UPDATE: No environmental activist has suggested that a wilderness or Adirondack land parcel be named after themselves personally. The text below has been corrected to clarify this point.
This week, a group called Adirondack Wild unveiled a proposal to name a big chunk of the former Finch Pruyn timberlands after celebrated environmentalist Paul Schaefer.
“There is no one so closely associated with protection of the wild Upper Hudson River, and the Park’s wild river system as Paul Schaefer,” said Dan Plumley, co-founder of the group.
“With these magnificent new acquisitions watered and bordered by wild, free flowing rivers, the time has come to name a substantial wilderness in Paul’s honor.”
Schaefer was a ground-breaking environmental activist, who fought against plans to construct a major complex of dams that would have reshaped the Adirondacks, taming some of its wildest rivers and likely displacing some communities.
He passed away in 1996.
This idea of honoring a Park environmentalist with a chunk of wilderness named after him isn’t new.
The Adirondack Council and others have proposed naming a big swath of the western and northern Adirondacks after Bob Marshall.
Marshall was a seasonal resident of the Park who helped to popularize the idea of the 46 High Peaks and he co-founded the Wilderness Society. He passed away in 1939.
The group has even taken to calling the area The Bob Marshall Wild Lands Complex and issued a map that gathers towns, villages, chunks of public and private land under the moniker that they decided unilaterally that it should bear.
“Now is the opportunity to honor the legacy of Bob Marshall by preserving this wilderness jewel as a gift from our generation to posterity,” the group argued.
I think it’s fair to say that no one can question the impact of these two men, or of a number of other prominent environmentalists who have devoted their lives to protecting land and ecosystems inside the blue line.
But I wonder about the optics of green groups trying to protect these chunks of land, lobbying for the most restrictive land-use classification (in opposition to the views of many locals) and then lobbying to hang the names of their mentors and inspirations above the door.
In this case, members of Adirondack Wild are proposing to name a wilderness area after an individual with whom they have had longstanding personal and professional ties.
“[Schaefer] was my early mentor in all things Adirondack. In 1987 I was fortunate to have been selected executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, the organization Paul served as a Vice-President,” Adirondack Wild co-founder Dave Gibson wrote in the Adirondack Almanack in 2010.
Is there just a slight whiff of Mount Rushmorism here?
The simple truth is that the goals and ideals of these men have often run contrary to the values of local residents and community leaders who live in the areas most directly affected by these proposed wilderness designations.
It’s one thing to lose a bitter political fight over how the land in your back yard should be managed. But then to have “your” area named after one of the leaders of the opposing faction? That’s tough medicine.
I also wonder if there aren’t other folks, including elected officials, who might be in line before Schaefer and Marshall — men who had an arguably much larger and more lasting impact on the Park and its history.
Teddy Roosevelt? Nelson Rockefeller? George Pataki? All three are former state governors who either learned from or reshaped the Adirondacks in profound ways, while leaving an unquestionably important environmental legacy.
Or how about naming an Adirondack wild lands parcel after William Wheeler, the famously honest Malone attorney and congressman who later served as Franklin County prosecutor and then as vice president of the United States?
What about naming a chunk of land after a powerfully influential local leader? A Ron Stafford Wild Forest? A George Canon Intensive Use Area?
Finally, what about the guys whose names are already identified with a big chunk of this property? Jeremiah and Daniel Finch and Samuel Pruyn had a particularly long and historical impact on the Park lands that they owned and stewarded.
They created some of the most interesting works of architecture in the North Country, bankrolled landmark institutions that endure today, and set an early standard for environmentally sound forestry.
I’m not suggesting that no wild lands in the Park should ever be named after a green activist. And my comments here don’t reflect my personal views about these men or their contributions.
(Having grown up in Alaska, and trekked in the Brooks Range, a well-worn copy of Marshall’s “Exploring the Central Brooks Range” has a place of pride on my book shelf.)
But names and the process of naming are important things.
It seems like before people start hanging their banners or putting names on maps, maybe a conversation is in order between environmental groups, state officials, and the folks who live in these areas.