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The Summit Steward Program

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A thing is right when it tends to preserve the stability,
integrity, and beauty of the bioticcommunity.
It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

- Aldo Leopold
More than fifty years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote these thoughts in his celebrated essay "The Land Ethic." Today, on the high summits of the Adirondack Mountains, his words remain true as we work to preserve a living museum of our natural history. The Summit Steward Program helps preserve alpine vegetation in the Adirondacks. Our goal is to instill an "Alpine Land Ethic" in hikers.

Finding a Balance - Summit Stewardship: The last forty years have been tumultuous times for alpine communities. The hiking boom in the late 1960s brought thousands of people to the summits who were unaware of the fragile nature of these ecosystems. Hikers walked
and camped on the tundra meadows unaware of the damage they were causing.

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Illegal camping on summit

Evidence of disturbance is quite visible in the High Peaks today, and to a certain extent the meadows continue to be impacted by hikers who have yet to meet a Summit Steward or read a sign! Alpine plants are incredibly sensitive to footsteps because of the environment they live in. Over a growing season, a plant is able to produce only enough energy to carry out its basic life cycle. They can not compensate for root damages caused by trampling, and are therefore easily killed by it.
When the plants die and their roots are lost, soil that took more than ten thousand years to accumulate is easily eroded by wind and water. It can take centuries for a damaged alpine meadow to recover.
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As a response to this problem, the Summit Steward Program began in 1990 as a cooperative effort of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Mountain Club,
and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It was modeled
after a similar program that began in Vermont on Mount Mansfield in the 1970's. From May to October, Summit Stewards provide an educational presence on the summits that are most
threatened by hiker trampling. Stewards spend up to five days at a time in the backcountry
interacting with hikers and encouraging them to:

* Walk on the trail and solid rock surfaces
* Leave the endangered plants in place, do not pick them
* Avoid walking on bare dirt or gravel where plants can grow
* Keep dogs leashed above timberline
* Share the summit steward message with others

It's working!: There has been a noticeable improvement in the condition of the alpine meadows. The word is quickly spreading that alpine vegetation is fragile and endangered. With less traffic on damaged areas, colonizing plants can now be seen starting the process of restoration. Two of the more prolific and showy pioneers of disturbed sites are mountain sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica) and three-toothed cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata).
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Minuartia groenlandica

These plants, both with white flowers, have an uncanny ability to  grow in the most impoverished and unlikely spots. Mountain sandwort is often found growing near the trail. These species produce an abundance of seed which makes them quick to spread and colonize open habitats.

A Living Museum: Twelve thousand years ago, the Adirondacks were just emerging
from the confines of the last great continental glacier. As the Wisconsin Glacier melted, the
landscape it revealed was mostly debris of glacial till, and slowly this was colonized by tundra vegetation of dwarf shrubs and sedges. These plants had survived the Ice Age at the southern edge of the glaciers. For two thousand years they dominated the landscape, and the Adirondacks resembled the arctic of today. As the climate warmed, coniferous trees of spruce and fir returned, and outcompeted the tundra plants for space and resources. They were sent on a journey north, and to the high summits. They can still be seen on a few peaks today in the Adirondacks, but only eighty-five acres remain. The greatest concentration of rare and endangered species in New York exists within these alpine communities.
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The Old and Wise Alpines (Specialized Species): Summits in the Adirondacks that reach greater than 4,500 feet into the sky typically have a timberline where trees give way to open tundra meadows. The boundary is an ecological one, so it varies depending upon environmental factors. Alpine tundra extends further into the subalpine forest on north and southwest facing slopes where the climate is more severe.   Cold temperatures, strong winds, a short growing season, and nutrient poor soils are all factors that alpine plants must contend with. For ten thousand years they have thrived under these destitute conditions by capitalizing on a few key adaptations. They are some of the oldest, and wisest plants found anywhere.

Growing low to the ground is the most obvious advantage of the alpines. It enables them to inhabit warmer microclimates. Wind speeds decrease considerably closer to the ground, thus protecting the plants from desiccation.

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Diapensia (Diapensia lapponica), a plant that only grows above timberline in the northeast,  epitomizes this adaptation. The waxy leaves grow so compactly and close together that the plant is virtually impenetrable and unaffected by the wind. The soil underneath diapensia can be several degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperature (Marchand,122). As a result, diapensia is often found growing in the most extreme sites in the alpine zone. These are the windswept locations that usually do not have a cover of snow in the winter.

Being perennial is another adaptation to the alpine environment. A majority of the plants in the alpine zone are perennials because surviving as annuals is unlikely. Annuals must grow from new seed each season, and it is estimated that only three out of one hundred germinating seedlings make it to a second growing season in the alpine zone (Marchand,122.)
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Perennials come back season after season, and survive the winters in their roots. Because
seedlings have such difficulty getting established, this perennial habit ensures greater population stability above timberline. As perennials, alpine plants invest a lot of energy into their roots. As much as eighty percent of a plant's biomass may exist below the ground (Marchand,120). Where hikers have unfortunately disturbed the meadows, a soil profile can be seen with an amazing network of roots.

The exposed roots of bearberry willow (Salix uva-ursi), another strictly alpine species in the
Northeast, can be an inch and a half in diameter, while the aboveground portion may be just a few tiny twigs and leaves no larger than a thumbnail.
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Salix uva-ursi

A close relative of bearberry willow called dwarf willow (Salix herbacea) only shows its leaves above the surface of the moss it grows under. The rest of the plant is underground! Dwarf willow is quite rare, and only known to grow on one summit in the Adirondacks. These extensive root systems help the plants to propagate themselves through rhizomes, and also store energy for future growing seasons.

Alpine vegetation is a mosaic of dwarf shrubs, like the willows, herbaceous (non-woody) plants, and gramanoides. Gramanoides is a fancy term for grasses, sedges, and rushes. Sedges dominate this group in the alpine zone. The distributions of the various species are not homogeneous. Some of the plants grow in the subalpine forest and are able to sneak into the alpine zone in protected locations. False hellebore (Veratrum viride), goldthread (Coptis trifolia), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), starflower (Trientalis borealis), and closed gentians (Gentiana linearis) are all species that grow above timberline but are not truly alpine plants. Lowland bog species also grow in the alpine zone. They are at home above timberline because many of them environmental factors are the same. The soils are organic, acidic, frequently saturated, and there is an abundance of sphagnum moss which acidifies the soils even further. Alpine communities are often called inverted bogs.

Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandica) bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia), leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos), and cotton sedge
(Eriophorum spissum ssp.vaginatum) are all residents of lowland bogs that also grow above timberline.

Some of the alpine plants are species that also occur in more northern lattitudes. In the   Adirondacks, these specialized plants are restricted to alpine zones, and therefore they are quite rare locally. A few of them grow on just a couple of
summits, the dwarf willow being the extreme example of this. In addition to the diapensia and willows mentioned above, the following are strictly alpine plants in the northeast: dwarf tundrabirch (Betula nana), small birch (Betula minor), lapland rosebay (Rhododendron, lapponicum), alpine azalea (Loiseleuria
), alpine blueberry (Vaccinium boreale), and several gramanoides. Bigelow's sedge (Carex bigelowil) and deer's hair sedge (Scirpus cespitosus) are two of the most conspicuous alpine gramanoides. These two plants make up the sedge lawns that are commonly found on the very tops of Adirondack alpine summits.
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                                  Ledum groenlandica

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Rhododendron, lapponicum

The People Behind Summit Protection: The Summit Steward Program is supported
through generous donations made by foundations, companies and individuals, and by the efforts of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

If you are interested in  supporting the Adirondack Summit Stewards, please send your contributions ANC/ALT, PO Box 65, Keene Valley, NY 12943.

Written by Jeff Lougee, chief steward, 1998

Selected references:

Marchand, Peter J. North Woods: An Inside Look at the Nature of Forests in the Northeast. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1987.

Slack, Nancy and A. Bell. 85 Acres: A Field guide to the Adirondack Alpine Summits.
Lake George: Adirondack Mountain Club. 1993.