Paine is the last surviving member of the TSC and spent decades on the APA board, but that is only half the story
By Brad Edmondson
One day in the fall of 1967, Peter S. Paine Jr., 32, went hunting for grouse at his family’s Essex County estate. He was with his father and Laurance Rockefeller, a family friend since Paine Sr. and Rockefeller had been classmates at Princeton. Laurance, 57, was chair of the New York State Parks Commission, younger brother and best friend of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and one of the richest men in the world. But that didn’t stop Peter Jr. from speaking frankly.
The three men spent the day walking through grasslands and marshes at the mouth of the Boquet River, pausing occasionally to admire breathtaking views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains. After they returned home, Rockefeller asked a question. He was puzzled about reactions to his recent proposal that New York donate 1.7 million acres of the Adirondacks to the National Park Service. Specifically, he couldn’t understand why New York’s environmental activists hated the idea.
The younger Paine spoke with the eagerness of a prized pointer headed for a wounded bird. He was happy to list several reasons why the Adirondack National Park proposal was doomed. Chief among them was the “forever wild” clause of New York’s constitution, which offers stronger protection for the Park’s wild lands than the federal government ever could. New Yorkers think it’s better their way, Paine recalled in a recent interview.
Rockefeller’s proposal died, but he must have been impressed by the young man. A few months later, the governor asked Paine to serve on the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks (TSC). Paine had the correct pedigree. He is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law who went on to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. He represents international business clients for a firm with offices in lower Manhattan. But Willsboro is home, so he happily accepted the governor’s invitation. “I was just off the plane from Europe,” he said. “I thought the problems of the Adirondacks were interesting.”
In addition to his corporate work, Paine took on a heavy load of pro bono work for the Adirondacks. Today, at 86, he is largely retired from business law, but his service to the park is well into its sixth decade, with no signs of slowing down. As the last surviving member of the TSC, he has become a living link to the history of open space protection. He is also a survivor from a bygone era, one in which the fate of a six-million-acre park might be decided in private by three men taking a stroll.
Nelson Rockefeller loved big, bold ideas. He gave the TSC’s staff and commissioners extremely ambitious goals and a very tight deadline. Paine, the youngest commissioner by far, threw himself into the work and became one of its leaders. “Peter was probably the single most important person,” said fellow commissioner Howard Kimball. “He had his head screwed on properly. He knew what was going on, and he did what he set out to do.”
The commission’s principal recommendation, the Adirondack Park Agency, became law in June 1971. Paine was appointed to the APA’s original board, where he stayed for 25 years. He worked with George Davis, who had also been on the TSC’s staff, to draft and pass a land use plan for over three million acres of private land in the park. The plan passed in 1973, and Paine defended it as it was attacked more or less continuously for the next two decades. It was a highly public role, suited for a man who enjoys being the center of attention, and it established Paine as an environmental leader. But it was not the only thing that he did.
Regulators and Rebels
Earlier this year, we ran 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 this year. Adapted from the new book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
The TSC’s 181 recommendations were ranked, which meant they considered the first few most important. Recommendations one through 10 described the Adirondack Park Agency. Numbers 11 through 14, plus seven or eight others, described a new idea they called “scenic easements.” And the last recommendation, which attracted little attention, urged private citizens to set up an Adirondack chapter of a new group, The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
The TSC was decades ahead of its time. “It was extremely far-sighted,” Paine said. “Harold Jerry and Watson Pomeroy were familiar with new ideas in land protection – they brought them to us, and we embraced them.” A global shift toward large, “landscape-level” land protection deals was still decades away. But the deals started in 1971 in the Adirondacks.
Fifty years ago, The Nature Conservancy was a loose confederation of local groups that protected rare plants and animals on small nature preserves. The group’s Adirondack chapter would follow a different path. The Park’s private property included a long list of natural areas, some of them thousands of acres in size, that activists wanted permanently protected from development. Crucially, the Adirondack activists had the money and connections to make big deals happen.
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The Adirondack Chapter of TNC was in the early stages of formation in October 1971 when its organizers bought Camp Santanoni, a 12,446-acre estate at the southern edge of the High Peaks Wilderness. Pat Noonan, who would become President of the Arlington, Virginia-based organization, had been in touch with Santanoni’s owners, who wanted to sell. But when the family suddenly agreed to a “bargain sale” price of $1 million, TNC didn’t have the money.
Noonan turned to Arthur Savage of Elizabethtown and Savage’s cousin, Wayne Byrne of Plattsburgh, who were forming the Adirondack chapter. Savage, a well-connected New York City lawyer, and Byrne, who was well-known in the North Country, called a few friends. They secured an $875,000 grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that had been designed by Laurance Rockefeller’s private staff. Another $50,000 came from the chapter’s original members. The capstone gift of $75,000 was made anonymously by Harold Hochschild, who had been chair of the Temporary Study Commission.
Santanoni was by far the biggest deal The Nature Conservancy had ever done, and it happened quickly. In the years that followed, while TNC’s other chapters remained focused on small nature preserves, the Adirondackers went their own way. They transferred Santanoni to the state for a big win — a major addition to the Forest Preserve – and then they went looking for more.
Paine was not directly involved in the formation of the Adirondack Chapter of TNC, but he was an early donor and client. In 1978, the Paine family donated an easement to TNC that permanently prevents development on 1,000 acres of the family’s land, including two miles of the Bouquet River and three miles of Lake Champlain shoreline. The donation decreased the taxable value of their waterfront by about two-thirds, Paine said. In addition to protecting the land from development in perpetuity, the gift made it easier for his father to transfer ownership of his estate to the next generation.
The growth of the Adirondack Chapter was hampered, however, because the laws governing land donations were murky. There were few statutes or legal precedents to rely on. Land with a conservation easement on it had to be adjacent to another land parcel that was owned by the easement’s owner. Donors were taking tax deductions when they gave up the development rights to their land, but how to place a value on those rights was unclear. Many lawyers and judges were not willing to take or hear easement cases because they thought the tool was not on solid legal ground.
In 1983, New York passed legislation that cleared up the rules for landowners who wanted to donate land or easements to conservation groups. George Davis, Paine, and a dozen others who had been involved in the Adirondack Chapter of TNC formed a new organization, the Adirondack Land Trust, to serve the many private landowners in the park whom they knew would be interested in making donations.
“We formed the Land Trust in 1984 because The Nature Conservancy was not interested in protecting farmland or working forests, and that was important to us,” Paine said. And when the Land Trust’s early successes soon threatened to outpace the Conservancy chapter, the Arlington office “had a change of heart,” Paine said. The two organizations remained legally separate, but in 1988 they merged their staff, financial operations, and boards. The Nature Conservancy had entered the landscape protection business, at least in the Adirondacks.
The 1983 law made conservation easements far more attractive to three key decision-makers: landowners, land-protection groups, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Easement donors were still mainly interested in preserving their land as open space, but now there was also a clear financial incentive for families whose wealth was tied up in land. The property could remain in private ownership, and the specific terms of the easement—public access, tree-cutting, and future buildings —were negotiable, within clearly-defined limits.
The pattern was set. The Adirondack Chapter identified a potential acquisition and raised money to save it. It usually took out loans to buy land or easements, and repaid the loans by selling the land and easements to the state. The Conservancy chapter would usually get back what they had paid for it and a bit more, fueling their growth.
The pattern had power because it used market forces, with a willing buyer and a willing seller. The opposition of local officials, who were concerned about loss of tax revenue, could be quieted by state payments in lieu of taxes. But as the deals got bigger, they grew more complex. The first conservation easement in New York State, which protected Elk Lake in 1964, was written on less than two pieces of paper. The 2007 deal for lands owned by the Finch Pruyn corporation filled hundreds of pages.
Today, one-third of all the private land in the Adirondack Park is protected by conservation easements. At last count, about 56 million acres of private property in the US is permanently protected from development by land trusts. To put that in context, the entire state of New York is about 35 million acres. And today, The Nature Conservancy protects 125 million acres of land in 72 countries.
“It has been interesting,” Paine said. “I think most of us who have been seriously involved with land protection in the Adirondacks feel that we have made a difference. What we’ve done is certainly imperfect, but it was revolutionary at the time we did it.”
Brad Edmondson is the author of A Wild Idea: How The Environmental Movement Tamed The Adirondacks (www.awildidea.com).
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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