Saturday, February 1, 2020

Our Wilderness Has Answers To Questions Yet Unasked

Schaefer and LangmuirFifty years ago this August, Goveror Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks met at Eagle Nest, the great camp of its chairman, Harold Hochshild.

Members brought their spouses, and it seems as though the gathering was a long, country house weekend as much as it was an official meeting. There was horseback riding, water skiing and tours of the nearby Adirondack Museum, which Hochshild had created and which he subsidized until his death in 1981. And, no doubt, cocktails on the veranda at the violet hour.

Experts advising the Commission were invited to present talks on topics related to its work – protecting the Adirondacks from suburban sprawl, over-use and threats to the Forest Preserve. Among those experts was Vincent Schaefer.

Schaefer’s brother Paul is among the most influential Adirondack conservationists of the 20th cenury.

Vincent Schaefer is best known as the assistant of Dr. Irving Langmuir, the prominent Lake George conservationist and the first industrial scientist to become a Nobel Laureate.

Lacking the credential of a graduate or even a bachelors degree, Schaefer neverthless had pride of place among the eccentric but brilliant General Electric researchers assisting Langmuir with his most famous experiments – making better clouds – that is, clouds that could release rain or snow at will.

(The group included Bernard Vonnegut, novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, and Katherine Blodgett the first woman ever to receive a PhD from Cambridge University in physics and the first woman with a PhD to work at the GE Research Laboratory in Schenectady.)

By 1970, Schaefer had left GE and was working at SUNY Albany as the director of its Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. As someone who had grown up in the Adirondacks, Schaefer was anxious to see the Adirondack Park preserved as “a unique environmental entity.”

“To an increasing degree, those who seek the solace of this region will greatly increase in number. Care should be exercised now to control this new invasion…” he said. (His talk was later printed and distributed to the Study Commission’s members and staff. It can no doubt be found in the collections of papers at the Adirondack Museum.)

The title of Schaefer’s talk was “The Adirondacks as a Sanctuary from Pollution,” and as an atmospheric scientist, he was especially interested in air pollution.

“Few of the villages within the Park produce serious air pollution except where dumps, mills and auto traffic are dominant and offending factors… the much more serious air pollution problem confronting the Adirondacks relates to air pollution coming from a distance, beyond the borders of New York State. Only stringent laws and regulations at the federal level are likely to improve this situation,” Schaefer said.

Six months after Schaefer delivered his paper, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Clean Air Act, which mandated ambient air quality standards.

(The contribution of fossil fuels to air pollution had been a matter of concern to the New York State legislature since the early 60s, thanks in large part to the leadership of Watson Pomeroy, Chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources and another powerful advocate for the protection of the Adirondacks.)

Assuming “stringent laws and regulations at the federal level” were adopted and enforced, the Adirondack Park would remain a sanctuary from air pollution largely because of its forests. “Trees are the essential element in protection from pollution … the particulates and gasses of air pollution are filtered out by the fine structure of deciduous leaves and evergreen needles,” Schaefer said.

Recalling that Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had surmised that “evergreen forests have a powerful purifying effect upon the surrounding atmosphere” and had stressed “the importance of preserving our evergreen forests,” Schaefer said, “a tree – even a dead one – is more important where it has grown or died than at any other location. There are other parts of the United States far better suited to growing cellulose and related wood products than the Adirondacks.”

The Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the AdirondacksThe Temporary Study Commission submitted its final report to Governor Rockefeller in January, 1971. A regional agency that would regulate private land use, was, of course, the most important of its 181 recommendations. The Study Commission also re-affirmed its support Article XIV Section 1 of the New York State Constitution – the Forever Wild clause. That was among its more far sighted conclusions. If “wilderness holds answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask,” as the late Gary Randorf used to say, Vincent Schaefer’s argument that the Forest Preserve functioned as “an efficient filter for air” was a prescient one.

We now know that the Adirondack Park’s forests also inhale and sequester the heat-trapping carbon that contributes to climate change.

According Colin Beier, a professor of Forests and Natural Resources Management at SUNY ESF, 15% of the annual emissions of carbon from fossil fuels is already offset by American forest lands.

“Natural carbon sinks are natural climate solutions,” he says. “Forests are among our most efficient and cost effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.”

With 2.6 million acres of constitutionally-protected forest preserve lands in the Adirondacks, New York is better situated than most states to utilize its forests to reduce its carbon footprint.

It is one more argument – if any more arguments are needed – to present in defense of wilderness and its value to us.

Photos, from above: Vincent Schaefer with Irving Langmuir at the GE Research Lab in Schenectady, courtesy Roger Summerhayes; and The Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, with its staff, presents its findings to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Jan. 1971, courtesy Lake George Mirror.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

24 Responses

  1. Boreasfisher says:

    In a disenchanted world…Long live man! so say Gregory Corso…

  2. Phil Terrie says:


  3. Charlie S says:

    “Trees are the essential element in protection from pollution … the particulates and gasses of air pollution are filtered out by the fine structure of deciduous leaves and evergreen needles,” Schaefer said.

    > Trees also protect our water sources. In the “Second Annual Report Of The Forest Commission Of The State Of New York For The Year 1886” it states:
    “Both science and observation agree that forests are the great reservoirs that hoard the rainfall to feed our brooks and rivers. The streams of Europe, it is well known, have shrunk as the forest has been cut away. The destruction of our forests cannot but lead to the same disastrous results that long ago came to the old world.”

    “Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had surmised that “evergreen forests have a powerful purifying effect upon the surrounding atmosphere” ”

    > In the same “Annual Report for 1886” was writ:
    “There can be little doubt that forests are great equalizers of temperature, render the surrounding country less viable to violent winds, absorb malarial and noxious vapors and act in many ways beneficially to human health.”

    > In New York’s “Fifth Annual Report…1891” was said: “There would seem to be abundant proof that the clearing of forests tends, at certain periods, to diminish the flow of springs and the humidity of the soil, resulting in droughts, and at other periods to create torrents and floods.”
    They also said, “Without water there is no fertility – without forests there is no water.”

    We have known for a long time how important trees are, yet it seems as we progress (regress) in years we become less mindful of them as is evident by all of the destruction just up along the Rt. 9 corridor alone as to cite one mere example! They were smarter back in them earlier years.

    Trees are of the utmost import to the health of ecosystems and life in general I am a true believer. When I see another patch of woods come down, no matter how small those woods are, just so we can add more concrete and steel and plastic to the ever ugly artificial world we are creating…. I cannot help but think how so wrong it is this track we continue to take, all so that new tax havens can be created, because money is God!

    > In this same report (1891) it states: “The prosperity of some of the most valuable industries of the State depends in a large degree upon a proper conservation of its woodlands.” It’s too bad we don’t have industries that depend on the forests anymore, else we wouldn’t be allowing the petroleum industry up in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to tear up one of the last pristine wilderness’s on this ever so shrinking planet. Not we allowing….Nazi’s allowing!

  4. Charlie S says:

    “Keeping up a fit proportion of forest to arable land, is the prime condition of human health. If the trees go men must decay. Whoever works for the forests works for the happiness and permanence of our civilization. A tree may be an obstruction but it is never useless. Now is the time to work if we are to be blessed and not cursed by the people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The nation that neglects its forests is surely destined to ruin.”

    Eliza Wright, affiliated with the Forestry Association and who was a key player in obtaining the Massachusetts Forestry Act of 1882, said this. “ruin!” It sure seems like we’re on that track. They had some smart people back in them bygone days. Now look at us! Sit back and support (some of us support) these bastards who will see to it that every last sacred piece of land is sold off because………… who really gives a hoot about those generations yet to be! Because money is God!

  5. Boreas says:

    Many of the people mentioned in the article had time on their hands and were thus able to see a bigger picture. We need to make sure people like them today are heard and respected. We should all try to take a few minutes every day and rejoice for what we have been given, and to plan how to improve it for generations to come.

    People today have a hard time viewing Earth as a biosphere because we tend to be too busy with our lives to notice where we live. We all share the same atmosphere, even if we don’t share the same land. Two major interfaces between the land and atmosphere are water and plants. All animals, including us, require clean air, water, and plants. Plants were around long before land animals, and literally made it possible for organisms to crawl out of the ooze by creating an ozone layer (to shield us from UV radiation) and setting in motion carbon and water cycles. Depending on how long we want this biosphere to last, we need to preserve every element of it to the best of our ability. Politics will not do it. Humanity must do it.

  6. Jack B says:

    I’m sitting here in my beautiful home looking around at all my wood furniture, nice wood moldings and trim, realizing my house is stick built. Then I look outside and see my beautiful deck and wood shed for stuff. I’m respectively thinking that we should be careful here in our judgment of using trees. A tree is a tree regardless if it’s in a wilderness area or not. I must also say that nothing angers me more then seeing a stump in our Adirondacks especially where I spend time. But, just in the Adirondacks alone lots of things are made of wood that came from trees like: canoes, paddles, some boats, docks, decks, Adirondack Chairs, wood nic-nacks in all the souvenir shops, lean-to’s, Trail bridges, trees are cut down for new proposed trails, trail maintenance, ski trails, and parking lots. Outside the blue line the list is endless and NYS just passed a law banning plastic grocery bags meaning we have to pay and use paper bags, meaning more loss of trees. Where is the outrage on that? I know there are alternate methods and materials to replace trees but that alone brings more environmental hazards and cost to us all. I’m not defending the removal of trees,I’m just trying to respectfully give my opinion on the realities of the way things are and always will be.

    • Boreas says:

      All good points. Another reality is 7.8 billion humans and counting – all with a hunger for wood products. Until we find a suitable substitute, we will continue to deforest the planet. We either need to find a way to reduce our dependency on wood products or find a good way to scrub CO2 and produce oxygen on a massive scale. Photosynthesis is free and provides nice shade.

    • AG says:

      Well actually people are being encouraged to take re-usable bags or biodegradable of some form. Not necessarily paper. Most paper bags nowadays are from recycled paper – so it’s not really about cutting down more trees.

      • Boreas says:


        I love reusable bags. Saves me trips up and down the stairs because of the handles and strength of the bag. They come in handy for lots of other tasks as well. Hard to believe they took so long to catch on!

    • All the wood products you mention, besides being useful items, are also atmospheric carbon storage devices. The trees harvested to make those items are gone but much of the carbon they sequestered is still stored in the chairs and canoe paddles made. In addition, unless the land was converted to farmland or housing, new trees have regrown and are continuing to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

      • Boreas says:


        Points well taken, but what “new trees” are those? Where are we growing any significant new forests? We are not talking only about the Forest Preserve here – one of the few forests being restored – but globally. Old growth forest sequesters carbon on a larger scale than plantation forests that literally deplete the soils over time, just like any other crop that is removed from where it grew. And is anyone anywhere restoring or preserving enough old-growth forestland to continue carbon sequestering while still providing wood products for a global population out of control? The answer is no. The problem is, we have NO answer to our population growth and its effects on our planet.

        Carbon sequestering is most effective when forests are left alone to grow and die in place, and seas are kept healthy and not poisoned with chemicals and plastics while being over-fished. This is why we have coal and oil today – because animals and plants grew and died and their carbon-rich remains piled up for more than half a billion years. Taking half a billion years of sequestered carbon and throwing it into the atmosphere in a century or two will indeed have its consequences.

        In the long view, what we do with plastics, trees, energy, pollution, deforestation, ocean depletion, soil depletion, etc., etc., is analogous to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. What we have to control to save ourselves and life as we know it on Earth is to “manage” and control our own population. We are the causative factor, not the many symptoms we are seeing. Our continued explosive population growth is simply not sustainable. That is what we should be talking about – not how to sustain it.

        • Boreasfisher says:

          This is an interesting and provocative counter argument to population growth as the primary driver written probably for us boomers who grew up with The Population Bomb… It suggests that global population is now on a pathway to stabilization, and the larger problems today are driven by inequality. Worth considering …

        • Forest acres and tree volumes (stored carbon) have been steadily increasing in the northeast since 1910 based upon continuous forest inventories conducted by the US Forest Service. These increases are after removals and mortality. Old growth sequesters more only when you don’t account for carbon locked in products made from wood and ignore the environmental impact of using other raw materials. Sequestration isn’t the only variable to consider. If products are not made from wood, they are made from cement, plastic and other raw materials. Carbon emissions in manufacture of plastic tables and chairs far exceed those when the same products are made from wood. Steel 2×4 manufacture emits substantially more green house gas than that emitted via production of a 2×4 made from wood.

          • Boreas says:


            I am not saying our corner of NYS isn’t doing their part, my point is the changes that are occurring globally can’t be sustained. Less developed countries have different priorities, and often do not have the same options as wealthier countries. But they can have a lot of resources that can be exploited, just like we have been doing for centuries. And everyone exploits the oceans, the other important carbon sink. Something needs to change.

            • We can only control our actions and there is a lot we can do. Start with changing our behavior. The more fossil fuel we keep in the ground the bigger our contribution to impact climate change. This starts with personal sacrifice and behavior change. Smaller houses, smaller cars, less sprawl, etc. Then using wood for fuel, garbage for fuel (the ultimate in recycling) etc. Then solar, wind and hydro. The key to changing things world wide starts with setting a good example. Are we doing that?

              • AG says:

                indeed – simply starting with smaller cars and smaller houses by everyone would make a huge difference. I see they are bringing out electric Hummer’s soon. A Hummer is STILL a huge waste of resources for most people who buy them – even if it is electric.

                • All electricity comes from somewhere and most comes from burning fossil fuel. Thus an electric car doesn’t do much to stop emissions. Especially when you count the emissions from the manufacture of the car and battery.

                  • AG says:

                    Oh yes – I am fully aware… There is a car batter cult of Tesla out there… I was mainly pointing out to them (though most car makers seem to be building crossover/SUV’s as their first EV’s)… There argument is usually “oh well one day we will have an all renewable electric grid”. (they also refuse to ponder that hydrogen fuel cells aren’t perfect but can be viable too) And that will be the time I bring back out my statement. SUV’s are as wasteful as McMansion’s… People have less children but more wasteful stuff. That’s the problem with CO2.
                    But you are also correct that mining for the elements that make batteries is dirty business.

  7. Evelyn Greene says:


    Thank you for the fine article about Uncle Vince’s part in the TSC. I didn’t know this before. I knew he was a “nature nut” who never wanted to leave a puzzle unstudied but in this case he had the value of the wild forest figured out decades before most of the rest of us.

    Who is the other person in the picture?

  8. Boreas says:

    Here is something for any deep-thinkers out there – why IS plastic ubiquitous in our modern culture? It is a tough, cheap, and be made in virtually any form. These are also its downsides, and why state and nation-sized floating plastic mats are in the eddies of our oceans. Microplastics are now sinking to the ocean floor as well as other waterways and contaminating life there as well.

    Let’s look a little deeper. What is plastic made from? Petroleum. Who gains by giant quantities of plastics being manufactured? Petroleum companies. Are these same companies working diligently to find a way to efficiently recycle plastics and engineer plastics that are easily recyclable? If they are, is it working? Look at the oceans and other waterways, as well as landfills full of non-degradable plastic for an answer.

    On a separate topic, look at energy. What industry is best served by our reliance on petroleum products? What industry touts nuclear-derived power as unsafe because of risk of accidental and incidental release of radioactive materials, and even storage of nuclear waste is considered a reason to not go the nuclear route. Yes – petroleum companies – the same people at least partially responsible for plastic pollution and air pollution, including CO2 emissions that can contribute to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere. Is one form of contamination better than another? Which form of contamination is most likely? So basically, land, air, and water quality are all being effected by Big Oil and will continue at least into the near future.

    On yet another topic, what politician doesn’t have oil on their hands? Is there a stronger lobby than Big Oil? Who was really happy to see Citizens United enacted? Big Oil. Could this be a possible starting point for action and changes in our consumption?

    Anyone seeing a picture here? Where do we even begin to set things straight – condemning thinkers, research scientists, and environmental advocates? Acid rain, microplastics, and bulging landfills are already problems in OUR back yard. Renewed dependence on plantation-grown wood products may be a temporary measure, but with constantly increasing global populations, is it the smartest move as deforestation for palm oil plantations and livestock grazing continues unabated? It appears we ALL have some serious thinking to do. Let’s put on our thinking caps.

  9. Zephyr says:

    Every material has its pluses and minuses, including plastic and wood. As a consumer it is often very difficult to know what is the sustainable practice. For example, I have read articles arguing that reusable shopping bags are almost always worse for the environment than single-use plastic bags. It takes a lot of plastic or cotton or other material to make a reusable bag, along with lots of energy, and other pollutants. Not saying this article was correct, but it is a symptom of how hard it is to know what is truly the best course of action.

    • Boreas says:


      Excellent points. I feel reusable is ultimately better than disposable plastics, but that is my opinion. But the elephant in the room when it comes to consumer products is PACKAGING. Look at the enormous amount of “necessary” plastic and styrofoam we use in packaging everything we sell today. Then look at the amount of expense and additional plastic we use under the guise of “consumer safety” packaging – ie. tamper-proof and tamper-evident packaging. Also, with retail consumerism shifting to online sales, is it necessary to have attractive, plastic packaging, if point-of-sale has shifted to a computer or smart phone? All we need today is a nice electronic image of the product on-line and forget the expensive and typically non-recycled packaging. Things are changing fast – we need to have a long-term plan.

      • Zephyr says:

        I suspect almost any type of packaging is recyclable to a large extent, but the difficult part is making that process easy and economical. Already, we are seeing many municipal recycling programs being abandoned because the process has become too expensive and there is no market for the recycled material. At the consumer end, we tend to be terrible recyclers because the entire process is too difficult and unclear to many of us. For example, pizza boxes should be recyclable, but we can’t do it because they are polluted with food waste. Still, I see them all the time in recycling containers, meaning that load will be contaminated. I help run several large events and we tout the sustainable way we do them, but we have to station people at each recycling bin or else they instantly become cross-contaminated. Frankly, I don’t know what the low-hanging fruit is with regard to packaging and recycling. Paper and wood products are easily recyclable, but is the entire lifecycle actually better than something like plastic which might actually be reused over and over by the consumer? I utilize all sorts of plastic containers that originally packaged something else. If I wasn’t receiving those containers when I buy something like yoghurt I would instead have to go buy a container.

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