Sunday, January 17, 2021

Driving the Northway with Paul Schaefer

As the decade of the 1990’s began, noted Adirondack conservationist and wilderness coalition leader Paul Schaefer’s eyesight was failing. He had macular degeneration. We had noticed that this skilled carpenter, home and cabin builder and historic restorationist was no longer hitting the nail squarely on its head.

We worried about him continuing to drive. Some of us were eager to drive him to meetings or to his Adirondack cabin and, increasingly, he accepted our invitations. He had a lot to say to those who drove him or sat with him in his living room or at his Adirondack cabin before a blazing fireplace. Paul liked his fires hot.

His larger-than-life experiences, salted with many humorous moments, crackled along with the logs in his hearth. Paul laughed heartily in recounting his adventures, and those of us privileged to sit with him joined right in.

In his later years, Paul (1908-1996) had become a mentor to me and many wilderness advocates who flocked to his door to listen to his eye-opening Adirondack stories of hunting, fishing, film-making and wilderness campaigning; how, for example, his citizen coalition had managed to defeat New York’s political elite by blocking the construction of Higley and Panther Mountain Dams on the South Branch of the Moose River, a campaign that took ten years (1945-55), and how another of Paul’s coalitions defeated the US Army Corps of Engineers and powerful New York City interests by preventing the construction of huge Gooley No. 1 Dam and several other proposed dams on the Upper Hudson River between Luzerne and Newcomb two decades later. By 1990, Schaefer had known and influenced the attitudes and actions towards the Adirondacks of nine New York Governors, beginning with Al Smith and concluding with Mario Cuomo. He had worked successfully with national wilderness leaders like Bob and George Marshall and Howard Zahniser, chief lobbyist and draftsman for the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964.

In the car or by the fireplace we listened, absorbed, and learned what lessons we could from Paul, hoping to be more effective ourselves as the new decade of the 1990s began. One winter’s day in 1991 I drove Paul to the DEC regional suboffice in Warrensburg for a meeting of the NYS DEC’s Region 5 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee. During the drive north, Paul wanted to talk about the work of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century which had issued its final report the prior year, but which continued to stir strong emotions on all sides.

Paul regretted the mistrust and suspicion about the report still manifest on that day, particularly about the land protection map that accompanied the Commission’s report and how it was perceived by landowners, sporting interests and others. Paul was firm about its long-term benefits but worried about its short-term consequences. Ever the optimist, Paul likened the process since the unveiling of the Commission’s report to the building of I-87, the Adirondack Northway. The construction of the Northway, he felt, accelerated the demand for Adirondack land and the need to look far ahead and plan for the future better than we were doing. The whole process of land development was so accelerated by the opening of the Northway in 1967 that it resulted in the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1971, he believed. Similarly, Paul said he viewed the report of the 1990 Commission and its map as furiously hurtling all of us into the unknown, but Paul believed it would be change for the better.

Paul’s monologue about the work of the Commission and reference to the Northway led me at some later get-together to ask him about I-87, the Adirondack Northway, and how and why it was constructed and why it was routed the way that it was through the Adirondacks.

To my amazement, Paul related how, in 1957 he had been named the chair of a citizens advisory committee to advise the State Department of Transportation and the Conservation Department on the routing of the Northway. I remember thinking to myself “what in Adirondack affairs has not met with Paul’s influence”? Then I thought “so that’s why Paul has been so effective, he manages to insert himself as a crucial player on influential committees at the right time.” I recalled reading in Paul’s magazine, The Forest Preserve, how he managed to be named the secretary to the Joint Legislative Committee on River Regulation which from 1948 on grew to become highly influential in the battles to block the dams on the So. Branch Moose River.

As Paul told me the story, by 1958 the Northway was at the design stage and Governor Averill Harriman’s Conservation Commissioner, a man named Sharon Mauhs, knew Paul and Paul knew Sharon. Paul was firm with him on one particular point. Schaefer wanted the Northway route to avoid impacting an area he considered had great potential as a future Wilderness, Pharaoh Lake, Pharaoh Mountain, and the area’s myriad smaller ponds. While the so-called Champlain Valley route would not run right through this area, it would run just to its east and affect the area’s potential as a future designated Wilderness area, according to Paul.

Yet, the Champlain Valley route was favored by engineers within Harriman’s Department of Transportation and by many conservationists as well. It was relatively flat farmland. It would impact virtually no existing Forest Preserve. It was easier to engineer and maintain and was already thoroughly surveyed. These were great advantages. Paul thought differently. It would impact upon the Pharaoh Lake area, he felt. Even knowing it would have to be approved by constitutional amendment due to the amount of Forest Preserve it would have to cross, he advised Mauhs to route the Northway on higher elevations west of Pharaoh Lake.

Paul’s stance in favor of the “mountain route” for the Northway drew heat immediately from the State of New York and from other conservation interests. At one point, he told me, Governor Harriman called Sharon Mauhs to telephone Paul Schaefer to tell Paul to stop opposing the Champlain valley route. Mauhs did call Paul to firmly tell him to back off. Paul recalled his response: “No way, Sharon, will I back down. That route must not impact the Pharaoh Lake area.” Years later, those of us driving Paul to his cabin or to a meeting listened as he extolled the beauty of the Northway route he had favored around and just north of Chestertown, looking northeast towards what became the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area.

After Paul’s lifetime I recall speaking with other conservation leaders who had opposed the route that Paul favored, and opposed it fiercely because of what that chosen route would and did impact. Leaders of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) were joined by others who strongly felt that the route favored by Schaefer would forever mar the Schroon River and other beautiful wild valleys that were Forest Preserve, places such as Gui Pond. Quoting the position of the ADK, Eleanor Brown in her book The Forest Preserve of New York, A Handbook for Conservationists noted that the mountain route amounted to “plundering of the Forest Preserve.” Some ADK members had thoroughly documented the damage that the Northway’s mountain route would do to some valued Adirondack valleys. David Newhouse, former president of the ADK and later of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks knew Paul well and worked closely with him in many Forest Preserve causes but told me that when it came to the controversy over the Northway, “Paul was in bad odor with some of us.”

Paul’s influence with Governors Harriman and Rockefeller notwithstanding, the Northway’s mountain route had plenty of local political and business support. Adirondack author Edith Pilcher wrote that “Adirondack business interests preferred a more scenic route through the mountains, paralleling Route 9, which they hoped would benefit towns and villages along the way.”  Eleanor Brown made that point about the mountain route more explicit in her book, citing the benefits of not needing to condemn so much private land in the Champlain Valley: “The mountain route promoters blanketed the state with more than 220,000 pieces of literature advertising a $28 million saving for taxpayers on land purchases along with the alleged preservation of Champlain valley farmlands. They also put their message on 40 billboards in the New York City area just before Election Day.”

“In any case,” Eleanor Brown’s book continued, in a 1959 election day constitutional amendment of Article XIV (“forever wild” clause protective of the Forest Preserve) the Northway along its mountain route “was approved by the voters by a seven percent margin. As built, it took 291 acres and crossed seven and a half miles of the Forest Preserve, the longest single stretch being three miles…the design and construction of the highway have received many national commendations, and the 84-mile section from Lake George to Keeseville was singled out in 1966-67 as the country’s most scenic highway.”

Paul Schaefer helped turn me and others my age into passionate forever wild advocates. Were I voting age in 1959, I might have sided with ADK and not with Paul in fighting to route the Northway onto the Champlain valley, far from the Forest Preserve.  Then again, Paul Schaefer was a forceful and persuasive conservation leader. He was broad-minded in that he rarely viewed the structural or built environments and wilderness as antithetical. Combined in him were an optimistic outlook, passion for wilderness, strategic politics, great craftsmanship and appreciation of regional history that made him one of the state’s early historic restorationists. His building restorations in Schenectady’s Stockade District, the state’s first historic district, and of portions of historic Camp Knollwood on Lower Saranac Lake are just two of many examples.

We all wish we could speak to the departed and I have many questions I would like to ask Paul Schaefer. Recalling the pleasure he took in windshield views north of Chestertown and given his keen eye for natural siting and design of the built environment, was his favoring the mountain route as much an aesthetic choice as one protective of a future Pharaoh Lake wilderness? I think so.

C. 1959, Paul Schaefer, left, prepares to fly over the Adirondacks with State Senator Watson Pomeroy, chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources

Paul Schaefer, left, meets with Joe Martens, Governor Mario Cuomo’s secretary for the environment, in 1994 at Paul’s home. Photo by Ken Rimany.

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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. Great story! Thx for sharing.

  2. louis curth says:

    Thanks to Dave Gibson for an insightful story about Paul Schaefer. That “forceful and persuasive conservation leader”, described by Dave in his story, also had a big influence on me in my early days as a neophyte state forest ranger.

    Older rangers seemed to be familiar with this Schaefer fellow and they spoke well of him. One day, I heard that Paul would be leading a meeting to raise public awareness about a proposal which would adversely affect my Adirondacks – the place that I called home. I decided that I’d better go and hear what he had to say.

    At that meeting, I met Paul Schaefer for the first time, and that day he convinced me, and a lot of others, that the Gooley Dam project to back up the Hudson River and flood the “blue ledges” and the village of Newcomb was a VERY bad idea that needed to be stopped!

    My journey toward becoming an environmental activist took a giant leap forward that day – influenced by the vision and sincerity of Paul Schaefer. He was a true champion of conservation.

  3. Thank you David. I wonder if Paul had any comments about James A. FitzPatrick who in 1954 introduced the bill to establish the Northway.

  4. Smitty says:

    Great story. 50+ years later it’s easy to just assume that the Northway route and free flowing Hudson were somehow preordained. I guess not! Schaefer was one of those rare visionaries that we owe so much to.

  5. Bob Bender says:

    Due to my Dad’s association with Paul, we as a family got to hike and visit with him in front of his huge fireplace.
    I believe Paul one of the most, if not the most influential person I ever met.
    I enjoyed this article.

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “his citizen coalition had managed to defeat New York’s political elite by blocking the construction of Higley and Panther Mountain Dams on the South Branch of the Moose River…”

    Thanks to Paul Schaefer we have the Moose River Recreation Area to go to and enjoy a true wilderness experience. They were going to flood the Plains with these dams. My earliest recollections of the Adirondacks go back to my camping days and nights in this most wonderful of Adirondack havens!

    My business brought me into at least two of the houses that Paul built in Niskayuna. They are unlike any other houses I have been in, and once you get to know one of his houses driving through that area, you can pick out with ease the other houses he built there. It was not uncommon for me to say, as I passed through that community, “There’s a Paul Schaefer house!” He used recycled materials to construct the insides. He was an individual for sure. He even left a list with the homeowners, of the recycled material he used, and where he got those materials from, whether it be Vermont or Washington County, NY. One house I worked-in that Paul built has a shed in the backyard which looks just like a lean-to. He was an individual for sure!

  7. Chris Ballantyne says:

    Truly a great read Dave. And I enjoyed the picture of Paul and young Neil Woolworth. Please keep up the great work.

  8. Chris Card says:

    Thank you