Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Timbuctoo Institute would build opportunity in the Adirondacks

john brown and timbuctoo

By Aaron Mair

The Adirondack Park is a national treasure because our ancestors had the foresight in the 1880s and 1890s to protect its forests and waters as a legacy for future generations to inherit and enjoy. Creating the Forest Preserve and the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution were bold, new ideas.

Now, more than 120 years later, we can see how smart our ancestors were. The Adirondack Park was transformed in less than a century from a smoldering mess of wildfires, clear-cut forests and muddy rivers into the world’s largest intact, temperate deciduous forest. Today, it hosts most of the rare forest wildlife, wilderness and old-growth forest remaining in the Northeast.

What caused people as far away as New York City to act?


They saw the damage and realized it was their job to stop it. Photography had advanced significantly during the Civil War. Prior to that, most New Yorkers had only seen the idyllic Adirondacks of the Hudson River School painters. They were shocked when images of a ruined Adirondacks began to appear in newspapers and magazines. In that sense, photography brought the Adirondacks to them.

Last fall, a large contingent of state legislators came to the Adirondacks as part of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus’ retreat. They came to reconnect with both the Adirondacks and an often-forgotten part of the Black civil rights movement. Now, Caucus members Sen. Zellnor Myrie, D-Brooklyn, and Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, D-Elmont, want to combine Adirondack history, environmental conservation education and jobs training into a Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute.

Long before the Civil War, the Adirondacks were a key link in the Underground Railroad that guided so many people escaping slavery towards freedom. The Adirondacks were also the place where a large group of Black New Yorkers gained their full rights as citizens. Black and white members of local communities worked together to secure the rights of all. These “suffrage settlements” of Timbuctoo, Blacksville, Bloomingdale, Ray Brook, Freeman’s Home, Townships 9, 11 and 12, St. Armand, and Negrow Brook/Negro Hill were all created for this purpose.

In the 1840s, the right to vote in New York was restricted to adult white males, and free Black men who owned more than $250 worth of property. Abolitionist and suffragist Gerrit Smith used his land holdings in these towns to offer 40-acre farms to 3,000 Black residents, allowing them to meet the ownership threshold for voting. The settlements brought together Black families such as that led by Willis Hodges and white families including abolitionist John Brown’s. Brown lived in Timbuctoo for 14 years. It gave them the opportunity to be community leaders. Together, they inspired a new generation to strive for civil rights — here at home, and from Harper’s Ferry to Appomattox Court House.

Many of those 3,000 settlers were from Brooklyn, home to CUNY’s Medgar Evers College, named for the late civil rights leader. But today, too many Brooklyn residents have no access to the Adirondack Park. Many have lost their connection to its civil rights history. Few students ever think of the Adirondacks as a place where they can live and work and build a career. All that can change April 1.

Myrie and Solages are proposing a $2.1 million investment be included in this year’s budget for a Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute, which would bring students from Medgar Evers College to the Newcomb campus of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Students would gain exposure to the Adirondack Park and exploration of careers in climate change adaptation and prevention, as well as in wilderness management. Wilderness protection is a key component of a climate-resilient America.

The Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute will connect youth to opportunities at the intersection of climate science and green careers. It will prepare them for the climate threats and employment opportunities they will encounter in the 21st century. And if we are lucky, students with these newly gained skills and credentials will choose the Adirondacks when picking new homes and careers.

Aaron Mair is the director of the Forever Adirondacks Campaign for the Adirondack Council. The campaign strives to secure clean water, new jobs and wilderness protection.

Image at top: John Brown by Southworth and Hawes circa 1856/Almanack archive

Editor’s note: This first ran in the Times Union of Albany. Used by permission.

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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

4 Responses

  1. louis curth says:

    Thanks Aaron Mair for providing readers with yet another part of our rich Adirondack history that too often gets overlooked in the rush to claim a high peak summit.

    Just as my studies at Paul Smith’s College led into a career that changed my life for the better, I can see how this proposal for a Timbuctoo Climate and Careers Institute, housed at SUNY ESF in Newcomb, will give a whole new generation of young people the skills they will need to enter good 21st century careers doing the important work needed to protect our environment and mitigate the effects of global warming.

    This is a very good idea that could benefit the Adirondacks and our young people greatly, so let’s all get behind it and make it happen.

  2. Lovell Porter says:

    It’s a great idea.

    But, does anyone see the irony of Mair promoting diversity and history while being a member of a group that wants permits and restrictions for hikers? One way to make people feel unwelcome: permits and restrictions…

  3. Vanessa B says:

    This is a very cool idea! Curious to see how it develops 🙂

  4. louis curth says:

    Lovell Porter reminds us of an uncomfortable foible that is so much a part of of the human condition. To wit, that we are capable of holding a confusing array of opinions, often contradictory, all at the same time. Adirondackers are no exception to that human irony, and it shows in our conduct as individuals, as organizations, and in, perhaps the greatest irony of all, as political parties. How else could our elected Republicans explain away Trump’s lie induced insurrection of 1/6/21 as “legitimate political discourse”?

    So, I guess life teaches us how to balance the things we like with the things we don’t like, and we learn to compromise, which is probably our greatest asset since our mom’s instilled in us with the basic common sense we need to help us spot the bullies and the con artists.

    Irony notwithstanding, as Lovell Porter said, “It’s a great idea.”

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