Thursday, April 20, 2017

David Gibson: A World Class Park And The North Hudson Gateway

How many times can we use the phrase “world class” and have it mean much?

Governor Cuomo has used that term to describe the $32 million Gateway to the Adirondacks around Northway Exit 29 in North Hudson. This “world class recreational experience will be realized through the establishment of state, local and private partnerships,” said the Governor’s State of the State report. “Transforming this site into an attractive destination will link local and regional resources and provide year round recreation opportunities and services for multiple uses, users and businesses… Drawing  visitors to North Hudson to connect with premier opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling and boating. This, coupled with commercial business development, will revitalize communities and help transform this region.”

I join others in certainly wishing this Gateway project well. But in a sense every I-87 Northway exit is a kind of gateway for visitors and residents who seek what the Adirondack Park has to offer – not just recreation but re-creation of ourselves in some cases, not just adventure but transformative experience in some cases, not just an automotive gateway but a gateway to the mind, the emotions and the senses that highly contrasts with our response to populous, pressure packed, polluted places and imagery not far away. When you drive into the Park you immediately realize this is not anyplace USA. That’s not an accident but a result of policies to protect the Park.

One reaction to the “world class” Gateway to the Adirondacks at Exit 29 is to say that this is one Park and one world class Adirondack Northway and gateway, not 35 gateways at 35 exits. This is one Park benefiting from a whole larger than the sum of its parts, the power of which Adirondack tourism, environmental and community interests rallied around during the Park Centennial of 1992. That Park Centennial was a remarkable coming together for a fractured Park and its many stakeholders and standard bearers. Its committee leader Barbara McMartin deserves a lot of the credit for that. I would say the Park Centennial/one Park effect has endured to some degree, but bears constant reinforcement and strengthening. In this effort, the State’s administration continues to, unhelpfully, divide the Park into two DEC regions, 3 DOT regions, and 3 Regional Economic Councils.

Governors Harriman and Rockefeller governed during the intense debate about the constitutional amendment and route that required 300-acres of Forest Preserve to be used for  constructing the Adirondack Northway.  This debate over its route was often acrimonious and badly divided conservationists of that day. I drive the Adirondack Northway today and remind myself today what an incredible feat it was, what a truly world class highway it is, and how lucky we are to have the Adirondacks present so spectacularly beyond our wind screens between and beyond each Northway exit. This was the widespread opinion as the Northway opened, being designated America’s Most Scenic Highway in 1967.

But designation is not protection. To protect the Northway’s scenic values each Northway exit between Lake George and Keeseville – nearly 300 acres in all – were protected and remain protected from over-development by a scenic easement. This was considered groundbreaking at the time. Without these early scenic easements, writes the former DEC director of Lands and Forests Norm Van Valkenburgh, “most of the interchanges of the Northway…would probably be cluttered by garages and fast-food  establishments today” (from Van Valkenburgh’s Land Acquisition for New  York State: An Historical Perspective, 1985 by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development).

So, the proposed Gateway at Exit 29 has a scenic easement ensuring and contributing to the future attractiveness of the exit and the vision held by the Governor, North Hudson and Essex County.

Not long after the Northway was opened, the Adirondack Highway Council was formed in 1974 to study highways throughout the Park and with federal-state and local support attempt to bring them up to National Park standards in the way of visitor facilities, signage, scenic stops or overlooks, and all manner of green engineering. Today, the Highway Council is long gone, but the struggle to maintain high standards and coordinate to have the Park’s highway infrastructure compatible and integrated with the Park’s natural infrastructure is ongoing and never-ending. Such efforts are worthy of a world class Park and deserve the full support of the Governor and his DOT.

The rest of the world recognized world class-ness in the Adirondacks by designating its entire Forest Preserve as a National Landmark in 1964, and by naming the Adirondack-Champlain International Biosphere Reserve in 1989. This prestigious designation of the Park required formal endorsements from Governors Mario Cuomo (NY), Madeline Kunin (VT) and the Province of Quebec.  The 1989 designation by an arm of the United Nations (UNESCO) was honorific in the sense that it imposed  no outside regulation or enforcement, but was supportive of ongoing and new scientific investment and study of the Park’s core wilderness coexisting with 102 human communities. Just a single Park conference in the early 90s (at Silver Bay) was devoted to this International Biosphere designation. After that, the designation has been almost entirely forgotten, and that’s a big missed opportunity. Governor Andrew Cuomo could follow his father’s lead, reinvigorate the Biosphere Reserve potential that such a designation still affords, and thereby advance the entire Park scientifically, culturally and environmentally.

Under Governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, State agencies worked with the private sector to study other parts of the country and the world about implementing “gateways” that would benefit heritage tourism as one entered all of the Park’s towns and villages. Though chronically underfunded, many small but locally important projects were implemented as a result, yet another example of the “whole Park effect” and the sum being greater than the parts. The two visitor interpretive centers at Newcomb and Paul Smith’s were one result of these efforts.

Not far from the proposed Gateway at Exit 29 lie the Boreas Ponds and other great tracts of Forest Preserve. These are, also, world class forest, lake, river, swamp and scenic, wild environments worthy of addition to the High Peaks and Dix Wildernesses, already the largest in the northeast.

Yet, the Governor’s State of the State says he wants to construct infrastructure at Boreas Ponds for Hut to Hut glamour camping which, to the mind of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, would (if located on Forest Preserve) violate the NYS Constitution, the State Land Master Plan and DEC statutes. We should be mindful that world class conditions of wildness here and across the entire Park requires the enforcement of NY’s unique constitutional and other legal safeguards to endure for future generations.

I conclude that designating Exit 29 as a world class Gateway is trivial compared with the world class Park in which it is already situated. If we bear that in mind and continue to study, promote and protect the whole Park, the project just might succeed.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

15 Responses

  1. Ed Orr says:

    Thank you Mr. Gibson for your reasoned opinion to the Adirondack Gateway. I concur that the better solution is to designate the park as one region, one DEC, one DOT, and most importantly One Regional Economic Development Council.

  2. Chris Woods says:

    Good article. I agree.

  3. Balian the Cat says:

    I feel like we live in a world of all splash / no substance. Everything needs to be New and Huge and better than sliced bread. Homogenization of perspective creates certain expectations. I would rather think of Newcomb or Keene as unique places full of their own charm and launching pads for adventure (even that sounds contrived) but I am in the minority. I fear “we” won’t be happy until the entire region resembles Lake George Village (a sad thing for me to say as that was a magical place when I was a kid). I know, I know, it’s the economy, stupid – the promotion just all seems so phony and meaningless to me.

  4. Blaikie Worth says:

    Thank you, Dave. We are so lucky to have you as a wise and active champion of
    the Park.

  5. Peter Klein says:

    Totally agree with Dave and would point out that the Northway is not the only road to access the Adirondacks. There are roads that enter from the south, west and north.

  6. Edward Zahniser says:

    Thanks for this perceptive and historically informed post. Boosterism has plagued national parks ever since its first Director Stephen T. Mather aligned the new national parks movement with the “good roads” movement soon after the U.S. Congress passed an organic act establishing the National Park Service.

    The National Forest Reserves — of which the Adirondack State Forest Preserve, thanks to the New York State Constitution, is the surviving sole artifact — had recently been co-opted as National Forests at the behest of Gifford Pinchot. National forests were open to the mining, grazing, and logging that the national forest preserve legislation specifically precluded.

    These destructive assaults on wild lands on the Nation’s federal public domain lands inspired the 1964 Wilderness Act. Americans value their public domain lands very highly. And they most highly value not recreation and tourism but the “legacy value”—for future generations—and the “existence value”—just knowing they are there even though I will probably never set foot in them myself.

    Governor Cuomo and his policies, as David Gibson cautions, should take note that boosterism without a primary and foundational policy of protecting the wildness at the heart of UNESCO’s recognition of the Adirondacks, quickly leads to the destruction of the Adirondack region’s true public values.

    • Geogymn says:

      Excellent post!

    • Bruce says:


      I’m not so sure the recreation and tourist value of our protected forest lands are not right up there with the ‘legacy” value, because those things are an integral part of that legacy. Even Bob Marshall believed these lands had a social value as well as a conservation value, and was supportive of motorless forms of recreation, hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing etc.

  7. Jim Leach says:

    Thank you for this perceptive commentary.

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