Rich in tradition and historical significance, the Adirondack story continues to unfold.
New York State was the breeding ground for the American industrial revolution. The timber resources of the Northeast United States, extensive waterway system providing transport to mid-western states, and the birth of the 20th century's financial center of New York City, all contributed to the accumulation of wealth and power characteristic of the Empire State. New York has been home to the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and other oil, rail, and industrial empires that became synonymous with a turn-of-the-century free-market ideology perhaps never before and never since experienced. This chapter of New York history is well known and continues to shape the discourse within boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, the New York Federal Reserve, and the trading floors of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.
A lesser-known chapter of New York history stands in contrast to the well-known culture of human expansion, exploitation and domination. New York State is also home to the largest park in the contiguous United States. The century-old, six-million-acre Adirondack Park of Upstate New York is larger than its better know cousins Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Smoky Mountain National Parks combined. In fact, the American concept of wilderness and land conservation can be traced to the constitutionally protected New York Forest Preserve, upon which the Adirondack Park was built. Created in 1892 through an amendment to the State Constitution, the New York Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains today stands as one of the strongest protections of land in the world (Brown, 1985; Terrie, 1994). Article XIV of the New York State Constitution reads in part:
The lands of the State . . . shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.
Throughout the 20th century, the development and lumbering restrictions set forth by Article XIV withstood many challenges from timber interests and hydropower projects, and more recently, large scale tourism development interests (Schaeffer, 1994). Any change to the N.Y. Constitution requires the passage of amendments in consecutive State legislatures followed by a statewide public referendum. This rather rigorous process has made it possible for Article XIV to stand against such challenges. In fact, the significance of Article XIV has extended well beyond the Park's boundaries. It is widely recognized that its language, and decades of legal experience in its defense, laid the foundation for the U.S. National Wilderness Act of 1964.
Yet despite its strength, the New York Forest Preserve faces similar challenges to those faced by many national and international nature protection efforts. Like most conservation strategies, the Forest Preserve depends in large part on State government purchases (or seizures) of land and on the cessation of economic activity within protected land boundaries. Such strategies have proven effective at best for small parcels of land. However, government finances and the availability of land for sale typically limit them.
The Adirondack Park is no exception. Its boundaries were originally drawn with the ultimate goal of total State acquisition. However, through the years, as the Park boundary expanded, land values increased, Adirondack towns and villages developed, and large tracts of land were retained in the private sector, it became clear that this ultimate goal was infeasible. The Adirondack Forest Preserve did continue to expand, but today accounts for just under half of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park.
While the level of protection afforded to the public Adirondacks is unique, the incorporation of private lands within a protected Park system sets the Adirondacks apart from the typical public park model. By including both public and private lands within the Park boundaries, comprehensive planning had to evolve in order to protect a large relatively intact ecosystem from incompatible uses on privately owned land.
Prior to the 1970s, public land in the Adirondacks was simply protected with no intent of incorporating recreational land use on protected lands into the Park’s land use regulations. Yet given the Park's unique structure of private lands intermingled with publicly owned tracks of land, new forms of land use and protection were needed. Private lands consist of small tracts around hamlets, large open spaces owned by timber industries, a few remaining wealthy estates, and recreation clubs.
Following the completion of interstate highway 87 in 1967, which runs through the eastern border of the Park connecting large population centers in New York City and Montreal, new threats to the Park's ecological integrity emerged. Public lands were suddenly accessible to a larger and demographically and economically more diverse segment of the Northeast U.S. population. New subdivisions and sales of private lands for second-home and seasonal housing development, town expansions, and recreational land use development rapidly altered the character of the private land pockets within the Park. In reaction, New York State commissioned a study of the Adirondacks resulting in the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in 1971. The APA was charged with the task of zoning the public Adirondacks for recreational use and the private Adirondacks for various intensities of development. The results of the newly formed APA’s work were two comprehensive plans: the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (1972) and the Adirondack Park Private Use and Development Plan (1973). Table 1 lists the public and private zoning classifications, current percentage of Adirondack land within each, and a brief description of use intensity by zone.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the story of the Adirondack Park is one of seeking to live the generally abstract concept of sustainability rather than conservation. People are trying to make a living within a protected area rather than keeping human use and nature protection neatly separated. Today's Adirondack Park is home to over 135,000 permanent residents in 105 towns and villages, and host to over 200,000 seasonal homes. Seventy million people live within a day’s drive from the Park. Almost by accident, the region has evolved into an application of modern multiple land-use models extolled by conservation biologists to protect large ecosystems through networks of cores, corridors, and buffers (Erickson, 1997). McKibben (1995), Schneider (1997), Terrie (1997) and others have looked at the Adirondack experience in search of compromise between economic development and environmental protection. In the search for operationalizing vague principles of sustainable development, the Adirondack story is shedding some much needed light on the its application at a regional level.
Erickson, J.D. (1998). 'Sustainable development and the Adirondack experience', Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies, 5(2).
McKibben, B. (1995). Hope, Human and Wild: true stories of living lightly on the earth. Little, Brown, and Co., Boston, Massachusetts.
Schaeffer, P. (1989). Defending the Wilderness: the Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York.
Schneider, P. (1997). The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness. Henry Hold and Co., Inc., New York, N.Y.
Terrie, P.G. (1994). Forever Wild: A Cultural History of Wilderness in the Adirondacks. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York.
Terrie, P.G. (1997). Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Museum/Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York.