Monday, March 24, 2014

New York Women Helped Frame the Forest Preserve Debate

Women on Lake GeorgeDuring the first decades of the twentieth century, as women first agitated for and then began exercising the right to vote, many became intrigued by the political process and the possibilities for influencing public opinion.  One of the topics of great interest and debate concerned the best use of forest lands in the Adirondack Park, and whether to uphold the protections of Article VII, Section 7, the forever wild clause of the New York Constitution.  Although little has been written on this subject, I am convinced that women contributed significantly to this debate.

My source of information is a collection of letters saved by John S. Apperson, Jr., an engineer at the General Electric Company in Schenectady.  By 1920, he had earned a reputation as a leading preservationist, and was fighting a vigorous campaign to protect the islands at Lake George. His connection to women’s organizations apparently got its start there, as he became friends with Mary Loines, from Brooklyn, New York, who owned land in Northwest Bay.

Apperson discovered, early on, that he was not alone in his desire to protect the beautiful scenery at Lake George.  One of the documents in the Apperson collection is a copy of minutes from a 1911 meeting of the Lake George Association, during which several people expressed concerns about the low water levels at Lake George.  Of the forty-one individuals who attended that meeting, seventeen were women.

Among the more active was Mary Loines and her daughters Hilda and Sylvia, from whom Apperson frequently enlisted their aid. Hilda helping to organize the Lake George Shore Association, and investigated rumors about plans to build an amusement park at Basin Bay.  Apperson also turned to the Loines to find a way to approach the owner of Dome Island, which he hoped to protect.

By 1930, as Apperson was fighting the Hewitt Amendment (the “Tree Cutting Amendment” Apperson called it), which would have kept some state lands from entering the Forest Preserve.  Believing that educating the public about the issue was a key to success defeating the Amendment, opponents sought the support of clubs and organizations across the state, asking them to inform their members, host debates, and write editorials in local newspapers.  Many of the prestigious men’s clubs, influenced heavily by state officials and commercial interests, were coming out in favor of the Hewitt Amendment, so Apperson turned to women’s organizations.  Through the Loines, Apperson was introduced to Ethel Dreier, an officer in New York City’s Women’s City Club under whose leadership the club opposed the Hewitt Amendment.

In February of 1931, Ethel Dreier testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Albany.  Here is an excerpt from her speech, listing the reasons why women living in New York City took an interest in the forests of the Adirondacks, and reminding the audience that these women were eager to vote.

Our city dwellers who go in such great numbers to the forest preserve for rest and recreation are naturally among the first to become interested in any proposition which has to do with the preservation or protection of that great playground.  They cherish that amendment which has been mentioned here as the great bulwark of protection for that area and playground which they love. When the question of changing our fundamental law has come up they have also showed their interest at the polls… 

The members of the Women’s City Club of New York through their committees on recreation and legislation are interested in the use and conservation of the State’s resources for health and recreation, and they are acquainted because of their great interest in the subject with the history of the conflict between the commercial and the non-commercial interests in the Adirondack region.  

Dreier spoke plainly against the hidden agenda of the proposed legislation, to sell off state forests to the wood products industry.

The bill is only concerned with production forests in the various preserve counties, with the raising of trees in the protected areas for the purpose of cutting and selling. Such a policy as proposed by the Hewitt amendment would put the State into the business of raising and marketing trees, timber, and various products and other materials, in competition with private companies.  This might be a profitable arrangement for the manufacturers of wood pulp to have the state supply the capital investment but we do not believe that the tax payers of the State will want to authorize such a radical change of public policy, to the extent of amending the constitution.

Ethel Dreier and the Women’s City Club were just one example of women wielding their power in protection of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.  In 1935, when the voters of New York State voted to retain the protections of the forever wild clause of the Constitution (renamed Article XIV, Section 1), some of credit for that success is owed to the support and commitment of women like the Loines and Ethel Dreier.

This essay is part of The New York History Blog’s project to highlight the history of women in New York State for Women’s History Month.


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Ellen Apperson Brown is working to preserve and publish materials from John S. Apperson Jr.'s papers in the Adirondack Research Library at Union College.

She also maintains Apperson Associates, a website designed as an introduction to the life and accomplishments of John Apperson.

4 Responses

  1. Ed Zahniser says:

    Great piece, Ellen! John Apperson mentored Paul Schaefer in grassroots organizing, and Paul Schaefer mentored Howard Zahniser during the western Adirondack water wars of the 1940s into the 1950s. That was Zahniser’s training for the epic national conservation struggle over the Echo Park Dam proposed in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Did Zahniser know of the role of women in the Adirondacks? I don’t know, but women played a huge role in the coalition built for the Echo Park struggle, which, with that struggle won, was applied to the wilderness legislation that became the 1964 Act. Women’s federations and garden clubs were absolutely crucial to the public interest push for the 1964 Wilderness Act. The hearing records tell all. Ed Z

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    What a wonderful article. One can only guess at the myriad ways in which women were essential to the evolution of the Adirondack region. This is a great contribution.

    • Ellen Brown says:

      Thanks, Pete. It is wonderful to get your encouragement! There is so much more to tell! Ellen

    • Paul says:

      “Our city dwellers who go in such great numbers to the forest preserve for rest and recreation are naturally among the first to become interested in any proposition which has to do with the preservation or protection of that great playground.”

      Don’t like the term “playground” but this is part of the reason why the discussion on diversity is so important.

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