The political reality in America today is certainly distressing. We elect too many Republicans and Democrats who feel unable to reach across the party aisle towards each other, or to be even seen with one another for fear of being unelectable in their primaries. The same polarization can be found dividing environmental and conservation circles. Fortunately, I’ve known quite a few Adirondackers who relate to the person, not the label, and who share the Adirondack woods and waters as common ground. I wanted to write about two of them.
Last night I read an entry in my journal about DEC Regional Director Tom Monroe’s retirement dinner in Lake Placid in early 1994. Tom had been Regional Director since the 1970s, still a time when DEC Regional Directors rose to that position through the civil service ranks, and who had considerable autonomy as a result. Put another way, these Regional Directors were forces unto themselves. That all ended by the time Tom Monroe retired. For good or ill, his able successors have been appointed by Commissioners, and ultimately answer to Governors, and enjoy far less autonomy.
I had gone to the dinner with my friend and associate Tom Cobb, who at the time was Park Manager with the State’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and Trustee of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, and who is now a Director of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. Both Tom and I – and many others from all ends of the conservation spectrum – respected Tom Monroe. Environmental leaders sometimes had their reasons to distrust him. I remember an environmental colleague advising me “just make sure he is truly retired”! However, the respect came from the fact that Tom Monroe was completely his own person, and was seen to treat people equally, without favoritism. Tom did not suffer bullies easily, and there are many interesting stories about his time at DEC. This quality of perceived even-handedness brought a diverse crowd to his dinner. In my journal, I write: “I feel pretty good about going to a farewell dinner that brought together the likes of Bob Purdy (Supervisor of Keene), Peter Paine (member of the APA), Roger Dziengeleski (Woodlands Manager of Finch, Pruyn and Co.), Senator Ron Stafford and Tom (Cobb) and I in one place.”
These qualities of Tom Monroe reminded me of a woman attending his dinner who was beloved by sportsmen and women, and respected by elected leaders. She died late last year. Nellie Staves of Tupper Lake was a deeply rooted Adirondack conservationist who made friends and influenced people wherever she went. Elegant at an evening dinner one day, warmly clad to inspect her traps the next, she was comfortable being Nellie Staves. Like Tom Monroe, Nellie didn’t mind in the least whom she was seen with. I first met her in 1988 when, in a memorable few words to the Adirondack Park Agency, she made the case why wildlife mounts deserved to be a part of the soon- to- be opened Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smith’s. Her presentation earned her an audience with Governor Mario Cuomo at the dedication of the VIC the next year. Years later another Governor, George Pataki, would dedicate the Wild Center (Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks) with its founding director, Nellie, at his side. In 2007, I was so grateful to Nellie for coming up to me after a fractious meeting about the Adirondack Club and Resort at the high school. “Good to see you in Tupper Lake, Dave,” she beamed.
One day at an Adirondack conference on Upper Saranac Lake, Nellie opened the back of her car and she invited our staff member and photographer Ken Rimany to look in: there were some of the world’s most beautiful depictions of wildlife drawn not on canvas, but on bracket fungi (“toadstools,” she said) once growing on great, craggy Adirondack trees. Ken was overwhelmed with her artistry. From that time on, their friendship grew and he was introduced to members of her family. With Ken’s encouragement and help, her artwork came to be featured in The Conservationist magazine – not once but several times.
Thanks to Nellie, we were introduced to some fine Adirondack people from diverse perspectives whom we learned to respect, people who shared Nellie’s sense of humor and gift for storytelling. What hearty laughter she induced in all who knew her. Thanks to Nellie, we learned not to take ourselves too seriously, to observe closely and be receptive to the unexpected. From her, we learned that those who know the most about the Adirondack woods, from its wilderness to its wildlife, to those who work in those woods also care very deeply about the future. Nellie helped us remember that those who log, fish, hunt, trap, create or teach in the Adirondacks have one great legacy to pass on: caring, understanding, knowledgeable, talented kids growing up on these lakes, or on the trails.
Photo:(Nellie Staves outside Tupper Lake High School