By Gwendolyn Craig
For 36 years, the 57th president of the Sierra Club Aaron Mair has kept his day job separate from his advocacy, but no more.
An epidemiologist with state Department of Health, Mair retired this month and is taking a new post as the director of the Adirondack Council’s new policy initiative, Forever Adirondacks. Mair, as a renowned wilderness advocate and public health expert, will lead the call to federal and state officials for more funding and policy measures around clean water, jobs and wilderness protection.
“It truly reflects the passion and love that I’ve been dealing with and giving to the environment most of my adult life,” Mair said, in a phone interview on Friday.
The Forever Adirondacks campaign springboards off President Joe Biden’s executive order for “a plan for promoting the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks.” Mair said the president’s call to protect wilderness as a tool to combat climate change is exactly the kind of opportunity meant for the Adirondack Park.
“We have an opportunity to be that model,” Mair said, for federal investment.
And Mair has the national influence already in his pocket. Besides being the first Black president of the Sierra Club in 2015, Mair served in a number of positions for the national organization over his tenure. He was also a member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 1998 to 2000.
A Schenectady resident, he founded the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center in Albany and the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corporation, also in Albany. Mair also worked closely with Republican Gov. George Pataki on land conservation in the Adirondacks and beyond.
“His talents and experience will make the Council a better organization and bring a fresh perspective to issues affecting the park,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, in a news release.
The council’s announcement drew a flurry of positive reactions from diverse groups including private companies like International Paper, to local government leaders, to the climate activist Bill McKibben, who said Mair will make “a tremendous difference.”
“Aaron has a unique sense of purpose that transcends, and is yet perfectly suited for the moment in which we find ourselves, where climate justice is being led by those of us who are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities,” said Nicole Hylton-Patterson, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, in a news release. “I look forward to working closely with Aaron, as he charts a path forward, with the recognition that environmental justice IS racial justice.”
Three main goals
The campaign focuses on the following:
CLEAN WATER: Mair will be responsible for advocating for clean water—drinking water protection projects, wastewater treatment upgrades and increased protections for water sources. With Lake Tear of the Clouds the headwaters of the Hudson River, Mair said the Adirondack Park’s protection means more to the greater state.
WILDERNESS: The campaign will also address protecting lands in the Adirondacks—how to address the expanding use of public lands, how to protect wildlife and how to acquire more wilderness. The Whitney estate, the 36,000-acre Long Lake property owned by John Hendrickson, is on his list of potential forest preserve acquisitions.
Though Hendrickson has said he will not sell to the state, Mair said he would welcome a conversation with him.
“I think we need to have a long conversation on the concerns on how the state has been a good or bad steward,” Mair said. “The issue of stewardship is always a question that we can all learn and do better at.”
JOBS: Finishing off the tripod of Mair’s goals includes bringing more jobs to the Adirondack Park. Specifically the council and Mair are focused on more communications infrastructure, bolstering broadband and cell service. They want to see more forest rangers, engineers, wildlife biologists and land managers. They want more diversity within these jobs, and they want more economic expansion within existing park hamlets.
“We don’t have to build infrastructure and kill the Adirondacks for the sake of jobs,” Mair said. “No, we have the raw material. The factory is the Adirondacks. The question is what are the right jobs that are there.”
For an example, Mair points to the A-frame Frontier Town building and nearby gas station, off Exit 29 on the Northway, run by Muhammed “Mo” Ahmad, an immigrant from Pakistan. Ahmad has renovated the iconic rest stop on his own, and Mair hopes he can help lift up the business.
“His success will be a harbinger of success of all people of color,” Mair said. “He’s investing his dream in the Adirondacks because he sees the beauty of the Adirondacks. We, at a minimum, should be meeting him halfway.”
In addition to lobbying for more support for private businesses like Ahmed’s, Mair wants to see the state diversify its ranger and environmental conservation officer force. He’d also like to see the Adirondacks have a separate force of forest rangers focused on education and stewardship.
“They should not all have to be working for not-for-profits,” Mair said, about stewards. “They should be civil service.”
There is much to cover, and Mair is trying to pace himself. He has watched his childhood home in the Hudson Valley in Peekskill become overrun by suburban sprawl. He doesn’t want to see the same fate for the Adirondacks.
His first experience of the park was in the 1980s when he visited Lake Placid. In 1988, the Jamaica national bobsled team competed in the Calgary Winter Olympics, but they were training in Lake Placid. Mair’s father’s family were Ellis Island immigrants from Jamaica.
“The nostalgia of the unique oddity of the Jamaican bobsled steam was one of those draws,” Mair said, about first coming to the Adirondacks. Bobsledding took on an even more personal effect when his children took part in a program where Albany students went up to Lake Placid to try it. As they explored the park more, they were drawn to the John Brown Farm State Historic Site, home of the abolitionist for which it is named.
Now, after 36 years, Mair is ready to commit full-time to his passions and the Adirondacks.
Describing his advocacy he said, “you’re walking your love.”