Thirty-three years ago, that champion of the Adirondack wilderness, Paul Schaefer, then aged 78, first introduced me to his Adirondack library. Among the first volumes he brought to my attention – because he valued it and had read it repeatedly since he was a younger man – was the transcript of the 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention in Albany – the one that, after weeks of debate, by vote of 122-0 approved the “forever wild” provision protective of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve.
The 54 words of Article XIV, Section 1 (the original numbering Art. VII, Sect. VII was altered in 1938) are that “the lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
These words have never been amended and remain highly relevant. Schaefer liked to impress upon me the fact that three of the five members of the 1894 Committee on Forest Preservation, the committee responsible for introducing the article at the convention, came from Adirondack counties. Their names were McLaughlin, McIntyre and Mereness. Later in 2020 the NYS Court of Appeals may hear a rare high court appeal brought by the state challenging an interpretation of some of those words decided by a lower court in 2019 (by a 4-1 margin against the state). The case is related to the extent of tree-cutting by the state in order to create a system of community connector snowmobile trails.
To my knowledge, this would be only the second test of Article XIV to reach the Court of Appeals. The other one is the famous “bobsled decision,” McDonald v. Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, which was reached by the Court in 1930. That decision blocked the state from constructing the Olympic bobsled run on the public’s Forest Preserve in North Elba near the village of Lake Placid. It did more. It upheld the lower Appellate Division 1929 decision blocking the bobsled run which echoes to the present day through the consequential words of Justice Hinman:
“Giving to the phrase ‘forever kept as wild forest lands’ the significance which the term ‘wild forest’ bears, we must conclude that the idea intended was a health resort and playground with the attributes of a wild forest park as distinguished from other parks so common to our civilization. We must preserve it in its wild nature, its trees, its rocks, its streams. It must be a great resort for the free use of all the people, but it must be a wild resort in which nature is given free rein. Its uses for health and pleasure must not be inconsistent with its preservation as forest lands in a wild state. It must always retain the character of a wilderness.”
Paul Schaefer occasionally liked to bring that 1894 convention transcript off its shelf and have me read sections of it. The convention came to life for me – those men, exclusively men, who took trains, horses, wagons, buggies, maybe even canal boats to Albany, dressed in their best attire that hot, late 19th century summer.
In 1989-90, Paul and I worked with the staff at the new Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Centers (VIC) at Paul Smith’s and Newcomb to create an audio-visual exhibit of the 1894 convention. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp, the Hochschild family, and members of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks funded the exhibit. Its producer was the Fred Brink’s Company out of Boston who came up with the actors and the studio to record certain passages from the 1894 transcript chosen for their dramatic effect. For instance, this portion of a speech by the 1894 delegate from Lewis County, Charles Mereness, was included in the audio exhibit:
“I have traversed this great forest with my boatman and skiff, and a pack on my back from Long Lake and Blue Mountain Lake on the southeast to Paul Smith’s on Lake St. Regis on the north; from the Fulton chain on the southwest to the lower Saranac on the north, and have frequented the places inhabited for centuries and, until recently, by the denizens of the forest; where the deer, the moose, the black bear, the beaver and many smaller animals flourished. The screech of the locomotives can now be heard, and time is fast approaching when the whole region will be made desolate and barren unless the hand of the despoiler is stayed. I implore you, do not longer hesitate to take measures to stop this outrage.”
Steve Horne and others at the APA’s Visitor Center program pulled the final exhibit together allowing the public to put on earphones and listen to those words uttered by 19th century men like Mereness of Lowville and David McClure of New York City. The exhibit lasted about a decade. The digital age dawned, the tape recorders wore out, a digital conversion was not made and the exhibit’s life came to an end.
Of the 1894 speeches featured at the VIC, none were of delegate Louis Marshall. Yet Paul Schaefer impressed upon me his knowledge that Louis Marshall acted behind the scenes at that convention to motivate and to help draft Article XIV, Section 1. That always seemed a great puzzle to me. If Louis Marshall was so instrumental to the article’s creation, why didn’t he make lots of speeches that summer and get more credit?
New York City attorney Louis Marshall was Bob, George and Jim Marshall’s father. All the Marshall children were brought up on Lower Saranac Lake to come to experience, love, value and eventually fight for the protection of wildness in America, each in their own unique ways. During their youth, their personal guide through the Adirondack mountain wilderness was Herb Clark. Bob founded the Wilderness Society in 1935. Bob may be better known than his father from the perspective of wilderness preservation, but practically everyone aware of the plight and persecution of Jews around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries knew the name Louis Marshall (1856-1929). He proved himself one of the world’s great civil rights activist-attorneys. Albany attorney, Marshall scholar and author Hank Greenberg told an Adirondack audience in 2007 that newspapers around the world reported daily on Louis Marshall’s health as he fell ill, rallied, and then succumbed in 1929. His health status was literally front-page news.
Part of my work for the organization Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve (Schaefer founded Friends in 1945) is to promote, champion and defend Article XIV. Paul Schaefer gave me his two-volume set of Louis Marshall: Champion of Liberty, Selected Marshall Papers and Addresses, 1957, edited by Charles Reznikoff and published by the Jewish Publication Society.
In Volume 2 of Champion of Liberty is found a partial answer to the mystery I sensed about Louis Marshall’s role in 1894. In the months before he died in 1929 Marshall wrote a letter to a member of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in which he describes his role in 1894 and urges the Association not to give in to the state’s desire in 1929 to construct the bobsled run on the Forest Preserve:
“The Association years ago adopted the policy in regard to Section 7 of Article VII of the Constitution, that its strict enforcement was absolutely necessary if the Adirondack and Catskill forest were to be preserved. My own views on this subject date back to 1894 , when, as a member of the Constitutional Convention held in that year, I was most active in formulating the amendment and in securing for it what was practically a unanimous vote of the members of the Convention. Every word in the provision was carefully weighed and numerous efforts were made to make the language more elastic, but those who had given the subject careful study…were of the opinion that this was not a subject to be trifled with and that a rigid rule should be laid down and rigidly enforced.”
Also included in Volume 2 of Champion of Liberty were Louis Marshall’s words at the 1915 Constitutional Convention in Albany. Several weakening amendments to allow sectioning off some parts of the Forest Preserve for lumbering and “scientific forestry” were up for debate that year and delegate Louis Marshall was determined to stop them from passing. He succeeded. None of the amendments passed. In his 1915 speech to fellow delegates he said:
“If I were asked to state what the most important action of the Convention of 1894 was, I should say without the slightest hesitation that it was the adoption of section 7 of article VII…which preserve in their wild state the Adirondack and Catskill forests….And it is as certain as anything on earth can be that if we in any way relax the limitations which we are now seeking to place upon the Adirondacks, our waterways are doomed and our agricultural lands are doomed. The value of these forest preserves lies in the fact that they constitute great reservoirs for our water. They are, as it were, huge sponges which hold the water as it flows and allow it to flow away as it is required. We have been guilty of the grossest carelessness and neglect in our past history. …millions of acres were sold at a price of five cents an acre, so that in 1872 the State owned no more than 40,000 acres of forest land…Now there is no middle course with regard to this question. It is not a question merely as to preserving a section of these forests. It is a question of preserving them in their entirety. It is not only a question of preserving what we have, but it is a question of adding to our forest domain, not slightly but largely, so that it will cover the entire region, in order that the Hudson River may not run dry, in order that the Mohawk may not run drier than it is, in order that our streams may not subside, in order that the subterranean flow of water shall not fall more than it has. ..And there is but one thing to reserve us from such a fate, and that is to preserve the forests as a pristine forest, as a wild forest, and not to allow lumbering to be carried on within it.”
By his own words, Louis Marshall had acknowledged his critical role in formulating the “forever wild” clause. Then, when the article was under severe attack in 1915 he forcefully defended it against powerful advocates for opening portions of the preserve to lumbering and road building. Louis Marshall’s fame spans civil rights and wilderness preservation. Professor Nicholas A. Robinson, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the Pace University School of Law, addressed the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 2007 this way:
“Surely Louis Marshall must have known (or at least hoped) that his own love of nature
and his love of justice and the rule of law would flow through to his children. It evidently did.
Just as his example has inspired his children, so their examples inspire us. It was my privilege to
share time and a common conviction with Jim Marshall, which he had had with his Father, that
the laws of nature and the laws of humans are ultimately but one and deserve to be united.
The fate of Article XIV and the Forest Preserve are still at risk today, and will be tested
again as the effects of climate change force our legislators to remake State policy and law.
Conservationists need to anticipate these new challenges, and to assist this rethinking, I have
taken the time to spell out my ideas in writing, hoping to entice you to read the arguably dry and
dull words that follow. Climate change is changing all our conservation benchmarks, and
organizations like the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks will need to guide the
meaning of “forever wild” to hold fast to its core values, and implant them firmly in the new
conditions that are emerging” (from his paper “Forever Wild”: New York’s Constitutional Mandates to Enhance the Forest Preserve by Nicholas A. Robinson, February 15, 2007).