A vision of an Adirondack wilderness, with people

A fascinating discussion is underway over at the Adirondack Almanack blog about the future of the Park’s vast and sparsely settled core.

In an essay this week, editor John Warren embraced the idea of creating a 400,000-acre wilderness area in the heart of the Park.

“This Bob Marshall or Oswegatchie Great Wilderness Area is a laudable goal,” Warren concluded.

In support of this vision, Warren quotes at length Dan Plumley, co-founder of a new environment group called Adirondack Wild:

“It is all too easy for us to think of our own recreational desires first and forget about the long term goals of gaining, over time, truly wild conditions of relatively intact wilderness protected by law and our state constitution.”

Warren also seems to reject the arguments that many — including myself — have made that the next focus of Park thought and planning should be the human communities inside the blue line.

“Others argue that we are in danger of losing some amorphous “culture” of the Adirondacks,” Warren writes, “as if that culture hasn’t changes dramatically a half dozen times since the human race made it’s first footprints here. Or, for that matter, even in the last 400 years or so.”

Here’s why I disagree, with Plumley and Warren.

The Adirondack experiment isn’t just about protecting trees and ecosystems.  If you want to do that, the best approach is simply to clear the decks, remove the people and create a Yellowstone- or a Denali-style park.

The revolutionary thing here is that we are trying to model a much more difficult, grey-zoney approach to open-space conservation, one that nurtures human communities rather than eliminating them.

That “amorphous” Adirondack culture isn’t merely a complication.  It’s half the reason that the Park matters.

If you read Article XIV of New York’s constitution — which establishes the “forever wild” Adirondack forest preserve  — a huge chunk of the text deals with provisions designed to sustain human communities.

Yes, it sets out strict rules to protect wildlife and open space, but it also mandates preservation of farming, Adirondack history, and recreation, and allows for construction of things like municipal water supplies.

Put simply, this delicate and complicated balance between the human and the wild is written into the DNA of the Park.

Which means that occasionally we will do things (like allow a little more human recreation, or the construction of a new subdivision) that make environmentalists cringe.

I’m hoping we will also find ways to slowly transfer more and more decision-making to local communities — a loss of control which also makes a lot of green leaders uncomfortable.

But if we succeed, we will have accomplished something truly visionary and sustainable.

In the place of a the usual “colonial” model of land conservation — which tends to squeeze out and marginalize local, rural residents — we will have a philosophy of wilderness preservation that  is truly grassroots and sustained by an acceptable level of prosperity.

My guess is that if we do have something to contribute to the people who follow us a century or two from now, it will be this kind of idealism, set out from the very beginning in the state constitution, and not narrow debates over where we place mountain bike trails.

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20 Comments on “A vision of an Adirondack wilderness, with people”

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  1. Jim says:

    It’s nice to see forward thinking at work

  2. Paul says:

    Brian, I totally agree with you on this one.

    When I asked Dan Plumley about “balance” he gave me this response:

    “As to Paul’s point on “balance” – these are catch phrases that require deep exploration and mean different things to different people.”

    I find this to be kind of a interesting take on the subject. Yes, he is correct that it could mean different things to different people, and it probably does. But when the only focus is on the preservation of the “woods” (no matter what name we give it) and very little (or none) is on the “people” than there is no balance, no matter how much “deep exploration” you give it.

    If environmental groups care for anything beyond wilderness preservation (and the preservation of their way of enjoying it) than they must focus some of their efforts in other ways. Or at least get out of the way of those that want something different once and a while. I seriously doubt that they care for anything beyond wilderness preservation, and that is fine. That is their prerogative and no one should blame them for standing firm on one single principal like that. They should just be honest and stop pretending that they care about the people and “culture” of the Adirondacks. Sure like John Warren says “cultures” change. But if we want to preserve any kind of “culture” that looks like the one that we had in the past and is slowly slipping away than we need to have a definition of “balance” that is more like Brian is trying to articulate here and in other places. It is simply not enough for environmental groups to use this idea that Wilderness preservation is somehow “necessary” to save the economy of the region. Sure, it is part of it but just a part. The question is what do we want the place to look like in a hundred years? I am confident that there will be millions of acres of wild land for my grandchildren and great grand children to see, but will there still be the other things that I think make the Adirondacks a truly unique and special place?

  3. dave says:

    What level of human presence would mark a successful experiment for you Brian? It seems like you think that would be either sustaining what we have now, or increasing it.

    Would smaller communities be a failure of the Adirondack Park in your opinion?

  4. Tony Hall says:

    Brian, I believe the vision you expound would require a degree of planning beyond the capacities of fallible human beings. It would also require that many communities be subsidized if they are to be sustained, because many are losing their economica viability. The simple fact is that the Adirondack Park was created to protect wilderness, and has survived because successive generations have risen to the defense of wilderness. To be sure, communities have co-existed with wilderness long before and ever since the Park was created, at times and in some places by extracting natural resources, in other places, through tourism. The communities that survive will be those which have found a way to adapt to existing, albeit challenging conditions. I say this as someone who loves the Adirondacks primarily for its small towns.

  5. BRFVolpe says:

    Tony, communities that exist are subsidized now. State property pays a huge proportion of taxes to the towns and schools, public employees account for a third of those with work. Subsidizing isn’t a hair-brained part of Brian’s plan, it’s a reality now, in those small towns that we all love – and need. And we’re in trouble.

  6. Paul says:

    “The simple fact is that the Adirondack Park was created to protect wilderness, and has survived because successive generations have risen to the defense of wilderness.”

    This of course is not true but I am at least glad to see someone admits that Wilderness preservation is their reason the park was created and exists today.

    Many people feel this way, and many people do not. This absolute does not have to guide the management of the Adirondack park. It shouldn’t, I hope it doesn’t.

  7. Solidago says:

    People have defended the Forest Preserve for generations because it has value as a watershed, for recreation, for tourism, and because of other very tangible human benefits, not because they altruistically and selflessly believe in the inherent value of an ecological sanctuary isolated from man.

    You shut out too many people and then all that will be left to advocate for Wilderness are misty eyed idealists whose arguments about the intrinsic value of Wilderness hold little weight with the taxpayers and those who make the decisions.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    I’ll say basically the same thing I said over at the Adirondack Almanac.
    The woods are the woods are the woods, and when you are in them you can’t tell the difference between Wilderness and Wild Forest without a map.
    Obviously, the only reason for the Wilderness designation is to exclude motorized access. Read sea planes and snowmobiles. Neither sea planes nor snowmobiles are considered problems in true wilderness areas such as northern Canada. They are only a problem for those who want to pretend they are in a “real wilderness.”
    It would have been much better for the wild character of the Adirondacks if excessive water front development had been curtailed in exchange for not having any “Wilderness” designations. Sea plane and snowmobile use could have been controlled without the “Wilderness” designation.
    You can get lost and die in Wild Forest just as easily as you can get lost and die in Wild Forest.
    I am not a snowmobiler but if someone wants to give me the money for a snowmobile and the clothing, I would gladly become one. I do snowshoe and, as I get older, I find myself enjoying the break I get when I snowshoe on a snowmobile trail.
    Whine, whine, whine! I’m tired of the whining that comes for the pro-wilderness people – most of whom neither work or live here. If they love this place so much, why don’t they live, work and raise a family up here?

  9. Paul says:

    Solidago is correct, like it or not, there is always an economic question involved. I think that some folks have forgotten this in a mad rush to add more and more public land to the state’s coffer. Is the current model sustainable based on the economic realities that lie ahead? No matter the fate the of the “great experiment” in regards to the people of the Adirondacks we may have painted ourselves into a closet when it comes to Forest Preserve policy. If you ONLY consider the “needs” of the woods and you overlook the “needs and desires” of many of the people you may be in for a rude awakening. Brian has written several pieces on what would happen if the State can’t pay its tax bill in the Adirondacks on forest preserve land. Let me give you another scary example. These large conservation easements that have passed the books over the last few decades seemed like a “balanced” idea. The state can spend less money than they would on a land purchase and still retain recreation rights as well as see development strictly limited and allow timber production to continue. Everybody seemed to like this idea and folks like the Nature Conservancy even agreed to step in and facilitate the deal. But wait we forgot about reality. The tax base in these areas is shrinking and the tax burden is growing, and timber prices are falling. Can the new owners make it with the only real source of income as timber harvesting (a shaky prospect in fat economic times)? What is the alternative? The development right are gone to NYS, sealed away in a pretty tight jar. It may, at some point, leave the current owners with only one option let NYS have the land. Now NY is stuck back with the tax bill. One they can’t afford to pay. Is this why on some conservation easements we already see the owners trying to get back the rights to lease camps on the land that were given away by the previous owners? Maybe some won’t care. Once they have logged the land off they may want to pull the plug anyway. Sell it, give it to the state, either way may work for them. Bottom line is that NYS may be left holding the bag. Did folks like the Nature Conservancy and others see this happening down the road? There is certainly a history of this kind of behavior in the past. Difference then was that NYS sold the land in tax sale to the highest bidder and put it back one someone else’s tax bill. They can’t do that anymore, when land is acquired by the state in this Park it immediately goes into the Forest Preserve and is governed by article 14 (Remember the Almanack article about how Camp Gabriel’s should really be off the market?). These defaults, if they happen, could be just another looming cloud for the folks in the Adirondacks. Is this another failed policy supported by, and even facilitated by, environmental groups? They may mean well, but I think they are either doing this on purpose (“turn it all into a park”) or they just don’t get it?

  10. dave says:

    “all that will be left to advocate for Wilderness are misty eyed idealists whose arguments about the intrinsic value of Wilderness hold little weight with the taxpayers and those who make the decisions.”

    Especially if we keep intentionally knocking the legitimacy of these views by calling those who hold them misty eyed idealists.

    The value of wilderness for the sake of wilderness, and leaving wilderness to our children and grandchildren, is not as hard an argument to make to voters as some think.

  11. mervel says:

    But there are subsets of the Park that would work as a wilderness core with more developed areas surrounding them. I don’t think that core is the high peaks either which is better suited toward tourism, ski and McCabins for the second home crowd. All good things by the way. But you are not going to have much of a wilderness area when you have thousands of hikers pounding through every summer and fall.

    I would however see a wilderness core being where we already have old growth and very little development and actually not much foot traffic either. No big peaks not much grandeur just wild forest.

    We can do both the Park is huge and would certainly fit both types of areas.

  12. mervel says:

    The community health component is more difficult in that most of upstate NY is declining; so how do we know if the areas in the park are hurting because they are in the park or simply because they are in upstate NY? Economically they communities in the Park are doing better than communities outside of the Park so it is hard to make this argument that somehow the Park or wilderness restrictions are the culprit.

  13. Solidago says:

    Dave, I suspect that you are a Wilderness advocate because you experience those areas first hand, not because it is some abstract concept you only hear about. If we (as in those who treasure the relative silence, solitude and untrammeled beauty of Wilderness areas) want to ensure the continued existence of these areas and promote the addition of new areas when the time comes, somewhat paradoxically we need to bring more people into the fold to appreciate them, enjoy them and advocate for them.

  14. phahn50 says:

    the forest lands arent worth that much as timber or mineral extraction etc. Their “value” in the next century is going to be as recreation land. As long as their is recreation access to the “wilderness” land – even if it is only non-motorized – I dont see what the problem is. There is enough land in the park so that the motorized recreation enthusiasts can also have plenty of land to play in.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t see all that much to argue about in the original Adirondack Almanac piece. I didn’t see them say that all humans should be removed. They said that maybe mountain bikers and other mechanized recreation should be kept out of a proposed core wilderness. Doesn’t sound too different than the concept we have now.

    Also, he is correct about the “Adirondack Culture.” It is a moving target. 200 years ago and more most of the Adirondack were unpopulated–nobody lived here. There were some areas where Indians came to hunt and they accessed those areas by walking.

    I would say there is no real Adirondack culture. It’s a little bit New England, a little French-Canadian, throw in a good bit of Staten Island and some Jersey. There is no Adirondack cuisine, no Adirondack music, no Adirondack art though there is a form of Adirondack architecture/furniture — and that was invented by and for ultra-wealthy city people. The whole Adirondack motif is just Disney before Disney. There are even people who build “camps” here who actually bring Imagineers from Disney to “theme” their compounds.

    Hardly anyone can trace their roots here back more than 150 years. If there is an Adirondack culture it is all about being poor, hard-scrabble, survivors too stubborn to move on to greener pastures and too hard headed to change with the times. I guess we’ve got that plenty.

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Okay, I guess I might just as well say it. Everyone knows it’s true but nobody says it publicly. The problem with Adirondack communities is that about half of the residents are dirt-bags. You guys can decide for yourselves which half you’re in.

    Now I’ve got nothing against dirt-bags. Some of my best friends are or have been dirt-bags and a lot of people would say I’m a dirt-bag. But I’m talking about people who just refuse to do for themselves. I know it can be hard to find a job up here and it takes a little money to make a little money, but jeezum read a book! Get the trash out of your yard. Stop buying a new snowmobile every year on credit and then complaining to me over your 5th beer at the bar how hard it is and you can’t hunt TNC land cause they wont let you ATV to the spot you used feed the deer.

    You don’t need the $45,000 F150 4×4 even though the TV has convinced you you need one to be a man. Get rid of your ATV, snowmobile, and your leaf blower. If for some reason you need to buy a sheet of plywood there is no law that says it has to fit between your wheel wells.

    Drink less and smoke less pot. Paint your house–try to have some sort of theme to the colors you choose. Finish putting the siding on your garage. Replace the blue tarp on your roof with a new one that isn’t frayed.

    Quit whining that the APA doesn’t let you do anything. Chances are they never stopped you from doing anything, you did that yourself.

  17. Pete Klein says:

    A tip of the hat to knuck for having some guts to speak his mind.
    What knuck said had me think of the Geico commercial asking if a former drill sergeant makes for a poor psychiatrist.
    Yes, let’s chug on down to namby pamby land to see if we can find you some courage.
    There I times when I go to town meetings and not only does it seem like I am watching and listening to reruns. It also seems the public comment period is made of whining old women, most of whom are men.

  18. Myown says:

    Well said, Knuck.

  19. Mervel says:

    I don’t know I don’t think that profile is that unique to the Adirondacks.

    That is what multi generational poverty often looks like in the US and the entire North Country in particular.

  20. Pete Klein says:

    The profile could also apply to some residents of NYC. Some examples there could include expensive sneakers and Bling.

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