It’s been my honor and privilege to know some great Adirondack conservation leaders in the late 20th century. One I feel deserves a lot “more ink” is the late David L. Newhouse, a native of the Midwest and graduate of Purdue University, who arrived in New York State following World War II to become a leading metallurgical engineer with the General Electric Company in Schenectady.
His interest and leadership quickly expanded into the Adirondacks for, as Dave wrote rather formally and very modestly in a biographical paragraph: “My interest in the Adirondacks and Catskills had its roots in my developing recreational use of them, for hiking, climbing, camping, and canoeing in the Forest Preserve and other wildlands. I learned about pressures for competing and incompatible uses of these lands that threatened their character, and became very involved in conservation of their values and in education as a means of gaining popular and political support for wilderness and wild forest values.” » Continue Reading.
The woods are dry out there. This week, forest fire fighters needed state police helicopters to douse a carelessly set, poorly extinguished fire up on Sawteeth Mountain. In such cases, the informal NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) policy is to fight and extinguish the fire as part of its legal responsibilities for care, custody and control of the Forest Preserve.
Ought there be a state policy of graduated measures to address forest fires in the Forest Preserve, particularly in remote areas? Greater dialogue and sharing of information on the subject of forest fire in the wilds of the Park, public or private, would be helpful. » Continue Reading.
A June 14 decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) Director of Proceedings awarding common carrier status to the Saratoga and North Creek Railway (SNCR), owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings, for freight operations on the 30-mile Tahawus industrial rail spur was appealed June 25 to the full Board by Charles C. Morrison, Project Coordinator for the Adirondack Committee, Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club and Samuel H. Sage, President and Senior Scientist of the Atlantic States Legal Foundation (ASLF). » Continue Reading.
News comes this week that the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad (Iowa Pacific Holdings) has gotten federal go-ahead to extend commercial rail uses to and from the former mine at Tahawus, Newcomb. I extend the company and the towns through which the spur line passes a thumbs-up and good luck, not just for its rail rehabilitation and future commercial success, but for its educational success.
That said, the State of New York, by failing to hold public hearings to share information and hear opinion about the complicated issues behind re-extending the line from North Creek to Newcomb, failed its responsibilities for the Forest Preserve. » Continue Reading.
A proposal may come up for a vote in the State Legislature this year that would amend Article 14, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution, ‘the Forever Wild” clause which safeguards our New York State Forest Preserve. The amendment and implementing legislation addresses land titles on the shoreline of Raquette Lake in Hamilton County.
Each time the Legislature and the People of the State are asked to consider an exception to Article 14 represents a new opportunity to affirm the Article’s fundamental principle and mandate that “the lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve… shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” No other state in the country has such a large (now about three million acres in both Adirondack and Catskill Parks) Forest Preserve, much less one embedded in its State Constitution. » Continue Reading.
Public wild lands protected by law in New York State can fall under the public jurisdiction of a variety of state agencies. Some of them are part of the system of state parks administered by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP). In northern Saratoga County and across the Hudson River in Warren County lie more than 4,000 acres of beautiful and protected public wild land, part of the Moreau Lake State Park. Much of this land was acquired by the nonprofit Open Space Institute from Niagara Mohawk, and then sold to the public in 1998.
Moreau Lake State Park tripled in size at that time, and is now the largest state park in the region. The six million-acre Adirondack Park north of Moreau Lake, of course, has a completely different legislative history and legal context. It is not part of the OPRHP system of state parks. This past week, I joined an enthusiastic group of state park officials, staff, park friends, volunteers and concerned citizens at Moreau Lake State Park. The occasion was an Earth Day ribbon cutting at the park’s new nature center, led by NYS Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey. Moreau Lake State Park’s director, his educational staff and the volunteers of Friends of Moreau Lake were given appropriate credit for this new space and added capacity to work with school groups, some of the 400,000 annual visitors to this park. The facility “showcases State Parks’ commitment to environmental education…shared by experienced and passionate outdoor educators,” said the Chair of the Saratoga-Capital District State Park Commission Heather Mabee.
This was visible progress. I once worked as a part-time naturalist and recreation staffer at Moreau Lake and Saratoga Spa State Parks, so it was gratifying to see the greatly improved educational facilities, interpretive exhibits, and dedicated staff that did not exist in the mid-1980s. On the other hand, even in those days I experienced a strong connection to the Adirondack Mountains and the solitude and beauty of the wilderness each time I went to Moreau for a program or a hike. The forests at Moreau do, in fact, act as a transition between the Appalachian oak-pine forests and the northern mixed hardwood forests of the Adirondacks, while the elevation gains to the park’s ridge trails resemble those on many Adirondack hikes.
I was invited to the ribbon cutting for a different reason. Four years ago, Saratoga County Water Authority’s water intake and pipeline from the Hudson River were constructed through a section of Moreau Lake State Park, in violation, we felt, of our State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause that protects the Forest Preserve as defined in State law. Saratoga County is one of 16 counties in the state that fall within the legal definition of Forest Preserve. The vast majority of Forest Preserve lies within the boundaries of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, but some falls outside these boundaries in the named counties.
Moreau Lake State Park was no legal exception, and it certainly has public wild lands characteristic of the Forest Preserve, so we challenged OPRHP’s allowance of the county water line’s construction through parts of this park. As readers know, the State Constitution’s Article 14 states that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,” and “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private…” The Saratoga County Water Authority, a public corporation, had, in our view, unconstitutionally taken parts of Forest Preserve at Moreau Lake State Park.
Ultimately, the water line was constructed. Although the coalition did not go to court on these grounds, we came to a legally binding agreement with OPRHP that commited $300,000 of public funds to build educational facilities, like the park’s nature center; other funds to add to the park’s wild land acreage; and a commitment to manage large segments of the park as if it were Forest Preserve – although OPRHP is reluctant to name it what I think it truly is. A professional management plan is in place at Moreau, most of the wild land is managed appropriately as Park preserve land, and there is a visible educational and passive recreational emphasis at the park. There are well-advertised hikes, an educational staff is in place, and an active friends group helps the small staff serve the public, including area schools and youth groups.
In short, I am glad we reached the agreement we did. On the other hand, vigilance is still called for. All state agencies responsible for New York’s “wild forest land” should understand and embrace those responsibilities, and resist any kind of taking and exploitation of our wilderness for commercial or expedient ends. After all, our wilderness is a big part of what distinguishes New York State; and our “forever wild” Constitution is the envy of every other state, and every other country on earth.
Photos: Hemlock grove; springtime on the trails; nature center at Moreau Lake State Park.
In this week’s dispatch we take up the remainder of the story that delivered Lost Brook Tract intact and pristine into the 21st century. When we last left it smoke was hanging in the air and one edge of the parcel was singed, courtesy of the 1903 fires. Logging and paper companies were moving into the area to salvage lumber from the vast amounts of burned acreage.
Adirondack residents and workers were returning to normal life. Hikers were encountering and documenting the tremendous devastation in the back country, decrying the “acts of God” that caused them. Amazingly, while the damage to the forests was horrific, by and large population centers were spared. That may be a reason why people continued to see these fires as fate instead of folly. » Continue Reading.
The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has issued its 2011 Annual Report which summarizes the year and includes links to important documents. In a prepared statement APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich said, “Facing natural disasters and their related economic hardships, the Adirondack Park community stood together in 2011 to persevere. Going forward we must build upon this momentum to ensure the protection of the Park’s natural wonders. With the same conviction, we will promote economic opportunities to sustain the 103 towns and villages which add so much to the character of this special place”
It was Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, 2010. I had driven through the night to make it to the Adirondacks from my home in Madison. I had to see for myself the amazing opportunity I had stumbled upon while browsing around on the web. I was already tired, unknown territory lay ahead, and there I was, face to face with one of the most imposing natural wonders in all the Adirondacks: Vinny McClelland.
No doubt many Almanack readers are familiar with Vinny, but if you don’t know him he is the owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley among other vocations and he is intimately involved in the community in a plethora of ways. Amy and I have come to have great affection for Vinny. He is a “salt of the Earth” kind of guy: capable, authentic, generous of spirit. We also find Vinny to be – and I can’t think of a better way to say this – hard core. Vinny has this way of looking at you, a certain sort of sizing-up. It is not egotistical and it isn’t judgmental of your worth as a human being, but it is as if to decide whether you know what you are doing. Either you do or you don’t, either you make the cut or not. Vinny knows what he is doing. I don’t really know how many things he is expert at: mountaineering, skiing, building, guiding, landscape engineering, exploring… it’s a long list. Vinny knows the Adirondacks; for example he knows that if you are going on a day hike four miles into the wilderness on no sleep, off trail, in new territory, in winter conditions, with two hours of daylight, two thousand feet of climbing and a lot of ice… well, either you know what you are doing or you don’t. Probably you don’t.
At the moment Vinny was looking at me with what I would describe as a level of skepticism. From what he had to go on at that point I didn’t blame him.
Amy and I had been daydreaming, searching on real estate sites for small houses we might buy on the cheap and fix up over several years before eventually fulfilling our long-held plan of moving to the Adirondacks. One such MLS search produced a list that included a sixty acre parcel with a picture that showed a beautiful, densely forested mountain view. These are the sorts of listings I have learned to ignore seeing as I am not a multi-millionaire. But the asking price of this acreage was unbelievably low, far less than any other listing I’d seen except for those that turned out to be poor or recently cut-over land. The picture sure didn’t make it look like it was poor land. How was this possible?
Incredulous, I called the realtor whose site I had been using and asked her to contact the listing agent with a few basic questions. When she called back to tell me that the parcel held mature timber and views and was embedded in State Wilderness I was stunned. Apparently the price was low because the tract was inaccessible, with no road or trail to it and no possibility for development. In other words it was perfect! It was the embodiment of my life-long dream to own wild land in the heart of the Adirondacks, a dream I had never once considered could become reality.
I was seized with the kind of fear one gets when a miraculous opportunity seems too good to be true. In the unlikely event that the land was anything like it was being represented, then to a value system such as mine it was priceless. Surely there were like-minded people who would covet such a piece of wilderness and be all over this offering. I was sure it was already gone. The realtor called me back: no, it wasn’t sold but an offer was imminent.
Time was of the essence. I decided to be rash. It was Thanksgiving week and my college classes were not in session. I consulted with Amy, she agreed and I headed for the driveway with a pair of boots and a sleeping bag.
On my way through Illinois the realtor called to discourage me from coming out as the offer was expected at any moment. Besides, she said, the listing agent told her that the land was “difficult to get to” and that the last potential buyer he had sent back to look at it “got lost” and never made it. This sounded better and better by the moment. “Too late,” I said, “I’m already in the car and on my way.”
We arranged to meet at 1 PM at a café in the nearest town after which I would hike to the land. In the meantime the listing agent continued to express his concerns. He provided her with a map containing GPS points on the route in. “I hope he has a GPS,” he said. “There is snow up there,” he warned, “It’s off trail.” I assured her that I was experienced.
No doubt harboring a healthy measure of reserve, the listing agent decided to attend the meeting too. I have since speculated on what his thought process must have been… “Here is some guy who lives in the Midwest. He’s driving through the night to look at a piece of land without having the slightest idea what he’s getting into. He’s probably a lunatic or an idiot; I’d better see for myself…”
By now you have guessed the name of the listing agent. Vinny McClelland is also a real estate professional. He typically represents marquee properties but as fate would have it he was selling this little forgotten swath because he had a personal connection to it going back years. He is one of the few people in the world who has actually been there.
It was nearly 1:30 PM before we got started with our meeting. Vinny had assembled an impressive packet on the parcel with a name on the cover: Lost Brook Tract. I asked some questions. Vinny seemed anxious for me to go. He reminded me that late-November days are short, that there was snow up high and a lot of ice. “Do you have gear?” he asked. I said that I did (I had boots, after all). I asked another question or two. “You need to get going,” Vinny urged. “Do you have GPS?” I replied that I never used GPS (I can’t stand the idea of it). At this point I could tell that the “idiot” assessment was prevailing. I decided to play an assurance card. “Vinny,” I told him, “My most recent bushwhack this summer was Allen to Redfield,” knowing full well that not a lot of people try that one. I wanted to think it helped a little but Vinny showed no outward sign that he was impressed. Now that I know him better I think that saying I’d just done the North face of Eiger might have helped more.
In any case, off I went. The way up was indeed icy and progress was slow. I did not get all the way there – at least I never saw his flagging – but I did bushwhack to a small outcropping on the way with a view of the parcel from a short distance. It looked beautifully forested, dark and dramatic, utterly wild. I was enchanted.
I returned to Madison. We made an offer, prevailed somehow and closed on the property two days after Christmas.
On the afternoon of December 29th Vinny took us up to Lost Brook Tract, following an old bushwhack route he first took as a child. For two miles it was easy, relatively open woods and a gradual climb. At the halfway point near a pair of huge boulders Vinny paused for a moment to inform us that the route got “gnarly” from there. The snow deepened, the forest thickened and the grade became formidable. Our snowshoes were subpar, our packs were heavy and we fell well behind. After an exhausting climb we came upon Vinny sitting at an old lean-to, contentedly enjoying a late lunch. He told us he admired our family for doing this, wished us a happy new year and bid us farewell.
We had arrived in a winter paradise. The first thing we all noticed was the snow-draped spruces towering overhead. Some looked to be more than eighty or ninety feet in height, something I’d never seen at this elevation in the Adirondacks. We were filled with wonder at the sight of them. “I think this is old-growth forest,” I whispered. We dug through four feet of snow, pitched our tents and make a fire pit. The temperature dropped to twenty below.
We spend two magnificent days. We explored the immediate area and the interior of the partially collapsed lean-to. We made our way down to Lost Brook, frozen and under a sea of snow. We uncovered part of an original fire ring and for a time got two fires going. Just before leaving I blazed a tree by the brook so as to be able to find the land again. We hiked out on our own, following the snow trail we had made going in. I thought of all the writers of old from my tattered copy of the Adirondack Reader. I recalled their reverent descriptions of the primeval and the wonder of discovery with a new understanding. This is what it is like.
The Town of Newcomb has completed its purchase of 348 acres for a total of $256,591.00 from The Nature Conservancy. The town officials hope the purchase will boost economic development and public access, particularly along the Route 28N travel corridor, and other community objectives outlined in its Comprehensive Plan, which was updated in 2009. “There are all kinds of options for these lands,” said Newcomb Supervisor George Cannon. “Now that the transactions with The Nature Conservancy are complete, we look forward to exploring those options. The log yard parcel is probably the most important acquisition; it is an excellent site for a potential business.” Cannon has been a vocal opponent of state land purchases in the past. » Continue Reading.
One of the most romantic characteristics of Lost Brook Tract is that hardly anyone has ever been there. This is not a wishful abstraction; we know it to be true. Fascinated by having found it to be old growth forest when we first visited it, I plunged into a research project to find out everything I could about the land.
Remarkably, the record is complete enough to paint a fairly thorough picture of its history. I was able to assemble a detailed chronology that shows Lost Brook Tract was simply missed by the surprising volume of human activity that occurred in the park, to the point where it is likely only a handful of people have ever walked on it. I find this a very compelling idea. It is incredibly romantic to imagine that in wandering through it I might set foot on some part where no one has ever trod. But is this a characteristic I am justified in preserving? In last week’s post I offered my rationale for writing these dispatches. However I see now that what I presented was incomplete. Shortly after it posted one reader wrote a comment that this endeavor seemed self-serving, “praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.” I think this is a valid criticism. I thought so before he wrote in. In fact I have been troubled by this very issue and it is one of the reasons I decided to write these dispatches.
It did not occur to us initially, but my family and I find ourselves deliberating a serious and difficult question about Lost Brook Tract that is an analog of the larger dispute over the Adirondack Park itself: how do we strike a balance between our interests, the interests of the public and the interests of the woods themselves? This is a challenging problem in ethics and aesthetics – that I used the term “primeval aesthetic” in my previous dispatch is no accident. Perhaps I should enlist the help of the Almanack’s resident Philosopher, Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, but in the absence of her input let me share a little bit about how we have tried to sort it out.
First, there are what I would describe as the two extremes. At the one extreme we simply deny access to anyone other than family and keep a shotgun handy to ward off any trespasser who ignores the signs that say “Posted.” This is easy enough to do. All it requires is a typical embrace of the centuries-old European cultural heritage of private property rights. Whatever one might think of this heritage (and it is a bloody one), it has prevailed in almost all the civilized world. From this view there is no debate at all: property ownership is sacred, especially land. This is the case with Lost Brook Tract: we have a deed, you cannot set foot on it without our permission, end of story.
I think most people would recognize this as the default condition (perhaps absent the threatening shotgun, but consider that this right is so sacrosanct as to give me the justification to shoot a trespasser to defend my property). If so, how can I characterize it as an extreme position? My answer to that has to do with context. It is fashionable to think in absolutes these days, especially with respect to political and social rights and morality. But absolutes are never universal. “Thou shalt not kill” seems about as defensible an absolute as there is. But it is beholden to context, lest we rule out war, the death penalty, self-defense, doctor-assisted suicide and even food consumption. As concerns property rights, absolutes are uncommon in practice. The average suburban homeowner makes multiple levels contextual distinction with hardly a thought. Consider a handsome stranger on your property without your permission. If he walks onto your front lawn will your authority as land owner engage at the same level as if he walks to your front door? Through the front door into your living room? Into your bedroom? At night?
Even if we have the force of law and cultural norms entirely on our side it seems to be a problem of context if we choose not to share Lost Brook Tract at all. Virgin forest is a precious and rare resource that is potentially of great importance to others. To hoard it while trumpeting wilderness values raises the damning specter of elitism.
At the other extreme we open the land to all. We go further: recognizing its unique value to the world at large and having preached about the importance of the primeval experience we invite all the readers of the Almanack to come up for a visit, describing its location and the route in, attaching a map and giving out GPS coordinates.
Obviously this is no balance either. For one thing we did not purchase Lost Brook Tract without a good share of self-interest on behalf of ourselves and our heirs. While we like to think we’re as altruistic as the next folks we’re not ready to entirely give up those interests, which include solitude among other things. But of course there is another competing interest in the mix, that of the land itself. Advertising it to several tens of thousands of Almanack readers risks what makes it valuable in the first place. Sixty acres is not a whole lot of land. If one percent of the Almanack’s readers came out to camp in a calendar year the land would be irrevocably damaged.
As always, that leaves the middle ground. How do we sort it out?
Our thinking has proceeded from the idea that Lost Brook Tract’s uniqueness and importance is directly due to its inaccessibility. The idea that a visit to such a place should be earned by effort and skill is not uncommon in the wilderness ethos. But this implies that it can and should be earnable. Therefore we decided to achieve our balance by allowing people to earn the experience of the land on the land’s terms. We’ll give up the romantic notion that no one should walk on it but we’re not going to make it any easier to get to.
Here’s how this has translated into practice.
First, we did not post Lost Brook Tract. Barring a disastrous series of incursions we never will. Instead we have a visitors log posted in our lean-to. The log welcomes hunters, hikers and campers. It has rules that we require visitors to follow; those rules are designed to protect the land. We allow use of the lean-to but not the gear we have stored there. We prohibit camping elsewhere. We allow fires in the fire ring, but only during hunting season and winter. Other rules are consistent with DEC wilderness regulations
Next, we have advertised Lost Brook Tract to important people in the political and environmental spectrum of the park who we think should know about the forest and see it. Several have already visited. We have invited an Adirondack-based ecologist who is currently doing research on old growth forests to come and conduct field work on the land.
Finally, we’re writing about it, for reasons already given. We do so knowing full well that makes it a potential destination for an enterprising reader. If someone really wants to find Lost Brook Tract they will. We have to trust that such an effort would be made with reverence for the land, for its wildness, and that the hike in, compass in hand, would earn it.
We welcome any comments or ideas on this balance.
Photo: Long Pond, in the Saint Regis Canoe Area (Courtesy Wikipedia).
Environmentalists raised many objections to the Adirondack Club and Resort, but perhaps the biggest is that the project will fragment Resource Management lands on and near Mount Morris in Tupper Lake.
In hearings last year, Michale Glennon and other scientists raised concerns about the loss of wild habitat. The argument is that the construction of roads, driveways, homes, and lawns will change the suite of wildlife that now occupies the woods. We might, for example, see more blue jays and fewer hermit thrushes. Yet Brian Mann reported last fall for the Adirondack Explorer and North Country Public Radio that it’s unclear whether the fragmentation will have much impact in the greater scheme of things, given that the lands in question are adjacent to tens of thousands of acres of protected forestland. In short, hermit thrushes are not about to disappear from the Adirondack Park.
Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild and others contend that Brian gave too much credence to outside experts. One of these experts, Hal Salwasser, dean of Oregon State College of Forestry, called the proposed resort “a blip on the landscape in a regional scale.”
Reading that the biggest development ever reviewed by the Adirondack Park Agency is a “blip” is sure to rankle opponents of the project. But the man said what he said. Quoting Salwasser does not make Brian biased. Indeed, if he had not quoted him, that would have been evidence of bias. (Click here to read the story in question. You also can click here to read another story by Brian in the latest Explorer.)
As far as we know, there is nothing special about the woods where the developers want to build. They have been logged for decades. That said, it is shocking that the developers failed to undertake a comprehensive wildlife survey—and that the APA failed to require one. Even if there were little chance of finding anything significant, it should have been done.
Most people seem to think the APA will approve the project this week. If so, we hope it demands a wildlife survey as a condition of the permit.
Looking ahead, the bigger question—even bigger than this project—is what will become of the rest of the Resource Management lands in the Park. How many “blips” like the Adirondack Club and Resort can the Park withstand?
The Adirondack Park Agency Act defines Resource Management lands as “those lands where the need to protect, manage and enhance forest, agricultural, recreational and open space resources is of paramount importance because of overriding natural resource and public considerations.” Examples of “primary uses” of such lands include forestry, agriculture, hunting, and fishing.
Nevertheless, the construction of single-family homes is allowed as a “secondary use.” Under the law, landowners may build fifteen principal structures for each square mile, which works out to one every 42.7 acres.
The Adirondack Club and Resort falls well within the density guidelines: the developers intend to build 83 principal structures on 4,740 acres of Resoure Management lands—or one for every 57 acres. Still, critics say the resort’s design fails to meet the law’s requirement that homes on Resource Management lands be built “on substantial acreages or in small clusters.” Unfortunately, the APA has never come to grips with what this language means.
The Adirondack Park has 1.5 million acres of Resource Management land. Some of these lands are protected by conservation easements, and others might be undevelopable. For the sake of argument, let’s say that leaves a million acres of RM lands where a house could be built. According to the APA’s building-density guidelines, landowners could construct up to 23,255 houses.
In a 5.8-million-acre Park, each house would be a truly small blip, but if they all get built, these 23,255 homes, with their driveways, lawns, and lighting, would have a much bigger impact on habitat and wildlife than the Adirondack Club and Resort will.
Some would argue that it’s improbable that all the Resource Management lands will be developed, but it is undeniable that more of them will be developed in the years ahead. It’s time to take a hard look at the APA Act and ask whether it adequately protects the privately owned backcountry.
Photo by Carl Heilman: site of proposed Tupper Lake development.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered an inspiring State of the State message, which I heard on the radio this week. He invoked the past, gave us all hope for the future, and had a long list of policy accomplishments to point to. He pointed to the need to invest state dollars in the upstate New York economy, especially people who are struggling in Buffalo and surroundings. He spoke up for major state investment in our aging infrastructure. He spoke glowingly of the performance of his economic development councils, and public-private partnerships. If I had to sum it up, in his speech the governor tried to set a high standard for New York, and inspire its citizens to reach for such a standard. However, the governor said nothing about the high standards of New York’s environment, and how much the state benefits from this condition. One very distinguishing high standard for New York State is and has been its tremendous water supply and water quality, which derives from its undeveloped, mountain forest headwaters – in the Catskill Mountains, in the Finger Lakes, in the Adirondack Park, in the Long Island Pine Barrens, in the Schenectady aquifer, and found in many other very valuable, special places. Lt. Governor Robert Duffy, a former upstate Mayor, understood the value of watersheds for his City of Rochester. As Mayor, he championed the Environmental Protection Fund for its role in preserving his city’s clean water supply from the Finger Lakes.
Governors should never forget how, for instance, the three million acre Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks distinguishes the state from every other state, and every other nation on earth. These wild lands, just hours distant from twelve million people, provide water to urban and suburban areas which does not require filtration to meet clean drinking water standards. These wild watersheds provide nature benefits which, if they became polluted and not usable, would cost the state many billions of dollars, with untold other costs not measurable in dollars.
In his formal office at the Capitol, Governor Andrew Cuomo has replaced the portrait of former Governor Theodore Roosevelt with one of a former Governor he admires even more, Al Smith. Regarding a proposal to dam an Adirondack river for hydroelectricity back in 1926, here is what then Governor Al Smith had to say about the Forest Preserve:
“In view of the definite attitude of the people of the State with regard to the preservation of their rights in the Forest Preserve, and in view of the further fact that by no stretch of the imagination can this River Regulating District be brought within the purview of the Constitution, I respectfully suggest that the application be denied” (it was).
On another occasion, Governor Al Smith said:
“We owe it not only to ourselves but to the generations to come that the Adirondack Preserve be kept the property of all the people of the state, and should any part of it be flooded, the floodings should be restricted to the public benefit now set forth in the constitution and not for exploitation by private interests.”
Al Smith thought past his own generation, and understood the long-term values of protected Adirondack watersheds. He is the same governor who blocked his ally, the powerful parks council chairman and builder Robert Moses, from constructing an automobile “tourway” around the shore of Tongue Mountain by buying the mountain for the Forest Preserve. Smith also opposed Moses in his bid to construct rustic motels, roads, and gas stations in the Adirondack Forest Preserve. He is the same governor who in 1924 put up a state bond for $15 million – a great sum in its day – to acquire Forest Preserve, including many miles of the eastern Lake George waterfront for the public.
I am hopeful that Governor Cuomo pays attention to this part of Al Smith’s legacy, and internalizes for himself the great competitive advantages in keeping and wherever possible expanding the quantity and quality of large blocks of intact, forested landscapes, many of which are embedded within our State’s Constitution.
Yes, Governor Cuomo and his team have pledged not to compromise “forever wild” principles, which of course is entirely laudable and sensible from an economic as well as environmental perspective.
But isn’t it long past time simply to treat “forever wild” as a rule not to flout, and limited to just the Adirondack and Catskill Parks? Why should it not be an eminently successful and advantageous ethic and policy to embrace and affirm in a State of the State address? Why not propose to strengthen the state’s environmental quality review to measure and control the carbon emissions of many different types of development? Why not study the advantages of expanding the boundaries of the Catskill or Adirondack Parks? Why not pledge to acquire Follensby Pond, or the Essex Chain of Lakes? Why not embrace the Park’s status as an International Biosphere Reserve, and encourage the world to invest in climate and ecological research here? Why not assure localities of the full taxation of the public’s Forest Preserve by placing such a commitment within the Constitution itself? If, in the environmental resilience it gives us, and in its component parts “forever wild” is indispensable as policy, why not develop ideas to investigate and stop any degradation? Why not buttress it, and offer incentives for state and localities to expand upon forever wild in other parts of the state?
One answer may be that there are always strong temptations, matched by lack of awareness and understanding, which can result in great damage in order to achieve short-term ends, even in the Adirondacks and Catskills, much more so everywhere else. Hydraulic fracturing for gas, on the scale contemplated (several thousand permits per year), will forestall the re-wilding of watersheds across a million or more acres of the state. The spidering of roads, trucking, lighting and drilling from the Marcellus shale formations will industrialize a good bit of the state’s rural landscapes, damaging what are now pretty intact forested uplands, wetlands, streams. Were the values of these landscapes monetized, and their nature benefits calculated, the cost-benefit analysis of hydraulic fracturing might be weighted heavily on the cost side of the equation.
Another example where the governor’s high standards are not yet being applied is his Adirondack Park Agency, which should be setting the highest standard for review of development, as well as promotion of applied “smart growth.” Instead, the Agency may be poised to deliver a permit for the worst kind of speculative, sprawling subdivision in its history – the Adirondack Club and Resort – which has failed to properly value its forests, watersheds, water quality, and wildlife, and which greatly overestimated its real estate, tax and sales projections – in a Park which the statutes say must be protected for future generations, and must avoid unnecessary environmental impacts.
Many Governors, and their Lieutenant Governors, in depressed and good economic times, have embraced the idea that managing forest land for ecological integrity is their highest and best use. These leaders have done so despite the ever-present siren song of short-sighted exploitation. Consider these words of Lt. Governor Frank Moore, c. 1951, during an address at the Buffalo convention of the New York State Conservation Council:
“Over the years the greatest enemy of the Adirondacks has been man himself. For almost a century the fight has continued to protect them from the despoiler…The people of the state unquestionably need more water power, but the place to get this…is from the Niagara and St. Lawrence, not by destroying the virgin forests of our great Preserve; not by destroying the Adirondack sponge which is providing our greatest water reservoir. In the solution of our water supply problems in this State we may find our greatest asset to be the Forest Preserve.”
The same could be said today by Governor Cuomo or Lt. Governor Duffy concerning carbon storage and sequestration, stormwater management, water quality to urban and rural areas, and educational, recreational and tourism benefits, among many others. Your honors, it’s a year to go beyond lip service, and embrace our wild watersheds.
Photos: Elk Lake and the High Peaks beyond; Article 14, Sect. 1, NYS Constitution.
What follows is a guest essay by Peter Brinkley who lives in Jay and is Senior Partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. This essay was prompted in part by new Almanack contributor Kimberly Rielly’s piece “Understanding the Adirondack Brand“.
We hear of the need for businesses in the Adirondacks to develop a universal brand to attract tourists.
This impulse indeed is strange. The Adirondacks has enjoyed a brand since the second half of the 1800s, one which has broadened and deepened its appeal. » Continue Reading.
Last week the Watertown Daily Times reported that Lassiter Properties had put on the market nearly 2,300 acres in and near the Adirondack Park.
In 1988, Lassiter bought more than ninety-five thousand acres in the North Country, but it has since sold most of its holdings to the state and to other timber companies.
Most of the 2,300 acres now on the market are located on three tracts just outside the Park in St. Lawrence and Lewis counties. The largest tract, some 1,930 acres, includes a stretch of the West Branch of the Oswegatchie River. » Continue Reading.
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