Whether we seek a wilderness, park, backyard, garden or streetscape, studies show we can expect an emotional, psychological, and physical benefit from regular outdoor activity, interactions with trees or woods, waters and views, however prosaic or sublime. The more we can focus on the natural world around us, the more our powers of awareness grow and the more our minds can grow quiet.
As the First World War slowly ended, another pandemic, influenza, was spreading around the world and killing tens of millions. The impact of losing so many young people so suddenly from that flu, coming on top of so many deaths and injuries resulting from the war itself, must been extremely profound. That time of death, threat and recovery motivated many to get outdoors and to push to acquire more public lands in which to literally “re-create” themselves.
Feelings of greater prosperity and new automobile road systems increased mobility, and contributed to egalitarianism (among men and women). The desire to regain or strengthen individual and collective health may contributed to an impulse to spend public money to buy parks and, in New York’s case, more land for the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve.
Forest Preserve author and historian Norman J. VanValkenburgh writes that:
“Chapter 569 of the Laws of 1916 made provision for the issuance of bonds in the amount of $10 million ‘for the acquisition of lands for state park purposes.’ Of this sum, a total of $7.5 million was to be made available for the purchase of lands for addition to the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (a private organization that had been formed in 1900 for the purpose of doing just what its name implies) conducted a vigorous campaign in cooperation with what was now called the Conservation Commission to ensure public acceptance and approval of the bond issue. Largely through these efforts, the People approved the referendum on November 7, 1916, by a vote of 650,349 for and 499,853 against.”
VanValkenburgh continues: “The Association (for the Protection of the Adirondacks) advocated and the Department adopted an acquisition program on a priority basis as follows: first, steep mountain slopes and mountaintops were to be acquired, especially in those areas where lumbering would destroy the forest cover and the scenic qualities; second, lands where extensive hardwood lumbering was being done were to be acquired; third, lumbered lands with negligible forest fire risks were to be acquired; fourth, recently lumbered lands were to be acquired; and fifth, burned over lands suitable for reforestation were to be the last type of lands to be considered for purchase.” This paragraph leaves little doubt how lumbering and forest fire had altered many parts of the Adirondacks in the early 20th century.
“The monies were to be expended for lands: 1. For the protection of existing Forest Preserve; 2. For watershed protection; 3. For soil conservation; 4. For climatological effects; 5. For recreational and health purposes; 6. For the preservation of scenic beauty; 7. For the consolidation of existing state holdings; and 8. For promotion of the local economy.”
VanValkenburgh writes further that: “As with all bond issues, it seemed to take forever to get the job done. It took until 1927 to spend the $7.5 million provided (for Forest Preserve). A total of 413 separate acquisitions were made, 341 by purchase and 72 by appropriation or condemnation, bringing nearly 49,000 acres into public ownership as part of the Catskill Forest Preserve and over 245,000 acres as addition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve… Significantly, over 75,000 acres were acquired in the so-called High Peaks region of Essex County. Included were all or parts of many of the 46 peaks over 4,000 feet high, including Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the state, and Whiteface, twice to be the site of the Winter Olympic Games. Indian Pass was acquired, as were Flowed Lands, Lake Colden and Avalanche Lake.”
Iconic and magnetic as a destination, Mount Marcy was in private hands until that time. The archives of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (now part of the holdings at the Union College Kelly Adirondack Center) tell the tale of how its board of trustees would not wait for the 1916 bond act to be spent. Whether impatient or realistic (about how quickly the state would appropriate the money) that organization voted to launch a private fundraising venture to acquire the mountain for the public.
The late Adirondack author and archivist Edith Pilcher writes that Mount Marcy belonged then partially to the MacIntyre Iron Company, partially to the Tahawus Club, and mostly to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve or AMR/Ausable Club in St. Hubert’s. The AMR was hopeful of negotiating with the state to sell five tracts of its land, including the mountain summit. It is notable that the then Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks vice president was also president of the AMR.
Post-First World War patriotism played an important role, evidenced by the decision (obviously unsuccessful) to try to rename Mount Marcy “Victory Mountain Park” as a memorial to the dead. According to Pilcher, the renaming of the mountain was proposed by the state conservation commissioner himself, George Pratt.
Fundraising pamphlets with that name were reproduced and distributed by the Association. While some amount was raised privately, the key to the final transaction turned out to be the public’s 1916 bond act. Fiscal transactions may have gone slowly, but the state’s surveyors were quickly out on the mountain’s slopes mapping the tract’s boundaries. Pilcher writes: “Only after their work was completed prior to the sale, did the AMR learn that the summit of Mt. Marcy actually belonged to them. The boundary line between townships crossed very close to the top.”
Other private Adirondack organizations also rallied to the cause of public land acquisition. VanValkenburgh writes that in 1917 the International Paper Company “began lumbering operations on its holdings in the McKenzie Mountain range between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.” The Shoreowners Association of Lake Placid urged that the state acquire the tract for the Forest Preserve. Norm VanValkenburgh writes that the Shoreowners offered $45,000 as a contribution to the state for the purchase. It was gratefully accepted, and we enjoy the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness today.
Today’s coronavirus spread coincides with another proposed bond act, Restore Mother Nature. I am hopeful it will pass as part of this year’s state budget and be approved at the ballot box in November.
For further reading see: Land Acquisition for New York State: An Historical Perspective by Norman J. VanValkenburgh (Catskill Center, 1985) and A Centennial History of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, 1901-2003, by Edith Pilcher (The Association, 2003).
Illustration: Sketch by Verplanck Colvin, Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, 1872-1899.