Book tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency
By Dick Beamish
It was the 1960s, and something had to be done about the Adirondacks. This was America’s largest park but also the most vulnerable, thanks to its jigsaw-puzzle jumble of public and private land. A flock of land developers were hoping to cash in on the unspoiled woods and waters, with plans for vast second-home projects of up to 10,000 houses on 24,500 acres.
Even the “forever wild” lands of the state’s forest preserve were under pressure from illegal roads, cabins, garbage pits and increasing intrusion by snowmobiles, jeeps, float planes and motorboats.
Brad Edmondson’s aptly named book, “A Wild Idea,” tells the story of the modern movement to protect the Adirondacks. Timed for the 50th anniversary of the Adirondack Park Agency and based on more than 60 in-depth interviews with key players, the book recounts in vivid detail the Battle for the Adirondacks. (It was also previewed by Edmonson in the May/June Adirondack Explorer)
It all started with Laurance Rockefeller’s 1967 proposal to turn the central Adirondacks and High Peaks region into a national park. The idea was universally scorned, but it persuaded Laurance’s brother, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, to set up a Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks which, over the next three years, documented the threats and opportunities confronting the park. In the words of its soft-spoken but iron-willed chairman, Harold K. Hochschild: “If the Adirondacks are to be saved, time is of the essence.”
‘Regulators and Rebels’
This spring, the Explorer ran a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency. Adapted from the book “A Wild Idea,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
With strong support from the governor, the Adirondack Park Agency was established in 1971. The APA produced a management plan for the 2.3 million acres of forest preserve in 1972 and the following year completed its magnum opus, the Land Use and Development Plan for 3.5 million acres of private land.
What makes “A Wild Idea” especially engaging is its narrative style, with the battle over land-use regulation seen through the colorful cast of characters on both sides. Among the “good guys” (from the conservationist viewpoint) are George Davis, the supercharged ecologist in his mid-20s who left his graduate studies at Cornell to join the Study Commission. Three years later he became the first employee of the Adirondack Park Agency, headquartered in a rustic log building near Saranac Lake.
Before undertaking his first task—a search for furniture—Davis had to improvise, using one crate of toilet paper as his desk and another to sit on. As the staff grew to a dozen young enthusiasts, a refrigerator full of beer kept them working late into the night to meet the tight deadlines for the two plans.
Many of those described in “A Wild Idea” were leaders in the fight against the APA and what they considered a violation of home rule and a taking of property rights. Not surprisingly, some of the staunchest opponents were land developers thwarted by the new restrictions (e.g., more than half the private lands were limited to 15 new houses per square mile).
The controversy raged on for years, long after the land-use plan had taken effect. Arsonists tried to burn down the agency’s log headquarters. Staff members had their tires slashed and some were even shot at during an inspection tour. A pile of horse manure was dumped at the agency’s front door with a sign proclaiming, “We’ve taken yours long enough, now here’s some of ours.”
Today, the antagonism has pretty much subsided. “Almost everyone in the park admits that some kind of regulatory authority is needed,” the author notes. Actually, it’s now the environmentalists who are complaining that the APA is not sufficiently rigorous in safeguarding the park. But Edmondson concludes with one indisputable fact: “The governance of the Adirondack Park has been praised, studied, and emulated by elected officials, planners and conservationists around the world.”
“A Wild Idea” is essential reading for anyone interested in how human beings can coexist in reasonable harmony with our natural world.
Dick Beamish is the founder and former publisher of Adirondack Explorer.