Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dave Gibson: Lessons in Adirondack Activism

Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer was a pied piper for young people in search of a cause, just as John Apperson had been for him when Schaefer was in his early 20s. By the 1970s and 80s, Paul was approaching 80 years of age, and scouts, teens, and earth activists of all ages found their way to Paul’s doorstep. I want to share a few of the lessons he conveyed.

One spring day in 1990 I met with Paul to discuss Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks (Berle Commission) report which was about to be made public. Paul mentioned that on Earth Day, a group of “idealistic” young people had come down to pay him a visit. He had planned to show his award-winning film, The Adirondack: The Land Nobody Knows, but his Bell and Howell 16-mm projector could not be found (I had borrowed it). Instead, Paul invited the students into his living room. “I’ve never had a better time in my life,” Schaefer told me. “These kids were idealists, and we need them.”

They declared that one of their proposals was to do away with Route 28 and 30 between Blue Mountain Lake and Tupper Lake. “You mean you want to close the road?” “Yes,” they responded, “it damages the wilderness character of the park.”

Paul challenged them. “Before you come up with some hair-brained scheme like that you take me up on this: you start at my cabin near the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, and you walk the 15 miles across that wilderness to Indian Lake, taking a tent, pack and compass. Until you do that, you don’t know what wilderness is, you have no conception of it. You can’t possibility advance your cause by closing a road, the lifeblood of the economic well being of the park for wilderness reasons if you haven’t crossed a wilderness area on your own two feet and knows what it’s about. If you want to advance your cause in the Adirondacks, you’ve got to temper your idealism with realism.” He was very stern with them, but he closed with “I’d love to have you come back and talk more.” They were very surprised to learn they had been invited back after the lecturing they had received.

On another Earth Day, Paul was asked to give a presentation at the local high school. The student that issued the invitation told him that “kids my age just aren’t interested in the environment. They’re not motivated.” Paul responded, “I’m sorry to hear that but it doesn’t matter how many show up.”

It turns out Paul couldn’t make it, so he asked a fellow Adirondack activist named Bill White (Bill was also a protégé of John Apperson) to deliver the program in his stead. Afterward, Bill White dejectedly reported to Paul that only two people showed up for the lecture, including the girl and her teacher.

Schaefer responded, “Bill, you’ve got to remember that in 1946 I took the train out to Broome County, Binghamton, and we went all that way to talk about the Moose River Plains in the Adirondacks, and our fight to prevent the dams from flooding it. Only 15 people turned out for the meeting. Oh, it was bitterly discouraging to have brought ourselves and our information so far for only 15 people. But remember Bill, while we needed thousands of brochures to be distributed in Binghamton over the next few days, among the 15 in our audience was a man who stood up after our presentation and said ‘you give me 50,000 of those brochures and I could use another 50,000 and I will distribute every one of them.’”

It turned out that Broome County produced the most votes in 1955 to defeat the Panther Mountain Dam proposal (to amend Article XIV, the Forever Wild clause in the NYS Constitution to build a huge power dam on the South Branch of the Moose River). “Never underestimate that one person among 15, or among two in your audience,” Schaefer said.

Photo: Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin, photo by Paul Grondahl and courtesy of the Adirondack Research Library of Protect the Adirondacks.


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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 PreserveDuring 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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