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.