This summer, Union College student research fellows and Union College staff involved with the College’s Kelly Adirondack Center in Schenectady County visited the Adirondack cabin of National Wilderness Act author and chief legislative advocate Howard Zahniser, and that of Paul Schaefer, foremost Adirondack Park campaigner for wilderness and wild rivers in the 20th century.
The two cabins, and the close friendship that developed between Schaefer and Zahniser help tell the story of where wilderness preservation began and how the Adirondack Park has served as a national and global model of wilderness history, preservation and active stewardship so proximate to villages, towns, residents and more than ten million annual visitors to the Adirondack Park. The cabins are located in Johnsburg, Warren County.
The students and Kelly Adirondack Center staff Rebecca Schubmehl and Lorie Wies were hosted by Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, a nonprofit devoted to safeguarding the wild and educating people of all ages about the values, relevance and stewardship of wild country today, including New York’s constitutionally protected forest preserve. Adirondack Wild’ partners, Dan Plumley, Ken Rimany and I were among those who learned directly from Paul Schaefer to appreciate wilderness through the lens of his experience as a builder and restorer of early American homes, outdoor guide, fisherman, hunter, writer, filmmaker, coalition leader,and influential advocate.
We sat together in the Schaefer cabin known as Beaver House to absorb its atmosphere, review its history, and to learn from each other. Dan and I spoke of our time with Paul Schaefer, and how it influenced our careers and advocacy for the wild Adirondacks. “When I first met him in 1985, he put me in charge of publicity for the Adirondack Research Center (now the ARL) which he had helped to start at Union College. He inspired you to do more than you ever thought possible,” Dan noted. Dan went to describe how, with Paul’s encouragement, he founded the Acid Rain Defense Initiative to combat the scourge of acid rain on lakes, streams and fish in the Adirondacks, and how he was appointed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acid rain taskforce. Dan helped to influence passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 which sharply reduced sulfur dioxide levels emitted from midwestern industry. I expressed what it meant to sit with Paul Schaefer every Friday afternoon after I was hired to be executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 1987. Schaefer founded Friends of the Forest Preserve in 1945, forerunner to today’s Adirondack Wild.
Joining our conversation was Toni-Marie Powell, Adirondack Wild’s summer intern and an environmental science and biology major at SUNY Potsdam. A 21-year old resident of Queens, New York City, Toni-Marie noted that her summer in the Adirondack Park lit an inner flame she had never before experienced. “I found I want and need time alone in the wilderness, to find solitude and peace in a natural environment. I live in a crowded city, and I cannot find these experiences there. I loved my time in the forest and on the mountains, and these experiences also helped give me the courage to speak publicly and to advocate for the wilderness in public hearings all over the Park and in New York City this summer. My native land is Jamaica, and I understand farming, but this wilderness experience is so utterly different, and I got in touch with another side of me that loves and needs what wilderness offers. I have gained a fresh perspective.”
The three student fellows were selected by Union College for their pursuit of research connected with the Adirondack wilderness and intersections with the Park’s ecology, community development and economies. Laura Johnston of Bard College noted she has been studying tensions between environmental protection and economic development at Bard, and this fellowship provided her a great opportunity to focus in on a particular aspect of that tension that interests her: the use and conservation of watersheds and water resources, including traditional uses by first peoples in the Park, the Haudenosaunee, or the Six Nations. Laura was very interested in Dan’s knowledge of acid rain.
Samantha (Sam) Muratori is entering her senior year at Union College, and “the Adirondacks form a big part of my life.” She grew up in the town of Bolton on Lake George. Sam is performing a case study of the Adirondack Club and Resort, a controversial subdivision and resort near Tupper Lake which received a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency in 2012.
Elias Springer is entering his senior year at Vassar College, where he is an economics major. Elias is studying whether micro-lending can play more of a role in providing capital to grow and sustain business and community development in the Park. He is conducting research at the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation in Saranac Lake, among other places.
Joining the group was Evelyn Greene, daughter of Paul and Carolyn Schaefer, and an activist, botanist, photographer and writer living in nearby North Creek. Evelyn serves on an organizational board, Protect the Adirondacks, which has challenged the Adirondack Club and Resort permit in court, and offered her perspective on the situation. Evelyn mentioned the resort’s likely impacts on Mt. Morris’ water resources and on Tupper Lake itself, and that climate change threatens the resort’s promised re-opening of Big Tupper ski center. “We don’t have real winters anymore,” she said.
I asked Evelyn about her decision to live and work in the Adirondack Park many years ago. “Don, my husband, made himself indispensable to town government up here, especially in computerization. It was pretty helpful to us that we had access to health insurance, but also to the mountains, lakes, bogs and rivers that I love.”
During a tour of the Zahniser cabin, I invited discussion about next year’s 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Preservation Act. The Act’s chief author and lobbyist, Howard Zahniser, had labored on the legislation – 66 drafts over 18 years – until his death just months before the final bill was signed by President Johnson in September, 1964. During the 25th Anniversary of the Act in 1989 there was a small ceremony at the cabin to mark the significance of the occasion, hosted by Howard’s wife Alice Zahniser and son Ed Zahniser, and attended by representatives of the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation. There are many fruitful paths to explore that will properly mark the 50th anniversary next year.
Our day ended with a visit to the base of Crane Mountain, a walk up the trail and discussion of the life of literary editor, pioneering World War I journalist, and later poet and social activist Jeanne Robert Foster (1879-1970) who grew up on this hardscrabble Adirondack farm in the late 19th century. To help make money, she guided people up Crane Mountain. Union’s Adirondack Research librarian Lorie Wies has just acquired a new collection of Foster’s letters and photographs.
Jeanne Robert Foster befriended Paul Schaefer late in her life. Given the subject matter of this post, it’s appropriate to close with her poem dedicated to him:
Shepherd of the Wilderness
I salute you,
Preserver of the Wilderness,
Keeper of the waters –
Of the lakes, rivers and hidden sources,
Of the soil and the crested ranges,
The intervales and the high peaks,
The wild beauty, the vanishing life
Of the deep forests,
Of our magnificent heritage…
I salute you.
I, who in the shadow of Marcy
In childhood, saw Whiteface shine
Tipped with the sunrise,
Who knew the life of old lumbercamps
And the shanty roads,
Who loved the “Indian Pipe” in the shadow
Of the firs and the bright azaleas
Upon the swamplands,
I salute you.
You, who watch the flight of the eagle
And hark the cry of the loon,
Aware that in the wilderness,
The spirit of man
Alone finds strength and renewal,
Your fellow men salute you.
(From Adirondack Portraits, A Piece of Time, by Jeanne Robert Foster, edited by Noel Riedinger-Johnson, 1986, Syracuse University Press)
Photo: Research fellows at the Zahniser cabin.