Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Buildings on the Forest Preserve: The Historic Classification

The management of historic buildings on the Forest Preserve has been a vexing issue for decades. State management has evolved over the years from a position of building removal to now accommodating historic buildings on the Forest Preserve through the creation of a “Historic” area classification.

The state has since built a policy of retaining buildings for public educational and historic preservation purposes.

The Historic area classification has been used most notably for Great Camp Santanoni and the two state parks that preserve historic areas – the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid and the Crown Point Historic area. Since the Pataki Administration, the state has invested millions of dollars to sustain and restore Great Camp Santanoni.

We’re now facing key questions in the Forest Preserve for management of historic buildings. Two new buildings were just added to the Forest Preserve – the farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest Area and the cabin at the 4 Corners in the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest Area. The state has yet to say whether these buildings will become new Historic areas or will be used for administrative purposes. The state also owns Debar Lodge on Debar Pond in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest Area, a complex of more than a dozen buildings, but has not determined a purpose. The lands are currently classified as Wild Forest, which prohibits buildings, unless for administrative purposes.

Historic areas have also been used to preserve firetowers on the Forest Preserve. Most notably, and controversially, the firetowers on Hurricane and St. Regis Mountains were preserved by spot zoning one acre around the firetowers as Historic areas. The surrounding Hurricane Mountain Wilderness and St. Regis Canoe Area prohibit buildings.

The journey towards “Historic” areas on the Forest Preserve is a storied one, and has its own history. The first edition of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in 1972 did not list “Historic” as a classification option. The Historic classification was added with the first revision in 1979. The Carey Administration in the late 1970s saw its Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Peter Berle, remove the ranger cabin in the West Canada Lakes area and remove the Ne-has-ne Lodge at Lake Lila soon after the state purchased the lake. Berle also took down several firetowers, most notably on Kempshall Mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness Area.

Other means have been used to protect historic buildings on the Forest Preserve. The most common is the use of a private in-holding around the building’s footprint. For instance, the Lighthouse on Valcour Island is owned by the Clinton County Historical Association, but is surrounded by Forest Preserve classified as Primitive. Similarly, the cabin at Preston Ponds and the Mt. Adams Firetower have been preserved as private inholdings in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. Great Camp Sagamore is also a private inholding, straddling the Moose River Plains Wild Forest and Blue Ridge Wilderness Areas, a management decision set up by two Article XIV Constitutional Amendments. The Upper Works and ruins of the community of Adirondac were protected by conservation easements.

Though these sites have been preserved, there remains a chorus across the Adirondacks that say Camp Santanoni should have been allowed to fall down and go back to the bears and that the firetowers on St. Regis and Hurricane Mountains should have been removed.

The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan sets out management standards for Historic Areas in which buildings on the Forest Preserve are maintained. This management classification has been used for state parks at John Brown’s Farm and Crown Point fort as well as for Camp Santanoni and the spot-zoned firetowers on Hurricane and St. Regis Mountains. The Master Plan defines Historic areas as such:

Historic areas are locations of buildings, structures or sites owned by the state (other than the Adirondack Forest Preserve itself) that are significant in the history, architecture, archeology or culture of the Adirondack Park, the state or the nation; that fall into one of the following categories;

– state historic sites;

– properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places;

– properties recommended for nomination by the Committee on Registers of the New York State Board For Historic Preservation; and that are of a scale, character and location appropriate for designation as an historic area under this master plan and the state has committed resources to manage such areas primarily for historic objectives. (p 46)

The Master Plan sets out guidelines for management of use of Historic Buildings that were written to protect the essential wildland values of the Forest Preserve even as buildings were being maintained. The SLMP clearly sets out guidelines for management of Historic Areas:

Basic guidelines

1. The primary management guidelines for historic areas will be to preserve the quality and character of the historic resources, that is, to the greatest extent feasible, in a setting and on a scale in harmony with the relatively wild and undeveloped character of the Adirondack Park.

2. All historic areas will be designed, managed and interpreted so as to blend with the Adirondack environment and have the minimum adverse impact possible on surrounding state lands and nearby private holdings.

3. Construction and development activities in historic areas will:

– avoid material alteration of wetlands;

– minimize extensive topographical alterations;

– limit vegetative clearing; and,

– preserve the scenic, natural and open space resources of the historic area.

4. Each historic area will be designed, managed and interpreted in conformity with a special historic area unit management plan for the area, filed with and approved by the Agency after public hearing as being consistent with this master plan. Special unit management plans will be prepared in consultation with the Agency for the two existing historic areas as soon as possible. No new structures or improvements at existing or proposed historic areas will be constructed prior to the approval of such special unit management plans. Such structures and improvements will conform to this master plan and special historic area unit management plans. (p 47)

The Master Plan sharply limits the scope of how buildings that are retained for historic purposes can be managed. The primary purpose is historic preservation and these buildings are to be managed in harmony with the surrounding Forest Preserve. As such, they are living museums in the Forest Preserve that are available for the public to visit, but are not places to be used for residential or lodging purposes. Management of Great Camp Santanoni has been austere and closely regulated; buildings have stabilized and restoration has been slow work.

In the 1980s, the state purchased Debar Lodge, a collection of two dozen buildings. Under the terms of the state’s purchase, the private landowners retained use of the Debar Lodge until 2005. The lodge has been mostly empty since then, though there have been reports of state employees occasionally occupying the facility, and today some one is mowing the expansive lawn and maintaining the grounds of an area classified as Wild Forest. No formal decision has been made on the future management purposes or policy implications for retaining Debar Lodge. The DEC has embarked upon a new Unit Management Plan (UMP) for this area, which may attempt to sort out these issues. No information has been provided for how this complex of buildings will be preserved, used, managed, or the costs involved.

In general, the use of a Historic Area classification has worked with Camp Santanoni and the two state parks. Camp Santanoni has been stabilized and is slowly being restored, and stands as a living museum mostly for self-guided tours by the public. If the state plans to undertake similar programs for the Debar Lodge, the farmhouse on the Hudson River, or the 4 Corners cabin, it must classify these areas as Historic and figure out how it’s going to pay for them. In the case of Debar Lodge, the state also needs to answer the question: How many Great Camps does the State of New York need to maintain?.

The Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty First Century, created by Governor Mario Cuomo, published two volumes of technical reports. In one, a former Executive Director and Counsel of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) authored a paper on the “doctrine of inconsistent use” of the Forest Preserve. Under state law all state lands in the Adirondack Park are part of the Forest Preserve. In theory, this includes all state lands, such as the state administration complex of buildings in Ray Brook, Department of Transportation sites throughout the Park, state prisons and mental health facilities, among other areas. The acreage of all these areas is substantial and these facilities are important for overall management of the Adirondack Park.

In many ways, management of Historic areas – buildings on the Forest Preserve – are inconsistent with the Forest Preserve. The use of Historic areas has basically been a form of détente with local governments and opponents of the APA and Forest Preserve. While there’s a case to be made about the formal classification of Historic areas for Great Camp Santanoni, John Brown Farm, and Crown Point Historic Area, it strains credulity to spot zone firetowers as Historic areas. Clearly, the state’s decision to retain the farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road and the 4 Corners cabin were sweeteners to get approval under state law by local governments for these lands to be added to the Forest Preserve. The purchase of DeBar Lodge was a necessary part of the purchase of the lake and thousands of acres.

The Forest Preserve in New York in the Adirondacks and Catskills, though 3 million acres, though constitutionally protected, though heavily used and enjoyed by the public, though guided by many volumes of state law, policies and regulations, has always been a work in progress, managed according to the conflicting and competing interests of the times.

The Historic areas is Exhibit A in the doctrine of inconsistent use, yet is also a rational program for a place like Camp Santanoni, yet irrational for the Hurricane Mountain firetower. The Historic area classification is also Exhibit A for the definition of a slippery slope. The plot will only thicken as the states tries to figure out management for Debar Lodge, the farmhouse on the Chain Lakes Road and the 4 Corners cabin near Boreas Ponds.

This is the second of a three-part series on buildings on the Forest Preserve. The first dealt with buildings used for state administration and the third deals with public residential use through a formal lodging network.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

32 Responses

  1. Larry Roth says:

    If you want simple and consistent , declare the entire Adirondacks wilderness, move all the people out, and remove all traces of human presence.

    If you want people to be able to enjoy the area as visitors, if you want people to be able to live and make a living there, then you have to accept a human presence on the landscape.

    If you accept that presence on the landscape, then you need to allow for the full context to fully appreciate it. That includes the history, in forms that can be seen, touched, and experienced.

    If people can not see where things came from, how the past shaped the present, they will not fully understand where they are now, or where they are going to be. They will not appreciate how change is a constant, or that they need to be aware of it.

    Only in this way can they make value judgments on more than the concerns of the moment. Only in this way can they truly appreciate what they have and value it accordingly.

    • Mick Finn says:

      This is one of the most eloquent statements I’ve ever read.

    • tom prevost says:

      Best said statement. As a fourth generation Adirondacker, I watch the environmentalist wiping out any remembrance of our past. Not every building needs to saved, but we should have examples of what our grandparent built. The issue was with fire towers, then the great camps. What is left to show the great logging industry? a few posters in Wanakeana.

      • Boreas says:


        The buildings are removed simply because it is required by SLMP – not because of environmentalists.

        What to do with historical structures is an issue that has been a struggle with many of our acquired Forest Preserve lands. And it isn’t simply whether to keep them or not, but how do we pay to maintain and protect them? Who decides which structures stay and which are removed? How “historical” is historical? Again, I don’t have the answers to these questions. At least for now they are being worked out piecemeal.

  2. Tanner says:

    So we use revisionist history to destroy our past in an attempt to create the illusion of pristine wilderness. We ignore the fact that many “natural ” landscapes in the Adirondacks are the direct result of past human activities (many peaks that are now exposed rock were forested before we intentionally burned them). We do not take into account the thousands of years Native people modified their landscapes (again with fire) to enhance and modify the environment to make game more plentiful. Now we must destroy historic properties since they do not fit the “Wilderness” narrative. Why stop there? If you carry this train of thought to its logical conclusion, we need to dig up and remove any cemetery, Native archaeological site or any indication man has ever been here. Except the piles of human waste along the trails to Mt. Marcy. Those can remain.

  3. Jim S. says:

    Remove the structures and allow nature time to retirn it to truly ancient history.

    • Hope says:

      Ah yes, Jim S. is again advocating for the removal of park residents and return to wilderness. Didn’t you just ask, in a previous post, where I would get such an idea? Right from the horses keyboard. Again. It’s an ongoing theme of yours.

      • Jim S. says:

        It is the reason I come to the Adirondacks. I never said anything about removing residents, just buildings in wilderness classified areas. Historic buildings in wild forest settings is fine with me.

        • Jim S. says:

          The only time I remember addressing you Hope was regarding being for converting both rail lines to road bike trails. I have a ton of respect for people who make their living in the Park. I just staunchly believe that the wilder the woods can be is the best thing for residents and visitors alike. I never intend to slight anyone.

  4. Paul says:

    Talking about a teeny tiny bit of the FP. The precedent is to save a few buildings as historic. Why is that a bad precedent given the kind of park the Adirondack park is? A dam isn’t historic yet we save them all over the place in, Wilderness areas too, and I think most people appreciate what they create on the landscape. The FP in the Adirondacks is almost complete as far as how big it could be. Mountain out of a mole hill.

  5. John Frey says:

    A very small Chorus !

  6. M.P.Heller says:

    Politics as usual from PROTECT! Nothing substantive, just emotional outcry to drum up donations from unwitting patrons. Must be some more frivolous lawsuits on the horizon that require funding because that is two stories in as many days over this “crisis”. When will people wake up and recognize this sham organization for what it is?!

    • Peter Bauer says:


      I wrote that we’re facing questions and I quoted the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and that’s an “emotional outcry.”

      Where did I use the word “crisis”? I think I used the words rational and irrational, but I don’t think I wrote “crisis.”

      Buildings on the Forest Preserve is a complicated issue, and has been for some time. Historic preservation has been used as the basis for retaining buildings on the Forest Preserve, in addition to state administration, and now, as part three of these articles will discuss, people are advocating for buildings on the Forest Preserve for recreation.

      Like it or not, we’re at a point in time when we’re seeing new buildings added to the Forest Preserve, with very little information provided on their status, purpose, and costs.

      • Paul says:

        I would just clarify that these buildings are really being “added” to the forest preserve they just come with the land that was purchased (at least the current ones in question here). They are not new buildings like you could see for administrative purposes in some rare cases.

        In the case of all these large tracts remember there are hundreds of buildings (all the other clubs) that are being removed (including a large lodge in one case).

        Having a few historical cabins looks no different than having a few tiny inholdings here or there. If environmentalists are opposed to how that changes the wilderness character then their first order of business should be to figure out a way to get rid of John’s Brook Lodge and its helicopter supplied cabins in the middle of the HPW.

  7. Justin Farrell says:

    There are other buildings & hunting cabins in the Adirondacks on Forest Preserve land that are technically illegal that the DEC is aware of, but do nothing about. One such cabin was used as a base of operations during a search for a missing hunter not too long ago. I’m not sure if it has any historical significance, but today it is still just an old camp in the middle of the woods on along a marked trail on state land used occasionally by only those who know that it’s there. Big deal!

  8. Wren Hawk says:

    Wow. The vitriol is amazing. To the most lucid and compelling argument here: Why does the human history of the Park need to be preserved and interpreted in areas designated as wilderness? Beyond the three established and maintained historic areas (and I’ll add the Upper works mine/forge), why can’t the human history of the park be told in the multitude of other places that exist outside the FP? And in museums? The FP is there to preserve the biological integrity of what is left and what can regenerate as wilderness (pristine no, but ecologically viable and self maintaining, yes…if humans allow it). It is, in many ways, a last stand for wilderness in the eastern US. The corridors and the waterways (yes, why DOES DEC insist on keeping dams when natural waterways require less maintenance and allow connectivity for instream animals?) are invaluable. Narrowing them, slicing them up with additional destinations only lessens their effectiveness. Take the money for caring for additional structures and hire more forest rangers. Protect and maintain trails. Build better parking areas to improve safety for the public and those who live here. Install permanent porta potties at roadside trailheads. Expand education on trail about leave no trace and proper assessment of hiking skills. Stop adding old buildings on the wilderness to the historic register just because they have a history. Not all histories teach.

  9. Boreas says:

    We seem to be entering a phase of the Forest Preserve where human history is beginning to trump natural history. Are taxpayers paying for a Forest Preserve or a Human Preserve? This is the crux of many of these recent arguments.

    Do taxpayers want to preserve evidence of our incursions and attempts to manipulate wild areas or let the backcountry revert to a natural state? What will be the prerequisites for an “historic” cabin? Boat launch? Logging dam? Fire tower? Foot trail? Outhouse? Logging chain across a river? Fire scars? Charcoal kilns? Mines? Roads? Railroads? Lean-to’s? Native American settlements? Logging camps?

    I certainly don’t have an answer, but I feel it is time for the tenets of Forever Wild and Forest Preserve to be re-examined by the taxpayers. Should the guiding star be restoring wilderness, preserving human history, or simply eliminating the Forest Preserve? Or is the answer to extend the mish-mash, “patchwork quilt” model of the Adirondack Park into the wild areas that are trying to be created and re-wilded? Tough questions indeed.

    • Paul says:

      Again almost all of it is woods, half of it designated Wilderness and the rest Wild Forest. A few buildings here or there? You think that is a switch from natural to human history? Interesting perspective.

      • Boreas says:

        Yes, I thought so.

        • Paul says:

          The vast majority is going to what we want. A few buildings here and there as the amount of land we can preserve dwindles. Seems like, preserve a bit of history, no big conspiracy, if there are no funds to maintain that then yes let it all go of course. The state, us, the owner has the call. They have no obligation to save anything.

          • Todd Eastman says:

            So, if everybodys’ history is special, where do you draw the line…

            … keep all the history you want, in the Hamlets?

  10. M.P.Heller says:

    It’s not like you can have it both ways Boreas. It’s either enshrine the impacts of humans as a integral part of the park or omit them. It really is OK to leave a few structures that are part of the regional heritage on newly acquired lands. Just like it’s OK to follow in the footsteps of Clark and the Marshalls or have a monument for David Henderson. Variety is the spice of life and the park is plenty big enough to accommodate all users without having to demonize the virtues of one group over another. Plenty of lands classified in a variety of different ways are available to a broad user groups and if recent history is any indication, that acerage is not getting any smaller. It simply appears that some people are never satisfied with what they have and take no issue with making a victim of others to increase their position.

    • geogymn says:

      But the acreage is getting smaller! Drastically on a global scale. We have an opportunity to mitigate that trend on our little forested island. Should not our aim be to decelerate the inevitable?

      • M.P.Heller says:

        I’m not sure what you think the inevitable is.

        Comparing the growth of public lands in the Adirondacks to the global situation is a non-sequitur.

    • Boreas says:

      I don’t believe I was trying to have it both ways – or was that a typo? As I said, perhaps Article 14 as written needs to be revisited if it isn’t working for citizens. I don’t have an answer – or a strong opinion in this particular case.

  11. Charlie S says:

    Tom Prevost says: “As a fourth generation Adirondacker, I watch the environmentalist wiping out any remembrance of our past.”

    I am reminded of the recent events where there was this big push to remove and/or knock down and demolish statues whose figures represented hate or racism. My immediate thoughts on this was to leave them stand so future generations can be reminded. Pure idiocy the actions of those people who were all for that! As Larry Roth so ‘eloquently’ states: “If people can not see where things came from, how the past shaped the present, they will not fully understand where they are now, or where they are going to be.”

    I said something similar to this in another post a few doors down. Yes, we need to be reminded of our past and so as Tom Prevost says: “we should have examples of what our grandparents built.” Yes we should! I think about all of the Dutch houses they tore down generations ago (in the name of progress) from NYC on up the Hudson Valley into Albany. They just don’t make structures like that anymore and when one gets to go inside one of the few that remain and sees the work….it boggles the mind how crafty those ancestors of ours were! It’s a shame all of the damage we do all in the name of so-called progress. It’s almost as if an all-out assault on our cultural heritage has been the mainstay in the minds of the powers that be in this country…..by design.

  12. Charlie S says:

    Tanner says: “we need to dig up and remove any cemetery..”

    Surely this is something that has been thought over Tanner. Imagine what all of that cemetery acreage in Queens and Kings County alone in NYC would be worth to a developer – St. Johns, Greenwood, Cypress Hills…. As is there’s already a disregard for the dead in this country (and this area) in some instances. I’ve been to old graveyards where the land around them was sold to a developer and wouldn’t you know they built houses whose foundations are a foot or two away from old tombstones. No mercy whatsoever. All about utilizing ever square inch of their lots. Nothing is sacred anymore! To the small-minded anyway.

  13. Joan Parkes says:

    I see no harm in having these historic buildings in the park. It’s the slow erosion of other parts that are destroying the wild forest. Homes, expansion, snow machine trails widening, etc. that always seem to be eating away at the wilderness.

  14. Joan Parkes says:

    I see no harm in having these historic buildings in the park. It’s the slow erosion of other parts that are destroying the wild forest. Homes, expansion, snow machine trails widening, etc. that always seem to be eating away at the wilderness.

    When I sent this I received a message that it was a duplicate, I had already sent it.

    I had not!

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