of the last thousand years. So the climate is about like now, but it’s just before heavy human impacts.

MF: This Lake you found, how do you tell? What were you looking for?

DS: It’s relatively straightforward. The first thing you do is look at the fish. Some students and I went out and just put nets out by the shore, came back the next day, and looked and found no non-native fish. No yellow-perch, no golden shiners, no stocked fish or anything. It was all the native minnows, suckers, brook trout, and bullheads, Which means that brook trout is probably a local native strain that probably isn’t even documented yet. Then the next thing is to look through longer time periods with sediment cores. So we went out on the lake and pulled up a sediment core that we dated to covering the last 300 years.

MF: To see what is in the water, like algae and stuff to see if it is the same?

DS: Yeah. We can find fossil algae in the sediments through the years. Through the whole record they are basically unchanged; it’s just like it is today. So we can say that this is as close as you can get to pristine in the Adirondacks.

MF: Okay, so why? So, now what? I mean there probably are more. Is this lake so far out in the back country that it is safe? Is it going to stay this way? How did it manage to avoid being contaminated?

DS: It’s pretty likely that the remaining pristine lakes are going to be on private land because they weren't part of the state run stocking programs or other things, and might have just been left alone by the folks. That’s the most likely place to find them, I think.

MF: So are you going to start a program to preserve these lakes?

DS: My first step is to put a name on it; I am calling them "heritage lakes." Just like the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is preserving native brook trout stains—they call them heritage strains of trout. I think we should also designate heritage lakes that are unique to the area just like they were. And if you put a name on it, maybe there’s a hope that people will focus on them and protect them, which could be relatively simple. You don’t lime them; you don’t stock them; you don’t let exotic fish come in.

MF: You don’t drop your bait in there.

DS: Yeah things like that.

MF: And maybe there’s a little sign you can put up, make people recognize it.

DS: It should make the lake more valuable to the land owner, because you can tell everybody this is a real gem among the costume jewelry of what look like pristine wild lakes. In fact, this is really one of them, right here, and I am proud of it and want to protect it.

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