Tuesday, July 6, 2021

A Conversation with Aaron Mair

Aaron MairBy David Crews

Aaron Mair of Schenectady, New York served as 57th President of the National Sierra Club. A retired epidemiological-spatial analyst with the New York State Department of Health, Mair’s experience includes more than three decades of environmental activism and over twenty-five years as a Sierra Club wilderness volunteer leader, where he has worked diligently for environmental justice. Mr. Mair recently joined the Adirondack Council to direct a “Forever Adirondack Campaign” to protect clean water, jobs, and wilderness. Editor and wilderness advocate, David Crews, had a chance to talk with Aaron about the inescapable mutuality of connection from Yosemite to the Hudson Valley and Adirondacks. This interview was previously published in Adirondack PEEKS, and is forthcoming in Wild Northeast (2021). (Reused by permission, thanks to John Sheehan at the Adirondack Council)

DAVID: We’re on, Aaron. First, have you been to Yosemite? You’ve got that computer backdrop there with that iconic view—isn’t the Sierra Club out there?

AARON: Well, the Sierra Club is based in San Francisco. And as you notice, Yosemite is basically to the east of San Francisco. And the answer is absolutely, yes. I’ve been to most of the major national parks (with the exception of Denali). I was supposed to do an event with Jane Goodall in Hawaii before an international consortium of environmental conservationists but because of health reasons I had to postpone, and so that was a thing like anything else: you plan for, it’s all set up, and then your health fails. Even with some of the best plans and timely events things like health can intervene. And so, we often say among environmental justice activists: self-care is a critical piece of survival. Countless brilliant minds and activists fall short, because they really are burning all ends of the candle. And, you know, you fail to realize that with passion sometimes you feel no pain. I’m pretty fortunate in that I’ve got a lot of family and friends who try to, you know, slow me down the best they can.

So I can imagine the day John Muir walked into the heights of Yosemite Valley. How does a human being, who has a deep sense of spiritual connectivity to all things, not drop to their knees? The early founders of the conservation movement said we had to protect this place, that it was a fingerprint of God on earth. So it’s a very powerful, spiritual, deep place. And for Native American tribes like the Miwuk and Mono Paiute peoples, it was the last place of refuge where the white man did not get into, a sacred place people tried to hide away from the encroaching civilization of the racist Manifest Destiny doctrine. Like many First Nation peoples on their lands in America, they were pushed to the edge of existence and erasure from the Yosemite Valley. Tragically, you can look all around the Yosemite or even the Adirondacks and see the greatness of creation, and Indigenous peoples lived in harmony with these lands until the last minute. And this is why we must be mindful of their history and the real story of how these sacred beautiful places have now become ours. It is very powerful on so many levels when you have a deep sense of history, people, and place.

DAVID: It’s interesting you talk of that deep respect for history, people, and place. Do you feel that’s still prevalent in people’s minds and hearts today? Do we think enough about that in our day-to-day interactions?

AARON: Well, we do. In fact, we are interviewing during Black History Month. And Dr. Martin Luther King had a thesis of the inescapable mutuality of human and mankind. He had a systems theory of how everything’s all connected, and how even in the art of holding one segment of humanity you must also hold yourself. This is how hate comes with a chain. To enslave somebody with a chain, and to hold that chain is also to enslave yourself, to pull yourself down into it, that the fate of one person who’s oppressed is directly linked to the oppressors, meaning, you don’t really advance yourself and advance your cause if you’re not elevating yourself above the oppression of living things.

And that is also true with nature. Those paradoxes, those strings, the thread always connected: that’s at the core of our struggle. It’s at the core of our democracy. And our democracy rests upon that string. How else do we protect nature or ourselves?  How do we protect air, water, land, and soil without laws and regulations?  They call it red tape, they put euphemisms out there to stop people from thinking about how critically connected their existence is to that red tape. I always think of red tape as blood. Somebody paid in blood: life and treasure, or species went extinct. Right now we’re learning, whether it’s with the effects of anthropogenic climate change right on down to civil and human rights—it’s all connected.

John Muir said it best: when you pull a string of one thing, you’ll find it hitched to everything else. That inescapable mutuality of connection. Right now, as we start to deal globally with the effects of anthropogenic climate change, we’re arguing for systems thinking and connectivity and systems action, globally. At the same token, while the most wealthy one percent are living materially in comfort, and their generation will be saved, and the next two generations of wealth created from dirty energy, they will have to live out their generations in which the price will be paid. Now we’re starting to see the harbinger of things to come.

Right now, we are building that awareness so that we can preserve the sacred that you see behind me. But not just the west coast. Also, on the east coast in the Adirondacks all the way up to Maine woods. We hear a lot about the need for international action, to stop the burning of forests in Indonesia, Brazil, Latin America. But that is also true of saving the forest here within the United States. This is why the genius behind the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) at the UN and this 30 by 30 movement is very critical, because it’s putting everybody’s skin in the game. And again, the question becomes: how serious are we about it?  My connection in the northeast and the Adirondacks is critical to elevating that game. Green New Deal is more than just about manufacturing cars. It is basically talking about the entire systems thinking of a sustainable economy. And that begins right in our backyard, right here in the Adirondacks.

With regards to forever-wild and preserving nature for nature’s sake: this was not an accident. This was a deliberate, intentional choice very early on in American history. Not long after studies were showing that carbon—the burning of coal and fossil fuels—was starting to elevate the temperatures of the globe. There was not a direct link—the linkage of preserving the Adirondacks—with that. But the real driver was the industrialized destruction of the forest, the old forest of the Adirondacks, and all of the other ecological collapses associated with that.

This call for forever-wild in the early Adirondacks was a revolutionary and radical idea by leaders of that day. And now the struggle is to maintain that balance, because we’ve allowed for logging and mining and other uses, and not all outdoor uses are sustainable. Not all outdoor uses are good for the environment, and not all outdoor uses are consistent with good stewardship. You know, cutting snowmobile routes through old growth or wilderness areas is not an environmentally sound activity. It’s an ecologically destructive activity.  Forever-wild is speaking to a higher value of humanity and creation in the symbiotic relationship of preserving ecosystems, so future generations can experience the spirit of the wild. As our nineteenth and early twentieth century ancestors said: we need you to bear witness to this. And just as humbling as the Yosemite Valley is behind me, when you stand up on top of any peak within the Adirondacks and are humbled by the beauty of the valleys and the lowlands and the other mountains for as far as eyes can see—now it becomes something even more critical because we need to talk about fighting climate change and how do we pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The most important things some say: “Oh, go plant a tree.” Well, you don’t have to just plant a tree. We’ve got several million trees in the Adirondacks. What we have got to do is stop inconsistent uses that are threatening this unique wilderness area that is now frontline essential in the battle against climate change. Damaging wilderness areas in the United States is no different than burning the rainforest in Brazil. Whether by chainsaw blade or fire—you’re still destroying one of our frontline answers in the battle against anthropogenic climate change. The point, though, is we’re losing the wisdom of that connection. And, for me, it’s something that has to be passionately advocated for.

DAVID: I know activism runs deep in your family roots—is activism more important now than ever?

AARON: It has always been important. Activism is what built America. A guy by the name of Crispus Attucks, who saw the relationship between the crown and the crown’s territory, took a bullet (from the British soldier policing force) to the chest for liberty and freedom. The first George Floyd incident mirrors that deep historic crisis over liberty and justice. The crown’s “policing forces” and a black guy started our revolution, and people were outraged and alarmed, and then the stewardship of what would become this great nation afterward was to be decided. At that particular instance, even though blacks were to take the first bullet and fight in the Revolutionary War, they came out being defined as three-fifths because now you’ve got to write up and divide the spoils. Now, all of a sudden, all men are not created equal.

My ancestors were enslaved on my maternal side in the Blue Ridge Mountain areas of South Carolina. Their whole connection being the capital equipment, no different than a plow or anything else. Our enslaved humanity actually provided stewardship for one of the first eco-tourist entities known as Caesar’s Head in the Blue Ridge mountains. My ancestors were enslaved five-star staff who not only cut roads and built the hotel, but they were the tour guides, they were the ones to take naturalists out and show them where they could find special plant species. And so the land that we have in my family to this day in the Blue Ridge Mountains is still there. My kids go down to free land upon which their ancestors were emancipated, land that still bears fruit for eating and sustenance. That deep knowledge and that long line of ancestry was not broken. In my family, I learned to hunt, fish, trap at the heels of my grandfather, and here in the Hudson Highlands. I was born in Peekskill, New York.

So I was blessed to have ancestors of the Blue Ridge Mountains and be born in the Hudson Highlands. I learned the impacts of suburban sprawl and how it destroyed that whole lower Hudson. The land became valuable. People wanted to build homes on the river. And the waterfront became valuable, especially after the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

One of the things that is helping people understand the true purpose and spirit of the Adirondacks is that when you make a life choice to be there, you’re basically making a choice in the ecosystem that was zoned intentionally, again, within our democracy, by laws and regulations that say this place cannot be treated like any place else. That’s why we have laws and regulations in a democracy: to put limitations on use. Now, you may say, well, that’s an infringement upon my rights. And we can always talk about rights. Because our rights as human beings are defined by our global and our state-civil society. Now the tension in politics is people on one side pushing their rights to do whatever at the expense of whatever, and there’s going to be people on the other side saying we want to limit that, because we want it to keep it consistent with the spirit of the law that created this sacred place.

The issue of who’s right and who’s wrong is secondary to what the law says on the matter of special land stewardship. What is the overarching intended spirit of “forever wild” in the Adirondacks? It was so strong of a value. It’s not just a willy-nilly law that the senate and assembly can change, or a governor can treat lightly; the ecosystem that is the Adirondacks was so valued that in 1894 it was written into New York State’s constitution as a “forever wild” forest preserve. Yes, it is etched in the New York State Constitution. That’s how deep and serious this is. And it is a blessing for all New Yorkers and lovers of nature. I think the answer is for those of us who understand that, again, the Adirondacks is not just for those living within it, it is a sacred place for all New Yorkers. No matter how rich or poor you are, whether you have a home or whether you’re homeless, the Adirondacks is your constitutional birthright as a citizen of this great state. And that’s one of the biggest challenges the Adirondacks is facing: we want it to be a space that people can enjoy and commune with, but now with COVID, it’s attracting so many people and over-use is threatening the “forever wild” character. How do they balance that over-usage is really one of the biggest struggles people are thinking about these days.

There’s a wonderful story called “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  When everybody has a right to use a common space or a green space or a water source, you know, who balances the uses?  Who cleans it up?  Who manages the use that all of us have a right to access?  It is when we ignore the need for stewardship of something intended for the common good, for the whole of nature, that serious ecological damage happens. The question is not so much that you have a right to use or play as often as you can and whenever you can. The question is how can we be better ecological stewards to manage our natural resources for future generations? And this is where our democracy and our civil society comes in and why we have this blueprint in our New York State Constitution. And so right now, we have an arrangement of varying levels of government and municipal governments and an interrelationship there that is trying to balance human activities as it relates to this constitutional charge. We also have a number of NGOs that are there that are also working stewardship issues. We also have a number of types of organizations—everything from those who have believed in high intensity outdoor recreation, right on down to those who are your standard low-impact, conservationists. You have a whole constituency that is domestically local, as well as statewide, national, and international. So, the fight now becomes: How do we balance and harmonize human use and the ecological viability of this wonderful natural asset?

Personal land ownership right does not extinguish a constitutionally-driven use that’s far more weighty than personal usage. This is really elemental and must be factored into all land use decisions. People have become what they call tribal in their thinking. To me, this means they just don’t listen to long established guidance and laws. I don’t care about how people and politicians in the press categorize something. I care about the law and its intent to protect wilderness as a core benefit to all New Yorkers and humanity. And that’s what we all should care about.  We must frame our uses and development of the Adirondacks in the context of a forever-wild, constitutionally-defined space and ecosystem.

I think the healthy argument then becomes: do people walk away in a civil manner?  The answer is: no. They go out, they organize, and they find other folk who think like them. And they try to then build a movement to push back on wilderness and best conservation-recreational land uses. So right now you have a very strong movement of folks and commercial leaders who believe in the high impact use of tourism and the dollars that that brings in, but they must deal with the overuse and depletion and destruction of this unique constitutionally-protected natural asset.

DAVID: Is it a concern that there are people coming to the Adirondacks who are not quite connected to the actual place? Do they know, for example, what it means to recreate responsibly?  Do they know about stewardship?  And how do you help individuals learn about these things?

AARON: Well, there are actually people who are living here who are not fully-versed in what it means to live in a unique Forest Preserve that is a constitutionally-protected Forever Wild area. In their minds, “this is their land,” community and home. I get it! All the more reason why we must have a deep conversation and education on how we have to protect this wonderful resource.  In some cases, there is an assumption that those who don’t live there are outsiders and should not have a say on how this park is managed relative to local towns, communities, and government. I get it, but that doesn’t extinguish the reality that it is also a protected asset for all New Yorkers. Protected for the unique ecosystems found only here. I mean, the fact that the governor of the State of New York may consider cutting snowmobile trails into wilderness areas is indicative of an advocacy coming from within the park. There are a lot of assumptions that people like to project on others, such as, if you’re not living there you don’t have a love or an appreciation for that space. I’ve spent my whole life as a wilderness and environmental justice activist. And I grew up in the shade of wilderness use. Like I said, intergenerationally—with the custom, culture, and inheritance of an outdoorsman from the Blue Ridge Mountains—that’s been passed down from nine generations through slavery to me. And no matter where I go—in California, the Adirondacks or to the Maine woods—I carry that history and knowledge. It is my love and stewardship for the outdoors. It’s in my blood.

The issue is not just looking at or framing environmental stewards who care about this unique ecosystem as “outsiders,” as if they were ignorant to local needs. That’s just the artificial construct people create—us versus them. It’s a notion of supremacy of resident’s use of space over that of others who equally have a right to protect and enjoy this ecological wonder. That is not what the constitution of New York State intended when it created this wilderness area to be protected for all New Yorkers, for all humanity. Whether I am born in the park or I own a house in South Bronx. As a New Yorker, one has as much right to enjoy any of the peaks or wilderness areas in the Adirondacks as anybody born in the Adirondacks. There’s no special privilege of location or geography right that is conferred on one set of New Yorkers versus another. That’s not in the Constitution. People are trying to find some more authentic voice and a sense of power advancing a particular argument, but an argument that diminishes any other New Yorker, even those who don’t live there, is disingenuous and strikes at the core of what the Constitution—when it says “Forever Wild”—was meant to create.

The higher argument, again, grappling with the use we’re grappling with is the eye toward preservation, for wilderness’s sake, that there is an intrinsic beauty within nature that has been worthy of special constitutional protection. On the extrinsic side where you want to get external value from it, then how are you shaping yourself to adapt to that economy? How does New York State provide for balanced economic adaptation that helps communities thrive as well? And just transition models too, as they say, make viable living economies. Nothing is infinite. But you’ve got to come up with a true economic ecosystem that matches the wilderness ecosystem model, and then start to build, develop, and integrate it into this space—not at the expense of it.

The Adirondacks is like this massive laboratory in the outdoors where we could be training people and providing scholarship and education for everything from park rangers, park stewardship and management, to ecosystems management and the sciences behind that. A lot of the infrastructure that was built happened during the first Green New Deal, a program called the Civilian Conservation Corps. Which was segregated (I might add). But still, if you’re up at the top of Mount Marcy, or you’ve been in any of those buildings with a CCC plaque, that was the first green jobs program in this country created by FDR when he was governor, and it became a national model to create parks and park infrastructure nationwide.

When folks politically talk about how the Green New Deal will kill jobs (even though a national program doesn’t exist yet), all New Yorkers must reeducate to remember that under Governor, later President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was a (green) New Deal that created the very ecosystem infrastructure that many now take for granted in the Adirondacks. If not for the early Civilian Conservation Corps, a lot of the areas where people live right now would not be accessible. Most towns themselves would not have water supplies. This was built by green jobs. And we can rebuild them. Everybody needs to be brought into the room and have a clear picture of the context and where we need to go and what we need to keep and what we need to grow.

DAVID: How do you get young people involved? How do you get them excited about stewardship and what it means to begin reconnecting with the land?

AARON: When you look at it, young people have always been leading the revolution to save our planet. I’m seeing people like Greta Thunberg, a new generation of environmental activists, like my daughters (whom I’ve passed my knowledge onto)—they are already stepping up. The youth have absolutely been at the frontlines of activism in the modern climate revolution sweeping the world.  Sure, there have been institutional and corporate interest that rise against them, national politicians making fun and mocking them, which is a problem environmental leaders like myself have been dealing with—to aid their voices. Youth are already leading the revolutions that say we must stop climate catastrophe. I agree with them in that we can absolutely create the market for clean green jobs and a clean green economy that includes the protection of wilderness areas that are vital to curb our climate crisis. A new Civilian Conservation Corps is what we need to repair our natural infrastructure. As President Biden says, “lets build back bigger and better.” To which I add, “greener.”  Listen, I’ve never seen a student or young person who simply wants to work for a $15 an hour job. I see them wanting a living wage, I see them wanting a job in which they can pay for a mortgage, health benefits, a home, and live happier and in harmony in our society as productive citizens. So to the extent that we provide those job incentives in places like the Adirondacks to rebuild the ecological infrastructure making them part of a clean green future, the answer is: if you invest it, people will seek those jobs.

DAVID: You know, Aaron, we have a growing community of hikers up in the Adirondacks. What should they be doing to get involved in our democracy?

AARON: What I advocate for my brothers and sisters who are hikers and wilderness seekers in the Adirondacks is to take on the vision of John Muir and Dr. Martin Luther King. Look at the inescapable connections and mutuality of all ecosystems that make this wonder possible. Be mindful of the conditions of all the people within the Adirondacks and the economic deprivation that may be there. How do we engage our democracy, to lift up the entire economy and ecosystem there?  So it rises to meet the sustainable needs of all people who are enjoying, but also living there. And also know that there’s what I call: a land burden. They need to talk about what’s the maximum density that this place can carry at this level of utilization and activity. And then, you know, let’s talk about it. But again: it’s respecting ecosystems, the subsystem, and the advocates who are calling for these things. I’m for sustainable ecosystems over profits; but more importantly, I’m for the letter and spirit of the law and the wisdom that came with Forever Wild for the Adirondacks.

DAVID CREWS is a writer, editor, and wilderness advocate who currently resides in southern Vermont / ancestral lands of Mohican and Abenaki peoples. He cares for work that engages a reconnection to land and place, wilderness, preservation, nonviolence. He currently serves as managing editor for Wild Northeast, as well as Adirondack PEEKS, the official magazine of the Forty-Sixers. Find David and his work at davidcrewspoetry.com

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

17 Responses

  1. JB says:

    I’ll admit, when I first heard about yet another lobbying campaign that included in its description the word “jobs”, I was extremely skeptical. When I heard that they were bringing someone in with ties to a big-ticket environmental organization (such groups often seem to me like glorified tourism marketing agencies), I was skeptical. But reading this interview was a small comfort. The man and his philosophy potentially could be a drastic improvement over much of what we are seeing as of late in the Park.

    I agree with much of what he says, but I am still left skeptical when he then contradicts those points in the same sentence. Then again, maybe this juxtaposition is intentional. Apparently, even mixed messaging is an improvement over the current Adirondack and national environmentalist status quo. At least when he talks about “jobs”, he then talks about overdevelopment and the need to make sacrifices for the greater good. At least when he talks about the Civilian Climate Corps and the Green New Deal, he also talks about how we in fact do not need to plant trees and overmanage the Park as they do all too many greenwashed Federal Lands (sometimes there is no such thing as a political win-win, an easy choice, a magic bullet, a benefit without a sacrifice). At least when he talks about recreation and birthrights, he also talks about carrying capacity and limiting use. On the surface, much of this expounding upon the immediate ways in which people can further exploit the Park leaves a sour taste that tends to drive me into my cynical corner about the Park’s future. But when I read between the lines, it seems that Mair is dropping a hint that we as a democratic society need to place priority upon the future and ecosystems and the larger forces at play (yes!!!), albeit treading lightly so as not to upset the contemporary extreme factions on either side of the essential preservationist argument who seek to exploit whatever is left for their respective myopic here’s and now’s.

  2. Zephyr says:

    Ha! Whenever I hear a question about “…people coming to the Adirondacks who are not quite connected to the actual place?…” it makes it sound like visitors are somehow lesser stewards of wilderness than those “natives” we argued about in a previous post. In reality without outsiders creating things like the “forever wild” part of the constitution and enforcing it the locals would clear cut every tree, build snowmobile superhighways all over the place, and hold ATV rallies up Mt. Marcy. Look at the history of who has worked to preserve the Adirondacks and there are very few native Adirondackers on that list.

    • Wow . As a local who are is a sixth generation land owner I find your comment offensive. What you seem not to understand is that locals have watched people like you use weaponize the forever wild card. I would also bet that one could find many people who live outside the park who would love to ride a four wheeler thru land that has been logged and mined for generations. People of the state think all of this land is pristine but it is not.

      • Zephyr says:

        The truth sometimes hurts! The Adirondack Forest Preserve lands are owned by every New Yorker and the “forever wild” thing is part of the state constitution. In other words, lots of people have a say in what happens there whether or not they live there.

    • JB says:

      Hi Zephyr, I didn’t realize that you were directing your comment towards me. I don’t want you to think that I am ignoring you!

      Sometimes it is hard to meet people where they stand and understand what words will take on specific meaning for them. I did not intend to further the “I know you are, but what am I?” debacle that Mr. Mair mentioned. Indeed, the only way to protect the Park from the degradation that it faces today is to acknowledge that we are ALL equally capable of playing our roles in degrading the Park. Culture wars and arbitrary identity constructs aside, this fundamental truth remains. Remember, the forest preserve belongs to everyone, but that necessitates that it belongs to no one.

      It only takes one person to pollute and destroy ecologically important resources in places that have in some cases had no historical permanent human presence. And yet, there are hundreds of millions of us just a short drive away, albeit some much closer than others. Preserving the Park for current and future generations means that we all need to make personal sacrifices to exercise the necessary restraint in the here and now–listening to the better angels of our nature and acting responsibly towards our protected places, rather than taking part in the all too easy carelessness that results in degradation. The managing agencies should be doing more (or doing less!) in this regard as well.

      I remember that you were against limiting use when it came to the AMR permits, and I completely agree with you in that specific case. The way that they are managing the HPWA in general is very poorly thought out, although hopefully that will change. The real bone that I have to pick there is that the “strategy” for these trails in the High Peaks is not a strategy at all–it is comprised of just diverting people elsewhere. But that almost certainly means that the overflow will end up in ecologically sensitive refugia, which are already struggling. If a trail system regardless is going to get 20,000 visitors per year by virtue of geography, economics and mass psychology, then we need to create the means to centralize and contain that impact with the needed infrastructure, thereby benefiting visitors and ecosystems. That will also benefit the most populous communities within the Park, which have continued to thrive around the highest peaks and largest lakes by no accident–tourism is part of their DNA. The efforts to recreate those tourism hubs in shrinking communities elsewhere in the Park, however, where extractive industries are gone and people have mostly left the land to the flora and fauna, is extremely misplaced and an inefficient use of resources. Not all municipalities will inherently benefit from the kinds of advertising and recruitment campaigns that we are increasingly seeing, nor will their residents or the residents of NYS. Maybe that is where you and I disagree, but I do not mean to frame the argument in terms of “us” versus “them”. That is a distraction from the true struggle and the existential threat facing the Park.

      I hope that you will take me at my word that I walk the walk as well as talking the talk, resisting the urge to develop my own properties and minimizing my footprint. My ATV stays in the driveway (as God intended), no structures get built near waterways or in uncleared forests, no organic chemicals get flushed down the drain that have a half-life greater than a several days (meaning that I must compound my own soaps and detergents), I do not bring any plastics into the woods period, I do not trample through untrampled areas. I am a staunch advocate of forever wild and see no other logical course of action given the ecological rarity and importance of the forest preserve.

      Granted, I may have a different view of what “forever wild” means than some people, and that may be a source of confusion. Yes, most certainly the point of forever wild is to prevent the kind of wholesale destruction that some of the new motorized trails would bring…However, limiting motorized access, which often has meant shutting down already existing roads when new land is acquired by the State, has another purpose: preserving wilderness and ecosystems by limiting human access and use. This is the de facto, tried and true methodology used to preserve wild lands for centuries across this entire planet. By that same token, there exist hiking trails that do far more damage than some snowmobile trails, by virtue of serving as a means by which thousands of people can access preserved areas that were previously inaccessible to them. So, the job of a sane DEC and APA, as well as private land owners, is to balance building infrastructure to enable sustainable use with leaving other places to the greatest extent possible unfragmented by such inroads and infrastructure–thus, to me the meaning of the term “forever wild”.

      Again, I could go on forever about this. Case in point, my other comment from earlier today. The takeaway should be that I am cautiously optimistic. There are signs that some of these problems and harmful attitudes towards the Park and the natural world in general are starting to come up against a beneficial countercurrent of positive progress in mass psychology, a delightful breeze, a refreshment, a reckoning of sorts. In this way, perhaps the turmoil of the past year has been helpful. Trends in thinking that had been slowly building were given the space to fully play out, and I think that sustainability as a Western concept may very well be on its way towards shedding its noxious, narcotic chains of hyperbole and phantasmagoria in favor of realia.

      • Zephyr says:

        Thoughtful comment–actually, I was not specifically directing my comments towards you–just happened to post them that way. Sorry! I was just noting that the knee-jerk terminology that people use to describe “…people who are not quite connected to the actual place” seems to be a way of saying if you don’t live fulltime in the Adirondacks then your ideas and your values are lesser than those who do live there. Again, I will point out that most trails and the region as a whole is in far, far better shape environmentally than 10-50 years ago, which is far back as I go hiking in the Adirondacks. Foot trails are only minor scars on the environment that would readily return to wilderness in a few years if left alone. On the other hand, I have seen areas become trashed overnight when someone on an ATV decided to “have some fun.” It is rare to be able to hear hikers unless you are on the same trail, yet the sounds of snowmobiles carry for miles. I personally think we need to encourage the hikers that will support the preservation of the resource while discouraging motorized uses that not only damage the environment but chase away the non-motorized users. Unfortunately, many “natives” seem to want more and more motors while at the same time chasing away the hikers.

  3. wildplaces says:

    Great interview…thank you for publishing!

  4. JohnL says:

    Conflating George Floyd with Crispus Attucks. Wow!

  5. ADKsally says:

    Aaron- Welcome to the long running debates.

    Two things to keep in mind:

    – Art 14 applies to the NYS Forest Preserve lands, not to private lands which are managed under a differing regime managed by the APA. This is important.

    – Art 14 also calls for the NYS Forest Preserve to be ‘untrammeled meaning not gated, the intention being open to recreation w/o gates and barriers.

    Keep these points in mind. Recognize that successful preservation needs participation by everyone, not imposition by a few. As you come into this space, remember to listen, be careful not to tell everyone your version of ‘right’ before you understand where they are all coming from. A “bull in a china shop” style will be a lead balloon here. Get to know people here, build some more connections and experience here.

    You happen to be beginning your journey at a time when trust between the various players is at a low point….not the worst ever but pretty bad. If, in your efforts, you succeed in bringing trust back into the region’s dynamics, that will be your greatest achievement and it will bring great rewards to the region. There is, for sure, common ground to work on, but you need to raise up trust building as a significant need requiring significant effort.

    We do need to change leaders and style of our many conflicted enviro groups. I hope this works out for you and the region. I wish you luck and look forward to seeing how things progress.

  6. Ethan Friedman says:

    This is an extraordinary piece and everyone should read and think about it.

    As I write this comment, there’s already fights going on in the preceding comments about residents vs. “outsiders”. About what I call “counting generations”: the “my family goes back N generations in the Adirondacks which gives me [insert as appropriate: more rights, more say, a more valid voice, whatever]” kind of statement.

    Mair’s ties to the Blue Ridge Mountains, as he describes in the article, are extraordinarily powerful in a way that as someone without enslaved ancestors I don’t think I can fully appreciate. And yet, nowhere in the piece does he give the sense that he thinks his ties to that land his family worked as property, to the land where they became free, means that he doesn’t want others to know and fall in love with that beautiful spot too. I came away with a sense of a man who both carries deep pride in his roots — as deep as any N-generation Adirondacker does in theirs — but who carries an equally deep passion in sharing that love of the land with others. Indeed not just sharing, but listening to and responding to others.

    In the timescale of the Adirondacks — some of the oldest mountains on Earth — the three centuries that those of European descent, and African, and Asian, have spent there are less than the blink of an eye. Indeed, even the millennia of habitation by Native Americans is a fraction of a second in the land’s history. one generation or four? pfft.

    I now live in Austin, Texas, far too far from the Park I love, and yet here I am reading this site daily because of that love. NO ONE–I really mean no one–comes second to native Texans in the pride in their land — and yet I have never seen that attitude that newcomers (or seasonal residents) are somehow lesser here. And yet it’s impossible to escape that attitude in the Adirondacks.

    As Mair suggests let’s cut that attitude now! 6th generation residents and first-time visitors alike share a common interest — we’d all like this extraordinary place to be equally extraordinary in our grandchildren’s day. And I hope with Mair’s and other’s wisdom, we can make that happen.

    • JB says:

      Everything does get unnecessarily polarized in the Adirondacks. The loudest voices in the room are the ones that everyone gravitates towards: either, “stay out of my town” or, “let’s bring an endless amount of new people”. Both sides only serve to strengthen each other and, unfortunately, create so much cognitive dissonance that solving the very real problems that the Park faces becomes impossible.

      Overuse by tourists and overdevelopment by newcomers are REAL issues, but us local residents also feed into this same cycle, or at least those among us who capitalize upon the work done by preservationists to fill their own pockets. Let’s face it: the entire desirability, utility, purpose of the forest preserve stems from the fact that there can be no permanent residents within and few permanent residents immediately adjacent. This is a feature, not a bug. Yet the psychological allure of forbidden fruit gives rise to all of these disparate groups, most of them pushing for more tourism (as if we need more brand recognition), community revitalization (most are already priced out of our communities, let’s not make it worse), or more development and resource extraction (when is enough, enough?). The boogeyman in 20th-century American pop culture used to be the industrial developer of undeveloped areas, now he has become warped in the collective imagination into a preservationist. Maybe that is because there are so few true preservationists currently left.

      There was a time when we as a people, more united, once made great strides in preserving the Park. Now we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Why, for example, can’t we be more like some of these rural localities elsewhere in New England’s or eastern Canada’s forests? You don’t see people pushing for the most remote places to be developed and gentrified in New Hampshire or western Maine. Yet those places are heavily logged, ecologically compromised, and, thus, not nearly as important to protect. Well, I can tell you that, post-COVID, places in NH and western ME are now being gentrified and developed at a rapid pace, similarly to the Adirondacks. But such places do not have the protections that the Adirondacks should, in theory, have. So, let us instead see the current situation, wherein everyone wants their own piece of an impossible rural utopia, as an opportunity where the protections and spirit of the Park can really shine. And grandfathered private land owners can continue to play their essential role as stewards of the land.

  7. William says:

    Almost lost me at, “Sierra Club”. Glad to see Aaron grew up with some hunting background. While their mission statement supports hunting and fishing the devil is in the details. Through lobbying, the Sierra Club has hurt hunters far more than it has helped them. Various local chapters around the country are full on anti-hunting. Using the dollars provided wealthy, out of touch donors they have successfully lobbied to restrict access to land and types of hunting nationwide.

    We wonder why there is a native -v- outsider mentality in the Adirondacks and small communities everywhere? Look no further than the dollars that pour in from outside to force locals to fall in line with a particular belief.

  8. Marge Villanova says:

    Excellent interview! Thank you for your dedication and intelligent grasp of the situation! Welcome?

  9. Peter Miner says:

    We have been raised wrong and educated wrong,we should have been educated by the true native American to learn how to live with nature and respect the land that we live on.we are so far from how we should maintain a good environment.maybe we should adjust are educational priorities to suit are environment.

  10. Tedsunday says:

    Another lying environmentalist trying to find meaning to his life by saving the planet. It’s a sad commentary that this is what these people are reduced too.

  11. Susan says:

    Some people just want to be left alone to live their lives on land that was passed from generation to generation, preserved, cared for, and giving forth of it’s bounty to sustain each successive generation in peace and tranquility. Maybe I should disconnect from the internet?

  12. kathleen cargill says:

    Good morning. I would like to be placed in contact with Aaron Mair to inquire about his genealogical data about Bermudian families. I descend from one of the oldest families and have suggestions for updating what he has placed on-line. I am an anthropologist with genealogy and history mixed into my research and am most willing to share data with Mr. Mair.

    I look forward to a return email. Thank you so much.

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