A friend and fellow founder of Adirondack Wild first urged me to read Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (Houghton Mifflin, 1954). Perhaps my friend sensed connections between the “second opening of the west” and the Adirondacks. Regardless, it remains a fascinating work, to be read and re-read. Although never part of my schooling, it should be on anyone’s lifetime reading list.
Stegner chronicles the explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, who spent his middle life and health attempting to teach our late 19th century politicians (and those moving west) that only scientifically-based land use planning and restrictions would save us from the disaster of letting Americans willy-nilly settle, break sod, and farm the arid west under the 1862 Homestead Act.
As head of brand new scientific agencies in Washington DC, the Geological and Irrigation Surveys, Powell acted for the “common interest” through his dry-eyed assessment that 160-acres, a mule and a plow on either side of the 100th meridian were irrational and pitiable against prairie and desert wind, snow, sun, drought and loneliness. Rain, it turned out, did not follow the plow in the 1880s and 90s, or during the 1930s Dust Bowl. Powell fought tenaciously against scientific misconceptions, false prophets, personal gain, corrupt practice, and speculative acquisitiveness – whereby a handful of individuals could and did gobble up millions of acres of the public’s dry lands and whatever little water existed there, for their own use.
As Stegner wrote, “The justification was the abiding aridity of the West. Indian and Spaniard and Mormon had all been ultimately forced to community morality. Mutuality was a condition of survival. But community morality, especially if it was to be enforced by federal law, was a new and alarming notion in 1889.”
For a time, Powell’s rational science, with political backing, won out. Millions of acres were withdrawn from settlement and instead studied, surveyed and mapped for rational, planned, community development through irrigation and even-handed distribution of scarce water. As the century began to turn, though, western politicians seeking votes and wealth grew irritated by “egg-headed” surveyors who thought they knew more about the west than those born and raised there. Monopolies of land and water, stubborn refusal to accept the immutable facts of climatological maps, and the sheer number of Americans heading west, overwhelmed Powell’s vision and outflanked him politically. Still, the 20th century hubris that dammed the Colorado River could be traced to Powell, and it would no doubt have astonished him – some of our great National Parks are part of his legacy. Stegner wrote in the early ‘50s – before landscape conservation, west or east, public and private, had entered the public’s imagination, that: “Order is the dream of man. It was the dream of John Wesley Powell more than of most, and he never questioned that an order could be discovered, or perhaps to some degree created, by the human mind and the scientific method.”
When it comes to the Adirondacks, Powell’s dream and vision and drive were shared by George Davis, first planner of the new (in 1971) Adirondack Park Agency. Read George’s chapter, “The Early Years of the Adirondack Park Agency,” in The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2009). “The (park agency) staff began by developing a series of overlays depicting the physical, biological and social constraints using the methodology for an inventory of private land capabilities I had developed at Cornell. It was based on McHarg’s Design with Nature. The compilation of overlays indicated how much development the land could take and what would be the appropriate land-use category…As we finished, the really key step was that we insisted on field checking these areas. We wanted to make sure they made sense on the ground. Is this really resource management? Is it really moderate intensity development? …We drove every single road, and we checked… and corrected these draft maps. There are some mistakes in the final map, but we have really been amazed, when you stop to think of all the considerations that went into it, how few there are.”
John Wesley Powell would recognize and appreciate Davis’ methodology. He and George Davis were visionary, practicing, scientific ground-breakers. The former unschooled in science, the latter well-schooled in the 1960s, both believed that the human mind should apply scientific method and order to benefit entire landscapes, whether 500,000 square miles west of the 100th Meridian or 9,000 square miles of New York’s Adirondack Park. Both, for a time, had the powerful political backing (and much collegial help) required to put their vision into practice. As George writes of Nelson Rockefeller, “I was shocked that one person in state government could have so much authority… I was very thankful that a man with the vision and intelligence of a Nelson Rockefeller essentially ran the show. He was not a conservationist, he was a developer. On the other hand, he was a rather open-minded individual. If people came in with ideas, and if they pointed out the values and the shortcomings, you could sell Rockefeller… Rockefeller was a very innovative man and here was an idea that, in terms of land use policy at the state level, had not been tried elsewhere in the country.”
Interviewed in 1976, five years after the Adirondack Park Land Use Plans (public and private) were created, George Davis said (republished in The Great Experiment in Conservation): “we face a larger decision. Do we become strictly an agency designed to provide regulatory and service guidelines, or do we start laying groundwork for a park, as a region of New York? What do the people want for the Adirondacks?…So, how do we now step back, keeping an eye on the regulatory machinery, and start determining how the state should treat the Adirondacks? We get faced with public pressure and, unfortunately, we let the day-to-day decisions determine future policy courses. We don’t plan for the future. I envision the basic purpose of park planning to be to define the qualities of a park we seek at some date in the future. If you can do that, then you give the day-to-day decision makers a very easy question to ask themselves: Which decision is going to lead me in a direction toward those qualities? But to date, we have not defined, either at the staff or agency level, where we want the park to be in future years. This has to be done. Then, let the chips fall where they may.”
Today, in a world being altered by climate change, where the belt of boreal forests and even once enormous temperate deciduous forests are being eroded into smaller, less useful pieces, George Davis’ 1976 question for New Yorkers about their six-million acre Adirondack Park still hangs in the air, unanswered. Conservation science can document that human development density, per se, is less important to the Park’s health than the spatial distribution, design or arrangement of that development.
On a monthly basis, APA issues permits and variances for all types of human development to take place everywhere in the Park without much consideration for its spatial design or cumulative effect. The APA Act and practice badly need updating to catch up with applied conservation science. Meanwhile, Hurricane Irene and considerations of biological richness both teach that the river valley communities between the Adirondack Mountains require interrelated, integrated planning and development with human and natural infrastructure needs both topmost in mind. State land decisions by the APA and DEC tend to placate immediate recreational interests at the expense of the landscape’s wild land characteristics and future potential.
The APA banner in its meeting room reflects, unhelpfully, our foremost political mindset: “The Adirondack Park – 103 Communities Open for Business, Gateways to the Forest Preserve.” Where do we want the park to be in future years? The question will not go away.
Photo: John Wesley Powell, Explorer of the Colorado.