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.