Today marks the anniversary of one of the worst storms in Upstate New York history. During the early morning hours of July 15, 1995 a series of severe thunderstorms crossed the Adirondacks and much of eastern New York. Meteorologists call the phenomena by the Spanish “Derecho” but locals often refer to the event as the Blowdown of 1995. A similar weather event / blowdown occurred in 1950.
A Derecho is part of a larger family of storms called a Mesoscale Convective System (MCS), a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms and which includes phenomenon like lake effect snow. An MCS can sometimes act in ways similar to a hurricane and can produce torrential downpours and high winds. Aside from the remarkable power of the weather event, another unique thing happened – a shift in public policy with regard to salvage logging of public lands. The State’s decision to forgo salvage logging was in stark contrast to federal policies at the time that allowed federal lands to be logged in similar salvage situations.
Tom Pasquarello, a professor of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland, who was at the Huntington Outdoor Education Center on Raquette Lake during the 1995 Derecho, outlined the overall effects of the storm in a blog post last year: “Five people died as a result of the storm, and many hikers and campers were briefly stranded. Approximately 150,000 acres of forest suffered severe (60% or more of trees affected) or moderate (30-60% of trees affected) damage.”
All that downed timber led to almost immediate calls for salvage logging. If you are interested in the details of the political and social impacts of the 1995 Blowdown (with much discussion of the 1950 Blowdown) check out George Robinson and Jeffrey Zappieri’s article in Ecology and Society from 1999 here.
Here is an excerpt featuring the general details:
Adirondack residents were acutely aware of the storm and deeply worried about fire hazards during an unusually dry summer season. Spokespersons for wood products companies requested a prompt decision from the Governor allowing suspension of the State Constitution and permitting the authorization of salvage logging operations. In immediate response, environmental organizations protested salvage proposals on the grounds of state constitutional protections for the Park, fearing invocation of the salvage precedent that was set following a massive windstorm in the 1950s.
Numerous editorials and opinion pieces were published in the region’s newspapers. A common early theme was that fire danger was severe and the park was a “tinderbox ready to burn.” Parallels were drawn to concurrent intense wildfires in the pine barrens of Long Island, New York. Adding to public fears was debate over the effectiveness of fire detection systems. Beginning in the 1980s, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had retired its lookout towers, relying instead on commercial and private pilots to report fire outbreaks. Some Park residents felt vulnerable and expressed support for salvage logging throughout the Park, to remove potentially hazardous fuel.
Conservation groups countered that damage from logging operations would be too severe to warrant salvage attempts. Some noted that the most heavily affected section of the park, the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, was nearly fireproof, dominated by water bodies and low-lying wetlands. Another theme was that, by opening dense forest canopies, large storms contribute to the Park’s natural mosaic of habitats. Prominent among salvage opponents were the Adirondack Council, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, New York’s chapter of the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society.
The NYS DEC assembled a comprehensive document that included reports from an advisory committee of consulting ecologists. Based on scientists’ recommendations and its own assessment of the consequences of storm damage, the agency concluded that salvage logging on protected lands could not be ecologically or economically justified. The Governor accepted the agency’s recommendation, and a no-salvage decision was adopted, supporting the constitutionally guaranteed “forever wild” character of the Forest Preserve.
Obviously, despite protestations, the decision to let nature take its course did not lead to the massive fires predicted by property rights folks like Carol LaGrasse. When LaGrasse, a vocal opponent of the APA and head of the Property Rights Foundation of America (headquartered at her home in Stony Creek) asked whether “DEC’s most serious decision about fire protection since 1950 [was] being dictated by environmental politics rather than science?” The answer was clearly no, as visitors to the area nearly fifteen years later can now attest.