George Davis’s Big Map
This is the sixth in a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency, which marks its 50th anniversary in June. Adapted from the new book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” the author interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
By Brad Edmondson
George Davis started work at the Adirondack Park Agency on September 13, 1971. “There was absolutely nothing inside the office,” he said, “so I went into town and bought two big cartons of toilet paper. It was practical, and I could also use one case for a desk and the other for a chair. I put a coffee pot and a phone on top of it. I was alone.”
Davis had returned to Cornell in April when the Temporary Study Commission shut down, but his time in Ithaca had been short. He eagerly came back to the Adirondacks in September when his new boss, Richard Lawrence, asked him to start up the agency. Davis worked out of a log building in the High Peaks town of Ray Brook, 145 miles north of Albany, with almost no supervision. The governor had given the APA an ambitious agenda and a ridiculously small budget. They had a little over a year to write two huge land-use plans, and it took them almost a year to hire a full staff. Still, Davis was confident.
He was 29, and he was going to save the park.
The work days were long. When Davis was driving near a town and could find a radio station, he occasionally got to listen to Marvin Gaye’s song “Mercy Mercy Me/The Ecology,” a top-10 hit in the fall of 1971. The song reminded Davis that a lot of people agreed with him. “What about this overcrowded land?” Gaye sang. “How much more abuse from man can she stand?”
Most of the locals in the Adirondacks ignored Davis, and the few who listened usually met his presentations with polite silence or open hostility. But as he drove through miles upon miles of open space, Davis saw a critical need. “Regional protection doesn’t make sense unless you broaden your horizons,” he said. “If you’ve spent you whole life in the Adirondacks and had never been anywhere else, then you’d say ‘Holy God, all I’ve got is open space.’ But when you think about the whole state, or even the northeastern United States, regional protection makes a great deal of sense.”
A few months before he started work, Davis had done an environmental permitting study for Louis Paparazzo, the developer who wanted to build a 4,000-unit subdivision north of Tupper Lake. Davis used the contract to refine ways of estimating the “carrying capacity” of land. His method, which was inspired by the writing of landscape architect Ian McHarg, used slope data from U.S. Geological Survey maps, soil surveys, an early database of aerial photographs, and other sources to rate an area’s ability to accept human activity without doing ecological damage to its surroundings. Ironically, Davis went on to use the methods he tested on Paparazzo’s land to restrict developments like Paparazzo’s.
There was only one way to confirm information on the maps and fill in the missing pieces. Davis and the other staffers had to spend many hours driving to and from their research sites, and time was short. When Richard Booth, a newly minted lawyer, reported for his first day of work in August 1972, the deadline for delivering a public-comment draft of the Land Use Plan for private land was just a few weeks away. “I thought they would be almost finished writing the plan,” Booth said. “They hadn’t even started.”
In case you missed the, here are links to the other parts so far:
Part 1: Abbie Verner’s head-on collision
Part 2: Clarence Petty’s surveys
Part 3: Harold Jerry takes on a Rockefeller
Part 4: George Davis’s lucky break
Part 5: Harold Hochschild’s big score
About the author: Journalist Brad Edmondson, of Ithaca, is the author of several books, including “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks.”