Almanack Contributor Mary Thill

Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Forbes, Madoff Lists and the Adirondacks

It was a tough year for the world’s billionaires, Forbes reported today. Hundreds of the world’s wealthiest are merely millionaires now, including Sandy Weill, former CEO of Citigroup and seasonal resident of Upper Saranac Lake. “His Citigroup shares have lost nearly all their value,” Forbes says, estimating that Citi shares have fallen 95 percent in the last 12 months. The financial services conglomerate that Weill built is now the recipient of a $45 billion federal bailout.

Weill is prominent in New York City philanthropic circles, but he maintains a low profile in the Adirondacks. Up here his wife, Joan, is much better known, especially for her generosity to Paul Smith’s College, where she serves as chairman of its board of trustees and spearheaded construction of a library (photo above) and student center that bear her name.

A Lake George summer resident, however, is still in good standing on the billionaire list. Forrest Mars Jr., co-owner of the privately held Mars candy company (which also includes Wrigley, Pedigree pet food and other brands), is the 43rd wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of $9 billion and growing, Forbes says. Mars and his wife Deborah Clarke Mars have a camp on the lake’s northeast shore, not far from Deborah’s hometown of Ticonderoga.

The Marses have been locally philanthropic, most notably to Fort Ticonderoga, but they withdrew support for the historic landmark last year after disagreements with its administration.

Meanwhile, Bernard L. Madoff pleaded guilty this morning to defrauding investors of about $65 billion dollars in a Ponzi scheme. The story seems unrelated, but it also has Adirondack connections, particularly for charitable giving. One of the victims on the Madoff list is the New York City–based Prospect Hill Foundation, a longtime supporter of many Adirondack environmental nonprofits. It’s still unclear what the repercussions will be for the foundation and its grant recipients. Also on the Madoff list is Anne Childs who — with her husband the Freedom Tower architect David Childs — owns a hilltop house in Keene.

If you know of other Adirondack connections on the Forbes or Madoff lists, please let us know.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

DIY Natural History at The Wild Center

Maybe you’ve started walking to the store instead of driving, or line-drying the laundry, or insulating drafty gaps in your walls. Whatever you do, little steps like these can give other people ideas on how to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Visitors to the The Wild Center in Tupper Lake are writing footnotes about their efforts to cut fossil-fuel use and posting them by their hometown on a map of the Adirondack Park. Guests from farther away tape their stories outside the Blue Line. The little feet-shaped pieces of paper represent carbon footprints, which must shrink if the Adirondacks is to have a chance of keeping boreal birds, spruce trees and maples. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

5 Questions: Saranac Lake Birder Brian McAllister

Brian McAllister of Saranac Lake conducts bird surveys for environmental groups and wind-power companies, teaches ornithology lab at Paul Smith’s College and is one of the founders of the annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration.

He discusses what to look for during this winter-to-spring transition as warblers and other migrants journey north to their Adirondack nesting grounds, and he talks about tower lights that keep some birds from ever making it back.

Q. Can we call you a professional birdwatcher?

A. I guess I’d call myself a field ornithologist. I’ve been lucky to piecemeal a career in birding here in the Adirondacks.

Q. Do you bird-watch every day?

A. I bet I do. I’m constantly tuned in to what’s going on, even if I’m just driving somewhere.

Q. So how was your winter?

A. It’s been amazing. Every year there is some sort of irruption, with one or two species that sort of run out of food up north, so they come down south to the border states and into New York and Southern Canada to find cones or other food. This year it’s been phenomenal because everything came: red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, bohemian waxwings, redpolls, pine siskins, pine grosbeaks, hawk owls. Also, it’s a record year for snow buntings.

Q. What are you looking for now?

A. It’s funny, in March I veer away from the winter up here and focus on what’s happening in Florida and the Caribbean because a lot of migratory birds are starting to jump out of the tropical rainforest and work their way up the East Coast. Last night I was checking the Internet for rare bird alerts in Florida, and they’re seeing a bunch of warblers. They’re on the move. Along Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River we’ve got red-winged blackbirds and sparrows coming up from Mid-Atlantic states — also rusty blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, anywhere from March 1 on. Some winter birds begin to sing in March in courtship, like golden-crowned kinglets and brown creepers. Owls are on territory now and they’re breeding.

Q. You’ve done some field surveys at potential wind-turbine sites north of the Adirondack Park, but there’s a lot of talk lately about another kind of tower.

A. Yes, communications towers. The most famous tower-kill study was done by Bill Evans of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and he conducted most of his dead-bird counts at television towers in the Boston Hills area of western New York. Tower kills per year are far worse than all wind turbine deaths put together. Outdoor cats kill the most birds, then towers and their guy wires are a close second. But what we have to realize is that these kills only occur on nights of heavy fog or very low cloud ceiling when there’s a heavy migration. The birds see this glow in the fog, and for some reason — we don’t know why — they’re attracted to it. They start circling, around and around and eventually they die of exhaustion or they actually collide into the tower or, more likely, into the unseen guy wires. . . . The solid red lights on top of towers should all be changed to blinking or strobe lights. Researchers have discovered that those are less harmful. When I lived on Averyville Road in Lake Placid there was a tower behind my cabin and on foggy nights it would cast this eery red glow, and I could see how birds are attracted to it.

Editor’s note: According to McAllister’s copy (thanks, Brian) of “Living on the Wind” by Scott Weidensaul (North Point Press, 1999), two to four million birds are killed by towers taller than 200 feet each year in the Eastern United States alone. To sign a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to minimize tower kills click here. To follow current sightings by Brian and other Northern New York birders, click here. Brian’s own natural-history observations and photographs can be found on his blog, Adirondacks Naturally.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Homegrown Adirondack Sled Porn

The internet is doing for snowmobiling what Warren Miller films have done for skiing for 50 years. On YouTube you can now watch your Adirondack neighbors performing outlandish, sick and sometimes illegal stunts on sleds. Here are just a few:

There’s channel surfing in Tupper Lake.

And jumping fire in Tupper Lake.

Summer skimming on Lake Flower, Saranac Lake.

Plus the midnight ride of some guy in underwear, Tupper Lake.


Most sledders don’t do such badass stuff, of course. And the people in these videos don’t seem to be endangering anyone but themselves.

But this one is scary: “Coming from the Tap Room in Raquette Lake, NY.” The helmet-cam video would actually be boring if it weren’t for the tension created by those words, “coming from the Tap Room,” and the fact that the driver passes a car and other sleds on a public road while going 67 miles per hour.

As my father often says, these guys are dearly wanted in heaven. Thirteen so far in the state this winter. No more, let’s hope.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Luxury Jets Still Flying at Adirondack Airport


Last month, the New York Post outed retired CEO Sandy Weill for vacationing aboard a $45 million Citigroup jet as the foundering company he built received a $45 billion taxpayer bailout.

Ever since Congress scolded auto-industry executives for winging in on corporate jets to ask for government money, the flight habits of the highly paid have come under scrutiny.

But so far, the Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear has seen no decrease in private plane traffic, according to manager Ross Dubarry. That’s good for the airport, because fuel sales, deicing and other services to Gulfstreams, Learjets, Falcons and other private craft cover approximately 75 percent of the airport’s $1 million annual operating budget. Lake Clear is the only place in the Adirondack Park with a runway long enough to accommodate big jets. Wealthy camp owners, including Weill, who has a retreat on Upper Saranac Lake, flock in on Fridays and out on Sundays. It can take as little as 40 minutes for them to soar in from Teterboro, just outside of New York City.

The other news at Adirondack Airport is that commercial-passenger numbers are way up, Dubarry reports, from about 2,000 emplanements in 2004 to more than 8,000 since Cape Air took over commuter service in February 2008. Cape Air flies nine-seaters and offers bargain rates (about $80 one-way) to Boston.

By far most visitors still reach the Adirondacks by car, but don’t expect to see Weill at a Northway rest stop. He voluntarily gave up his Citigroup Bombardier Global Express XRS the day after the Post story ran. But the 75-year-old, whose net worth Forbes placed at $1.3 billion in 2008, still pays the Adirondack Airport a $20,000 annual fee for services and space for his private hangar (the tallest building in Lake Clear). “He is coming in and out on a different aircraft,” Dubarry says.
Image courtesy of Mark Kurtz Photography


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Enrollment Down at Paul Smith’s, Up at NCCC


The slowdown in the economy is affecting the Adirondack Park’s two colleges in different ways.

At least twenty students have left Paul Smith’s College this year for financial reasons, president John Mills told The New York Times this week. “Their parents are losing their jobs, or they’re afraid of taking on any debt, even student loans,” Mills said to the Times. “It’s a fear of the unknown.”

Enrollment at the private two- and four-year college is 834 right now, low for a spring semester, college spokesman Kenneth Aaron explained Wednesday. Faculty and staff have taken a voluntary pay cut (from 1 to 2.5 percent) to help make ends meet, he added.

The story is different at North Country Community College (NCCC), which has campuses in Saranac Lake, Ticonderoga and Malone. While hard times are hurting four-year colleges across the United States, they are boosting enrollment at career-oriented community colleges.

NCCC numbers are up 8 percent (103 students) over last spring, reported Ed Trathen, vice president for enrollment and student services. Some 2,200 students attend NCCC, more than double the number 10 years ago.

“For us, it definitely has to do with people departing voluntarily or involuntarily from the workforce and looking to retrain themselves,” Trathen said. The college focuses on programs that can lead to local jobs; for example, nursing, radiologic technology, massage therapy, sports events management, and business for sole proprietors. NCCC also established a 2-year pre-teaching program that’s transferrable to SUNY Potsdam and Plattsburgh.

Affordability is another factor. Tuition at NCCC, which has no student housing, is $3,490 a year. At Paul Smith’s it’s $18,460, plus $8,350 for room and board.

Nurses are in demand, and NCCC received 350 applications this year for the 70 slots in its Registered Nursing program, Trathen said. In 2007 Paul Smith’s College explored launching a nursing curriculum, but no action has been taken.

Kenneth Aaron said Paul Smith’s endowment is down, just like all investment portfolios. “The silver lining is we’re not as reliant on our endowment as other institutions,” he added.

Paul Smith’s is under a hiring freeze, and NCCC is bracing for a reduction in state aid (some funding also comes from Essex and Franklin Counties). Both institutions are trying to cut costs without having to lay off faculty or trim education programs, Aaron and Trathen said.

Photograph of Paul Smiths College in the 1950s courtesy of campawful.com


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Road Salt, Moose and Other Reasons to Drive Slower

The Adirondack Council this week issued a report on drinking-water contamination and environmental damage caused by road salt throughout New York State. The advocacy group offered six steps that could curtail the pollution, such as better coordination between state and local plowing crews, preemptive deicing, and development of salt alternatives.

At the bottom of a bulleted list of recommendations was the simplest: Slow Down.

“New York should adopt an aggressive approach to encourage safer winter driving, which can include lower winter speed limits, well-placed variable message boards, and greater enforcement of safe speed limits during winter storms,” the Council said.

There are other good reasons to ease up on the gas. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frozen River, the Oscars, North Country Realism

Frozen River is nominated in two categories of tonight’s Academy Awards: best actress (the very deserving Melissa Leo) and best screenplay (by the equally deserving Courtney Hunt, who is also the film’s director).

If there were awards for North Country realism, Frozen River would run away with the all-time top honor.

The independent movie, filmed in Plattsburgh in 2007 on a budget of less than $1 million, has won 21 prizes, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where Quentin Tarantino called it “one of the most exciting thrillers I am going to see this year.”

The plot centers on two single mothers — one Mohawk, from the Akwesasne Reservation, and one white, living in Massena — on the financial brink. They team up to smuggle illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River in the trunk of a car. There is suspense inherent in driving across ice, as a North Country audience knows all too well.

Director Hunt’s husband is from Malone, and her familiarity with local detail is abundant, down to the dirty snowbanks, rez radio, Quebec strip bars, Price Chopper, Yankee One Dollar, purple ties on State Troopers, and WPTZ weatherman Tom Messner giving a perky forecast of 30-below on a Rent-to-Own TV that’s always on inside the trailer of Ray Eddy, the character portrayed by Leo.

The movie also examines the jurisdictional ambiguities of the smuggling economy at Akwesasne, a nation unto itself straddling the U.S.-Canada border.

Other efforts in the bleak-North-Country genre (including an adaptation of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, and Vermonter Jay Craven’s Northeast Kingdom movies) seem to sacrifice verisimilitude for art or convenience. Perhaps the truest antecedent for Frozen River is the ice-crossing scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, filmed in Port Henry in 1927 (excerpts can be seen here).

Frozen River was released on DVD earlier this month. Trivia/spoiler note: Michael O’Keefe, the actor portraying the State Trooper, played Danny Noonan in Caddyshack 29 years ago.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dr. Trudeau and The Third Oldest Profession


Logging and tourism rate permanent exhibits at the Adirondack Museum. But the third-oldest industry in the Adirondacks goes on, uncelebrated, behind closed doors in the administrative offices.

Fundraising. It’s possible that more Adirondackers work in what is now vaguely termed “development” than in the woods. Yet we rarely admit that begging is a pillar of the regional economy.

An early master of the dignified grovel was Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a pioneer of bacteriology and tuberculosis treatment (phthisiology), and a founder of Saranac Lake itself. His autobiography, published in 1915, should be mandatory reading for every Adirondack fundraiser.

While sailing on Spitfire Lake circa 1882, Dr. Trudeau unintentionally made his first hit-up of a wealthy summer person: “We spoke of the wonderful, bracing character of the air and the beauty of the woods, the mountains and the lakes, and I expressed the wish that some of the poor invalids shut up in cities might have the opportunity for recovery which the climate offered and which had done so much for me. . . . He seemed much struck with the idea, and told me that if I carried out my plan I could call on him for five hundred dollars at any time. This was the first subscription I received.”

It became a pattern. By the end of the book, gifts to his Adirondack Sanitarium were in the $25,000 range (about half a million in today’s dollars). It’s almost a refrain as every chapter about a new friend ends, “And Mr. [name here] became a trustee of the Sanitarium, and served in this capacity until his death.”

Asking friends — and strangers — for money brings millions of dollars to the Adirondack Park each year and employs hundreds of people at museums, hospitals, children’s camps, environmental groups, arts and youth organizations, schools, you name it. We also beg our summer neighbors unprofessionally as volunteers for libraries, fire departments, ski areas, hospice. [A post-posting note: “Begging” was Trudeau’s word of choice; he used it with candor and humor. I intended no offense, though some readers who are philanthropy professionals tell me they prefer other terms for soliciting gifts.]

Why bring this up now?

~ Ambivalence about Wall Street bonuses. (Bonuses of CEOs with lakeside Adirondack camps have built wings for local hospitals and museums and employ nonprofit staffers; taxes on them keep snowmakers working at state-run ski areas.)

~ Layoffs at local nonprofits, including the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. (So far, the successor to Dr. Trudeau’s sanitarium and laboratory, Trudeau Institute, seems unscathed.)

~ Just the charm of Trudeau’s book. Old Adirondack books are comforting in uncertain times; they remind us how little the place changes over the years.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Presidents’ Day Profile: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison, our abbreviated president. Number eleven. One of only four U.S. Presidents born in February.

Longest inaugural address (about 2 hrs); shortest presidency (34 days); also shortest one hundred-day plan. Battled Native Shawnees in the Wabash Valley to accumulate their land in Ohio and (rather cynically) Indiana.

Connection to the Adirondacks: None direct (he died 51 years before the park was created). However, his nickname, Old Tippecanoe, sounds Adirondack-y and was also the name of early 20th C. Indian River guide & hunter Tippecanoe Knapp.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

2009 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ends

The Saranac Lake 2009 Winter Carnival has ended. After the initial theme, “Hearts Afire,” confused locals–was it about tattoo art? 1970s soft rock record covers?–and failed to attract underwriting from leading antacid manufacturers, the carnival committee settled on the theme, “Pirates of the Adirondacks.” Appropriate in a region where self-image often involves lawlessness, affinity for alcohol, and (in the case of real estate developers) plunder.

If the economy doesn’t turn around soon, expect to see many of the parade day costumes reused come Halloween.



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