I was watching a Sherlock Holmes mystery the other day titled The Second Stain. Holmes’ deductive reasoning solves the theft of a letter that, if placed into the wrong hands, would result in a diplomatic and military crisis. The bumbling Inspector LeStrade provides the critical clue when he asks Holmes to inspect a “mere trifle,” the blood-soaked carpet which lacked any corresponding stain on the floor immediately beneath. “There is nothing more important in solving crime than attention to mere trifles,” one can hear Holmes’aside to Watson.
So, I am thinking this weekend of a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, an author of mysteries in his own right, and one of the State’s most important conservationists and public servants, Norman J. Van Valkenburgh. Norm acquired for us all magnificent tracts, both large and smaller, of wilderness placed on the market in the Adirondacks and in his beloved Catskills during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Just as important, Norm has written numerous histories about the Forest Preserve and how its tracts of land came into public ownership. In many cases, he was directly responsible.
Norm is also an expert surveyor. Born in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, Norm remains a genius in solving the mysteries of old survey lines, corners and property boundaries. In his state employment, Norm went from Catskill area surveyor to director of the Bureau of Land Acquisition in Albany, and eventually Director of the Division of Lands and Forests at the Department of Environmental Conservation, where he retired in 1986. In those positions, Norm kept a keen eye out for important lands coming on the market. His positions at the DEC happened to overlap with public approval of the 1960, 1962 and 1972 park, recreation, land acquisition and environmental bond acts.
With these publicly approved funds available, Norm maintained as close a working relationship as he could with landowners who could contact him if qualifying lands were up for sale. The landscape of both the Adirondacks and Catskills is dotted with Forest Preserve lakes, ponds, campgrounds, mountainsides and wild roadside forest scenery which, if painted, Norm could have signed because he was directly responsible for their coming into public ownership from willing sellers. In many ways, Norm has been as influential on this landscape as famed 19th century Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin.
In the late 1980s, I was new on the job at the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, and eagerly joined a hike to Mts. Colvin and Blake with Norm and noted Adirondack guide Jim Goodwin from Keene. Both men knew each other because each had worked with the other on the acquisition of Noonmark Mountain and other lands from the Ausable Club in 1978. The day turned misty, then rainy, but the two men insisted on continuing to climb both peaks named in honor of the great surveyors Verplanck Colvin and Mills Blake. Because Norm and Jim had some heart history, on the hike down I went ahead to inform their wives they were OK. The women looked and me, and laughed. They had long ago ceased being unnecessarily worried about their husband-explorers.
Like Sherlock Holmes, Norm preferred to do his work behind the scenes. Be it Lake Lila or Noonmark Mountain in the Adirondacks, or Kaaterskill Falls and the entire mountain escarpment of the northeastern Catskills, Norm was either directly or indirectly responsible for these becoming parts of the NYS Forest Preserve. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Norm has no Watson to chronicle these achievements. Instead, Norm has chronicled them himself, without attribution. His Land Acquisition for New York State: An Historical Perspective (1985 by the Catskill Center) illuminates thousands of details about land acquisition for the Forest Preserve, or for other purposes, but nowhere is the personal pronoun “I” employed. His many other works include The Forest Preserve of New York State in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains: A Short History (published in cooperation with the Adirondack Research Library), and The Adirondack Park: Inside the Blue Line (published in cooperation with the Catskill Center, with Christopher Olney).
Without Norm’s many excellent histories, many an advocate for these Parks would be up a creek without a paddle. He found time along the way to help found the Adirondack Research Center (now Library of Protect the Adirondacks) and to sit on the boards and advisory panels of groups like the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.
In 2007, Norm was presented with the Howard Zahniser Adirondack Award for his years of work to acquire, safeguard and chronicle the Forest Preserve. In his acceptance speech, Norm typically downplayed his own role and credited commissioners and colleagues who had helped him over the years. The award was as much for the Norm’s keen and insightful interpretation of documents like the Adirondack (and Catskill) State Land Master Plans as for his land acquisition. In 2008, Norm led a seminar about the history of snowmobile policies on the Forest Preserve. It was a tour de force, and resulted in a lot of interesting dialogue about the state’s inability to maintain or limit public motorized uses of the Forest Preserve to the extent existing in 1972. But that’s another story.
Two years ago, Norm took me and fellow Adirondack Wild partner Ken Rimany on a memorable tour of his Catskills. In his disciplined fashion, Norm had written out our itinerary in advance. The tour would start in Palenville, and take in Kaaterskill Falls, South Lake, the site of the Old Catskill Mountain House, his birthplace in Tannersville, his former home he shared with Dot in West Kill, and eventually reach Arkville, and return east via Ashokan Reservoir and Woodstock. For many hours into our journey, there was hardly a tract that we visited that Norm did not have a hand in acquiring for the public, or surveying, or both.
We had lunch with a landowner near Arkville. He had hired Norm to survey the boundaries and corners of this land stretching over 10,000 acres and encompassing two mountains. The land was never for sale, and Norm never pressured the owner in any way to sell. What was apparent was the deep respect that landowner and Norm had for each other. Each cared deeply about the land, and its stewardship, and its future. Each wanted the next generation to have the chance to know this landscape as intimately as they did.
As we left this tract of beautiful Catskill land, two black bear cubs crossed our path. They required no survey line, just their mother, and their pathways were inscrutable to us. For our part, Ken and I smiled with confidence. We knew Norm Van Valkenburgh would find our way home through the Catskills.
Photo: Norman J. Van Valkenburgh at Kaaterskill Falls, Catskills.