George Davis’s Lucky Break
This is the fourth 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.
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By Brad Edmondson
George Davis smiled as he remembered his work for the Temporary Study Commission (TSC). “What a job!” he said. “Walk around, drive around, canoe around, whatever you wanted. And my guide was Clarence Petty, who knew the Adirondacks better than anyone else alive.”
Davis grew up in a small northern New York town and spent his youth roaming the woods, just as Petty had. He graduated from the New York State School of Forestry, did a tour of duty at the U.S. Forest Service, and then, at 28, enrolled as a graduate student at Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources. He wanted to investigate how to preserve the natural integrity of Adirondack ecosystems while allowing human activity nearby.
Davis devoted the next 25 years to that project, although he never got a Ph.D. Harold Jerry, the commission’s leader, hired him away a few weeks into the semester, and he drove the teams that wrote two land-use plans for the Adirondacks. One plan covered the 2.2-million-acre state forest preserve, and the other regulated 3.5 million acres of private land inside the park. They were the largest, most complex land-use plans ever attempted. Davis received international acclaim and a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his life’s work. In the Adirondacks, he also received death threats and had a nervous breakdown.
Davis and Petty spent much of 1969 and 1970 adding to the work Petty had done 10 years earlier. Few people noticed the survey of the forest preserve that Petty had completed in the early 1960s, but the second time around, the old ranger had an eager audience. The proportion of Americans who identified air and water pollution as serious problems increased from 33% in 1965 to 70% in 1970. Clean air, clean water, and protecting natural beauty were the winning messages for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in his 1970 re-election campaign.
The commission had a small staff, and Jerry drove them hard. He assigned 49 specific studies that were condensed into eight technical reports that ran to 300,000 words, giving legislators dozens of new ways to measure the Adirondacks. Commissioners worked just as hard, holding 30 business meetings and taking nine field trips in those two years. But as the work proceeded, Jerry encountered a serious obstacle.
Jerry didn’t mind being called an “extreme environmentalist.” He wanted to prevent all forms of development in the vast privately owned forests of the Adirondacks, and he wanted tight controls on development near towns and hamlets. But the TSC’s original chairman, Leo O’ Brien, was not the kind of leader Jerry wanted. O’Brien favored national park-style recreation facilities in the Adirondacks built with federal funds. Jerry and several of the commissioners didn’t see things that way.
O’Brien’s drinking habit was a second, more serious issue. “Leo was a bad drunk,” said commissioner Peter Paine. “He would go off at the worst possible moments.” And “the problem was that he was always so hungover the next day,” said another commissioner, Howard Kimball. “One time I just said the hell with it and drove back to Elmira.”
The issue came to a head in January 1970. The commissioners were treated to dinner that night at Manhattan’s posh Century Club by fellow commissioner Harold Hochschild, a retired businessman of great wealth and connections who owned an estate near Blue Mountain Lake. Hochschild had loved the great Adirondack forest since childhood and was devoted to the “extreme” forever-wild philosophy.
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At the dinner, the commissioners affirmed that Hochschild was their only choice for chairman. From that moment on, the forever-wilders were in charge of the Temporary Study Commission. And when Laurance Rockefeller objected to the commissioners’ choice and tried to muzzle them, Hochschild fought back with a not-so-secret weapon.
Hochschild had a close friendship with New York Times editorial page editor Johnny Oakes. An editorial in the Times carried a lot of weight back then, and Hochschild had Oakes’ full support. In March 1970, Hochschild threatened to quit the commission and talk to Oakes about Laurance Rockefeller’s private influence. He demanded that Nelson Rockefeller scuttle his younger brother’s national park dreams in favor of stronger protection for the natural integrity of the Adirondacks. And the most powerful governor in New York State history, who was then behind in re-election polls, did as he was told.
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.”