We all have a tendency to wrest failure from the jaws of success. We either don’t recognize or admit when we are enjoying success, we get so wrapped up in details that we don’t see the big picture, or in many cases different people may view success very differently. In the case of a bill that comes up repeatedly, year after year, in the State Legislature, perhaps all of these are true.
The bill is simple. It would change the status quo by taking Camp Santanoni in Newcomb away from the legal jurisdiction of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and confer that responsibility it to the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP).
The bill reads:
NOTWITHSTANDING ANY OTHER PROVISION OF LAW TO THE CONTRARY, THE 5 OFFICE OF PARKS, RECREATION AND HISTORIC PRESERVATION SHALL HAVE CARE, CUSTODY, CONTROL AND MANAGEMENT OF CAMP SANTANONI HISTORIC AREA, IN THE COUNTY OF ESSEX.
With all of the successful, skillful, state-private historic restoration and interpretation that has gone on at Santanoni since the 1990s under a DEC unit management plan that drew widespread support, I’m hard pressed to understand why this change of state agencies is desired or important for the care and management of Santanoni. The legislation offers no helpful rationale.
OPRHP is already performing exceptional service at Santanoni as a DEC partner by producing interpretive written materials and exhibits, assisting in the architectural research and restoration, guiding the public among the great camp buildings, and providing historic interns who inform those willing to walk or ski seven miles to Newcomb Lake to see the camp.
These historic preservation goals have been achieved while the State Lands involved – 12,900 acres – have remained within the Forest Preserve. Legislation passed in 1983 and a management plan that followed in 2000 (under the State Land Master Plan) allows defined historic buildings present on or before the date of the law to remain on “forever wild” Forest Preserve if the State can make certain findings in order to achieve limited historic preservation and educational objectives.
DEC has a historic preservation officer, a history of partnering well with OPRHP, Forest Rangers and full legal responsibility for the entire 3 million-acre Forest Preserve including the High Peaks Wilderness and Vanderwhacker Wild Forest units that surround Santanoni. It makes so much sense to continue to have DEC manage all of these interconnected public lands. OPRHP, meanwhile, has no legal responsibility for the Forest Preserve whatsoever.
By agreement with DEC, OPRHP does manage Crown Point and John Brown Farm State Historic Sites, however those sites are on very small acreages within immediate proximity to travel corridors and human communities like Crown Point and Lake Placid. People drive their cars and trucks right to those historic sites, which have visitor centers, plumbing and electricity. Santanoni, in contrast, is 12,900 acres embedded within a quarter million acres of wilderness, miles away from a state highway and any public utilities. The public cannot drive to Santanoni. We reach these great camp buildings solely through our own muscle-power or courtesy of a teamster, horses and wagon. There are no lights or power poles to guide the way in.
If that sounds primitive, it is intentionally so. This is the Adirondacks. These are Forest Preserve lands protected by our State Constitution . The law establishes DEC as the public custodian of the Forest Preserve, while allowing limited historic preservation to occur here. This has always appeared like success to me. The remoteness, wilderness setting, distance from settlements, lack of infrastructure to support large groups of people, and prohibition on public motorized access to Santanoni all speak to the wisdom and consistency of continuing its management under the DEC.
The Unit Management Plan for Santanoni took years of negotiation among diverse Adirondack constituencies. The organizations I worked for were among them. It was achieved only because DEC and APA conceded that just over 200 acres of the 12,900 acres of Forest Preserve would be reclassified as Historic to maintain defined footprints of historic buildings, with room on the old roadbed for information and historic interpretation.
Some historic preservation interests wanted many thousands of acres to be timbered to give visitors the perception of a deforested landscape that visitors to the private Santanoni saw in 1890. A few people may still want that to happen. If DEC has agreed with them, there would be no management plan, only endless controversy. Consensus was achieved because it was eventually decided that Santanoni would make limited allowance for preservation of the historic buildings without altering the vast majority of wild forest. OPRHP was closely consulted about all of this and still is. To upend the DEC authority over this part of the Forest Preserve makes no practical sense and would open up a legal hornet’s nest that the no one should wish to kick.
In the absence of a rational for the bill, one speculates. Is an unstated purpose of the legislation to reopen the UMP to allow far more of the land here to be cleared for historic preservation reasons? Or to allow the public to drive to the great camp? Either action would be disastrous.
Let’s say that the management plan does not prohibit public motorized access to Santanoni, as it does. The old Santanoni roadbed is an old carriageway built for carriages and light, old buggies, not for modern motor vehicles. Hikers and skiers into Santanoni know that the bridges on the old carriageway are underperforming for modern motorized transportation and the old roadbed itself highly unsafe for such use. It would take a great deal of State funds to bring Santanoni’s carriageway up to road standards – if that were desired as public policy.
Meanwhile, logging the Forest Preserve here to try and recapture a landscape as it may have looked in 1890 would appall the vast majority of visitors and require a constitutional amendment – which would stand little to no chance of passing.
I recommend that the bill sponsors join the many each year who choose to walk, ski, or take the horse and wagon in appreciation for the history of Santanoni amidst the wild forest splendor all around them. This is what success looks like. To change horses in the middle of this stream would not be wise public policy.