The former chief of publications at The Smithsonian Institution Paul Oehser once joked that “You’ve never experienced wilderness until you’ve driven through Iowa on Interstate 70 in a heavy rainstorm!” His quip reveals one of many connotations of the inextricably entwined words wilderness and wildness.
Paul Oehser’s use of wilderness to evoke chaos harks back to Europe when urban areas began to be seen as a high earthly expression of order. By contrast, wilderness was unordered landscape outside the pale of humankind. Watch TV news today however, and our modern unordered wilds seem to be big cities. Their seeming disorder makes the wilds of the Adirondacks places of cooperation and restoration.
My father Howard Zahniser summed up lexical talk about wilderness with a carefully mixed metaphor: “Wilderness is where the hand of man has never set foot.” Or Zahnie, as he was known, might say “Wilderness is like virginity. It is defined by what you don’t do.”
Zahnie once explained wilderness for a group of dam proponents, including New York State legislators and Conservation Department officials, in just those terms. The Black River Regulating District Board had called a meeting on the Panther Mountain Dam proposal, which threatened to obliterate much lowland wilderness, important wintering grounds for deer.
Just before Zahnie’s remarks, Adirondack guide and conservationist Ed Richards presented petitions with 200,000 signatures against the dam. The law didn’t require the Regulating District Board to consider public sentiment however, and they did not. Such was the case for wilderness issues in the early 1950s. Still, Panther Mountain Dam was soon defeated by a vote of the people.
Today New York State boasts more officially designated wilderness acreage than designated federal wilderness. That fact has a rich history. New York did not use the term “wilderness” for eighty years, but the Empire State beat the feds to the punch by keeping state lands “forever wild” starting in the late 1800s. What’s more, these lands were to be preserved in perpetuity under the state constitution, not by administrative whim of state conservation officials. This would be the central intent of the federal Wilderness Act of 1964: wild by law not by administrative whim.
Zahnie was the primary author of and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. He also played a strong role in the wilderness battles for the integrity of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve lands in the 1940s and 1950s. In his book Cabin Country Paul Schaefer wrote that “Zahniser added national pressure through the Wilderness Society and other national groups.
In the thick of the fray in 1948, Schaefer wrote that “Zahniser and his Society have left no stone unturned that might aid New Yorkers in maintaining their Forest Preserve inviolate.” Zahnie brought eight national conservation groups to those Adirondack wilderness controversies and in 1972, through the State Land Master Plan (now being revised by its administrators), New York created its own wilderness system, adopting the definition of wilderness Zahnie wrote for the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Zahnie shepherded the federal wilderness legislation through sixty-six revisions and nineteen public hearings over the eight-year push for the law. He worked on more than a few of those drafts at his desk in a cabin in Johnsburg at the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.
Zahnie and Paul Schaefer first met in early 1946 in the wilderness canyons of New York City, at the Hotel Pennsylvania. Seven months earlier Zahnie had left his secure federal government employment to become executive secretary and editor of the fledgling Wilderness Society. The Society had been formed in 1935 through the aegis of Robert Marshall, whose wilderness eye-teeth were cut in the Adirondacks. Zahnie was a charter member.
Marshall was a forestry scientist, author, explorer of Alaska’s Brooks Range, and federal forestry bureaucrat. John Muir founded The Sierra Club, and his name is synonymous with Sierra Nevada wildlands, but Bob Marshall has come to personify American wilderness preservation. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana is now affectionately known as “the Bob.”
Too often overlooked is that Bob Marshall was a second-generation wilderness advocate. His father, eminent jurist Louis Marshall of New York City, was a member of the 1915 New York State Constitutional Convention who led the floor fight to defend the state’s forest preserve lands created by the 1894 provision known as the “forever wild” clause, now Article XIV, Section 1:
“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
Wilderness is in fact, as Zahnie joked, defined by what you don’t do. Unfortunately, a concerted constituency ever lurks, ever eager to do those things to and with wilderness that make it cease to be wilderness. As the late great wilderness champion David Brower asserted: “When they win, it’s forever. When we win, it’s merely a stay of execution.”
When Adirondack wilderness areas were designated in the 1970s, the impetus was to protect some land from activities that would diminish their truly wild nature. It turns out that what we were really protecting was an entire regime of processes, parts of which we still haven’t identified and most we still don’t understand. The -ness of wilderness was not a thing but rather ways of working and interrelating. Wilderness statutes, state and federal, are the statutes that specifically intend to protect the ability of wild lands to proceed by their own inherent dictates.
This requires constant advocacy by citizens however, as recent plans by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency to motorize and mechanize the Essex Chain Lakes starkly reveal. The recently announced DEC and APA plans would usurp the State Legislature’s prerogative by changing the law without legislative action.
These plans will also obliterate a wilderness future for 40 designated primitive areas that current law specifically protects in anticipation of their wilderness futures.
Once again, administrators are bent on wrestling wilderness away from its protection by law. In the process they also threaten the legal framework that protects the Adirondack Park Forest Preserve itself.
Photo of Adirondack Wilderness by John Warren.