Monday, November 15, 2010

The Big Blowdown of 1950

The Adirondacks is prone to powerful windstorms, isolated tornadoes, and occasional hurricanes, derechos, and microbursts. Perhaps the second most destructive of these in modern Adirondack history (next to the 1998 Ice Storm) occurred in November, 1950.

The Big Blowdown brought heavy rains and winds in excess of 100 mph. In a single day – November 25th – more than 800,000 acres of timber was heavily damaged. The storm caused a complete shutdown of the roads and trails across large swaths of the park, a historic suspension of the State Constitution, a temporary glut in the spruce market, and a political impact that continues to this day.

Despite several days of rain that preceded the storm, hundreds of hunters were out for the last weekend of the season, including Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer, hunting in heavy rain near Eleventh Mountain in western Warren County. “When the top 40 feet of a great spruce suddenly cracked and blew almost over our heads,” he remembered, “we knew it was high time to get home.”

Hikers huddled at Johns Brook Lodge thought it safer to leave the area altogether, but a number of hunters rode the storm out alone, already separated from their parties for the day’s hunt. Ronald “Bud” Brownell was sixteen at the time and hunting with his father at Russian Lake near Big Moose Lake. He cowered alone under a large tree for what seemed like forever and considered it a miracle when he was finally reunited with this father and uncle.

John Monahan, 62, of Albany County was hunting with three companions in the Blue Ridge Wilderness when they split up before the storm. Unable to start a fire because of the rain and dampness, Monahan spent two nights in the woods trekking some 20 miles northwest while avoiding the crashing of trees around him. Getting back to camp was only the first challenge as trees across roads trapped hundreds of hunters in isolated areas, necessitating State Troopers and Forest Rangers spending Sunday and Monday clearing backcountry roads to get them out.

It’s believed that trees that had bolstered themselves for decades and centuries against winds that typically blow from the west and northwest were no match for a hurricane force from the southeast. Around Meacham Lake in Franklin County, some 40,000 trees were toppled in just a few hours. “Along with the trees,” Jane Eblen Keller wrote in Adirondack Wilderness: A Story of Man and Nature,” 148 miles of telephone lines, dozens of public campsites and private dwellings, and many fire observation towers were knocked down. Most of the 100 miles of Adirondack truck trails, built to accommodate fire engines, were so clogged with huge fallen trees and brush as to be impassable.”

Three of the most heavily affected areas included: 1) the valleys of the Kunjamak and West Branch of the Sacandaga north and east of Speculator and Lake Pleasant; 2) the Moose River Plains, particularly from the Moose River west to the headwaters of the West Canada Creek and southeast to Jerseyfield Lake; and 3) the area north of the Beaver River and Stillwater Reservoir. Other areas that were significantly impacted included parts of what is now the Whitney Wilderness and the Adirondack League Club Property, parts of recently purchased Finch Pruyn lands, the Pigeon Lake, McKenzie Mountain, and Blue Ridge wildernesses, lands to the west of Raquette Lake, those near Blue Mountain and Inlet, and on and on. Some areas as far away as the east side of Lake George saw giant swaths of blowdown.

The trees were laid in an intense jumble on the ground, hanging on nearby trees, and piled one atop the other. Trails were cleared little by little over the next half dozen years, but some old routes were forever abandoned, it being easier to clear a new trail around the blowdown then through it. The old lumber road / cross-country ski trial between Adirondack Loj and Lake Placid was closed by the storm, making the approach to Street and Nye mountains much more difficult.

In the High Peaks, the Cold River country, including the west slopes of Santanoni, Panther, and Couchsachraga, the Sewards, and down the Raquette River to Axton was the most heavily damaged. Other areas seriously affected included Skylight, Giant, the Northern slope of Mount Colvin, the shores of Lake Colden, the McIntyre Range, Panther Gorge, the south face of Big Slide, and some approaches to Marcy. Everywhere small slides were created after the trees fell. On a single trail from the Lake Road to the top of Colvin crews cut and removed 408 trees, many of them hangers. On the trail from Elk Lake to Marcy layers of trees crossed the route to a height of some twenty feet. It took three years to clear. High Peaks trails east of Mount Colden were among the many closed for several years after the storm.

Some trails were never cleared. The Santanonis and Sewards became legendary as home to some of the toughest blowdown scrambling in the Adirondacks. In the late 1950s and 1960s it could take eight hours to negotiate the blowdown on the route up Santanoni where there had once been a fine trail – with stairs – to the top. Since the Big Blowdown of 1950 Santanoni has been considered as trail-less peak.

Rudimentary aerial reconnaissance showed that about seven percent of the current park area was “heavily affected” with between 25 and 100 percent of the trees toppled. Spruce, then the most sought-after lumber tree, was among the most heavily damaged.

What to do about all that windfall caused one of the biggest Adirondack disputes since the 1890s. Dubbed the “Big Blow-up,” the debate that raged over whether the fallen timber should be salvaged or left alone had indirect implications that included the creation of the 1957 “road bank” and other Forest Preserve takings that paved the way for the use of Forest Preserve land for the Adirondack Northway.

Those events bear strongly on the once-perceived need in some quarters to protect the Adirondack Park from the vagaries of the state’s political power brokers by making it a National Park. A more lasting impact has come from the conceptual connection among policy makers between Forest Preserve takings in the 1950s, the desire set aside some of the Preserve for logging, the creation of today’s Forest Preserve classification system, and the establishment of the Adirondack Park Agency.

The public debate began with a decision by the Conservation Department (forerunner to today’s DEC) to remove the windfall. Their argument, offered in a request to the Attorney General for his opinion on its legality, was that the fallen timber was a fire hazard. The potential for the spread of disease and insect pests from the downed timber to what remained and the obstruction of recreation were also invoked by proponents of salvage. Jane Eblen Keller explained the widely held belief among most all Adirondack stakeholders: “Had a fire broken out within a few days or even weeks of the blowdown, the entire forest, or the portion that was left, could have been destroyed.”

A variety of voices who had raised the call for cutting on the Forest Preserve more than 30 times in the previous 85 years, jumped at the opportunity to make cutting a reality to ‘protect’ the Adirondack Park by salvaging timber. Hunters, for example, felt the blowdown areas would make great wildlife habitat and spur diversity; local interests at the cusp of post-war car tourism boom, pressed for clean up. In his argument to ignore the tree cutting provision of the Forever Wild Clause, the Attorney General even offered the necessity to support the Korean War as one reason to invoke emergency powers.

Eleanor Brown’s The Forest Preserve provides a look at the behind the scenes machinations from the perspective of an Adirondack Mountain Club insider and later Adirondack Park Agency commissioner:

“No one advocated following the constitutional amendment procedure and waiting three years [for an amendment to pass] to begin the operation. The State Attorney General ruled that dead trees could be removed to reduce fire hazard, under the terms of the constitution, but not sold without approval by the legislature. Before the consent was granted, however, representatives of several conservation groups [including the ADK and the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks] concerned that the clean-up would be a first step toward lumbering the Preserve, consulted with Conservation Department officials on restrictive wording of the legislation. The phrases finally decided on were to allow the removal, use, or sale of ‘fallen or seriously damaged trees, to the extent necessary to provide for the safety and preservation’ of the Forest Preserve.”

Before the winter logging season of 1951 – the first practicable opportunity to turn all that fallen timber into lumber and pulp wood – the Conservation Department (forerunner to today’s DEC) ran a series of essays in New York Conservationist magazine by its staff arguing for a rethinking of the cutting restriction and supporting the salvage operation. It was the first official salvo in what would become a lengthy attempt by the conservation bureaucracy to circumvent the Forever Wild Clause. In 1952 the Department developed a proposal to open 70 percent of the Forest Preserve to logging, a plan that led to moves in the legislature throughout the 1960s to open the Preserve to widespread logging. “Action on these proposals was forestalled by the Adirondack National Park bombshell of 1967 and the ensuing appointment of the Adirondack Study Commission [which created the Adirondack Park Agency to oversee the Preserve],” according to Eleanor Brown.

It’s been estimated that 1.25 million board feet of hardwood and 2 billion board feet of softwood were knocked to the ground during the storm. Around 40 million board feet of lumber are believed to have been salvaged in the ensuing five years, although some of that may have included trees damaged during a 1954 storm.

Forest Preserve historian Barbara McMartin included a short chapter on the Big Blowdown in The Great Forest of the Adirondacks and made a few observations. The most important of these was the realization that few records exist to describe exactly which tracts were actually salvaged. “For whatever reason,” McMartin writes “the Cold River clean-up was the most extensive and the principal one to be documented.”

The hermit Noah Rondeau may have been finally driven from the Cold River country by the Big Blowdown, but logging trucks were not. Gravel-surfaced roads were built to facilitate the salvage logging operations, a reason even today the trails there often feel like roads.

In a paper written after the 1995 blowdown, Jerry Jenkins summed the details of the salvage operation in October 1954 as follows: “The spruce is by now too decayed for most mills, and the salvage essentially over. All told, 169 contracts were sold out of 194 offered. 106 contracts are judged complete, 16 still active, and the remaining 47 terminated or never started. 58,000 acres have been salvaged. This is 50% of the land contracted for, 32% of the land offered for sale, and 13% of the land blown down.”

Barbara McMartin also made two other observations: “A great many of the tracts put up for bid were stands of old growth, or virgin forest; and second, some of today’s most spectacular woods – places where forty years later there is little evidence of blowdown – were earmarked for salvage.” Finally, the salvage operation brought about one million dollars to the state but caused a glut in the spruce market which depressed prices for many years and caused about a third of the salvaging companies to abandon their contracts. Ten percent of the proceeds were used to purchase additional Forest Preserve land.

Biologists now almost universally accept that that the salvage lumbering of the 1950 windfall was probably not the ecologically appropriate thing to do. Forest ecologist Charles Canham, who has spent more than 20 years studying northern forest ecosystems, believes that big storms serve an important ecological role: “The soil disturbance and woody debris left by a storm represent important resources for a wide range of plant and animal species.” he recently wrote, “Wind-throw was and is an important natural process in the Adirondack landscape and contributes to the overall diversity of plant and animal species in the park.”

Was the fire danger real enough to threaten the Adirondack Forest Preserve itself? The answer may depend on your traditional view of cutting on the Forest Preserve, or your appreciation for the dangers posed by the great fires of 40 and 50 years before.

Special thanks to Bill Joplin – who spends part of each summer and fall near Keene Valley – for suggesting this topic, conducting much of the research and commenting on the final drafts. Although Bill was instrumental in helping me craft this piece, any errors of fact or omission are entirely my own.

Photos: Above – 1995 Blowdown in the Adirondacks by Liza Graham, Courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society. Below – Aerial view after the Big Blow (1950, DEC Photo).

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.

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