They were first. At the dawn of the 20th century, before the Adirondack Mountain Club, before the Adirondack Council, before the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the only organization dedicated to safeguarding these mountains was the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.
The association’s leaders were watchdogs who rose to the occasion at a critical time when regular assaults on the very idea of a “forever wild” Forest Preserve were hellishly strong, as Edith Pilcher points out in her thoughtful history of the organization’s century of advocacy.
Pilcher was in an ideal position to write A Centennial History of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks: 1901 – 2003. She has worked as a volunteer for 24 years in the Adirondack Research Library, now located in the association’s headquarters in the Schenectady-area home of the late Paul Schaefer. This history is drawn from the association’s extensive archives, which were once saved from a dumpster when Schaefer drove his dilapidated pick-up to New York City to whisk the papers, books and ledgers off a city street.
Like the Adirondack Mountain Club, the formation of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks occurred in posh offices in Manhattan, spearheaded by the prominent and wealthy. All were either members of the most exclusive clubs in the Adirondacks, such as the Adirondack League Club, or huge landowners, names like Whitney, Vanderbilt and Brandreth.
What brought them together initially was a shared alarm over the rape and pillage of private and public forests in the Adirondacks, a clear-cutting frenzy that threatened the character and value of their domains. Their motivation seems to have been a combination of public-spirited conservation and enlightened self-interest. They wanted fish and game to be enhanced and better policed, and by banding together, they were also warily guarding themselves and their huge estates from unwanted public acquisition and other undesired activity by the unpredictable state Legislature.
But by the standards of the time, these men (and they were all men) were altruistic. In 1903, they hired Edward Hagaman Hall for $1,500 a year “to do all the work of the Association that could be placed upon him by the Trustees.” Hall had a lot to do with defining the association’s first cause, protecting the “forever wild” character of the state Forest Preserve. He hiked all over the mountains, recording timber theft abuses, and then tracked down the culprits (including the influential) who were involved. Heads rolled, and that was due in part to the clout of the association.
From the beginning, the forces aligned against the association were also powerful and well-connected. The various incarnations of the Conservation Department and other state agencies fought for special interests or their own vision of what was right for the people. Many in the state Fish and Game Commission, for example, were disciples of Gifford Pinchot’s “scientific forestry,” which encouraged a culling of mature trees from forests. A valid point of view, certainly, but totally at odds with Article 14, Section 1, of the state constitution: “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
Reading Pilcher’s history, I was amazed at how often powerful interests have organized assaults on the forever-wild concept, right down to the constitutional convention in 1967. The association fought them all off, solo or in partnership with a growing coalition of Adirondack protectionist groups.
“Those of us who have come after,” observes Peter Bauer, executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, “owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the association for their advocacy—an advocacy that has helped shape the Forest Preserve.”
If opponents weren’t trying to cut down forests in the preserve, they wanted to open forever-wild lands to willynilly recreation, paved roads, snowmobile and ATV highways, and a host of other development. The association was instrumental in fighting the good fight against characters like Robert Moses, who wanted to essentially turn the Adirondacks into a theme park, including paved roads, cabins and tennis courts in the Preserve.
In the early decades of its existence, the association became the great naysayer to dams. It is mind-boggling to think of what the Adirondacks would look like today if various huge reservoir projects for the mountains had ever materialized, and they came close. If Gooley Dam No. 1 had happened, for instance, the hamlet of Newcomb would be underwater and so would 35 miles of the Hudson River, including a gorge that attracts thousands of rafters each year. All told, there were about 40 dams proposed for the Park. Stopping them was one of the association’s greatest accomplishments. From the first, the group has been dominated by the personalities of a few, among them Hall, who served until 1929, and Judge Warren Higley, who brought his well-heeled compatriots together in the first place. Paul Schaefer, who served as the group’s vice president for a half-century, spearheaded many of the anti-dam and anti-road crusades. Others who figure large in the association’s history are John Apperson, Arthur Crocker, David Newhouse, William Dunham and Clarence Petty. For the past 16 years, Dave Gibson has been the association’s executive director, and he now enjoys a full-time staff of four.
Over time, the Park Avenue, three-piece-suit crowd from New York City disappeared as the volunteer core of the association. But the days of an Edward H. Hall trooping through the woods on the lookout for timber-thieving evildoers are not so far behind. Today, staffer Kevin Prickett hikes around the woods collecting information on Forest Preserve units that the state is writing management plans for.
Times have changed, and so have tactics. There are others now to share in the duties of watchdog and legal advocate. Under Gibson, the association is becoming a consensus- builder. Gibson says the group will always be an adamant defender of the Forest Preserve, but it also wants to become the recognized teacher of future protectors of the Park. It’s off to a good start.