By 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