Wednesday, June 8, 2022

A Conversation with Wilderness Champion Paul Schaefer

paul schaefer

A 1993 conversation between Friends of the Forest Preserve founder and 20th century Adirondack wilderness coalition leader Paul Schaefer (1908-1996) and Kathy Hargis is one of the best, short interviews Schaefer ever gave. Just 25 minutes long, the interview is accessed at www.adirondackwild.org/media/videos and scrolling down to Adirondack Wild: A Conversation with Paul Schaefer.

Between 1931 and 1996, Paul Schaefer substantively influenced the Adirondack attitudes and actions of nine New York Governors, all their conservation commissioners, and many state legislative leaders.  Governors Nelson Rockefeller (1966) and Mario Cuomo (1994) personally attended ceremonies to recognize Paul’s many Adirondack achievements.

In this interview Paul tells Kathy Hargis how he was guided a great deal by his mentor John Apperson, and by the Marshall family, including Bob and George Marshall of the Wilderness Society. Also, he describes how he and Wilderness Society executive secretary Howard Zahniser became fast friends and effective allies in this wilderness work. He recalls how in 1946 he brought Zahniser to Hanging Spear Falls in the Adirondack High Peaks where Zahnie clearly connected New York’s Forever Wild constitution to the need for national Wilderness areas. That camping trip was a key impetus to Zahniser’s successful 18-year effort to pass a National Wilderness Preservation Act in the U.S. Congress (1964).

Without Schaefer’s determined, diverse coalitions of ordinary citizens during the 1940s and 50s, known as the Adirondack Moose River Committee, there is little question that the South Branch of the Moose River south of Inlet and many other wild, free-flowing rivers in the Park would today still be dammed and flooded, “a reservoir of stumps and mudflats,” as Paul Schaefer would say.

Without Schaefer’s coalition of the 1960s called the Adirondack Hudson River Association the upper Hudson River would also be an enormous 16,000-acre reservoir today, flooding far beyond the river’s banks, flooding the Essex Chain of Lakes, flooding all the way to Newcomb’s Rich Lake. There would no one rafting the upper Hudson if Gooley Dam # 1 had been built as planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1965-1968.

But it wasn’t built, nor were 15 other large dams planned in the Adirondack Park. In fact, Schaefer’s coalitions got the NYS Legislature and the voters to pass or to block constitutional amendments and to pass other legislation, all of which had the legal effect of prohibiting large storage and hydroelectric dams on rivers in the heart of the Adirondack Park.

Without Schaefer’s and his Couch-sa-chra-ga Association’s film Of Rivers and Men (1972, directed by Fred Sullivan), Governors Rockefeller and Carey might not have signed and sharply expanded our state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers system.

Schaefer’s pressure on state legislators to expand the Adirondack Forest Preserve during the mid-20th century was key. Also, the Wilderness studies of the State Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources might not have been undertaken between 1959 and 1963 without that same pressure. Those studies proved crucial to the Temporary Study Commission and then the Adirondack Park Agency legislation authorizing the State Land Master Plan of 1972 which designated Wilderness, Primitive, Canoe and Wild Forest areas of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

paul schaefer's book

Paul Schaefer’s book Defending the Wilderness, 1989 by Syracuse University Press.

I could go on, but suffice it say there were no 20th century Adirondack wilderness advocates quite like Paul Schaefer. His influence was felt both broadly and deeply, easily seen today in the wild, free-flowing rivers and wilderness regions of the Adirondack Park. And his influence is also seen at Union College’s Kelly Adirondack Center (KAC)/ Adirondack Research Library (formerly the Adirondack Research Center) which Paul was instrumental in establishing in 1979. The KAC is located at the former home of Paul and Carolyn Schaefer and their four children. It was Paul’s wish that his home would become a future Adirondack conservation center, and that wish and goal were achieved by the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 2005, now carried on by Union College.

In this interview with Kathy Hargis, Paul also speaks of his childhood, his early explorations, his apprenticeship as a carpenter, his encounters with conservationists John Apperson and Howard Zahniser who inspired and who partnered in his wilderness advocacy, and the founding of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (founded in 1901) which Paul served as vice president for forty years.

The flame of Adirondack and national forest conservation history burns brightly in this unique, short oral history. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve owes Kathy Hargis a debt of gratitude for her permission to publish her interview with Paul. Kathy is a retired high school music teacher, one of the founders of the Adirondack Curriculum Project, and a past Trustee of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.

Below is my edited, very selective portion of the interview, with Kathy Hargis asking the questions and Paul Schaefer responding.

Again, you can listen to the entire interview at www.adirondackwild.org/media/videos.

Q: Mr. Schaefer, you’ve written a lot of books, haven’t you?

A: “Well, not a lot of them, but I’ve always been interested in writing. For example, these books back here describe the battles we’ve had in the last 60 years…and on the top shelf  are 40 books where I have an article in the book. I was an advisor to the Governor’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century. I helped George Davis put together the books on the 202:20 Vision, and this is an Adirondack Centennial collection of magazines, the best that were published in the Park Centennial of 1992 and I have an article in every one.

Q: What was your earliest book?

A: Woods and Waters in 1930, and it involves the cabin my brother Vincent and I purchased in 1926 on the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, elevation 2100 feet, and in back of us are 200 square miles of wilderness where no motor vehicles can go.

Then, I published this little magazine called The Forest Preserve and in this particular issue 100,000 copies were printed. These I wrote and for the most part paid for under the organization I founded, Friends of the Forest Preserve. In this one, Defending the Wilderness (1989 by Syracuse University Press) is my history of the wilderness movement in New York State, with 80 photographs in it that are quite significant.

This one is the story of the mountaineers that I met in my boyhood and young manhood, I fished with them, hunted with them, got lost with them, out in the wilderness. And this begins when I was just a kid, 8 or 9 years old and living in the city I found a half-mile patch of woods that the mansion was situated in, the owner had died and ghosts came back, we were told to stay out of there, but we went over there and I got interested. This started my early interest in having a cabin and getting into wild places and wilderness from the time I was about 8.

Q: And this book is called Adirondack Cabin Country?

A: yes.

Q: You say you lived in a city?

A: I was born in Albany, moved to Schenectady within a week, and then lived in that city, Bellevue, and then moved to Rotterdam, and then I came out here because I had an opportunity to restore the oldest house in Niskayuna, which is the house next to me….we grew up very poor, I had just one year of high school, and then I had to get out and work and took up the carpenter trade at 15, and finished at 19, the year Lindberg flew the Atlantic. I learned most of my trade in Cohoes and I commuted from Schenectady to Cohoes for four years, and then upon finishing started work in Schenectady house building. My houses are in the Dutch tradition, every one has a slate roof, fireplaces, plank floors and most of them have ancient beams like these here. The beams in my Adirondack Room were hewed by the Dutch in 1701. My brother Vincent just wrote a book, Old Dutch Barns in the New World, now being published.

schaefer and cuomo

Governor Mario M. Cuomo presents Paul Schaefer with the Governor’s environmental achievement award in 1994. Photo by Ken Rimany.

Q: How old is this house?

A: I built it, in 1934, and I had no money. In fact, I lived in a tent in the woods back here while building it. The owner at that time had bought the land expecting it to be added to Schenectady’s Central Park, but it was not in the city, which worked against him that way, so he had a mind to develop it, but I convinced him that somewhere along the line a natural area here would be great, so after his death his family made it a nature sanctuary, called the Reist Wildlife Sanctuary.

But my main motivating activity has been in the Adirondacks…In the 1930s when I was involved with John Apperson. He was my mentor. And we were working for him, and his philosophy turned out the extraordinary fact that both Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt were running for president of the United States, and they differed on the boundaries of the Adirondack Park. Al Smith listened to Apperson and said the Park should be much larger than it is, and the article tells how it happened. Roosevelt, as a result of our activity – and we were a leading factor in it – added one million, five hundred thousand acres to the Park. My cabin at that time was just outside the Park and when the new boundary came through, it was 31 miles inside the Park.

This fight we had over the dams in the Moose River Plains, that fight took ten years and I’ll show you the record of that fight out here, it’s eight feet long. I got Howard Zahniser of The Wilderness Society to come to the Adirondacks in 1946 and we went to Hanging Spear Falls in the High Peaks and we were able to tell him about the constitutional covenant, forever wild, and he got so excited about it he decided back there that he would try to get something through on a national scale as executive secretary of the Wilderness Society.  And his son Ed wrote this, and that book is Howard’s first ten days in the Adirondacks in which Howard clearly brought out that the Adirondack wilderness covenant inspired him to do the National Wilderness Preservation Act which President Johnson signed and which now has 91 million acres in it.

That brings out Bob Marshall, too. I was a good friend of Bob Marshall’s. I met him the first time on top of Mt. Marcy on July 15, 1932. He’d just come back from the Arctic, and I was up taking movie pictures for Apperson and the hiking club I was involved in. Marshall, I met at over mile above sea level, and Zahniser I met 14 years later at sea level in New York City. The day I met Marshall was a beautiful sunny warm day and the day I met Zahniser it was blistery cold, snowing and blowing, it was a heck of a time. I met them a mile apart, but both of them were great influences in my life.

Apperson was also a key influence because he was a Virginian, his eyes were laughing all the while and he had an awful good time finding and winning battles for the Adirondacks. It was a great experience I had with him.

Q: By any chance did you know Gifford Pinchot?

A: No, but we are doing a book now at the Adirondack Research Center which I started at Union College in 1979, which merged ten years later with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. We’re doing a book on the Constitutional Convention (of 1894). Pinchot, in our book, he’s the one that started the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks because he was insisting that the Forest Preserve should be lumbered, and the first piece that he recommended was around Raquette Lake, 100,000 acres of virgin forest, and it was this issue, the lumbering of that tremendous tract of land around Raquette Lake, that got Timothy Woodruff initiated to do something about it, and as a result he and another man formed the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Our book will show that Pinchot was for killing the forever wild clause of the constitution and Timothy Woodruff, who was Lt. Governor under Teddy Roosevelt, was for keeping the forever wild clause.

In the Forest, Fish and Game reports of 1900-1903, this subject is exhausted. In that, you’ll find Pinchot in 1900 has a three-page article, together with a map of the tract he wanted lumbered, and he had all the logging roads in there and even the railroad was scheduled to take the lumber out, but that was stopped by the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.

Pinchot was known to be a conservationist, but it just turns out that this three-page article together with his map that he (Pinchot) recommended this lumbering be the first of such operations that would eventually be the whole Forest Preserve.”

Photo at top: Paul Schaefer, left, in conversation with one of his mentees, Keene resident Dan Plumley, in 1995. Photo by Ken Rimany

Related Stories


David Gibson

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 Preserve

During 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.




2 Responses

  1. louis curth says:

    Thanks for this insight into the life and times of Paul Schaefer, a man who mentored a generation of conservation minded people, including yours truly, about the importance of wilderness values and unfettered public access both of which make the Adirondack Park Forest Preserve so unique and yet so vulnerable.

    In 1995, the Upper Hudson Environmental Action Committee (UHEAC) featured Paul Schaefer for its “champions of conservation” commemorative bookmark series.

  2. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “My houses are in the Dutch tradition, every one has a slate roof, fireplaces, plank floors and most of them have ancient beams like these here.”

    I’ve been in a few of the houses Paul built as my wood floor business got me in them. Paul’s houses stand out in Niskayuna. You can drive down the roads and see a house and right away know it was built by Paul. He used recycled materials from old houses to construct the insides of his homes, and as I have said in the past, there is a shed in the yard of a house that Paul built that looks just like an Adirondack lean-to, so I assumed Paul constructed that shed also as he was ‘so’ into the Adirondacks. You know Paul was different just by stepping into one of the houses he built……an individual for sure. I respect the man and whenever I see his name come up a ‘sort-of’ feeling comes over me, which has to do with aging and the realization that all is so different, nothing ever the same. In other words he has had an effect on my thinking.

    If it wasn’t for Paul I would never have gotten to know the place where my first-ever Adirondack experiences took place, a place dear to my heart, and which date back to the early 70’s…. the Moose River Wilderness. Paul is the one who saved that acreage from being flooded over due to damming. Of a sudden I have the urge to pull a Schaefer book out and delve into it, to reflect on what has real meaning in my life!

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Wait, before you go,

sign up for news updates from the Adirondack Almanack!