If New York State’s highest court issued a ruling tomorrow that said, “We are mindful that this interpretation deprives the public at large … of the pleasure and profit of fishing and hunting in a very large portion of the Adirondack forest, and gives to men of great wealth, who can buy vast tracts of land, great protection in the enjoyment of their private privileges,” what would your reaction be? Indignation? Outrage? Rebellion? Would you march on Albany? (Or here’s a novel solution … secede!)
Well, relax, there’s nothing to worry about. That ruling was issued 109 years ago and has been in place ever since. The story comes to mind for two reasons: the recent offer for sale of Brandon Park, and the lawsuit against Adirondack Explorer Editor Phil Brown for trespassing.
The court ruling in 1903 applied to an ongoing dispute in the northern Adirondacks on William Rockefeller’s vast estate at Bay Pond, which still exists in reduced size, but once encompassed what is now Brandon Park. In the 1930s, the Brandon Park section was purchased by Donald Ross and has since been owned by the duPont Ross family.
While multiple William Rockefellers have owned property there for a century, the original purchase was made by William, the brother of John D. Rockefeller. At the time, J. D., the world’s (some say history’s) richest man, had begun to focus on philanthropy, while William operated the family business, considered by some to be the largest, most powerful corporation in history.
As powerful as the Rockefellers were, not everyone bowed to them, and in the village of Brandon, woodsman Oliver Lamora was the most prominent holdout. A Civil War veteran with a large family, Lamora refused to sell his property and ignored the No Trespassing signs on Rockefeller’s land.
The local confrontation grew into a national debate over individual rights, property rights, and rich versus poor. The entire story is covered in Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune, a book that I wrote and published in 2007. It won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction, and it’s one of my favorite true stories of standing up against near-impossible odds.
A key point in the Rockefeller-Lamora court battles, which lasted a decade, was the right to pursue fish that swam up a stream entering private property. The first thought is that privacy rules, but consider this: if public tax dollars were used to operate fish hatcheries, and the fish from those hatcheries were placed in a stream that entered private property, would you have the right to pursue those fish?
In the case of hunting, it is generally accepted that game animals raised for hunting purposes, or game animals benefiting (?) from tax-supported programs, might actually wander onto private estates. It’s pretty much a random thing that is accepted.
However, fish are different. Their “wandering” can follow only one path: the course of a stream or river. In the Adirondacks, these are often bodies of water shallow enough to wade in, thus making it unnecessary to trespass on land. But Rockefeller insisted that the riverbed was also off limits.
It was a long struggle waged for many years and featured multiple, diverse rulings, several of them against Rockefeller. But money usually wins, no matter what the argument, and despite the issues, money is what really made the story catch on. Here’s why.
Rockefeller’s resources were beyond belief. A multibillionaire, he had unlimited lawyers at his disposal. To further irritate Lamora, Rockefeller used his government influence to close the Brandon post office and move it to his private property at Bay Pond, forcing Oliver to walk miles to get his mail. When Lamora fished along the railroad tracks, Rockefeller bought the rail property. And on it went.
Lamora, on the other hand, was a pauper whose case only survived because of popular support and a sympathetic country lawyer. He had nothing else.
Having nothing else gives you little chance of winning. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the eminent domain law, primarily intended for public use projects (schools, roads, airports), could also allow land (or even your lifetime family dwelling) to be taken for economic development projects that were expected to improve a community. Could they really do that?
Just ask the people of New London, Connecticut, where the law was used to sever people from their homes so that builders could build. Private properties were condemned, including a recently renovated house. One family had lived there since 1895, and many homes on the 80-acre site looked great. Citizens fought it for years, but were forced to surrender their land. And the improvements? Never happened. Pfizer (the key player) pulled out, financing fell through, and the properties today remain vacant lots. The latest plan? They now want to make it a … neighborhood!
Somehow a high court can rule that way, but can also prevent public citizens (fishermen) from pursuing fish that the fishermen themselves paid to create for their own angling pleasure. In either case, if you have bottomless pockets (like Rockefeller) or teams of lobbyists (like developers), you can get what you want because you pay to write the laws that govern what you’re doing. In simpler terms, it’s the fox guarding the henhouse.
And if you (fishermen and homeowners) don’t have bottomless pockets or lobbyists, you’re on the receiving end in almost every case. It’s never hopeless, but as much as we enjoy the occasional stunning victory of the little guy over big business or big money, the key word is stunning. It’s only stunning because it’s so damned unusual.
Woodsmen once freely roamed the Adirondacks. They began guiding visitors to great hunting and fishing experiences, and eventually, the rich “sports” who returned so often decided to buy a piece of the mountains for their own use. The great allure of the outdoors had once filled guides’ pockets with dollars, but it now came back to bite them. No one had foreseen the possibility of huge estates cutting off the public from scenic mountain views, waterfalls, hunting, and fishing―things that people had daily enjoyed. The ruling in favor of Rockefeller solidified the practice into law. They love to call their properties “parks,” but these are parks where no one is invited in.
Phil Brown’s trespass case bears parallels to the Lamora battle. Wealthy timber men once ruled the north woods, supported by laws that allowed them great latitude and designated rivers as highways. But today’s wealthy people squeeze the definition to where brooks and streams are now considered private drives. Whatever suits their purpose.
I’m not advocating this, but the thought occurs to me―what if some smart lawyer applied that eminent domain law to the private estates, which would be worth millions in tourist dollars if they were open to the public. No, you say? But what about the greater good of the community? Seems like a pretty strong case could be made.
In 1903, New York’s courts weren’t too concerned about the greater good―they even said their own pro-Rockefeller ruling was bad for “the public at large” … but money still won, and Rockefeller’s private property was preserved. Nationally, the reverse was done in the New London case … private property lost, and again, big money won. It seems the resources behind the case matter more than the case itself.
But times have changed, and perhaps money is now on the other side of the argument. Tourism, hiking, canoeing, mountain climbing, and the like are a large part of what drives the region’s economic engine. Spending tons of money to attract visitors to the Adirondacks, only to ban them from some of the best streams and mountains, seems counterproductive.
Like Lamora and the fish, we’re paying to promote something, but the full benefits are locked away behind fences, beyond our grasp for more than a century.
Photos: Bay Pond; cover of Oliver’s War.