Amy and I have just returned from two magnificent weeks on Lost Brook Tract. It was everything we could want and more, pure glory. I am still digesting the experience, not yet ready to write about it.
In the meantime I had prepared a set of Dispatches to run while we were gone so that you, dear readers, would not have the weekly streak interrupted. I came off the land revitalized, ready to respond to any comments and rejoin the fray. But as my columns were hardly controversial or provocative there were few comments to read (yes Catharus, looking for Bicknell’s up top is on our priority list). No comments? That’s no fun! So this time I decided to write a column with a topic guaranteed to produce a reaction: revitalizing Tupper Lake. I was motivated in part by the vitriol evident in a posting on the same topic just days ago.
This is no stunt; the topic is important to many people. At the moment there are many things going on in the Adirondacks that are directly related to it, a congruence if you will. And in fact, the topic directly affected our experience with Lost Brook Tract, so it is fair game about which to write. The connection comes in this way: we had planned to disappear for two weeks, bring in supplies and just stay on the land in perfect primal solitude, but instead we interrupted our visit right in the middle, coming to civilization for a meeting. What topic could pull us away from our paradise? The welfare of Tupper Lake could.
Did you ever have a friend who was charming if a bit rough around the edges, maybe a little down on his luck, struggling in life but headstrong and stubborn, determined to hold onto his ways in the face of mounting troubles? Perhaps this friend was getting into a bad relationship, arguing and being disappointed repeatedly but insistently dreaming that everything would turn out. Maybe his significant other was nice enough, even sincere, but it was just a bad match and everyone –except him – could see it? Suppose this friend refused advice, counsel, common sense in an increasingly desperate bid to hope for the best based upon imagination flavored with delusion. At what point would you grab this friend by the cuff, shake him and scream “Listen to reason, man! Why won’t you listen to reason?”
This kind of thing makes an all-too-uncomfortable metaphor for lots of debates in the Adirondacks. It’s one thing to disagree, even passionately. It is another thing altogether to do it with any sense of reality or pragmatism thrown to the wind; to deliberately, even insultingly ignore stubborn things like facts or history or good old conventional wisdom. I love a stiff debate; I think honest debate is the cornerstone of the Republic. But I begin to chafe when the debate is silly.
Tupper Lake needs help, let’s all agree on that. It is a struggling community, through no fault of its own. It has assets to be sure – the setting, the ski area and the Wild Center among them – but we all know it is an economically troubled town. There are all sorts of views on this but I have never heard from anyone’s lips that Tupper Lake should just be allowed to decline, so let’s all agree that we share a nearly universal desire to see a vibrant Tupper Lake. My familial connection to the Adirondacks is the Central Region, so count me in.
But how to do it? Here is where – to excuse the pun – the debate goes off the rails. As it happens there are two massive initiatives in the wind that could potentially change the fortunes of Tupper Lake. Interestingly, for the most part those in favor of the first one oppose the second one. Forgive me, but that particular alignment is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It completely defies logic.
The first initiative is the hotly debated Adirondack Club and Resort. The fierce, ongoing back-and-forth of this issue is riddled with details, from questions over wildlife studies to arguments over development clustering to legal matters of possible ex parte communications. My voice hardly needs to be added to any of these discussions. Sure, I have opinions, for example I think the APA process is unduly demanding of developers and not demanding enough of wildlife studies. But my opinions on these matters are irrelevant. I think most of these details are irrelevant, quite frankly. It may or may not be that the developers are sincere and want to do a great thing. I suspect they do. They’re dreamers, like all of us in the wilderness. That’s a laudable thing, to dream, to imagine beauties and joys. It may or may not be that some environmental organizations recognize an opportunity to increase their membership activity. I think this likely. It may or may not be that a proper biological study was never done.
None of that matters because the ACR is simply a bad idea. It’s completely unrealistic. Betting the town on it strikes me as irrational. That’s a very unfortunate thing.
I am often dismayed by the divisive game of separating locals from non-locals, natives from non-natives. Okay, if someone wants to insist that being local or native trumps other kinds of knowledge and experience, so be it. After all, pride in where you live is no empty thing. But in that case, it might be best not to forget local history. My reading of Adirondack history includes a few names: Brown, Herreshoff, Bonaparte, McIntyre, Durant and many more. These current developers are not the first men to dream big. The Adirondacks are not amenable to that sort of dreaming. Time and again the result has been ruin. Do we not learn? If you look at the ACRS’s sales projections, fantastic beyond any prior experience or evidence, you have to agree that I am asking a legitimate question.
Tupper Lake’s neighbor down the street makes a telling example. Blue Mountain Lake was, for a brief time, a marquee destination of the moneyed. And why not? It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world (USA Today is running a contest for best lake in America as I write this: Blue Mountain Lake is one of three Adirondack nominees). It had a variety of hotels, one of them opulent. It had numerous boating opportunities. It had steamships, served by railroads to bring visitors in. It had two of the most scenic climbs in the park: Blue Mountain and Castle Rock. It had a harmony that cannot be put into words. It had a family of great wealth behind it, all in. How could it lose? Yet it did.
What happened? Those of us who adore Blue Mountain Lake have never understood it. We drive through town, look out over the water at what is nothing less than a remarkable jewel and shake our heads: how can this paradise possibly not have caught on?
Blue Mountain Lake has natural assets Tupper Lake does not. Tupper Lake has the Wild Center but Blue Mountain Lake has one of the great regional museums in the world, with a global reputation. Yet if you spend the morning at the Adirondack Museum and decide to head down the hill into town to have a lovely lunch at a local restaurant, you are going to have a hard time fulfilling your desire.
What would make anyone think that Tupper Lake will fare better than Blue Mountain Lake with the few people who have the cash to own and build a pricey vacation paradise? History offers no evidence at all that such a thing will come to pass. In fact all the evidence is starkly to the contrary. Where is the reason in that? Why fiercely defend a fantasy?
On the other hand, there is a completely realistic, proven economic game changer hovering just within reach of Tupper Lake. Yet many of the supporters of the Adirondack Club and Resort oppose it. This seems indefensible to me.
What spurred Amy and I to interrupt our time on Lost Brook Tract was a presentation by the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA) on the proposal to convert the existing rail corridor between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake to a recreational trail. This is a good idea. No, that’s not right: this is a great idea. That is not an opinion, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a fact. But somehow that fact is obscured by the usual, tired, nonsensical side-taking.
There is one part of the opposition that is not nonsensical. The defense of a scenic train is nothing but laudable. The train is romantic. It is a vital part of our heritage. It is an important part of Adirondack history. The numerous supporters and volunteers who have kept the train and tracks going, who have restored the depots, should be applauded. They love that train and well they should. I will be the last person to dismiss such a love.
Would that we could have a train that was viable and a trail as well. But this is not a realistic choice, there is no question of that. The money issues and the land issues, especially the wetland issues, make it an irrational hope.
If it is to be one or the other, then it is simply the most obvious economic development choice in the history of the park. It is sad to lose the train, but Tupper Lake is in deep trouble, and if the opportunity to truly revitalize the town as never could have been imagined is nigh, then it is practically a moral imperative that we pursue it.
The economics of a recreational trail are overwhelming. The benefits conservatively outweigh the most optimistic benefits of a scenic train a hundred to one. There is no question of it. How can anyone not support that? Don’t just believe me, go ahead and research the numbers yourself. I live in a community that is a first-class demonstration of the economic power of a recreational trail strategy. In my current home of Madison the yearly benefits run into the millions of dollars. Even conservative numbers put the benefits of a recreational corridor through the heart of the Adirondacks at hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that doesn’t even include the snowmobiles which would certainly vault it much higher.
I wish everyone who reads this could have heard the words of Jim McCulley at the meeting we attended. I met him there for the first time and he spoke with integrity, passion and eloquence. Jim and I are unlikely to waltz into the sunset together, hand in hand, singing “Kumbayah” and throwing flowers petals in celebration of an un-motorized park. We’d no doubt be on opposite sides of a number of issues. But here’s the thing: the man in rational. He loves this park and he wants Tupper Lake vibrant and he knows what this trail could do. Seriously, imagine the oomph of a snowmobile corridor connecting Old Forge to Tupper Lake. Anyone been through Old Forge lately? I just was. It looks pretty good.
So there it is. We have serious matters here. Without realism we are in deep trouble. We must have this park, we simply must, and we must defend and support these towns: Tupper Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Saranac Lake, all of them. You may disagree with me on either project. But I beseech you, beseech all of us: leave the nonsense at the door. Let’s be realistic. We owe it to the Adirondacks.