We appreciate Dave Gibson taking an interest in the future of Camp Santanoni (“Bill Would Wrest Away Santanoni Success”) and there’s much about his piece we agree with.
There are also a few significant errors that should be addressed and, most importantly, we’d like to try to answer the question posed by the recent, proposed Santanoni legislation – why might OPRHP be a better state steward than DEC?
Let’s start with where we agree with Dave’s perspective. By many measures, what has happened at Camp Santanoni over the last 20 years should be considered a great success. After several decades of neglect and uncertainty in state ownership, DEC eventually brought together a group of stakeholders interested in the future of this National Historic Landmark and, out of this, the first unit management plan for the Santanoni Historic Area was created in 2000. Since then, extensive planning work has been done, more than $2 million in stabilization and restoration work has been completed, and each year about 15,000 visitors enjoy visiting the Great Camp in all seasons, on foot, by bicycle, on cross-country skis, and by horse-drawn wagon. And all this has been done while respecting the State Forest Preserve.
However, one of the flaws in Dave’s argument is the role of OPRHP at Santanoni. He says “OPRHP is already performing exceptional service at Santanoni as a DEC partner by producing interpretive 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.” All of these activities DO take place there but not a single one of them are done with OPRHP support or involvement. These are done by the current partnership at Santanoni, made up of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), NYSDEC, and the Town of Newcomb. OPRHP’s involvement at Santanoni has been extremely limited. Their staff was part of the citizen’s advisory committee which advised DEC in the development of the first UMP and the larger conservation projects undertaken there do get their review but that’s it.
The other noteworthy thing about our successes at Camp Santanoni is that we’ve accomplished these things within a fairly strict management framework, one that is extremely respectful of the site’s location within the Forest Preserve. Use of the Newcomb Lake Road, for instance, is restricted to occasional “administrative purposes” (staff rides to and from camp on bicycles), use of power tools is kept to a minimum, and whatever tree cutting has occurred there has been mostly restricted to trees that present a danger to nearby buildings or foundation remains. We are proud of how we’ve collectively managed Santanoni within this framework.
In the absence of any stated rationale for the recent Santanoni legislation introduced by Senator Little and Assemblyman Stec, Dave suggests two ulterior motives for shifting the management of Santanoni from DEC to OPRHP: a desire by preservationists to cut more trees and a desire to open up the Newcomb Lake Road. We can say unequivocally that neither of these are true.
He starts by saying “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.” AARCH has been intimately involved at Santanoni since 1990, is well connected with the preservation community through the region and state, was present at all the planning meetings, and we cannot recall anyone ever proposing such a rash (and illegal) plan for Santanoni’s forests. It just never happened and is not now contemplated. What has been proposed, but is not approved in the site’s unit management plan, is some very limited tree cutting around the farm buildings so that the agricultural landscape of the Santanoni farm is better expressed and understood. The UMP does authorize an historic landscape study to be undertaken in order to better understand this future possibility. Should this ever take place, it would be limited to a part of the very small “Historic Area” acreage around the farm, about three to four acres.
Dave suggests that another ulterior motive might be to open up the Newcomb Lake Road to motorized vehicles. Again there is no evidence for this. No one in the historic preservation community (and we mean no one) is suggesting that this road should be opened for public access by motorized vehicles. What makes Santanoni a very special place to visit is that you can’t drive to it. You have to do the work to get there, on foot, by bicycle, on cross-country skis, or by horse-drawn wagon, it takes time, and the trip there itself, through the woods, over little streams, in all that fresh air, is a big part of the Santanoni experience. We who manage the site see first-hand how thousands of people every year enjoy it and wouldn’t change a thing regarding access.
Dave is right that the legislation offers no rationale for putting Santanoni into the hands of OPRHP. So now we get to answer the fundamental question that is at the heart of Dave’s piece – why might OPRHP be a better state agency steward than DEC?
To put it most simply, DEC is not in the business of managing historic sites and OPRHP is. DEC does a marvelous job of maintaining trails, campgrounds, and beaches, and teaching the public about our natural world and how to responsibly enjoy and manage it. But, besides having an historic preservation officer for the entire state, there is not a single DEC staff person, among its 3000 employees, dedicated to cultural resource management. So both in staff capacity and in agency orientation, DEC is ill-suited to the long term management of this historic site. In contrast, OPRHP manages 37 historic sites state-wide, including two in the Adirondacks – John Brown’s Farm and the Crown Point State Historic Site, so historic site management is what they do and it is how the agency is oriented. Based on their mandate and their experience, OPRHP is better at historic site management, maintenance, preservation, restoration, interpretation and conservation.
But we don’t believe this is an either or proposition. We can easily imagine an arrangement whereby DEC retains overall management responsibilities for the Santanoni Historic Area (which contains 33 acres, not 200 as Dave states) and still has primary jurisdiction over the Newcomb Lake Road (which encompasses about 15 the 33 acres) and for enforcing all Forest Preserve regulations. OPRHP’s responsibilities would be limited to the non-road portions of Historic Area (about 18 acres ), including management of the buildings and landscapes and the public use and interpretation of the historic site.
We agree with Dave that amending Environmental Conservation Law, as the Little/Stec legislation proposes, is not necessary. As with the joint management of the DEC-owned and OPRHP-managed historic sites at John Brown Farm and Crown Point, this could easily be accomplished through an inter-agency management agreement. Then there is the issue of funding. Camp Santanoni is chronically underfunded, with no regular state allocation, and no staff dedicated specifically to the management of the historic site. To really make Santanoni shine, more state funding, along with continued town and private funding, is also needed.
What we are looking for is a conversation about what is best for Santanoni so that it can be an even more successful destination in the region. There is no slippery slope here, no ulterior motives operating in the background. This is about what is best for a popular National Historic Landmark that deserves the very best attention the state can give it.
Howie Kirschenbaum contributed to this essay. Kirschenbaum is the founding board president of AARCH and the author of Santanoni: from Japanese Temple to Life at an Adirondack Great Camp.
Photos, from above: Santanoni Main Lodge from air courtesy Jed Thone; Santanoni Window Workshop courtesy Jane Riley; 2015 Santanoni Intern reunion; and Santanoni Porch.