Monday, November 25, 2013

Dave Gibson: Whiteface Memorial Highway and the Forest Preserve

Copy of Whiteface SummitThe late, extraordinary forest educator, Dr. Edwin H. Ketchledge, started an exhibit of native Adirondack trees at the base of the Whiteface Memorial Highway in Wilmington, and wrote to all who would listen how important it would be to properly interpret the natural history of the mountain from the base of the road to the mountain’s summit. Of course, Dr. Ketchledge had interpreted this route in hundreds of ways during his career as a teacher, and was hopeful that his legacy would continue.

Governor Andrew Cuomo just made it a lot safer to accomplish Dr. Ketchledge’s vision as a result of the state’s commitment to expend $12 million to rehabilitate the road and the summit’s facilities. This is welcome news indeed for Wilmington, the Olympic Authority and many Adirondack residents and visitors who marvel at what they feel, see and learn from this mountain road.

I was not present at the announcement of this new state commitment last week, but I gather from those who were that Governor Cuomo’s remarks credited Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, properly so, but then went on to say something along the lines that FDR felt he had bucked the environmentalists of that earlier era to build the highway up Whiteface, and how smart FDR had been to do that.

Perhaps Andrew Cuomo was saying that environmental obstructionism had been overcome in 1935, and like FDR, thank god I am carrying on that tradition? I don’t know. It sounds that way to me. It seems a funny thing to say when nobody I know of opposes the reconditioning of the Whiteface Memorial Highway, or pickets those who ride up and down its surface to experience that incredible Adirondack wind and atmosphere and how small human beings are on an ecological scale. Certainly, Dr. Ketchledge would applaud the Governor’s fresh commitment to this road, and I do as well.

There certainly was opposition to the proposal to build the Whiteface Memorial Highway through the Adirondack Forest Preserve; the Governor has that completely right. In 1925 and 1927, there were vocal critics of this proposal to amend our Constitution’s Forever Wild article for purposes of getting the new internal combustion engine with mass market appeal up a wild mountain that many felt should forever remain a wild forest – just as the Constitution promised.

Some of those critics belonged to the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (the forerunner of Protect!), some to the new Adirondack Mountain Club, and some, like the great artist Rockwell Kent, were exercising their individual rights to hold tight to the citizen’s reins over their government’s tendency to ride roughshod over all of our wild nature. The automobile was, in the minds of more than a few, ruining our new National Parks. Why should we allow that to happen on a magnificent mountain within a constitutionally protected, legislatively recognized Adirondack Park? Think of the precedent this could set, they argued.

“The proponents of this highway,” Frank Graham wrote in his political history of the Adirondack Park,  “believing there should be at least one road by which non-hikers could drive to an Adirondack peak, slipped an irresistible plum into their pudding by specifying that the highway be designated a memorial to New Yorkers who had served in the Army or Navy during World War I.”  The American Legion got behind the memorial highway, and patriotic New Yorkers decisively voted to make it an exception to Forever Wild by 1,082,864 – 602,395. It took another eight years to complete the project in the height of the depression, and it took a Governor turned President like Franklin D. Roosevelt to see it through. It is not my purpose, nor is it within my ability to describe this fascinating history.

To me, it is just as interesting to note what did not happen after the highway was completed. If a patriotic fervor had authorized the road, why not the small additional step of creating something even more lasting to the memory of the fallen, more visible than the mountain itself ? To improve on the mountain, the rush was on to create a permanently lit memorial tower towering above Whiteface. Rockwell Kent really got his back up over that idea, as did the aforementioned Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. This attack on Forever Wild in the name, or guise of patriotism had really gone too far. Governor Herbert Lehman was persuaded to veto this legislation. And, in a clear sign that the original highway had been as much or more about auto tourism than about patriotism, “a compromise was reached for a tunnel within the mountain to bring visitors to the surface by elevator, with only a low stone shelter building atop the elevator shaft” (from Edith Pilcher’s A Centennial History of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, 1901-2003).

Without the Forever Wild clause and the people’s ultimate authority to amend it, there would be a permanently lit tower atop Whiteface Mountain today – probably a large solar collector or wind turbine there, as well, to keep it lit. There isn’t. Yes, there is Whiteface Ski Center, authorized by Constitutional amendment in 1941, and probably rationalized by many as just one more cut on a mountain that already had a road built to its summit. Yet, the statewide vote to support Whiteface Ski Center barely squeaked by; it passed by just 10,000 votes.

When it comes to Article 14, Section 1 of our Constitution, New Yorkers – whether Governors choose to view them as obstructionists or not – remain determined to hold onto those reins, and have a vigorous debate about any loosening. Witness Proposition 5 this fall, NYCO Minerals, where faced with a half million campaign budget and vigorous State promotion to push through mining in a Wilderness area in the guise of a land exchange, opponents used free media and a website to help convince 47 % of those casting votes to say “no.” Given more time, the vote might have been reversed.

If Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to buck anyone in accomplishing future amendments or compromises of Forever Wild, he is bucking an awful lot of New Yorkers who want to pass on this wilderness unimpaired to their grandchildren, and pay for the privilege of doing so. If he wants to embrace a Constitutional Convention (we all must be asked on the 2017 ballot if we want to convene a Convention), he will be reminded of the multi-billions in monetary and non-monetary values, ecological and recreational and other services and benefits that the Forest Preserve provides all of us. He will be reminded how lucky New York State is to have a Forest Preserve protected by our State Constitution, and how envious other states and countries are that we have such a legal instrument.

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate $12 million of our money to rehabilitate the Whiteface Memorial Highway, and, as Dr. Ketchledge would want it, enlarging and expanding our knowledge and points of view each time we contemplate riding, or skiing or biking or hiking to that enduring peak – unlit until the sun’s rise.

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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.

10 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Have they ever looked to see what type of habitat fragmentation was caused by the asphalt road being built from top to bottom on the mountain. I know they can’t do a before and after experiment here but perhaps it could be compared to a mountain without a highway in the same area to see what lack of diversity (or other issues) exist on the one with the road. If they both look similar that hurts that argument against that type of development, if they are quite different it would make the argument very strong.

    When I first climbed Mt. Washington I had no idea what I was going to find when I got to the top. The whole time I heard this “whistle” and thought maybe it was some kind of warning to climbers of an impending storm. Little did I know that there was a cog railroad as well as a road to the top. It was a zoo at the summit.

    • David says:

      I had the same experience on Washington. My group had a 40ish mile backpack across the hut trail and I remember the excitement of each mountain we hit being higher and more spectacular. At Eisenhower I thought that this was so magnificent I can’t wait for the next. And Washington was nothing but an overused tourist trap. The only mountain I have ever waited in line for the summit. I’m relived that only one mountain in our preserve has a road.

      I am very much in the Edward Abbey camp on our land, and if you don’t know what I mean I encourage you to read Desert Solitaire he is a better writer than I could ever be.

  2. Alan Senbaugh says:

    Pavement is bad but at least the highway is only open to motor vehicle traffic half the year.

  3. Matt says:

    The Highway was the right thing at the right time. We are well served to preserve it. It’s a very interesting chapter in the story of New York’s Forest Preserve lands, and it was most certainly lamented by the preservationists following it’s construction, like other amendments to article fourteen. Hopefully Prop 5 can lead us towards a more thoughtful strategy for future land swaps, if all parties are willing to come to the table. History will tell.

    • Justin says:

      I too hope the NYCO amendment will inspire us to develop a more thoughtful strategy with respect to Article 14 amendments.

      More than twenty exceptions to Article 14 have been made in the past, and many more will be made in the future.

      Now – not the 11th hour when amendments have a head of steam and are about to be put before the voters – is the time to articulate and agree on principles for when it is acceptable to breach Forever Wild.

  4. Phil Brown says:

    Dave, there is another peak with a highway: Prospect Mountain near Lake George. What is the story behind that?

    • M.P. Heller says:


      Prospect Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. Authorized by Dewey in the 50’s, funded by Rockefeller in the 60’s, finished in ’69. Its maintained by the DEC. There is a toll. Its popular with snowmobilers in the winter months and is part of the corridor route between Washington County and Thurman.

      Prospect Mountain has an interesting history.


      • Wally says:

        I’m a veteran. It seems that acting in our name is the way to go when you want to do something many will dislike!

  5. Little Buckaroo says:

    Dave – I like this part of your story the best:

    “When it comes to Article 14, Section 1 of our Constitution, New Yorkers – whether Governors choose to view them as obstructionists or not – remain determined to hold onto those reins, and have a vigorous debate about any loosening. Witness Proposition 5 this fall, NYCO Minerals, where faced with a half million campaign budget and vigorous State promotion to push through mining in a Wilderness area in the guise of a land exchange, opponents used free media and a website to help convince 47 % of those casting votes to say “no.” Given more time, the vote might have been reversed.”

  6. Wally says:

    Perhaps the governor was alluding to some future decision that will show how he, too, is bucking environmentalists?
    Chain of Lakes classification? Fracking? Frightening.

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