Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How The Adirondack Forest Preserve Was Motorized

06_10_004557The establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885 was part of growing American appreciation of a back to nature ethic. By the time of World War I, according to historian Paul Sutter: “Americans produced and consumed voluminous literature on natural and wild themes; they built vacation homes and camps; they initiated a wide variety of programs in scouting and woodcraft; they developed a distinctive hunting culture and ethos; they adopted nature study as a prominent hobby; and the embraced the ‘strenuous life’ that could be found only in the ‘great outdoors.’”

Inadvertently, this interest in wild places laid the groundwork for a future flood of visitors to New York State’s “forever wild” lands and the spread of roads and motorized snowmobile trails throughout the Adirondack Park.  For example, in a measure of the influence of the automobile alone in years since World War II, there are today more than 5,000 miles of roads in the Adirondack Park, and nearly everywhere in the Forest Preserve is within three miles of a public road. Indeed, the most remote place in the Adirondack Park, the largest park in the contagious United States, is about five miles from a public road.

The flood began as a trickle. At the turn of the century just getting to the great outdoors was a challenge for most Americans. In 1900 there were only about 8,000 automobiles registered in the United States and despite an abiding interest in wild places, most people had neither the money nor the leisure time to travel into the woods in motorized transport. By 1929 however, there were 23 million automobiles owned by one in five Americans.

This new interest in motoring was accompanied by a boom in motor camping. There were about five million auto-campers in the early 1920s and more than three times that many by the end of the decade. It’s estimated that before the Great Depression 10 to 15 percent of Americans were auto-campers.

In the Adirondacks in the 1920s, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and skiing all became popular as more New Yorkers were able to drive into the mountains. In 1918, 2,760 Forest Preserve campers were registered, but by 1923 some 1,500 people were counted on a single day at the state-owned Sacandaga River campground in Northville. That same year two Forest Rangers were provided with motorcycles to patrol among all these new visitors. By the mid-1930s the state’s 14 Adirondack campgrounds were hosting 50,000 campers, all they could hold.

So many more visitors necessitated additional facilities to house them, and the state aggressively built tourist facilities on Forest Preserve land. Even before 26 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established in the Adirondacks in the 1930s, an earlier state program put 10,000 men to work in state forests and parks building and improving camping facilities, motor-campgrounds, bridges and roads. The use of Forest Preserve land for these facilities laid the groundwork for the enormous network of public outdoors recreation facilities in the Adirondacks today.

Among the most controversial of these improvements were the truck trails. The CCC “fire roads” built in the 1930s were built to federal standards: 10 feet wide with 2-foot shoulders; 8-10 inches of crushed stone was covered with 4 inches of fine gravel. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Mountain Club, and others opposed these new roads into the Preserve, but an Attorney General’s opinion in 1933 concluded that the Conservation Department (forerunner of today’s DEC) had the authority to build fire roads to protect the Preserve from fire. The Department did not however, the Attorney General found, have the authority to open these fire roads to motorized use by the public and instead, should do all it could to keep motor vehicles out. Road building began again and by the end of 1936, some 60 miles of new roads had been built on “forever wild” Forest Preserve land.

After World War II, four-wheel drive vehicles (especially Jeeps and later Doodle-Bugs) and then off-road motorcycles (especially Tote-Goats) began to be a more common occurrence on Forest Preserve land. These vehicles were driven on old logging roads, administrative state truck trails, and roads that lumber companies built across Forest Preserve lands in order to log their holdings. Historian Eleanor Brown noted that after the war the Forest Preserve “suddenly lost its natural defense, that of distance that could be traversed only by foot or by guideboat or canoe. Its interior reaches were at the mercy of the motor.”

As the Department of Conservation is today, it’s predecessor, the Conservation Department, was lax in enforcing what rules there were regarding motor vehicles in the Forest Preserve and often actively encouraged the motorization of the Adirondack backcountry. Commissioner Harold G. Wilm (1959-1966) for example, believed that jeeps, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles should be used to access the remote Forest Preserve lands in order to relieve hunting pressure near roadways.

Earlier, in the 1950s the New York State Conservation Department presented a zoning plan for the protection of four “preservation zones” comprised of land along roadways, on summits, fronting some lakes, and other special areas. In all, just 30% of the Forest Preserve would have been restricted from motor vehicle use. This lopsided approach was opposed by the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (now Protect the Adirondacks) and a counter plan was offered for a 14-member study commission with seven places held by conservation and sportsmen’s groups. Conservation Department Commissioner Perry Duryea (1945-1954), said the plan was “stacked against” the Department and suggested that the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources conduct a study, to which they agreed.

The Joint Committee had been established in 1951 to survey and study conservation, preservation, and use of the state’s natural resources. In 1959, after several years of reviewing evidence about the various incursions in the Forest Preserve, especially motor vehicles, the Joint Committee introduced what became known as the “Wilderness Bill.” One aim of the bill, according to Committee Chairman Assemblyman R. Watson Pomeroy, was “to grant clear authority to the Conservation Department to regulate, or, where necessary, to prohibit the use of boats or aircraft, in the more remote areas of the Forest Preserve.”

The Wilderness Bill would have placed tight restrictions on motor vehicles in 12 designated wilderness areas, containing more than 150 miles of state truck trails. Pomeroy also suggested that future bills would introduce “wild areas” for particularly spectacular locations, and more intensive recreation areas closer to roads. The legislation, Pomeroy said, was necessary because the “use of jeeps, motor boats and planes as a means of access to the Forest Preserve could not have been foreseen in 1894 when the constitutional protection was adopted.” There was little mention of snowmobiles, because there were so few that they were inconsequential when the bill was introduced in 1961.

Conservation groups responded by arguing that the bill provided too much latitude to the Conservation Department to reduce the wilderness boundaries, which it was charged to set. The primary objections of motor vehicle advocates were raised during one of the public hearings for the bill, held in Saranac Lake in August. The main complaint there was that the bill was too ambiguous and might lead to the “curtailment of travel in areas already extensively used by area residents.” Others, interested in opening the Forest Preserve to more recreational facilities such as ski resorts, said the bill would “make the Forest Preserve fit only for early Indians.”

Following criticism at the public hearings, the Joint Committee withdrew the bill and offered two alternatives in its place. One shortened and revised the original to make it less restrictive; the other reinforced the Conservation Department’s power to regulate motor vehicles on the Forest Preserve. Shortly thereafter the Attorney General issued an opinion that the Conservation Department already had all the authority it needed to regulate motor vehicles in the Forest Preserve, and the Joint Committee withdrew both proposals.

In the place of the Joint Committee, newly empowered Conservation Commissioner Wilm did essentially nothing by directing the Department to study the issue. In general, Commissioner Wilm was not friendly to wilderness conservation efforts. He supported opening 15% of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve to logging and in 1959 spoke publicly in favor of the Adirondack Northway taking Forest Preserve lands. Later, he attempted to create a new category for lands the state purchased with bond money in order to have them excluded from Forest Preserve protections (in a similar fashion the state buys easements today, rather than the lands themselves, thus avoiding the constitutional protections of the Forest Preserve).

Wilm’s ideas for motorizing and logging the Adirondack Forest Preserve were generally popular among Adirondack sportsmen, who energetically disparaged the politicians of the legislature from downstate, while doing their best to remain friendly with the Conservation Department and their own elected officials. In the end, it was only following additional pressure from the Joint Committee in early 1963 that Commission Wilm was moved to act on the incursion of motor vehicles in the Forest Preserve. The Committee said that the Department should “take such action as may be necessary to regulate or, if necessary, prohibit the use of motorized equipment wherever the wilderness character of the Forest Preserve is threatened thereby.”

Under the threat that the Legislature would act if he did not, on July 11, 1963 Wilm issued a directive which opened hundreds of miles of “truck trails” for public use with motorized equipment, while closing 76 other roads and banning the use of motorized equipment on hiking trails and overland in the Forest Preserve. When this directive was reported in the August-September issue of Conservationist, it was interpreted by local newspapers as an almost complete ban.

What Commissioner Wilm, the Department, and the Joint Committee had not foreseen was that in the time between the Attorney General’s decision in 1961, and Wilm’s action in the summer of 1963, a new class of motor vehicles had arrived in the Adirondacks – snowmobiles. When the issue of Conservationist reached the mailboxes of new snowmobile enthusiasts, a meeting was organized at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club to fight the “ban” on snowmobiles.

It was this organization, known as the Saranac Lake Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol – among the nation’s first snowmobile clubs – which aggressively lobbied the Conservation Department to eventually secure the use of “forever wild” lands for snowmobiles.

In doing so, they greatly expanded the motorized use of the Adirondack backcountry, and secured for themselves the unique privilege of driving off-road and directly into the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

9 Responses

  1. John,
    This is a wonderful piece of research and writing! I’ve been trying to figure out how the activities of my great uncle, John Apperson, fit into the larger picture. He was adamantly opposed to the truck trails, feeling that the state officials would not be able to prevent abuses later on. I guess his efforts were a bit like putting a finger into the dyke, so to speak, but it is important to know about the battles he and others waged to protect “forever wild.” Thanks for your valuable contribution!

  2. Bill Joplin Bill Joplin says:

    One of the champions of motorizing the Adirondacks in the early 1960s was Robert Moses, the powerful NYC-area “master builder,” who wanted to bring more people up from the cities for family recreation. In a speech to the Adirondack Park Association in June 1961 (read in his absence), he lambasted the Wilderness Bill as an attempt to restrict the enjoyment of the Adirondack outdoors merely for “imitation Indians and amateur mountaineers.” Evidently one way Moses would have liked to have accomplished this was a highway through Indian Pass.

  3. Bill Joplin Bill Joplin says:

    In my earlier response, John, I should first have said what an important article you have given us.

  4. Paul says:

    Interesting article.

    I come across so many roads that have been closed as lands have been added to the FP that it seems like we had more roads in the Adirondacks in the past not fewer. The now closed truck trails are a good example. Many places you hike you see old culverts indicating old roads etc. The old Averyville road near Pine Pond (story on the Explorer linked to here). The road (trail) to Moose pond. The road (trail) near Connery pond outside LP. I have read here about hundreds of miles of older roads that could have been re-opened after decisions like “old mountain” regarding the closure of that road. Many miles of roads being closed as a result of the Finch deals. Is the premise here, that roads are more abundant than in the past and the Adirondacks being more “motorized”, correct? We have also read about the decline in snowmobile use here also.

  5. Tony Goodwin Tony Goodwin says:

    As Ellen Brown and Bill Joplin noted, this is a good bit of research on motorized use of the Forest Preserve. While one person’s “balance” is either another’s “ban” or another’s “overuse”, I do think we have arrived at a reasonable balance that has settled the issue of motorized use in the vast majority of the Adirondacks. There will always be some “skirmishes” around the edges as new state acquisitions are classified or UMPs written. The broad outlines, however, of no motorized (or even bicycle) use in designated wilderness while allowing snowmobile (but no ATV) use in wild forest areas seem to have been generally accepted. Actual enforcement does vary somewhat from one district to another, but it does seem that the DEC responds positively to most citizen complaints of illegal motorized use.

    Regarding the increase in the use of cars to access the woods in the 1920s, it’s worth noting that the two ends of the Northville-Placid Trail were chosen because as of 1924 there was passenger rail service to both towns – service that no one suspected would ever end given the primitive state of both roads and vehicles in the early 20s.

  6. Bruce says:

    Excellent article, John.

    While researching material for a book, I came across an interesting website, which has historical topo maps of the entire Adirondack region and more, housed in the library at the University of New Hampshire. These maps, being government documents are free to look up, print, and use. Getting into them entails selecting a township, or town in the area of interest from the list. Many go back to the 1890’s, early 1900’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. Some of the later maps are also in color, similar to today’s topos.


    You will see roads now closed or turned into trails (the Brown’s Tract Road being one such example), empty places where modern roads now exist, such as Rte. 28, old rail lines, etc. Somewhere, I found a legend for old map symbols, showing road and trail types, although many of these symbols haven’t really changed up to today (I’m not sure if that was on this website, or elsewhere).

    It was fun seeing maps of Syracuse, NY (my hometown) from the 1890’s, showing “salt sheds” practically everywhere around Onondaga Lake, which represented Syracuse’s salt making industry of the period. These maps also show the old “Solvay Process” plant used to produce soda ash for New York’s famous glass making industry. A process which made Onondaga Lake virtually unusable for recreation or water.

    • Paul says:

      Bruce, thanks, this is a great link. It is amazing all the RRs in the Adirondacks that are now gone and quite a few towns as well.

  7. Lorraine Duvall Lorraine Duvall says:

    Thanks for this historical perspective on Motors, specifically motorized vehicles on our waters, my interest. As quoted in your article about proposed legislation in the 1960s, it “was necessary because the ‘use of jeeps, motor boats and planes as a means of access to the Forest Preserve could not have been foreseen in 1894 when the constitutional protection was adopted.”‘ In the sixties we could not have foreseen the power of the motor boats we now have, and the existence of jet skis.

    • Paul says:

      I am with you on jet skis. Can’t stand them. But I guess one persons poison is another’s pleasure.

      Given all the big noisy (wave making) power boast that cruised the Adirondack lakes in the 40s and 50s I think anyone in the 60s could have easily foreseen the boats we have today. In fact the newer 4 cycle engines are much quieter and cleaner than what we had in the past. Still see a lot of two cycles around (and even the old runabouts (Chris Craft etc.) are still out there) but slowly we are seeing them phased out as the 4 cycle engines take over. This is a positive thing for water quality.

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