Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The National Adirondack Debate of 1932

It is fitting that the Lake George Land Conservancy has created a John Apperson Society of friends and donors. Through his work for a wilder Lake George and Forest Preserve throughout the Adirondacks in the first half of the 1900s, Apperson, the General Electric engineer, gave heart, body and soul to healing what he considered the ills of industrialized, over-engineered society – to the extent that Apperson acknowledged that Lake George was his wife, and the Lake’s islands were his children.

The following story was verbally told to me by Paul Schaefer, and thankfully written down by Paul as part of a published article called “Four Battles for Adirondack Woods and Waters,” which appeared in the 1992 Park Centennial issue of Adirondac, the journal of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

A young Paul Schaefer was enamored of Adirondack activist Apperson from the day he first met him around 1932. As Paul often said, it was the pure sense of joy that Apperson exuded about conservation in the Adirondacks which galvanized young people looking for a cause. And these were very important years for the Adirondacks, as for the nation. The 1932 national election loomed, as the Great Depression sucked hope and savings from so many. One can imagine the anxiety that gripped the country and the opportunity for hucksters, demagogues, as well as statesmen.

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt was preparing to run for the Presidency, but so was former New York Governor Al Smith. In the New York Legislature, a bill had been passed which seemed right for those hard times. It would encourage the state to purchase more land but also allow “cutting, selling and removing trees, timber, forest products and other materials on any lands within the forest preserve counties but outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks.” This was the so-called Hewitt Reforestation Amendment to the Constitution. It seemed to make sense to Governor Roosevelt and many other conservationists. After all, many lands near the edges of the Adirondacks and Catskill were cut-over, or abandoned farmlands. Reforesting these lands would not only put people to work but also replant a renewable forest resource for the future.

John Apperson recognized the problem. The Adirondack Park was much smaller in those years. Lake George, Great Sacandaga Lake, Schroon Lake and the mountains north of Lake Placid were not in the Park. The Hewitt bill would permit lumbering in those places right against the smaller Blue Line boundary, and exclude them from being acquired as “forever wild” Forest Preserve where lumbering was not permitted. Apperson had long believed that the Adirondack Park should be enlarged to include all of these lands of which bedrock geology dictated a certain Park unity. Travelers approaching the Park from the southwest and southeast hit the gas pedal as they sense the geological uplift which tells them they are entering the Adirondack region. In 1931, politics intervened to give a very big boost to Apperson’s sense of geological logic.

Al Smith was not only running for Governor, but he was the Chairman of the New York State Fish, Game and Forest League, a consortium of hundreds of sporting clubs. Just as important, John Apperson had a friend in Al Smith. While Smith was Governor, Apperson had convinced him to acquire substantial lands bordering Lake George as Forest Preserve.

By 1931, Smith had a natural constituency and influence over conservation legislation which Roosevelt lacked. Smith turned up the political heat on Roosevelt. Within a matter of weeks, the Adirondacks became national news. Al Smith attacked Roosevelt for supporting the Hewitt legislation because it would, in Schaefer’s words, “carve up the great potential that was the Adirondack Park.” Behind the scenes, Apperson was working with these sporting clubs to distribute a pamphlet called “Tree Cutting with Your Money,” meaning that the Hewitt bill would allow unrestricted lumbering at the public’s expense.

At the same time, in an attempt to extend the Park to its geological boundaries Apperson approached Al Smith with a new map and a proposal. Apperson’s map showing how the Blue Line should be extended is archived at the Adirondack Research Library. Smith teamed with State Senator Ellwood Rabenold and Apperson on legislation that would expand the boundaries of the Adirondack Park to follow Apperson’s lines.

Smith’s criticism of Governor Roosevelt went national, and it stung. Governor Roosevelt saw a “win-win” solution for the State and for his own national political fortunes by backing his own version of the Rabenold bill to expand the borders of the Adirondack Park by roughly 1.5 million acres, while simultaneously backing Hewitt’s legislation to permit lumbering and reforestation outside the Park. The Park expansion bill passed and Roosevelt signed it. The Hewitt amendment to the Constitution received public approval at the polls, resulting in the early State Forests outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, now about 780,000-acres in all.

Apperson apparently kept news of the Park expansion bill under wraps. You could do that in those days! Thus, after the November election Paul writes that he and other opponents of the Hewitt amendment “were crushed by their defeat,” only to “savor the joy” of victory upon learning from Apperson that Gov. Roosevelt had signed the Park expansion bill.

Photos: Above – Paul Schaefer with John Apperson, c. 1947, the only known photo of the two together, photo by Howard Zahniser, and courtesy of the Adirondack Research Library of Protect the Adirondacks. Below – “Growth of the Adirondack Park” from The Adirondack Atlas (Wildlife Conservation Society, 2004).


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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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