This 15,000-acre private preserve is an ideal laboratory to explore the mysteries of the Adirondacks’ complex ecosystems

For someone coming from the suburbs of New York City,
the first thing that jumps out at Shingle Shanty Preserve is the silence. It washes over you, envelops you—the utter lack of thrumming, clatter, barking or bits of conversation. Just simple, sublime quiet.

Then there is the seemingly endless expanse of untouched nature: 15,000 acres of privately owned conservation lands at the top of three watersheds, with hundreds of acres of boreal wetlands, thousands of acres of northern hardwood forests and nine lakes and ponds, much of it surrounded by state-classified wilderness and primitive areas. It is remote even by Adirondack standards—an island within an island. As such, it is an ideal laboratory to plumb the mysteries of an ecosystem whose vast complex of peatland bogs more closely resembles landscapes hundreds of miles to the north.

The property—20 miles west of downtown Long Lake—presents a tableau of exquisite beauty for the occasional outside researcher or student lucky enough to gain entry. Moose lope through stands of black spruce. White-fringed orchids bloom amid sedges. Dragonflies flit over spongy carpets of sphagnum moss flecked with exotic-looking pitcher plants.

But another, less hopeful story is unfolding beneath the surface. In only a decade Stephen Langdon, Shingle Shanty’s director and an ecologist, has documented the decline of boreal birds like the rusty blackbird and olive-sided flycatcher. He has seen the number of days without a frost steadily rise. And he has witnessed the encroachment of trees into open bogs, a worrisome sign.

While none of these trends over such a short time span can be attributed exclusively to climate change, they are in line with what scientists are observing elsewhere in the world during a decade that is noteworthy for including several of the hottest years on record.

“Part of the emotional roller coaster of working in conservation science is that some days I feel like I’m doing the autopsy on a patient that’s still kind of living,” he said. “The birds are one part of it. Understanding why these birds are declining is a complicated story and there are a lot of questions.”

Every spring since 2009, Langdon and research scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society have tracked the presence of eight species of boreal birds, from Lincoln sparrows to gray jays. The annual bird counts actually began on the property in the early 2000s, when a graduate student from the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry began keeping track.

The declines are startling, with seven of the eight bird species losing ground; only palm warblers appear to be on the rise. Rusty blackbirds, in particular, have all but disappeared. As Langdon noted, there were four nests among the 40 observation sites, or plots, when he began counting. “I haven’t seen a rusty blackbird for three seasons now in one of our plots,” he said.

The challenge is sifting through the many variables that can affect the bird populations. “To get at why our bird species are declining in the Adirondacks,” he said, “we need to understand which birds are declining because of climate change—it’s just too hot for them—or because of habitat change or because they are migratory birds and their wintering habitats are getting trashed. By modeling, we are coming up with ideas about all the possibilities and why things can occur. It’s tough to disentangle.”

Another possible culprit in the bird declines is what Michale Glennon, the research scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, calls a “mismatch of resources.” In short, unusually warm springs can lead to an early emergence of insects. Migratory birds are then late to the feast. “If you’re a migrant, you may get here and find that you’ve missed the large outbreak of caterpillars,” she said.

Birds, of course, are just one indicator of a changing environment. Langdon, a trained botanist with a master’s degree from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is also keeping a close eye on the open bogs where the encroachment of spruce trees could indicate drier soils, warmer temperatures or excess nitrogen—or a combination of the three.

Nitrogen drifts across the country both from the Midwest’s coal-burning plants and the fertilizer that is sprayed on corn crops there. It lands everywhere, including on Shingle Shanty. The nitrogen serves as food for the tree seedlings struggling to take hold in the bogs. But sphagnum mosses, which dominate these bogs, are highly competitive, grabbing all the nutrients they can and acidifying the waters around them. Water in the bogs can be more acidic than vinegar. Add in the unusually cold temperatures in the bogs, which the mosses can tolerate, and the saturated landscape, and you have a difficult environment for anything else to take root.

In surveying 20 locations across Shingle Shanty’s complex of open bogs, however, Langdon has counted, on average, three to four spruce seedlings per square meter. Continued wet, cold conditions will prevent the seedlings from growing, and they will eventually die off. But as has been documented elsewhere, specifically in Alaska, one dry, warm decade can convert an open bog into a new spruce forest.   

While climate-change forecasts for the Northeast skew toward more precipitation than less, the combination of continued nitrogen deposition and warming temperatures could eventually bring historic changes.

“That tree grows up and shades out the sphagnum moss and the sphagnum becomes less competitive and the tree starts creating its own environment that favors baby trees,” he explained as he nosed his pickup truck through one of two gates that allows access to the property.

“So by drying out, or adding fertilizer, you are disrupting the competitive dynamics that have occurred for the last 10,000 years,” Langdon continued. “Even in a warmer, wetter scenario, those bogs might dry out if it gets warm enough. We have all these theoretical possibilities, but to take them from theory and show them on the ground is the push at Shingle Shanty.”

Shingle Shanty Preserve is owned by the sprawling Brandreth family, whose ancestor Benjamin Brandreth bought up 24,000 acres west of Long Lake in 1851. (He paid 15 cents an acre.) In addition to Shingle Shanty, the Brandreth clan owns an adjoining private park where hundreds of family members, now scattered around the country, return to a network of rustic camps arrayed around the northern end of Brandreth Lake to imbibe the wilderness.

On a pleasantly warm afternoon, two Brandreth descendants—women in their 20s—steered mountain bikes along an old logging road. One was visiting from Florida, the other from New York. Langdon advised them to cycle at least 13 miles an hour to outrun the deerflies. “That’s the magic speed,” he said. “I’ve measured it.”

The lineage of the Shingle Shanty land is long and complicated. In the 1950s, much of the property was given to Syracuse University, which managed it as a research forest. The property was a little too remote for Syracuse, however, and in 1971, family members decided to reclaim the land from the university. A few years later, they sold it to International Paper, while retaining the right to use the land for recreation. Because of those recreational rights, when International Paper sold the Shingle Shanty tract in 2001 to The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit group could not turn the land over to the state Forest Preserve.

Instead, The Nature Conservancy granted a conservation easement on the property to a land trust based in Massachusetts, protecting it from future logging and development. And in 2007, Steven B. Potter, a Brandreth descendant, organized a partnership called Friends of Thayer Lake to purchase the land from The Nature Conservancy. The idea was to revive the scientific research that had historically taken place on the property.

The next year, the family created a nonprofit group, the Shingle Shanty Preserve and Research Station, to oversee that work. (The name “Shingle Shanty” derives from the harvesting of white pine for building shingles in the 1800s.) A scientific advisory committee, sprinkled with biologists and ecologists from the region, was appointed. And Ross S. Whaley, former president of State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and a past chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency, was named president of the preserve.

Whaley points out that in some ways, a private preserve like Shingle Shanty offers scientific researchers clear advantages over land in the state-owned Forest Preserve. For one thing, there is easy access via old logging roads so researchers need not lug equipment into the “hinterlands of the Forest Preserve.” Secondly, because public access is strictly limited, there is less human interference. To be sure, while the Adirondack Park is relatively clean when it comes to invasive species, Shingle Shanty is virtually spotless. Whaley, now a member of Shingle Shanty’s board of directors, said the Brandreths’ low-key commitment to conservation was striking. “I was intrigued that among the Brandreths are some of the finest amateur naturalists I’ve run into,” he said. “These people really know the land and are outstanding photographers and natural historians. There is a love of the land that underlies the notion of a research station.”

Langdon agrees. He acknowledged that he was biased since the nonprofit pays his salary (for what is a part-time job). But he cannot help but marvel at the family’s decision to retake title on land they were already able to enjoy.

“Why would anybody buy back a piece of land that they had the right to access in perpetuity?” he said. “I believe it’s simply that they love this place and they have this really incredible land ethic. You can’t develop it. It’s too remote to do anything else with. But you can use it for a greater good.”

The creation of Shingle Shanty Preserve connects the property to studies that occurred more than a hundred years ago when researchers surveyed woodlands in the immediate area. They used the data to try to convince the state legislature in 1900 that the Adirondack Forest Preserve—only 15 years old at the time—was a bad idea. They argued that loggers should be allowed access to the preserve since new forestry techniques could properly manage the trees. The lawmakers did not buy it, however.

“What that provides is a really good timber inventory from a century and 17 years ago,” Langdon noted. In 2009, Jerry Jenkins, an ecologist with the Northern Forest Atlas Foundation, studied trees within Shingle Shanty’s second-growth forest, as well as the adjacent old-growth trees south of Shingle Shanty in the state Forest Preserve. That old-growth forest measures 6,000 to 8,000 acres, and Langdon would like to find funding for more research both there and at Shingle Shanty.

In addition to Langdon’s work on bird surveys and tree invasion, he has monitored daily temperatures in the bogs. In 2014, the longest continuous stretch without a frost was only 19 days in the midsummer. The following year it jumped to 40 days and has since climbed higher. Langdon has also studied the effects of wind disturbances on vegetation from microbursts and a 1993 tornado.

Many others have used Shingle Shanty for their own research or to engage with the public. There was the mycologist who taught a field course and identified some 400 species of mushroom. Before that, in 2009, an entomologist from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh arrived at Shingle Shanty with a team to survey mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies—the ones that fly-fishermen mimic to catch trout.

“By the end of that summer,” Langdon said, “they had identified four new species that had never been identified in the state and one species of stonefly that was new to science.”

Forty-eight-year-old Langdon, a father of two who lives in Saranac Lake, has no staff to assist him, and so he spends long hours alone at the preserve. He occasionally spends the night at what he calls the preserve’s base camp. “I like to characterize it as the most pragmatic Great Camp in the Adirondacks,” he joked. “It’s a galvanized shack, 16 by 20, and dark and damp and moldy. But it serves our purposes for now.”

With such restricted access and so few visitors to Shingle Shanty, raising money for the nonprofit is a perpetual challenge. About half the preserve’s operating budget comes from donations and the other half from contracts with organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Langdon is trying to take advantage of new technology to give the public a glimpse of the preserve’s pristine landscape. He recently received a $2,500 grant from the Cloudsplitter  Foundation in Saranac Lake to purchase two cameras.

A member of the Brandreth family already deploys a half-dozen camera traps that detect wildlife at the preserve. (Fisher, marten, hares, coyotes, bobcats, bears, porcupines, red squirrels and moose are among the finds.) Now Langdon has two research-grade camera traps that will allow him to capture a photograph every hour. “I’m looking to make a year-long time lapse of a hydrologic regime of one of our peatlands so you can see when it floods and when it’s dry and all of the in-between,” he said. “That’s data that’s missing from a lot of wetland studies.”

The time-lapse video will also provide content for the preserve’s website, which, Langdon noted, is “really the only public-outreach resource we have.”

Langdon hopes to remain involved at Shingle Shanty over the long haul so he can observe and document the impact of climate change. It is a mission that, he acknowledged, has its emotional troughs. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Ah, this is miserable,’” he said.

But he is also grateful to work in an environment that is an increasing anomaly amid the rapidly developing suburbs and exurbs spreading out from cities across the Northeast.

“By happenstance we did some great conservation when the Adirondacks were founded,” he said. “We protected a bunch of these peatlands across the landscape and a wide range of areas where boreal species might persist well into the future. I think that’s a hopeful note.”    

Lisa W. Foderaro is a staff writer for The New York Times. Ben Stechschulte photographed Peru’s Jamaican apple pickers in the October 2017 issue of this magazine.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.

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