Monday, June 28, 2010

VIC Commentary: Vital Service, No One’s Responsibility

I went to the ceremony this week that formally announced plans for a smooth transition of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) in Newcomb from the Adirondack Park Agency to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

It was a great relief to learn that APA, SUNY and the Town of Newcomb had been planning for this transfer of responsibilities even before the Governor’s budget announced plans to close both VICs in 2011. The fate of Paul Smith’s VIC remains very much up in the air, despite a long-held awareness that interpreting the Adirondack environment is a vitally important job and service that should be available to anybody throughout the Adirondacks at low or no cost.

The tragedy of the commons holds that all parts of the environment that we share in common is everybody’s to use, perhaps to exploit, and nobody’s to care for. The resource seems abundant, someone is responsible, it just isn’t me. The failure to systematically make the incredibly diverse and exciting natural and cultural history of the Adirondacks accessible to more Adirondackers and visitors to the Park is one of those tragedies.

Interpreting what is in a Park, and how it came to be there, and how it relates to people’s lives is a fundamental mission of the National Park Service, but not of any one agency in the Adirondack Park. It is said that not systematically offering to interpret a place to which so many are drawn, like the Adirondacks, is akin to inviting someone into your own home, and then abruptly disappearing. How many families have come and left the Park without ever encountering an Adirondack expert, in whatever field, who is also well versed in this form of public communication? Well over ten million people visit the Park each year. Less than one percent may seek out or casually encounter someone who can deepen their awareness, understanding and knowledge of Adirondack wildlife, Forest Preserve, unique architecture, or cultural history. This failure to reach more people with expert interpretation remains one of the greatest gaps in the continuing maturation and overall performance of the Adirondack Park.

The building and opening of the NYS APA’s VICs at Paul Smith’s and Newcomb in the late 1980s were expected to be the catalyst for the development of a well distributed and coordinated network of interpretive services across the Park. The Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st century made the “development of a comprehensive interpretive system for the Adirondack Park” one of the core functions of a proposed Adirondack Park Service (see the Commission’s Technical Report Vol. 1, #11 by Thomas L. Cobb, one of the Commission’s staff). Once built, in the 1990s the APA finally selected Adirondack Discovery as its nonprofit partner or arm of the VICs. Discovery featured expert presentations, coupled with field trips covering a wide range of Adirondack subjects, and convened these programs in town halls and libraries throughout the region, thus expanding the reach of the two VICs at very low cost since all expertise and service delivery were volunteered. Discovery’s founder, Joan Payne of Inlet, said at a 1987 conference called Envisioning an Interpretive Future for the Adirondack Park (see Cobb), “the trick in this whole field of interpretation is to bring together people who are receptive and eager to learn with people whose love of the place and all of its components just overflows.” She and Discovery did this very well for 25 years. I was just one of hundreds of people she invited to speak to local audiences throughout the summer months. In my case, I spoke about the Park’s conservation history that dated to the 19th century, and tried to relate that history to current events and threats. These talks and walks introduced me to some great towns and villages, people filled with curiosity and local knowledge, and opportunities for enlisting them in our cause of protecting the Adirondack Park.

Adirondack Discovery has ended its work, Joan died in 2009, and the VICs are threatened with closure. We can be grateful that the Newcomb VIC will in 2011 be under new management which has a similar commitment to “educational resources for both students and visitors so that they can learn about the wonders of ecology in the Adirondacks” (SUNY ESF President Neil Murphy). I walked Newcomb’s Peninsula Trail after the ceremony, feeling the freshness of discovery that I felt in 1990, gratitude for all the staff and volunteers who for 20 years have devoted themselves to enriching the lives of visitors, and the hope that anybody who comes here in future years will be guaranteed the chance to meet a naturalist who can help them gain fresh insights, and rekindle their love of and commitment to this Park that is so unique on planet earth.

Hopefully, Paul Smith’s College and other partners will help maintain and extend the services of the Paul Smith’s VIC. Meanwhile, The Wild Center, Adirondack Museum, Adirondack Architectural Heritage, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Explorer, and many other diverse institutions are doing wonderful interpretive work. The stubborn questions still remain: who is coordinating and marketing all of those efforts? Who is ensuring that visitors and residents alike receive a schedule of all their program offerings? This continued failure to guarantee a Park-wide system of interpretive services is a gap we all share in common, and a problem nobody has the clear responsibility to solve. As Tom Cobb wrote for the Commission, “the future of education and interpretation in the Adirondack Park hinges on the acceptance of this role as an integral part of park operation and management.”

Photo: From the Peninsula Trail, Rich Lake, Newcomb VIC

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




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