Perspectives on the Adirondacks: A 30 Year Struggle by People Protecting Their Treasure

2002, Syracuse University Press Hardcover, 388 pages, $34.95
2002, Syracuse University Press
Hardcover, 388 pages, $34.95

Barbara McMartin is an Ivy League-educated mathematician. I recall her mentioning once that she began hiking the Adirondacks systematically and obsessively as relief from preparing for doctoral orals at Columbia. I raise this not so much to assert how smart she is as to suggest that it is in her nature to seek a closed universe of data that makes sense, where every equation is balanced and every cause has its effect.

In writing a contemporary history of the Adirondacks, however, she has chosen a subject best categorized as chaos theory. It’s like studying the Balkans. Figuring out what happened and why often seems like an exercise in deconstructing an unfinished piece of the theater of the absurd.

Still, Barbara McMartin has done a remarkable job in fashioning a credible and balanced political history of the Adirondack Park since the creation in the early 1970s of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the twin engines driving that history.

In spite of its fuzzy title, that’s what this is, a political history. It will not tell you anything about 30 years of acidrain degradation in the mountains or the changing recreational- use patterns or the evolving demographics bringing more and more auslanders into the mix. But it does illuminate the arguments over land preservation in the Adirondacks, and the repeated and sometimes deliberate failure of vision in managing a 6-million-acre Park that blends private and public lands.

What do I mean by deliberate? Notably that DEC has been rightfully accused by others of actually using the process of public participation as an endless delaying tactic—e.g., 27 years to begin planning for future use of the various units of our Forest Preserve as called for in the State Land Master Plan of the Rockefeller era. Now let me state a personal prejudice. I have always been a great fan of Barbara McMartin, even when I only knew her through her guidebooks and other writings. I find her a frothy dynamo of ideas, a compelling character who is bright, highly opinionated, at times cranky and quirky, but always worth hearing out. A true Adirondack character. What’s amazing is how straight down the middle this book is. McMartin was a player, an activist through all of the 30 years she writes about—and she doesn’t shy away from saying so—but she manages to bring a reasonable perspective to the effectiveness and arguments of people she disagrees with. This is an important book, deserving a place right next to Frank Graham’s The Adirondack Park: A Political History. It’s a reference work valuable for tracing the history of, among other things, unit management plans, snowmobile regulations and land-use mapping (or in the DEC’s case, lack of). McMartin also gives us the definitive chronicle of the thousands upon thousands of meetings held by committees, rump groups and three folks in a bar, arguing about land regulations, property rights, the role of locals in determining the future of the Park, and whether to support or abolish the APA. Never have so many met so often to so little effect. A classic case in point: An advisory committee met regularly for more than a decade and assembled a priority list for state land purchases, but when the Pataki administration dove into land acquisitions in a big way, the panel’s recommendations were largely ignored and the committee not even consulted. Which is not to say the Whitney Park, Champion Lands and International Paper properties acquired aren’t magnificent feathers in the state’s bonnet. They certainly are.

Adirondack residents demonstrate against the Cuomo commission at a public hearing in 1990.
Adirondack residents demonstrate against the Cuomo commission at a public hearing in 1990.

The political reality is that these acquisitions met a criterion the advisory committee was in no position to address: timing. Properties became available, so the state pounced. We were spouting excess government funds at the time, indeed a rarity. These acquisitions made a big splash and established the governor’s reputation as a preservationist.

In fact, McMartin asserts that the state would be far better off in buying small-parcel access to blocked-off patches of public lands rather than big chunks it doesn’t have the wherewithal to care for anyway. But that is a mathematician’s view, not that of a politician, ecologist or wilderness buff.

Her book is not an easy read, because it is primarily about the development and growth (or death) of ideas through tedious public process. The first third is particularly difficult to follow because events seem unconnected. It’s a chronological jumble of virtually random happenings. In fairness, what is stated is important. It’s just not easy to digest, nor, I suspect, was it easy to live through.

Thank God that a few characters emerge to lighten up the story. There’s gloomy Bob Glennon at the helm of the APA, convinced that the Park is going down the drain no matter what; the visionary wild-lands advocate George Davis and the bad boys trying to go the other way: thwarted land-developer Tony D’Elia and his Adirondack Freedom Fighters, the outrageous demagogue Don Gerdts and his pickup-truck parade down the Northway, and Warrensburg’s own swingin’ Maynard Baker, the pugnacious prince of Crane Pond Road whose forces defended the local tradition of driving motor vehicles into what the state decreed to be a motorless wilderness.

McMartin does a brilliant job bringing together her personal observations and a mind-boggling amount of research. This is especially true of the seven case studies featured at the heart of the book. For example, she looks with considerable nuance at the difficulty of coming to consensus—a constant Adirondack theme—by considering the work of the Open Space Planning Committee over many years. Other case studies examine the failures of the DEC (regrettably, another constant theme) in connection with the Forest Preserve Advisory Committee; successful public participation in dealing with the 1995 blowdown; the failures, again, of access for the handicapped in the Park, and again, the failure of achieving consensus over what to do about use and abuse of the eastern High Peaks.

Also valuable are McMartin’s thumbnail judgments of the bewildering variety of agencies, committees and groups at work and play in the Adirondacks these past three decades, such as the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Council, Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, Blue Line Council, Property Rights Foundation, Adirondack Fairness Coalition, and on and on.

But I stress again that this is a valuable political history as viewed from the insideout. It fails to address, except in passing, the forces acting from without. For it’s another constant of the Adirondacks that what happens in and to the region is more influenced by Albany and New York City than Lake Placid and Elizabethtown. McMartin does not flesh out three characters of enormous influence in shaping the Park’s recent history: Gov. Mario Cuomo, former DEC commissioner and Lake George businessman Bob Flacke, and most notably, state Sen. Ron Stafford.

Cuomo created the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century in 1989, arguably second in historical importance to the modern Park only to Governor Rockefeller’s Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks leading to the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency, the state’s regional zoning authority, in 1971.

The Cuomo Commission was created to address development pressures on the Adirondacks as reflected in some 30,000 new houses built in the Park over the previous three decades, and the sale of some large tracts of timberland to Henry Lassiter, a speculator from Georgia. The commission was an unmitigated disaster that McMartin does illuminate. But we are still left wondering exactly what Cuomo was up to. There are those of us who felt that the dissenting Bob Flacke was, in effect, Cuomo’s point man on that panel. Did they steer Peter Berle’s commission onto the rocks? Not that Berle and George Davis weren’t furiously paddling for the shoals in their pea-green boat anyway, with a “vision” for the Park that panicked so many locals and set powerful landowners, politicians and real-estate interests against them.

Stafford is depicted as simply an obstructionist, who year after year in the state senate put in a one-house bill to dissolve the APA. Yet here we are 30 years later, and Chicken Little doesn’t come around much anymore. The sky has not fallen. The APA is still in business. And the “crisis” the Cuomo commission was reacting to in terms of backcountry overdevelopment seems to have disappeared.

But so have calls for getting rid of the Adirondack Park Agency from local governments and grass-root Republicans, Stafford’s base. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. Current APA chairman Dick Lefebvre (Barbara McMartin’s neighbor) has shown local government respect and bond act money to play with.

But the larger point is that the APA has never been in better shape, or more needed, or more appreciated. Yet if Stafford had wanted to, he surely had the juice during the APA’s wobbly days to blow it out of the water, but he didn’t. I have a feeling there is much here we do not know. All of which does not diminish the importance of Barbara McMartin’s work, but rather suggests that a volume two may well be in order.