1894 had been a hot summer. 119 years ago this week the most important question before the Constitutional Convention of 1894 came to a head. What, if any, amendments to the State Constitution should be adopted for the preservation of the State forests?
The scene was the Assembly chamber in the Capitol at Albany, the date was Saturday, September 8, 1894, and the speaker was a New York City lawyer by the name of David McClure, the chairman of the convention’s five-man special committee on forest preservation. The topic was, according to the man with the gavel, Convention Chairman Joseph Choate, “further consideration of a general order relating to the forest preserves.”
Said McClure: “It has surprised me with an ever increasing surprise that this matter of all the questions affecting the people of the State should have been left to so late a day and be the subject of almost accidental action at last… As I look at it now, Mr. Chairman, it seems to be almost the only great and important subject which at the inception of this Convention demanded prompt relief and action in the interests of the people of this State.”
Then, after describing all the ways that the State was, in the late 19th century, “rolling on in magnificent greatness,” he recalled the start of the Convention four months earlier:
“We stood here on the eighth day of May feeling that the people of this State were convinced that they were living under a fairly good Constitution and did not need any actual positive or sweeping change. And yet, one great matter affecting not the success temporary or permanent of any party, not affecting any corporation or individuals in their own selfish interest, but vitally affecting the great people of the State and their great necessity, stood crying for relief at the hands of this Convention. ‘The hills, rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun – The venerable woods – Rivers that move in majesty – and the complaining brooks that make the meadows green,’ these for years had been neglected by the people of the State and the great men of our state, the men of public spirit, generally had forgotten that it was necessary for the life, the health, the safety and the comfort not to speak of the luxury of the people of this State, that our forests should be preserved.”
Why had forest preservation reached this Convention at this time in history? New York’s Forest Preserve law (1885) was administered by too many men who had a most blatant conflict of interest, who either looked the other way or participated openly in giving away state title to the lumbermen of parts of the 700,000 Adirondack acres the State then owned, or connived in illegal lumber stealing. By 1894, perhaps 100,000 acres had been illegally lost to state ownership, or cut down.
Verplanck Colvin’s descriptive Adirondack Survey reports and Seneca Ray Stoddard’s photographs and lectures revealed the extent to which wildlife, forests and soils were being stripped from the Adirondacks. Public patience had run out with corrupt and lenient members of the Forest Commission and with Governor Roswell Flower who had signed the 1893 law by which decade-long timber thieving had been granted the gloss of legal sanction.
Protests were made by the Forest Committee of the New York Board of Trade and Transportation in New York City, joined by the Brooklyn Constitution Club. Fundamentally, the watershed for the State Canal system came from Adirondack headwaters, and business interests became alarmed by the drying-up of streams that fed the state’s primary mode of transportation. The Board of Trade Secretary Frank Gardner remarked at a meeting, “the forests will never be made safe until they are put into the State Constitution.” That idea gained momentum and under the leadership of Edmund Martin, Peter Schofield and the aforementioned Gardner, “the forestry bigots” (according to Donaldson) began to draft with an urgency necessitated by the Convention’s deadlines.
I believe that New York City civil rights lawyer and the father of Bob Marshall, Louis Marshall, was also helping the drafters behind the scenes, although Donaldson does not credit him. The nucleus of the draft amendment to the Constitution was the 1885 Forest Preserve law. The approved drafts were “placed in the hands of Hon. David McClure of New York, a Democratic delegate to the convention whose strong sympathies with the forest movement were well known” (Donaldson). McClure introduced the amendment in early August, and Chairman Choate, a Republican, allowed McClure, a Democrat, to chair a five-man committee on forest preservation to perfect the amendment. Three of its members were from the Adirondack region: John McIntyre, Chester McLaughlin and Charles Mereness.
Mereness, from Lewis County, addressed the Convention: “I have traversed this great forest with my boatman and skiff, and a pack on my back, from Long Lake and Blue Mountain to Paul Smith’s, from the Fulton chain to the lower Saranac, and have frequented the places inhabited for centuries and until recently by the denizens of the forest; where the deer, the moose, the black bear, the beaver and many smaller animals flourished. The screech of the locomotives can now be heard, and time is fast approaching when the whole region will be made desolate and barren, unless the hand of the despoiler is stayed. I implore you, do not longer hesitate to take measures to stop this outrage.”
McClure’s job was to put the measure through and given the State’s connivance with the lumbermen and railroad companies, with an ironclad lock on the gate. As Donaldson writes, “the friends of the forest then found themselves in the plight of the man whose country home is being constantly pillaged despite supposed police protection. He is forced to put iron bars across his doors and windows. They add no beauty to the place, but they keep out the thieves.”
Said McClure on the Convention floor: “I hope the members of the Convention understand the force and effect of the amendment proposed…First of all we should not permit the sale of one acre of land. We should keep all we have…Some people may think in the wisdom of their scientific investigations that you can make the forests better by thinning out and selling to lumbermen some of the trees regardless of the devastation, the burnings and stealing that follow in the lumbermen’s track. But I say to you, gentlemen, no man has yet found it possible to improve on the ways of nature…If our action here is practically unanimous, as I believe it will be, it will probably be followed by action on the part of the Legislature looking to the purchase of more forest lands… The millions so invested will be well spent.”
Delegate Elon Brown asked McClure: “Do you think that under the language of this proposed amendment you will have prevented the Legislature reducing the limits of the present forest preserve in the future? “We do, sir,” came the reply. We carefully considered that. The Act provides that the “lands of the State now owned or hereafter acquired within certain counties.”
Judge William Goodelle of Syracuse is credited with proposing a key last minute addition to what became Article 7, Section 7 of the NYS Constitution: the word “destroyed” was added, so that on September 8, McClure presented the revised amendment:
“The lands of the State, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
There is no better indicator of government’s failure to protect the forest preserve it created in 1885 than the unanimous adoption by convention vote of 122-0 of Article 7, Section 7 on September 13, 1894. After popular passage as part of a larger constitutional ballot, it went into effect January 1, 1895.
Railroad interests seeking to extend the railroad from North Creek to Long Lake did everything they could to scuttle the power of Article 7 late into 1894, but failed. And lumber, rail, and dozens of other interests, especially government powers, have tried to constrain its authority ever since and have never let up. Unconstitutional legislation of the 1920s and 30s to carve out non-Forest Preserve state lands for parks, recreation, wildlife and silviculture were adopted without legal challenge, but have done little to practically impact the scope of the Forest Preserve. Attorneys General have frequently gotten the fundamental facts and premises of 1894 wrong, as have some courts, sometimes to the detriment of Article’s integrity.
Fortunately, one Appellate Division and one Court of Appeals (1929-1930) largely got 1894 right. Just under thirty quite limited (in acreage and purpose) amendments to the unchanged but renumbered Article (14) have passed by popular vote, and several hundred, many far more dramatic in scope, have been rejected or never reached the voters.
Two amendments to Article 14 are on the ballot in 2014: the NYCO land exchange in Lewis, and the Raquette Lake land exchange. However these particular votes turn out, the voters, not the State’s politicians or administrators, remain ultimately in charge of the fundamental purpose and future promise of what is now three million acres in the Catskills and Adirondacks which are not only “Forever Wild,” but taxable for all purposes. These facts remain the envy of the rest of the United States, and the world.
In 1994, one hundred years after the 1894 Convention completed its work, Governor Mario Cuomo spoke these words in his inimitable style and cadence at an award presentation to Paul Schaefer at Silver Bay on Lake George:
“Sometimes politicians need to be reminded that when it comes to words, less is often more. The ten commandments? Only about 80 words. The Gettysburg Address? A little over 250. The Bill of Rights? 500. The New York State Constitution – a document that could definitely use some editing – about 8,000 words. But within it is a nugget of pithy wisdom – the 54 words of the ‘Forever Wild’ clause that represent the strongest preservation law ever written.”
“And on the slender shoulders of that clause, the Adirondack Park – the largest State Park in American outside of Alaska – larger than six states – is held high. To New Yorkers, “Forever Wild” announces a right every bit as valuable as the other rights enumerated in the covenants of our democracy, a right that is as essential a human need as shelter, warmth and love – a right to the ecological integrity of the common landscape. And New York is the only state in the nation in which this right is constitutionally guaranteed.”
Photos: Above, a log sluice and stripped mountainside near Elizabethtown in the 1880s; and below, David McClure, 1894 Chair of Committee on Forest Preservation.