By Brian Mann
My earliest memory of Phil Brown was nearly twenty years ago, and we were climbing a slide somewhere in the Adirondacks. It was a new one, a mountain-sized scar carved by some now long-forgotten Nor’easter. The new views exposed by the storm were operatic—distant rock, sweeping valleys— but the gravel and mud underfoot were still unstable, slurrying and shifting past our boots.
I chickened out and picked my way to the forest at the edge, but Phil was stubborn. I watched him scramble upward, pausing occasionally to write in his little notebook, before topping out near the summit. That doggedness made Phil a leader of a renaissance in writing and thinking about the Park that began in the late 1990s.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” he told me recently, after announcing his decision to retire at the end of the summer as editor of the Adirondack Explorer. “There are some mixed emotions, but I’m ready to try something new. I look forward to doing other kinds of projects, having more freedom to travel and do what I want in the outdoors.”
Phil came to the Park in 1999, securing the editor’s chair at the Explorer after working as a reporter and editor in the Albany area and Chicago. He had already worked deeply on environmental issues and penned the first of his many guidebooks about the Adirondacks. “It was critical to find someone with Phil’s qualifications,” said Dick Beamish, the magazine’s founder, who still sits on the board.
“That was one of the great strokes of luck to have Phil apply for the job. He guaranteed he could take the magazine to a higher level, which he did over nineteen years,” Beamish said. “I can’t remember how many times when a new issue came out, we’d say, ‘That’s the best ever.’ It became kind of a joke. But thanks to Phil it was often true; he made it into something significant.”
“I’m going to miss him,” agreed Phil Terrie, one of the Park’s leading historians, who published more than seventy articles and a book working with Phil Brown as editor. “He has a light touch, but he’s accurate and incisive. I love that he spends so much time outside, hiking or kayaking or skiing.”
This is the balancing act that Phil brought to work and life in the Adirondacks: he developed a penetrating focus on policy and the complex ideas that shape the Park, while cultivating a visceral love for the place, for the landscape, for its rocky bones and its harsh weather. I was lucky enough to hike and ski and climb often with Phil.
Last winter he guided my first ski trip to the summit of Mount Marcy, leading me through white-out conditions as we dropped off the summit. “Skiing that bowl was an experience I never had before,” Phil said afterward, grinning through ice fog. “You couldn’t see the terrain under your feet. You hit a bump or something and it was a total surprise, hard to keep your balance.”
Now sixty-four years old, he still describes his annual ski trip to Marcy as a kind of pilgrimage. “It’s just such a long adventure. On a nice day the view is spectacular and you know you have a fun run ahead of you. It’s hard to beat. It’s a little harder now than it used to be, but it’s worth it.”
Those are great memories, but the main thing I did with Phil these two decades was write and report and think about the Park and its meaning. As my editor, he pushed me to report more thoroughly and write more clearly, asking tough questions, insisting that we tell stories that would help people enjoy this place while understanding and loving it a little better. Under his guidance, I broke big stories about shoreline environmental protections, viewed by most observers as dangerously weak. We also reported in-depth on the Adirondack Club and Resort project as it unfolded in Tupper Lake.
I ask Phil what he views as the biggest story that happened on his watch. He points to the massive expansion of the Park’s Forest Preserve and conservation easement lands. “Those blockbuster deals happened mostly after I came here,” he says.
“I think we’ve done a really good job covering the Finch, Pruyn acquisition in particular. That was very complicated. We’ve had story after story trying to explain that to our readers. We also looked into mercury pollution in the Park. Some regulations may have been changed in part because of our reporting.”
He also had a front-row seat for a lot of the compromises, scandals, and muddles that sometimes shape the debate in the Adirondacks. Phil tells me he thinks that nitty-gritty coverage is important: “Some of the decisions by DEC and the APA, they sort of stretched the meaning of the State Land Master Plan to achieve the ends they wanted,” he says.
Another key chapter of Phil’s career opened in May 2009 when he made a controversial canoe trip on Shingle Shanty Brook. It involved a portage and in one section, paddling through private land. The landowner sued and the case, which is still pending nearly a decade later, could set a major precedent, redefining paddler and angler access to the Park’s rivers. “We had a trial before a judge, then a couple of appeals, and now it’s scheduled for another trial again this summer,” Phil says.
There have been other controversies, other battles. A life in journalism leaves some people weary, jaded, and disheartened; it’s especially true for reporters who cover the environment and the natural world in this age of climate change and the rollback of key regulations. But when I ask Phil for his assessment of the Adirondacks and the future, he sounds hopeful.
“We’re in better shape than we were when I came here,” he says. “There’s more protected land, hundreds of thousands of acres, and that’s something that cannot be taken away.” There are some big challenges ahead, Phil notes, including overcrowding in the High Peaks and other high-intensity use areas. “I think that’s coming to a head. Everyone recognizes something has to be done.” But he also points to big gains in outdoor recreation, including the expansion of mountain- bike trails. “It’s really exciting. That’s something pretty cool,” he says.
One of Phil’s most surprising accomplishments was helping to make the Explorer relevant even with segments of the Adirondack community opposed to the magazine’s broadly preservationist editorial policy. The reporting was often so good that I would find people opposed to its mission with copies of the latest issue on their desks.
“Phil’s just a great journalist,” says Dick Beamish. “He was and is able to see all sides of a story. As a consequence I think people on all sides, local governments, even some developers, came to feel that we covered issues fairly.”
The importance of this new voice would be hard to overstate. During a chapter of Adirondack history when the Common Ground Alliance and other groups were struggling to find better ways of talking and debating Park policy— without the constant flare-ups of hatred and venom—Phil made sure his magazine was providing facts, context, and nuance.
Phil isn’t vanishing from the Park’s conversation. He’ll spend more time in New York City and traveling, but he’s committed to writing a couple of articles each issue for the magazine. He’ll also work on book projects. And in the last few years he’s taken up technical rock climbing, to compliment his passion for skiing and hiking. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Adirondacks and had a great time. Hard to think of a better job than that,” he says.
It was an honor for me to tag along on some of Phil’s journeys, learning from him, contributing occasionally to his magazine’s pages. We shared amazing days on remote stretches of the Osgood River and Quebec Brook, rambling over trailless peaks with map and compass, often arguing and debating, but also laughing and playing. Maybe this is the biggest lesson Phil packed into the pages of this magazine, and into my own understanding: the Adirondacks are worth fighting over, but first you have to love the mountains and feel the joy of them.