Sunday, January 17, 2016

Adirondack Wilderness: Wild By Law, Not Administrative Whim

Wilderness around Fulton Chain from Castle Rock above Blue Mountain LakeThe 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.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

26 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Very informative!

  2. Phil Terrie says:

    Nice article! (I-70 doesn’t go through Iowa.)

  3. Keith Gorgas says:

    Very informative and rational article. Thank you. Now, I’d like to play devil’s advocate, and at least provide some opposing prospective. Believe me when I say that I cherish wilderness, and believe in wilderness for its own sake. All New Yorkers are stakeholders in the Adirondacks. At the formation of the Park, a much smaller amount of land was in State hands. Over the passage of time, more and more land is bought up, using money that comes from all of us, and several things happen with that land. Besides the initial purchase, usually in the millions, we are all obligated to make payments in lieu of taxes forever on that land. And that land is taken from productive human use, forever. The recreational opportunities afforded by private ownership are restricted, to the point of elimination.
    Each purchase is accompanied by speeches by officials about the land being added for the use of all NYers, when in truth, under State ownership recreational use diminishes. Access becomes harder, overnight lodging is subtracted. Now the State has taken ownership of half the land in the park. Each purchase is a blow to the local economies, and 21 million people are forced into further ownership and financial responsibility for something that they can enjoy less and less.

    There is a backlash to that. Idealistic preservation of wilderness, devoid of human use or benefit, may appeal to some of us, but at somepoint, if unmitigated, the whole concept will crash and burn. In urban areas, people a smashed together like rats, living on top of each other, fighting for every square inch of space. Throughout the history of humans, that’s the breeding ground of revolution.

    So we are seeing, I think, a sense on the part of the DEC and the APA that New Yorkers want something in return for their investment in the Adirondacks, and if the State keeps just hoarding land and putting it off limits to most NYers, something is going to crack. The Master Plan is not perfect. Perhaps there are new classifications that have to be developed that will essentially maintain a wilderness character, while allowing public access and use.

    • Boreas says:

      While I agree the classification system needs re-evaluation, I disagree that the transfer from private to state ownership results in a net loss of use. Typically the lands that are purchased (with the help of various land trusts) are pockets of timberlands often surrounded by state lands. They are typically posted and do not allow public when in private hands, other than sometimes by leases. Once acquired by the state, even Wilderness classification allows hunting, fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, back-country skiing, paddling, camping, etc., to everyone who enjoys those activities. It does not allow the taking of timber or manipulation of the landscape. It does encourage timber regrowth, adding to our CO2 sink.

      While it may not be productive in a timber or a mining sense, larger, unbroken stands of mature forest does have an ecological benefit that is more difficult to quantify financially. When the state acquires a parcel, it is not encased in glass with a fence around it, but simply allowed to revert to a more natural state. It will be centuries before the clearcutting by European settlers is even partially undone and virgin forests remain.

    • AG says:

      Except this is not 200 years ago. More and more every single day – the population of the earth is moving into cities because we have destroyed so much of the earth. Living in cities is now the most effective way to function in the modern world. It is also important to let a lot of the earth revert back to a state where it does not face the direct pressure of human activity.

  4. Byron says:

    “Wilderness is where the hand of man has never set foot.”
    I guess that leaves the Essex Chain, Boreas and other primitive areas ribboned with roads out.

  5. Bruce says:

    Everyone makes good points. The part I’m having trouble with is the idea that every acre of recent state acquired forest lands should be classified Wilderness, as espoused by several groups. NY currently owns more forested Wilderness than ever before, probably with more on the horizon. Making a portion of these lands available for recreation beyond foot traffic can be a sound economic move for local communities.

    It’s not a coincidence that the groups pushing the hardest for Wilderness happen to be the same groups who know they will not only be able to use the land, there’s a good chance they can get the state to modify the land to facilitate that use. This raises the question, when is wilderness is really wilderness?

    • mike says:

      Yes, the definition of wilderness is what causes the messiness. Harvested, roaded, land with dams and so on isn’t wilderness by any normal definition, but using legal definitions of the term we call it that. Heavily used areas with trails all over the place and various developed camping options…..we call these wilderness too. So it depends who you are, what your perspective is.

      My opinion is that the entire classification system is broken and should be replaced, perhaps visionary in the 1970s, now it is old and needs rethinking. The problem is that our various advocacy groups don’t even trust each other, or anyone else, so it is impossible to see how this changes and moves forward. We’ll see minor tweaks but that is all. They are way more comfortable suing over obscure legal definitions than thinking creatively about how this could work better for everyone (they’re dominated by lawyers). Also, DEC and the APA have decades invested in working with current classifications so they would push back on starting over – it would be an unimaginable amount of work for them.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    While I liked the article, I do agree with Gorgas and Byron, and would like to add that I doubt very many people have ever walked the land by hand.
    Foot is the usual method of walking the land.
    Which brings me to a point I am tired of making.
    No matter how the land is classified, if you are on a trail, you are not on wilderness land. You are on Wild Forest and going through either Wilderness or Wild Forest.
    If you go off trail, you are in Wilderness even if it is classified as Wild Forest.

  7. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Great and informative article as always, but I would be hesitant to call legally designated wilderness areas “virginal.”

    Yes, in ideal scenarios, the early wilderness advocates were working to preserve special places from logging and road-building, where those activities had never occurred before. They were essentially countering the notion of “manifest destiny,” which assumed that every resource was meant by God to be utilized by man, and that every acre of land was meant to be cultivated. The original administrative wilderness and primitive areas of the 1920s and 1930s (all of them in the western states) were places that were still “virginal,” and the designations were intended to keep them that way.

    But beyond that, protecting untouched lands has never been the primary focus of the wilderness movement. The areas that Bob Marshall proposed for designation, including all three in the Adirondacks, had already been logged, burned, and/or crossed by railroads by the time he came to know those areas. Instead, he envisioned wilderness protection as a way of reversing past human activities: by halting the logging and closing the roads through a wilderness designation, natural conditions would be restored over time. Marshall made a key distinction between what he called “primeval areas” and “wilderness areas.” The former referred to places that had not been touched or altered by human activities, such as a grove of old growth trees. The latter was defined by Marshall in recreational terms: places where modern forms of transportation (read: motors and gears) were banned in favor of primitive methods, such as skis, horses, canoes, and of course hiking. To see what I mean, read his book “The People’s Forest,” the one place where he provided his wilderness vision in the context of an array of public land management options.

    Another key example is the history of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Like the Adirondacks, this island was privately owned and needed to be purchased before becoming a public park. The goal for creating the park was to preserve the island as wilderness. However, it had already been mined for copper, and a logging company was poised to log much of the forest. If the government bought the forest before the logging occurred, thus preserving the native forest in its “virginal” state, there would only be enough funds to acquire half the island. But forest quality was a secondary concern for the advocates of a wilderness park, who from what I have read were content to wait until the logging was finished. With the property value thus reduced, the government was able to acquire the entire island and create the larger wilderness area.

    A similar tactic was employed for land acquisition in the Adirondacks. In the 1890s, when the state went on an Adirondack land buying spree, unlogged forests cost $7.00 an acre, compared to the going rate of $1.50 per acre for lands that had been logged. The state found it was much more effective to acquire land for the Forest Preserve at the lower rate, so it rarely pursued the virginal tracts (although a few lots were acquired here and there). Remember, the original purpose of the Forest Preserve was to preserve watersheds, not necessarily forest quality; the constitutional ban on logging was widely viewed as a temporary measure. The concept of maintain the preserve as a form of institutional wilderness did not become mainstream until after WWI, when the state first started targeting land acquisitions based on recreational needs, not just availability. This was when the bulk of the High Peaks were acquired, for instance.

    So while I agree with the overall message that the concept of wilderness must be defended against all threats, and that APA’s proposed SLMP amendments constitute one of those threats, it pays to be clear what it is we’re talking about: wilderness is a modern legal concept that is often proscriptive in nature, not descriptive. The SLMP guidelines–perhaps even more so than the 1964 Wilderness Act–outline a set of required actions for reaching a desired outcome. Forty years ago a significant number of “non-conforming” uses needed to be removed to create the original Adirondack wilderness areas, and the state at the time had the political wherewithal to take those actions. Today, not so much.

    So the key threat to Adirondack wilderness in 2016 as I see it is the failure to keep political influence out of the state land management process. The SLMP was written to provide clear, apolitical guidelines for how public land should be designated and managed. However, the SLMP is administrated by civil servants whose paychecks come from Albany, and naturally they are inclined to keep those paychecks coming. So if a certain “progressive” governor is insisting on a certain outcome, those civil servants will do what is necessary to remain employed.

    Undue weight is being given to so-called “stakeholders” in the state land management process. You might think that “stakeholders” are the people who will be directly affected by these management decisions, such as the users who actually intend to recreate on these lands. Instead, “stakeholder” has come to mean local politicians whose interests in the Forest Preserve tend to be far more theoretical than we are generally led to believe. They envision mountain bike tourism a la Vermont, or hut-to-hut tourism a la Europe, without actually understanding any of it. No evidence has been provided to suggest that mountain bikers are interested in the Essex Chain, so all that remains is the wishful thinking on the part of a few town supervisors. So when we talk about “stakeholders,” the wrong people were invited to sit at the table. Too many talking points have been introduced, the conversation was become a muddled confusion, and what should have been a simple administrative action has degenerated into a goat rodeo.

    Finally, the wilderness advocacy community is divided. There are four organizations that nominally play the role of wilderness advocates in the Adirondacks, and they all have differing visions of what should happen. All seem to agree that APA and DEC are swimming into deep waters, but none have been able to make an effective case for wilderness. They were all a little too satisfied to get a wilderness designation for the Hudson Gorge, but that only happened because that was the least controversial part of the property. If they stood on their ideals a little more fervently, it would be interesting to see the results.

    I go to the Adirondacks week after week specifically because of the quality of its wilderness. I don’t go to the Finger Lakes, or the Catskills, or to Vermont, because none of those places offer what I’m looking for: wide-open spaces that can only be explored through some amount of physical effort, where you can travel for miles without encountering motors and gears. Such experiences are worth fighting for, because great things can be lost through apathy.

    • Boreas says:


      Thank you for the very illuminating and thoughtful comment. It seems to explain the melee quite well.

    • Hope says:

      I ride a mountain bike on dirt roads not single track. I have no interest in single track bike trails but relish the opportunities to ride old logging roads. Rail trails and the like. There are a lot like me. Let’s call us recreational bicyclists. Average folks who like to go on a bike ride without riding in traffic. There are more of “us” than “mountain bikers and road bikers” and we would like a place to ride. Is it just too much to ask that some existing logging roads remain available to the biking public? I don’t think so.

      • Smitty says:

        Thanks for making that point. I’m really at a loss to see what the big fuss is about allowing bikes on old logging or access roads. Mechanized use is a far cry from motorized.

      • Paul says:

        More of us that mt bikers or road bikers? Really?

        There are tons of opportunities for bikers to ride old dirt roads – for example on the Santa Clara Easement tracts. You know how many bikes I have seen on those roads since they opened to the public – zero.

        • Hope says:

          Yeah and I’ve skied and hiked into Raquette Falls and not seen a soul as well. Doesn’t mean no one else goes there.

          • Paul says:

            I think it is fine to open the roads just question how much use it will actually get. The essex chain given where it is and where you can ride to could attract more riders. This area has had about 20miles of dirt roads open to riders this summer. Is there any news on how popular it was for bikers?

    • Greg M. says:

      Thanks Bill…I know you love wilderness, but also are willing to admit the Adirondacks were not conceived or enacted for the purpose of wilderness. Too often here on the Almanack it’s mentioned that this was/is the purpose of the Adirondacks, when in fact the primary goal was to protect the Erie Canal and other down-stream waterways. I think we can all agree that all classifications safeguard more than adequately for this purpose.

      I do disagree that the SLMP as originally written should be revered as bible though. By the same logic, the high peaks should not have been purchased based on its recreational benefits, as other parcels would have likely provided higher waterway benefits.

      Things change…the post war eras might have been around wilderness, but perhaps the post 2000 era will be about access. While I know not everyone here likes it, there is another large constituency that disagrees, hence the movement of the APA/DEC. It’s a different park today as it will be in 50 years.

      Personally I feel not balancing wilderness designations with wild forest designations equally will prevent future land purchases and ultimately stunt the Adirondacks, both wild forest and wilderness, through lack of public support.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      Yes Bill! Thank you!

    • scott says:

      Wow Bill, here are two of your points that blow me away.

      “So the key threat to Adirondack wilderness in 2016 as I see it is the failure to keep political influence out of the state land management process.”

      Really?! It’s essence is political. Art 14 is a political structure. The existence of the Park depends upon the politics of it. The SLMP can be changed by the signature of the governor, no legislative approval needed. A governor is, by definition, a political beast. If you cannot understand the Park as a political construct, then you are destined to watch it’s demise one day as voters change.

      Then there is this one: “…“stakeholder” has come to mean local politicians whose interests in the Forest Preserve tend to be far more theoretical than we are generally led to believe…” And you go on to basically declare local politicians stupid people, the wrong people to have ‘at the table’ and so on.

      Phew, Bill, declaring people whom you should want to make your ally stupid generally does not lead to good outcomes. If I was supervisor of a Town that was, for example, more than half state owned, I sure would expect a seat at the table. To be summarily dismissed from participation for being too ‘stupid’ would not make me feel warmly toward a word you have to say.

      The only person you want at the table is yourself. Perhaps including a few people commenting here who love your post. You don’t trust anyone else.

      Here is the news. The Park is only a political construct. It depends upon the support of the many, not just a handful of advocacy groups. Many people are impacted by it, not just lonely hikers. And they all should be part of shaping it, not just you or any other single group. Many people pay for it. The public owns it. Its very definition is political. If you don’t understand that simple idea, then you have no useful role at any table.

      Bill, you know lots about the place, but you are naive about how to sustain it in a political sense, which is the only thing that will sustain it in the long run.

      • Paul says:

        The Forest Preserve is larger now than it was at it’s inception. It is continuing to grow. This notion that it is somehow at risk is just a fabrication by some environmental groups who are using these things to fill their coffers.

        • Bruce says:


          I agree. A favorite tactic is to say that we’re losing wilderness or that wilderness is in jeopardy if any part of a newly acquired, many thousands of acres tract is not classified as wilderness or primitive, knowing a statement like that is not supported by the facts. It creates the idea that there is cause for alarm in the minds of those who depend on these organizations to tell them what is what.

          Remember the recent flap over proposed new multi-use trails in the St. Lawrence flatlands? Virtually all of that land is State Forest, managed for entirely different uses, including logging.

      • Boreas says:


        Mr. Ingersoll, quite rightly, didn’t use the word ‘stupid’, as it is obviously inflammatory. I don’t think you should have used it either for the same reason.

  8. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Wow…the above comments regarding the need for more and more access are gratifying to say the least. On numerous occasions I’ve expressed that and been chastised by the wilderness advocates. It is all too true that acquiring more land that the majority of us outdoor lovers will never be able to see because of limited access is ridiculous.

    We have quite enough of the Adirondack Park designated as wilderness. It’s time to open up more of the Forest Preserve to everyone!

  9. Todd Eastman says:

    “Wilderness” in the East fixes the ravages of the timber and mining industries. The services provided by Wilderness is not merely about recreation but about providing the highest level of protection for natural functions.

    Wilderness is restoration.

  10. Bruce says:


    As I understand it, there’s wilderness…meaning largely untouched by man. There’s also “wilderness” with man-made amenities such as trails, bridges, boardwalks, campsites and lean-tos. Which school do you belong to?