Thursday, June 21, 2018

David Gibson: Bill Would Wrest Away Santanoni Success

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:


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.

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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.

8 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Don’t think the public should be driving in the necessarily, but…

    “The old Santanoni roadbed is an old carriageway built for carriages and light, old buggies, not for modern motor vehicles.” Wasn’t the camp accessed by modern (heavy) cars back in the till it was sold in the 70’s?

    I wouldn’t really call it a “carriageway”, its much more solid than many DEC roads that support motor vehicles. It seems paved in parts?

    David, they didn’t have power back at that camp? Or do you mean just power lights along the road?

    All that said, I think the DEC is doing fine managing this in partnership with the OPRHP. Would a switch be “disastrous” – don’t see that it would?

  2. Paul says:

    If the idea is to allow a small amount of selective logging around the camp like was done for many years when it was an Adirondack camp is not a bad idea. This would not set a precedent that you would run into in other areas (save maybe a tiny few). The benefit there is it could help pay for maintenance of the property rather than the state having to pass the hat to the tax payers. And, yes it could show folks what life was like when that sort of work was going on around the camp. Part of the early Adirondack experience. You would probably be talking about selectively cutting a few parcels of maybe a few hundred acres or less on a like a 5 or 10 year cycle. What many larger landowners had to do and do now to maintain their property as a large non-developed parcels. What the family that had the camp probably did. That is why we had/have places like this.

    • Boreas says:


      The land was purchased by the state supposedly to avoid development, including logging. In doing so, the camp was destined to be removed – which not many people were keen on because of its historical and architectural value. Working together with various factions including AARCH, the UMP was tweaked to allow the camp to remain while allowing development to cease.

      I am not sure all of the maintenance costs are handed off to the taxpayers. But even if the costs are totally on the taxpayer, how would one reconcile logging Forest Preserve lands with eliminating development? Wasn’t that the idea of purchasing the parcel to begin with?

  3. John says:

    Sure, let’s make the Adirondacks historically correct so that it appears the way it did in, let’s say, 1875. It would be easy, and many would cooperate. First, cut all the trees and burn the slash. Let the runoff fill streams. Pave roads to every pond. Just make sure you declare it to be “parkland” so nobody gets the wrong idea. Oh, yes, let’s not neglect the look of the 1950s: preserve every shack and hovel you find, perhaps even a few of the blue-tarpaulin “hunting camps.” For authenticity’s sake, build a few cabin motels on some of the newly-accessible ponds. Don’t forget a hot dog stand or two.
    And while we’re at it, let’s spray to eliminate those pesky flies and mosquitos.
    But please give me a little notice, so I can get my affairs in order, dry my tears and move to someplace quiet and comfortable, like upper Manhattan.

  4. Jim S. says:

    My bet is that the Governor is developing a plan to generate income and tourism from exploiting Camp Santanoni. It would be easy to commercialize.

  5. alex duschere says:

    Who in hell dreams up these outlandish ideas. This should be a no brainier. Would you remove the Lantern from the Statue of Liberty and replace it with a street light?You remove the charm you loose the reasons people love and live here in the Adirondacks. Find another way to spend the taxpayers money.

  6. Blaikie Worth says:

    Thanks for your wise comments, Dave. I hope they will be persuasive.

  7. Tim-Brunswick says:

    “wise comments”…you gotta be kidding me! Mr. Gibson doesn’t like just about anything and I certainly wouldn’t classify his rambling dissertations as “wise”. Bottom line is he fears any change whatsoever and use the Almanac as his personal canvas to paint the world as Dave sees it and thinks everyone else should see it to boot!

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