Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Phil Terrie: ‘Forever Wild’ Isn’t Forever

NYCO Minerals Wollastonite Mine (Nancie B Photo)The “Forever Wild” provision of the New York State constitution has protected the Forest Preserve since the first day of January 1895. On that day a new constitution, drafted during the summer of 1894 and approved by New York voters in November, took effect. But over the ensuing years, we have learned that “forever” doesn’t mean exactly what it seems to mean.

It’s not easy, but the constitution can be amended, and land that appeared to be protected in perpetuity can be alienated from the Forest Preserve and become anything but wild. The reasons may seem sound, and the process may be difficult, but the Forest Preserve is forever wild only to the extent that we want it to be. (An invaluable source on this history is The Adirondack Forest Preserve by Norman VanValkenburgh.)

The first amendment to Article 14, the forever-wild clause, passed in 1913, providing that up to 3 percent of the Forest Preserve could be dedicated to water impoundment. It was adopted by a wide margin and established a precedent for understanding the Forest Preserve to be available for projects that would ostensibly serve the public. In 1918, following this logic, an amendment passed for construction of a state highway connecting Saranac Lake to Old Forge.

Nine years later, voters approved the Whiteface highway, running from Wilmington to the summit. The argument that this might set a precedent for other peaks was countered by the road’s advocates, who pitched it as a memorial for World War I veterans. Was forever wild losing its authority? Was the Forest Preserve entering a slow but inexorable process of amendment creep?

In 1941, voters approved a new kind of change to forever wild, authorizing the state’s plan to build ski trails on Whiteface. Although the people voted in favor of cutting trees on the Forest Preserve for a recreational facility, the land itself remained in the public domain, as did the land in all amendments approved up to this point. In 1947, cutting for ski trails was approved for Gore Mountain, as well as Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills.

In the 1950s, the focus was on dam construction on the Moose River. This was an epic battle between hydropower interests based in Watertown and grass-roots conservationists heroically led by Paul Schaefer of Schenectady. The climax came in 1955, when the people decisively declared that they did not want the Forest Preserve flooded to serve the energy industry. But the building of highways continued to appear permissible, and in 1959, the people approved the use of three hundred acres of the Forest Preserve for the construction of the Northway.

In 1962, a new and crucially important element surfaced: the idea of exchanging state land for a parcel of land of equal or greater value. That year, an amendment to give ten acres of Forest Preserve (needed to expand the town dump) to the village of Saranac Lake in exchange for thirty acres of new Forest Preserve was introduced in the state legislature; it was approved by the people in 1963. In 1965, a second exchange was approved, this one to allow a small airport in Piseco to extend a runway. In 1979, an amendment approved an exchange between the state and International Paper Company to eliminate a complex checkerboard of tiny lots near the West Canada Lake Wilderness Area, roughly half owned by IP, the other half by the state, all so small and isolated that none was of any use to either party. In 1995, another amendment permitted the expansion of the Keene cemetery.

And in 2009, an exchange between the state and the electric utility National Grid was approved: six acres to the utility, along Route 56 in St. Lawrence County, in return for forty-three acres for the Forest Preserve. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, the power line that National Grid needed to provide adequate power to Tupper Lake was already built when the voters were asked to approve the swap. Further amendment creep?

The story of amendments to forever wild is a wandering, complicated tale (there are others besides those listed here). Sometimes the people go along with proposed amendments; sometimes they don’t. But the pattern is clear. A variety of exceptions to the ideal of forever wild, as originally inscribed by the constitutional convention of 1894, has led, first, to dedication of forestland to functions clearly not forever wild, and, more recently, to outright removal of land from the Forest Preserve and into the hands of some entity other than the state, including privately owned businesses. Once a precedent is established, it comes back, often more aggressively.

Taken one at time, each seems, to some people at least, reasonable. But what about the future, especially with land exchanges? First, we’re exchanging with an Adirondack village that needs a small parcel. Then we’re exchanging with a corporation, IP, in a swap that makes sense for both parties. And now, with the NYCO Minerals exchange, approved by voters last November, we’ve handed over two hundred acres of the Forest Preserve to a corporation for no purpose other than to enhance its bottom line.

This is a new wrinkle in the story, in size, purpose, precedent, and, almost certainly, consequences. Does the Forest Preserve exist to protect a priceless natural treasure? Or is it a pool of land available for whatever use strikes our fancy? Some see this as a slippery slope. I agree.

This column originally appeared in the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

Photo: NYCO’s  wollastonite mine which is expected to be extending into the Forest Preserve. Photo by Nancie Battaglia.


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Philip Terrie is an Adirondack and environmental historian, and the author of five books on regional history, including Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (2nd ed., Syracuse UP, 2008) and Seeing the Forest: Reviews, Musings, and Opinions from an Adirondack Historian (Saranac Lake: Adirondack Explorer, 2017).

19 Responses

  1. Curt Austin says:

    I don’t find slippery slope arguments persuasive, generally, and certainly not in this case. The NYCO swap was a short, rocky slope. It is difficult to argue that it will be bad for the Park, itself.

    There is nothing delicate or tenuous about the protections in Article 14. There is no need to be fearful that the Park will be nibbled to death when amendments like the NYCO deal make it bigger and more contiguous. Amendments that harm the Park will not pass. Rigid adherence to an idealized concept of “Forever Wild” is more likely to be harmful: flexibility can be strength; rigidity can be brittleness.

  2. joe says:

    I think we, state of NY, assume we’re going to have more land in the forest preserve each generation. Along the way some uglier compromises are made toward achieving that goal among other goals(promoting economy). But when NYCO and International Paper are no longer in the region, decades, a century from now — we’re going to have more land in the forest preserve than we do now.

    It’s a mistake to present or imply that the forest preserve preserves a virgin forest, that as soon as this new mine is dug and filled in and returned to the state it’s of a different quality had it remained in the preserve. The human past is present on almost every trail in the Park. Of course you know that, you’re a professional who’s explored that idea for decades.

    Which is strange that you seem to present the view that the land in the FP can only be priceless if it’s embalmed with the idea that it has never been touched by human hands, or corduroy roads of the logging industry, so we shouldn’t do land swaps to preserve its eternal nature.

  3. Paul says:

    Along with preserving the wild spaces of the Adirondacks we need the ability to preserve the place as an area where people can live with nature. This is the whole idea of the “Adirondack Experiment”. The flexibility of the amendment process allows for this. Perhaps article 14 should have been titled “Forever as wild as it is or wilder than it is but not exactly the same as it is now”.

    Potentially enhancing NYCO’s bottom line is only one of the reasons that voters supported that swap. I keep seeing the argument made here, over and over, that this is all it was about. That is just factually inaccurate. It may not be good for the Forest Preserve but that isn’t telling the whole story.

  4. Dan Murphy says:

    “Does the Forest Preserve exist to protect a priceless natural treasure? Or is it a pool of land available for whatever use strikes our fancy? “

    I would say both are true.

    Article 14 constitutionally protects our priceless natural treasure… BUT…

    In the same way that Prop 4 and 5 allowed for the mentioned land swaps, an amendment to the NYS Constitution COULD be made that completed repeals all mention of “forever wild”.

    Is it likely? Absolutely not (at least not now).
    Could it theoretically happen? sure it could.

    Pete Nelson on Jan 11th wrote a very interesting piece. To quote him “…since the evolving population of New York State is going to be dominated by demographics that do not value the Adirondack Park, its future support is in peril. If future New Yorkers do not protect the park, none of the other issues from my little survey will make one whit of difference”

    This is my whole point. Theoretically, support could wan to the point that the Park cease to even exist.

    There are some very interesting comments to Mr. Nelson’s piece, as to how reinvigorate support for the park.

    My two cents are this. Alienating certain segments of the NYS population (who actually know what “forever wild” means), by opposing common sense change based on slippery slope arguments, is a poor way to increase support.

    • dave says:

      Slippery slope arguments currently protect some of our society’s most enshrined legal principles.

      So you may not like slippery slope arguments, and I can certainly understand why, but implying that making them will somehow erode support for something does not seem true at all.

      • Matt says:

        Really? Which ones?

        • dave says:

          The second amendment of the US Constitution being the most obvious.

          There are enormously powerful political organizations built up around protecting that amendment based almost solely on the fear of the slippery slope… and millions of their members and supporters cite those slippery slope arguments verbatim.

          Reasonable or “common sense” changes and regulations are non-starters in our federal legislatures in part because of this.

          I’m not saying this is good or right… just that it is what it is. Slippery slope arguments can be effective.

          Anyway, it was just a passing observation… one I should have kept to myself because I actually don’t think it adds much to this conversation. Apologies!

          • Justin says:

            Your observation that slippery slope arguments are used to oppose “Reasonable or ‘common sense’ changes” and that “members and supporters cite those slippery slope arguments verbatim” is spot on.

            However, while they are very effective for firing up the choir and getting them to send in money for the battle, I’m not sure how persuasive they are for those who aren’t already converted.

      • Dan Murphy says:

        I have to ask the same question that Matt asked…

        My point is this; Grass root support and activism has to be local. There are a few small groups (with a lot of money) in major metropolitan areas that have a interest in the park. But the overwhelming majority of people in NYC, Buffalo, Rochester, even Albany and Syracuse, don’t even think about the Park (at least don’t consider it a priority).

        So when there is blind opposition to modifications to the plan (such as prop 4 and 5), based on either slippery slope or just a stance that “nothing should change.. ever” then there will be local groups that get alienated.

        I got into a debate with someone over Prop 4 and 5 before the vote. Their stance was that it didn’t matter even if the land added to the park was larger and of better quality.

        I asked the question: “what if the tracts were swapped. What if the park was gaining what it actually giving up, and giving up what it was actually gaining?”

        The man’s stance was he would be against that too.. I asked; “what if the park gave up 1 acre to a corporation in return for 100,000 acres of prime land?”

        Yup, you guessed it.. he was against that too. He thought it was an issue of ideology and that it set a bad precedent.

        Head in the sand, “don’t ever change anything” thinking will eventually drive local groups away… then Mr. Nelson’s fears will be more of a reality.

  5. adkmike says:

    I would observe that the single largest amendment was the first one in 1913. It allows 3% of the Forest Preserve to be flooded…today that means 90,000 acres.

    Everything since then is tiny by comparison. Such a thing would never pass now. Probably not ski centers either. Or the Whiteface highway. Or a new road from Saranac Lake to Old Forge. So I just don’t buy your logic.

    • Paul says:

      I agree the trend has been to be more protective of the Forest Preserve not less as implied by some. That is why in this case it had to increase the size of the Forest Preserve and include a project that will end at some point in the future (not a permanent highway or other similar use).

  6. Curt Austin says:

    I asserted “Amendments that harm the Park will not pass.” Running George replied “Heads up! One just did!”

    The forest preserve itself was not harmed at all by the NYCO amendment, if you consider it collectively. Indeed, NYCO and the others involved clearly understood that it had to be a lopsided deal to be approved. Even so, it was not lopsided enough – it barely passed.

    But yes, the concept of “Forever Wild” was harmed. And that concept is important to the ongoing protection of state land in the Park. Was that harm – to the concept, not the forest – a good reason to oppose it? First, the phrase “Forever Wild” has never been interpreted as a literal absolute; we have campgrounds (with showers!), among plenty of other non-wild things. Second, the harm is slight: the concept “Forever Wild” will remain very powerful. The concept reflects what New Yorkers want, not the other way around.

    • Running George says:

      Ah, by your selective definition. A part of the Park will be laid waste for the benefit of a mining corporation. The amendment that allows this damages the Park and it just passed. It establishes a precedent that valuable Wilderness can be squandered based on tenuous claims of economic benefit.

  7. zyxw says:

    Look at the photo. A gash like that is more than “harm” to the Forest Preserve–it’s destruction. We don’t have to look any further for a slippery slope than NYCO–we just slid further down the slide.

    • joe says:

      But, zyxw, that photo is not of Forest Preserve land. You know that. So does Phil and most every reader here. Suggesting that it is Forest Preserve is misleading.

      It is true that the bordering land is Forest Preserve, classified as wilderness but that raises another question for me anyway: how could anyone logically conclude that land bordering an active mine is somehow actually wilderness. Makes no sense. It might be Forest Preserve but it does not fit the definition of wilderness, IMHO

      • zyxw says:

        Don’t you think we can assume that if that is what one part of the NYCO mining operation looks like the new Forest Preserve land they will be mining will end up in similar shape?

  8. Curt Austin says:

    I only addressed one of the two issues at the heart of this disagreement – the distinction between harm that is manifest on the ground and the harm to a concept – the “slippery slope” issue.

    The second issue is the idea that a collective benefit to the forest preserve can outweigh damage to an existing bit of forest preserve. It’s like considering whether you should sell a family heirloom to pay for your kids tuition. Maybe you would in that case, but not to pay for a cruise.

    This is interesting: you’re not independently applying a ‘never sell” rule about selling family heirlooms, though you may feel like you should. You are recognizing that there is something more important: giving your kids the best education possible. That’s not to say it’s a comfortable decision, it shouldn’t be.

    The bit of land to be mined is a rather minor heirloom we’re selling for something more important: a larger and more contiguous forest preserve. As a bonus, we’re preserving a different sort of heirloom – the way of life for many families.

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