Today’s paddlers on the South Branch of the Moose or West Branch of the Sacandaga Rivers, or hikers, loon watchers and snowmobilers along numerous winding forest trails in the Moose River Plains or Ferris Lake Wild Forests would be fifty feet underwater if the mid-20th century dam proponents, and their state sponsors had held sway.
Citizens who valued these Adirondack valleys for their wildlife and wildness opposed them. One of those organizations was Friends of the Forest Preserve, founded in 1945 by Paul Schaefer. I write this on September 13, his birthday. This history of the founding of the organization is contained in Schaefer’s book, Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer (1989, Syracuse University Press).
In 1945, Paul Schaefer was encouraged to attend the annual dinner of the Adirondack Mountain Club in New York City by Russell M. L. Carson, author of Peaks and People of the Adirondacks. It was arranged that Schaefer would sit next to George Marshall, “renowned Forty-sixer” (he had climbed all 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks along with his brothers Bob Marshall and Jim Marshall). Bob Marshall had founded The Wilderness Society in 1935, and had met Paul on the summit of Mount Marcy in the summer of 1932, a meeting that would have important consequences for the state’s and nation’s wilderness and a story also recounted in Defending the Wilderness.
George, Bob and Jim Marshall were sons of Louis and Florence Marshall. Louis Marshall was a lawyer, behind-the-scenes strategist and, it is thought, author of New York State’s “forever wild” clause asserting that the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” which was inserted into the NYS Constitution after popular vote in 1895. Louis championed wilderness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also one of the world’s foremost and most well recognized defenders of civil rights, and founder and President of the Board of the New York State College of Forestry.
During the ADK dinner, George Marshall asked Paul Schaefer what he knew about plans for two large hydroelectric dams on the South Branch of the Moose River in the west-central Adirondacks. He said he had seen maps and descriptions of these dams in government offices in Washington, D.C. What would the impacts of these dams be on the wildlife and forests of the area? Schaefer was dumbfounded. He did not know the answers. He had spent nearly thirty years exploring the Adirondacks and had never been to the Moose River region, or heard about these dam projects. Embarrassed, he promised George he would find out and report back to him.
On the train back to Schenectady from New York City, Schaefer pledged to himself that he and friends must try to make a large topographic map of the Adirondacks to better understand the impacts of these dam proposals, and other activities threatening the area’s wild country. As a result of this pledge, a large raised relief map of the Adirondacks took shape in Schaefer’s Adirondack Room located at his home in Schenectady. The project required nine years, fifty volunteers, and thirteen thousand hours of work to complete. The map still resides at the Center for the Forest Preserve in Niskayuna.
Schaefer located key people who knew the Moose River Plains, and who sensed the enormous impacts that the power dams would have. Later in 1945, a bush pilot named Harold Scott flew them over the area. Here is what they saw that first day, and for many expeditions to come, as recounted by Schaefer in the book: “Forests unlimited, dotted with lakes, sparkling in the sunshine. Rivers threading like quicksilver through the plains and into the evergreen woods westerly. The crowns of giant pines rising above the green canopy of woods. And in the distance, to all points of the compass, mountain on mountain fading into far horizons.” At least one of those giant white pines still grows along the trail to Beaver Lake in the Moose River Plains. On a recent visit, four of us could not wrap our arms around it.
The State’s Attorney General declared there was nothing legally that could be done to stop the dams. In this crisis emerged Friends of the Forest Preserve. The fight to save the wild country and rivers of the Moose River Plains from the dam builders took a decade, almost as long as it took to build the relief map of the Adirondacks. While the organization is best known for its work as part of the Adirondack Moose River Committee to stop Highly and Panther dams, in fact it contributed to preventing about 30 other dams in the Adirondack Hudson and Black River watersheds sponsored by the River Regulating Boards, including the proposed dam below Piseco Lake along the West Branch of the Sacandaga River, which would have flooded 3000 acres.
Friends enjoyed many other successes in coalitions with the Adirondack Mountain Club, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, The Wilderness Society, Izaak Walton League, Sierra Club and others. Friends was among the first to aggressively promote funding to acquire more of the New York State Forest Preserve, publicly owned lands in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, all protected by the “forever wild” clause. It also helped influence the law that prevented the State from losing title to Forest Preserve lands. Details of its early work are contained in the organization’s Forest Preserve magazine published from 1945-1955.
By the 1990’s, Schaefer, his grandson Dave Greene, members of the Friends of the Forest Preserve board, and volunteers with the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club were busy organizing the thousands of documents, letters and photographs that the organization had collected over the previous fifty years, and using that material to mount new efforts to influence the protection of Follensby Pond, the Upper Hudson River and other wild places on the Adirondack map, and urging sportsmen to support an environmental bond act. Pursuing these and other quests until the end of his life, Paul Schaefer died on July 14, 1996 at the age of 87.
In 2010, the organization enters a new and exciting era. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve builds on this rich legacy with historical knowledge, faithfulness of purpose, and a focus on applying ecological and philosophical thinking to its critical advocacy and educational work to safeguard, extend and educate about wild lands.
Photos: Giant white pine on the trail to Beaver Lake, Moose River Plains, shown in 1945 in black and white, in 2010 in color.