Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The End of Arbitrary Powers to Dam Adirondack Rivers

indian river

The State Legislature has just adjourned, but on a good many nights this past month I grew sleepy watching legislative TV or legislative proceedings on the internet. For the non-debate pieces of legislation, meaning when the legislative majority is not allowing minority debate on bills, the viewer is treated to the following exchanges in a monotone, one after the other:  The speaker or his representative, or the Senate president or her representative: “The clerk will read the bill.” The clerk: “a bill to” …whatever it does. The speaker or his representative: “The clerk will read the final section.” The clerk: “this act shall take effect immediately.” The speaker, president or their representative: “The vote: 63 in favor. The bill is passed.” All of that has taken less than ten seconds. Next.

The votes, usually unanimous from the party in the majority, were tallied earlier. That is how dozens of bills get passed this time of the year. Some of them are very important bills, affecting people in all sorts of important ways. To be honest, when allowed by the majority some of the debates on the floor are, in fact, interesting to listen to.

There are less predictable moments than these.  I witnessed a few related to protection of the Adirondacks, especially following the Adirondack Park’s Centennial year (1992) when there was plenty of tension surrounding legislation, such as the statewide Environmental Protection Fund which passed both chambers around 4 in the morning in June 1993.

However, nothing I ever witnessed or heard about from others rivaled an event witnessed at the State Capitol by the late Adirondack wilderness coalition leader Paul Schaefer. Paul asked several of us who heard him tell this tale one evening not to mention it afterwards or, if we did, never to mention names. The event Paul witnessed took place in 1953. Only about 40 years had passed since Paul told us about it one evening at his Adirondack cabin. As of 1992, Paul felt the people involved might very well still be alive and, if so, might be embarrassed to read the story.

Paul died in 1996. I have kept my promise to him not to tell the story. I am sure others in the room have as well. Now, 68 years since the event in question I feel that even Paul would be all right with my inadequate attempt to retell it without naming names.

Saving Adirondack Rivers via the State Constitution’s Article 14: A piece of state legislation with great consequence for Adirondack free-flowing rivers was on third and final reading in the State Senate in the spring of 1953. It would amend Section 2 of Article 14 of the NYS Constitution that since 1913 had authorized up to 3 % of the Forest Preserve “for the construction and maintenance of reservoirs for municipal water supply, for the canals of the state, and for the construction of reservoirs to regulate the flow of streams.” At issue in 1953 was the final purpose of Section 2, reservoirs to regulate the flow of streams.

Between the two World Wars and especially just after WWII, powerful upstate political, commercial, and industrial interests had combined their influence to promote the engineering and construction of large hydroelectric dams on north country rivers to power industry. Due to a controversial 1913 amendment, our “forever wild” constitution allowed up to 3 % of Forest Preserve, many tens of thousands of acres, to be flooded for that purpose.

Dams proposed to be built on the South Branch of the Moose River, Higley and Panther Mountain dams, were just two of several dozen dams proposed by the powerful River Regulating Boards of the state (forerunner of the current Hudson River-Black River Regulating District). Several dozen more were also planned elsewhere in the Adirondacks, including plans to build higher dams and expand the size of Piseco Lake, Lake Pleasant, Goodnow Flow, Cedar River Flow, Elm Lake, Thirteenth Lake, Boreas Ponds, Cheney Pond, the Upper Hudson River, Schroon River, Indian Lake, and the Essex Chain of Lakes.  These projects were couched to have the public benefit of flood control but were actually to spin turbines and power industries in cities downstream, such as Watertown.

Grassroots Campaign against the Dams: Beginning in late 1945 Paul Schaefer led the Moose River Committee’s broad-based opposition to these Adirondack dams. This coalition backing the Moose River Committee was very broad-based. It included garden club members, teachers, electrical unions, hunters, fishers, car salesmen, kids with newspaper runs, and one could go on. Hundreds of meetings were held, tens of thousands of pamphlets distributed, several home-made motion picture movies shown of the threat the dams and resulting reservoirs posed to deer wintering yards, fish and other forest wildlife, trails and favored hunting and fishing grounds.

It was all a very close call, politically speaking. As Paul Schaefer wrote during that decade of 1945-55, “at present a river regulating board can propose a dam anywhere in the State, can hold hearings, then can ignore those hearings and decide to proceed with its plans regardless of any objections.” Such river regulating boards “can ignore any evidence that such a dam may not be in the public interest and proceed to build it – and no state officer, no state department, the Legislature or any elected official can overrule” the River Regulating Board.

Right after WW II, Governor Dewey, and the State’s Attorney General both agreed they had no power to block dams like Higley and Panther deep within the Adirondack forest. Legislative leaders agreed. Paul Schaefer’s committee and grassroots organizing appeared to be a lost cause before it had even begun.

The Importance of the Legislative Study of Rivers: But, by 1949 something important happened which began to even the odds. Paul and allies convinced the NYS Assembly Speaker Oswald Heck and Assemblyman John Ostrander to create the Legislative Committee on River Regulation to study the issues surrounding the regulation of the state’s river flow and the building of multiple reservoirs. Ostrander called the first meeting to examine the Higley and Panther Mountain reservoir proposals. Paul Schaefer volunteered to be the Ostrander committee’s secretary. Sunlight would finally be shed on the dam proposals, and sunlight is a powerful disinfectant.

ostrander and schaefer

Out of that first meeting grew a series of public hearings in Schenectady, Buffalo, Albany, Watertown, Cranberry Lake and New York City. Published reports of the Ostrander committee’s hearings followed. At one hearing, in Buffalo, State Comptroller Frank Moore, later to become Lt. Governor, rose to say, “I am wholeheartedly in favor of a constitutional amendment which will grant to the people of this state the right to approve or reject in referendum proposals to construct reservoirs in the Adirondack Park.”

Moore’s dramatic proposal, to strip from Section 2, of Article 14 the constitutional right to use up to 3 % of the Forest Preserve for the regulation of streams (read reservoirs), but instead to put the question of more dam building directly into the hands of the public posed a significant threat to the power of the river regulating districts and their allies. Moore’s position stiffened the spine of others and suddenly there was a movement to amend Article 14 as the surest way to preserve free-flowing Adirondack rivers. It was called Amendment No. 9.

Amendment No. 9: “Amendment Number 9 will end the exercise of such arbitrary power,” Schaefer wrote. “It will provide an effective check on the state’s most notorious, freewheeling, unregulated, quasi-public committee. It will ensure that the incomparable natural beauties of your Forest Preserve shall remain dedicated to watershed protection and as a permanent recreational area for all the people of the state.”

For the first few years, the amendment failed to pass in the state legislature, so powerful were the political, industrial, and commercial forces arrayed against it. It was defeated in the legislatures of 1949, 1950 and 1951. But grassroots momentum for its passage had been building throughout these years. Conservationists from across the state, but also from other states, and staff from the federal US Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and Soil Conservation services testified at the public hearings about the importance of maintaining Adirondack rivers in their free-flowing, natural condition. Publicity surrounding the hearings and findings of the Legislative Committee on River Regulation was, of course, led by Paul Schaefer. In this PR campaign he had a lot of help from the members of the Moose River Committee. During this time Paul created Friends of the Forest Preserve as an umbrella under which many organizations could rally to protect the preserve.

Amendment No. 9 to prohibit all dams that regulate the flow of streams if the reservoirs involved any portion of the Adirondack Forest Preserve finally passed the state legislature in 1952. But amendments to the State Constitution require votes by two separately elected legislatures. So, following the 1952 election a new legislature was considering the amendment in 1953 when the events Paul Schaefer told us about at his cabin in 1992 took place. Again, at Paul’s insistence I leave out the names.

Drama in the State Senate: As Paul told us the story, the State Assembly had already passed Amendment No. 9 for the second time and now it was before the State Senate for a second passage. Paul Schaefer was sitting in the gallery above the Senate chamber eagerly anticipating the day’s vote. In fact, the amendment was sitting on the desk of the Senate President. That office happened to be occupied that day by the Lt. Governor. The Lt. Governor had just asked the clerk to read Amendment No. 9 when a Senator from Watertown approached the desk. As the Lt. Governor watched, the State Senator took the bill in his hand and quickly walked out of the Senate chamber. The Lt. Governor said in a loud voice to his aide to “get that man and stop him.”

The aide quickly left the chamber himself and followed the State Senator down the hall into a nearby washroom. On entering, the aide found the Senator flushing the bill to amend Article 14 down the toilet. The aide pushed the Senator aside, grabbed the wet piece of legislation and returned to the Senate chamber. After handing the dripping bill to the Lt. Governor, the latter was heard to say: “the next man who tries to take this bill I will personally hit with this gavel.”

The People Decide: The bill to amend Article 14 passed the Senate on that day and went before the voters in November 1953. The final tally was 1,002,462 in favor, 697,270 opposed, a margin of just over 300,000 votes. The victory had great consequence. It ensured from that day to this that, as Schaefer wrote, “any proposal to build a dam in the Forest Preserve will get a full airing before the Legislature and the people, and in each case will be decided upon its merits. This will make it extremely difficult for private interests to invade the Forest Preserve with the excuse the dam is necessary unless they were in a position to prove their point.”

With this victory Paul Schaefer’s grassroots coalition, the Moose River Committee, had gained state and national stature. Two years later, in 1955, the same powerful commercial interests of 1945-53 got Panther Mountain dam on the South Branch of the Moose River onto the state ballot. It had to gain public approval as a consequence of the 1953 amendment. A small portion of the Panther Mtn reservoir would impact on the Forest Preserve. Therefore, the people were the ultimate arbiter, not the regulating district. In 1955, Panther Mtn reservoir was defeated by over a million votes statewide, or 700,000 more votes than the conservationists received in 1953.

After that vote, Paul Schaefer wrote: “It seems incredible that even with all this help we were able to pull back from the brink of disaster to that marvelous Moose River country. A citizen may not have title to his home, but he does have an undivided deed to his Adirondack land of solitude, peace and tranquility. To him the South Branch of the Moose River is a river of opportunity, for he has come to regard it as the front line of defense against commercial exploitation of his Forest Preserve. We have been on the defensive too long. It is time to gather our forces and accomplish things that heretofore have been but dreams.”

Lessons: Whenever I feel discouraged by the State Legislature’s, or the DEC’s, or the APA’s or the Governor’s failure to advance something important for the Adirondack Park or the NYS Forest Preserve, I know Paul Schaefer would be telling me once again about the Moose River Committee, ordinary people joined together in ten years of struggle against powerful opponents. They experienced numerous setbacks and faced grievous disappointments. Yet, thanks to their broad base of support, perseverance, love for the wild outdoors, publicity, strategic and tactical moves, and influence with state leaders they enjoyed ultimate success with the voters. The majority of voters in 1953-55 were not fooled by the false dichotomy presented to them of the environment versus the economy. They viewed the conservation of the Adirondack Park’s wild, free-flowing rivers not pitted against its economy, but a very source of Adirondack economic strength. It is indeed time again to gather our forces and accomplish things that heretofore have been but dreams.

Photos: The Indian River in today’s Moose River Plains Wild Forest, which would have been flooded out by the dams. Photo by Paul Schaefer

Assemblymember John Ostrander, chair of the Legislative Committee on River Regulation, left, with Paul Schaefer, middle, c. 1949

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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.

12 Responses

  1. JB says:

    Thanks for bringing to light a shocking episode from history that I had not been aware of. The lesson I would hope that we would all take away from this is that we cannot become complacent and take what we have for granted. I think that, in general, we in the developed world have become lulled into a false sense of security by the peace and prosperity of the past several decades, and the same goes doubly for those who care about the Adirondacks. Serious threats to the integrity of the forest preserve lurk just around the corner–for example, overuse and growing development pressures both on public and private lands–and rapid changes are afoot. Let us hope that protecting the Park from the modern (but not new) dangers that it faces is still a top priority for a public that has been bemused by recent events and the ensuing hyperbolically warped mass hysteria that inevitably prevents us from being able to remember and understand cause and effect in a way which is nuanced enough to protect something as intricate as the natural world.

  2. Tony Goodwin says:

    Those dams were not only a major threat to the Forest Preserve, but in the end not really needed. In that same era, David Brower of the Sierra Club used some pretty “radical” tactics to stop a a dam at Marble Canyon that would have flooded part of the Grand Canyon. This dam was not only a threat to a National Park, but alsoxz totally unnecessary. So thanks to Paul Schaefer and others who vehemently opposed those proposed Adirondack dams.

    However, the threat of such major “un-environmental” projects has passed, and I believe other much lesser projects on the Forest Preserve do not pose the same threat as the earlier dam projects.

    Specifically, I disagree with the recent Court of Appeals decision regarding the “Community Connector” snowmobile trail construction case. Yes, those trails will cut many trees in the Forest Preserve, but it will be in a narrow, linear corridor. The width will be limited to nine feet -not the 25-foot-wide “Michigan standard” favored by snowmobilers.

    These trails are narrow enough to preserve an intact leaf canopy, and the guidance on snowmobile construction, without actually saying so, prohibits bulldozers from being used in construction. Only small excavators can comply.

    Remember that the major pieces of the proposed 69,000 acres to be added to the Forest Preserve were within the towns of Newcomb, Indian Lake, Long Lake, and North Hudson. With the promise of the community connector snowmobile trails (and the resulting economic benefit), these towns elected not to oppose the addition of more state land.

    So, now it appears that the initial promises to the most-affected towns will be reduced to a “just kidding promise, why did you expect the state could ever follow-through on the initial promises.”

    I am of the opinion that a few miles of new snowmobile trails in exchange for 69,00 acres of additional Forest Preserve was a very reasonable trade-off. Now that this promise has been broken, what will likely be the response to any towns going forward if there is a proposal to add more Forest Preserve in those towns?

    • Mick Finn says:

      Tony, I have documents proving fraud in the acquisition. The land should be returned to private ownership.

    • TSM says:

      Mr. Goodwin wrongly uses the term “promised”. As was written in the article by Mr. Adato on June 13, “What was said and what was heard in the meeting room isn’t clear. Former DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens, now a Lake Placid-based member of the Adirondack Land Trust’s board, said he and his deputies made no promises but did embrace the concept of the snowmobiling corridors that the town leaders desired. If local officials feel burned now, he said, they should know the state planners did their best. “I can understand why they would perceive these as promises … but these were objectives that we shared realizing that there was a process that we had to go through and with no guarantee,” Martens said. In addition, a so-called “promise” that is potentially in violation of the 14th Amendment (and in which the Court’s ultimately ruled was illegal) should clearly had be known to be an iffy and uncertain proposition. The Court’s got it right. Also, I question the appropriateness of commenting about an article about dams and pivoting to a comment mostly about the snowmobile connector trail. It appears the comments the article on the dams was just an excuse to talk about the Court of Appeals decision on the snowmobile connector ruling.

    • JB says:

      Tony, I think that you replied in response to my comment about “development on public lands”. I did not mean to appear to be singling out the community connector trails as the largest threat to the Park. Just about anyone who spends time year round in the Park has seen that snowmobilers have peacefully coexisted with the forest preserve for many decades. More, I believe that the problem lies in the cumulative impact of all of the development that I see coming from both the State and local governments and private citizens. I have seen year after year of continual development since about 2010, new trails and rapidly accelerating development in once quiet places, and it makes me wonder when people will ever be satisfied? What is the necessary amount of development? When does it become undesirable? Even with the additional influx of people and interest from COVID, in some cases pushing places to their breaking points, the cries for increasing economic utilization continue unabated, more vigorous even. My point is that people worried about the economy should maybe take a step back and see how things pan out before settling definitively upon where our priorities need to be. On a positive note, I do see some evidence of a potential opportunity for a course correction coming from DEC and APA, for example, with the Visitor Use Monitoring program. But then again, they could easily screw that up…Thus, my hope that cooler heads will prevail. Will my fears come true that recent trends, extrapolated, will come to their most unfortunate and extreme conclusion? Maybe not. But are those fears completely unfounded? Definitely not.

  3. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The majority of voters in 1953-55 were not fooled by the false dichotomy presented to them of the environment versus the economy.”

    This was a good read! It gives one a sense of hope! There have been some other examples, some in the very recent past, where the good fight to protect this or that ecosystem, was won after standing up against powerful corporate forces. One good example is the Keystone pipeline! Paul Schaefer is the one who made it possible my first early camping experiences in the Adirondacks, ie… the Moose River Plains, which would have been flooded over were it not for his stamina and love for this region, etc.

    • David Gibson says:

      Thank you, Charlie. I’m glad you got that sense of hope out of the piece, and tie it to your own camping experiences. I appreciate your comments.
      Dave, Adirondack Wild

  4. John Boy says:

    If a smiling Bureaucrat’scommitment or a so so bargaining commitment was made too develop Corridor community Connector snowmobile trails then it should be put in front of the people as a constitutional amendment. This after the courts have had their say on what size a tree is and the point is well-taken that the failure to address communities economic needs will certainly chill additional land additions too this fine peoples Park

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “the failure to address communities economic needs..”

    > When does it end John Boy? This carrot that is ever being dangled, or spun…about economy? “We need money to fill the town coffers!” “We need jobs to put people to work so they can pay their bills!” We need! We need! At what expense? The failure is in ‘the need’ itself, that we have even come this far. Fifty years from now it’s going to be the same thing…”We need money!”  Then what? How much more will we take away because ‘we need?’ How much will be left by then?

    The problem lies deeper than what appears on the surface. We’ve talked about it in the past, population overload. Imagine what it will be like in fifty years John Boy when 2 billion more people are on planet Earth! I doubt we’ll be talking about economy then!  And I highly doubt the Adirondacks are going to be what they are today, which is …still somewhat of a sacred haven, still with a large air of purity to it.

  6. Todd Eastman says:

    Government handouts acceptable to GOPers…

    … government assistance to create a motorized sport economy in their regions…?