On November 22, we lost one of the finest legislators in my lifetime, U.S. Congressman and former chair of the NYS Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, Maurice Hinchey of Saugerties.
He was, no doubt, flawed like any human being. But he had remarkable qualities and political skills that allowed him to reach many of his public goals benefiting the Adirondacks, the Catskills and beyond.
My Adirondack career started in 1987. By that time, Assemblyman Hinchey had been a champion for the environment for well over a dozen years. All environmental legislation, including New York’s first-in-the-nation acid rain law of 1984 as well as our state’s leading wetland and stream protection laws passed the previous decade bore his influential stamp, as all sprung from and had to pass through his committee.
From what I could observe, Maurice ran his Environmental Conservation Committee in a very efficient and effective way. He was a tough infighter, he gave as good as he got, but was in no way a pointless, arbitrary partisan. He knew he had the majority and he carefully cultivated his influence in the Assembly but he also gave the Republicans on his committee a voice and knew he needed their support He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and I recall he could be critical of environmentalists who had not done their political as well as their environmental homework. I also remember a great sense of humor. His bottom line was successful legislation, not one-house bills.
His Catskill Park home region, stretching from the Hudson River all the way to Binghamton particularly the health of its mountain trout streams and rivers, and the communities they passed through, and the Hudson and Susquehanna Rivers into which they emerged may have been the source of his passionate, determined advocacy. But Maurice’s influence continues to be felt in every corner of the State and, once he reached the Congress, in Wilderness regions throughout the nation.
Two wilderness regions which bore his stamp were the Catskills and the Adirondacks. For the former, he tried mightily to create a Catskill Park Agency similar to the Adirondacks’ APA. In this, he failed. But in so many other ways, both proactive through groundbreaking bills and planning initiatives and reactive in fighting bad, polluting, environmentally damaging legislation and developments, he succeeded.
Maurice’s political influence and boundless energy helped save a lot of land and water in the Catskills from despoilation, as it did in the Adirondacks. Here’s a typical 1987 entry from my newsletter (Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks): “The usual number of bills that would dismantle all or parts of the State Land Master Plan and the Adirondack Park Agency Act were filed this year in the same form as last. Most of them were stopped in Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey’s environmental conservation committee.”
I got to know Maurice Hinchey best during his four years as chairman of the Legislative Committee on the 100th Anniversary of the Adirondack Park. The close of 2017 marks the 125th Anniversary of the Adirondack Park, so it seems an appropriate time to recognize the 100th anniversary, what was being planned, and the roles of Maurice Hinchey and Barbara McMartin.
In 1988, the nonprofit Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, for which I worked, initiated the Committee for the 1992 Adirondack Park Centennial. Chaired by AfPA board member and Adirondack author and historian Barbara McMartin (Canada Lake), the committee consisted of legislative aides, other Adirondack nonprofits, and gradually over time Adirondack businesses, artists, and local government entities joined. All manner of conferences, publications, programs, films, posters, quilts, photographic and other artistic contests were dreamed up, and many actually happened during the four years of intensive planning under McMartin’s leadership.
From the start, we knew we needed political and legislative support and so turned to Maurice Hinchey. While an outsider from the Hudson Valley and attuned to the prerogatives of Adirondack representatives, Maurice jumped at the chance to add his influence to promote the Park Centennial and to knit together, for the first time really, an alliance of Adirondack environmental, cultural and human community and local political interests, all to take a maximum degree of pride in their Adirondack Park. The slogan for the Centennial became “a park of people and natural wonder,” and a logo was eventually chosen through an artistic contest, assisted by the Advertisers Workshop in Lake Placid. The four years devoted to planning for the Centennial and implementing those plans in 1992 demonstrated a memorable level of grassroots, decentralized collaboration for the Park.
Park Centennial legislation was introduced and passed to authorize a legislative committee. Maurice’s committee sent us relatively little taxpayer money. The majority of funds for the Centennial were raised privately through the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and other nonprofits involved, including the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA).
Maurice had keen political as well as personal skills. He needed the personal skills – as we all did – to work well with Barbara McMartin, who could get very prickly if she felt you were not headed enthusiastically in her direction. But Maurice respected Barbara immensely for her vision, her energy, and her ambition to actually try to unite very divergent Park constituents behind one Park and one Park 100th year celebration. After so many bruising environmental political battles from the 1970s onward, Maurice was very impressed with how the Centennial turned out and the Park pride it engendered. Barbara had a lot of help, and wisely we all decided that the Centennial would be decentralized and led from the Park. But Barbara was our inspiration and our leader, and she pulled it off. This was a remarkable achievement in the early 1990s when the bumper sticker “this isn’t a Park. It’s my home” understated the political tension which included personal threats and arson.
Here’s an article in my Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks newsletter (Spring, 1990) about the planning underway by the Park Centennial Committee under the leadership of Barbara McMartin and Maurice Hinchey:
“Margaret (Marge) Lamy has been hired as Adirondack Park Centennial Coordinator and began work for the Centennial Committee in January. Marge was born in Lake Placid, resides in Saranac Lake and has held numerous positions in the field of communications and public relations…the committee was greatly impressed with Marge’s take charge attitude, enthusiasm and fundraising skills. She has established an office thanks to space donated by Paul Smith’s College…
A heart-felt Thank You to ANCA for its grant of $5,000 for our Centennial Coordinator, and to the Adirondack Council and to Barbara Glaser, the Council’s chairwoman for their generous contributions as well….
The Legislative Committee on the Anniversary of the Adirondack Park, chaired by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, held its second meeting on January 18, 1990 in Warrensburg. The meeting was well attended by members and by the public. The purpose was well summarized by Chairman Hinchey:
‘We have a number of tasks ahead of us,’ he said, ‘not the least of which is ensuring that the people of the Adirondack region play an active role in the celebration.’
Chairman Hinchey and Barbara McMartin then welcomed the new members of the Centennial Committee, including Inlet resident Joan Payne, director of Adirondack Discovery, James Dynko, Editor of the Plattsburgh Press Republican, and John Wertime, Warren County Treasurer…
Several recommendations were made for Centennial projects and funding. David Fraser of the NYS Department of Transportation talked about cost and architectural design of the recently completed Beekmantown Rest Stop on the Northway… members then spoke of cost efficient ways of duplicating this level of public information about the Park on major Park entrance points…
A man who has worked on improving Park interpretation and information for years, Dick Lawrence of Elizabethtown described the advantages of two existing Adirondack Gateways – Prospect and Whiteface Mountains. Both are in sore need of better information and interpretation… to better serve public purposes.
Mike Storey, Park naturalist with the APA’s new visitor interpretive center at Paul Smith’s outlined the potential of more wayside interpretive signs throughout the Park… [this happened with limited success around the Park].
Ellen Rocco of North Country Public Radio briefed the group about the station’s request to the FCC to increase broadcasting capabilities to ensure that their signal is reached throughout the Park [a major success later on for NCPR]… and a way of achieving Park wide radio programming during the Centennial year.
Finally, Floyd Henderson and John Pikpkin of SUNY Albany proposed an Adirondack symposium for 1992 [several of these were held].
Maurice Hinchey then spoke to the members of the public attending the meeting. He urged all residents to express how best the Centennial Anniversary should be celebrated, and he invited people to speak. Quite a few people rose to the microphone.
One spoke of dissatisfaction with the way the Park is managed, and problems faced by residents. He said there was no reason to celebrate in 1992 since the Park had become a ‘rich man’s paradise.’
But another speaker was more positive. He asked the Centennial committee to build upon existing annual festivals and to integrate the Centennial into those events to maximize local participation (this recommendation was followed). A representative of the Warrensburg Beautification Committee and [Cornell] Cooperative Extension specifically proposed that the Centennial help to sponsor the Warrensburg Fair as a major Centennial event for the southern Adirondacks [this was eventually done with some success].
Another speaker emphasized the need for learning opportunities about the Park in local schools. Another rose to say that the Park is a great natural treasure and that more state funds should be devoted to Park protection and reimbursement to Park communities. The last speaker asked that Adirondack arts and artists become a focal point of the Centennial” [this was one of the committee’s successes during 1992].”
Maurice Hinchey left the Assembly and spent 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a keynote speaker at a 2004 Wilderness Act 40th Anniversary event in Lake George, and there he spoke of the many bills he was trying to get through to add to our National Wilderness Preservation system. Some Adirondack Wild colleagues and I saw him speak in 2012 to a large gathering in Kingston to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of New York’s first Governor, George Clinton. Maurice was moved as much by significant local and state historical events as by opportunities to protect Wilderness.
During his legislative career he knew his purpose, to permanently benefit the environment for people, for ecological health, and for natural wonder. So he battled hard and made the very most of his time on this earth. In 2014, he showed up at a Catskill Center event in Arkville where, deftly compensating for his illness, he comfortably worked a friendly crowd of well-wishers, several of whom rose to speak of all he had done for the Catskill region. Then, in 2015 the Catskill Center joined with many other regional leaders and sponsors to celebrate the opening of the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center off Route 28 near Shokan, a project he had long championed. In spite of his physical challenges, Maurice attended. I wish I had, to thank him one more time.
You can read more about Maurice Hinchy’s environmental legacy in the New York Times obituary.
Photos from above: a sign marking the Adirondack Park Centennial (courtesy cliftonfineadk.com); Maurice Hinchey (Congressional photo); the logo of the 1992 Adirondack Park Centennial; an exhibit at the Catskill Visitor Center honoring Maurice Hinchey.