Peter Paine captivates Grange Hall audience with stories from a lifetime of conservation work
By Tim Rowland
An hour was scarcely enough time to scratch the surface of better than half a century of Adirondack knowledge, but in a conversational setting at the Whallonsburg Grange Wednesday, Peter Paine Jr. and Diane Fish gave it a good shot, breezing from deep-in-the-weeds policy anecdotes to grand environmental concepts to the future of the park itself.
Paine, one of the last remaining Founding Fathers of the modern Adirondack Park, was part of a hell-for-leather band of lawyers and conservationists in the late 1960s and ’70s whose blandly named Temporary Study Commission was the Big Bang from which coalesced the Adirondack Park Agency land-use protections as they are known today.
Paine’s celebrity was increased, or at least refreshed, with the publication of Brad Edmondson’s “A Wild Idea” in 2021, which to the degree possible glamorized the construct of zoning documents and the people who became absorbed in things such as slope angles and soil compositions.
Fish, former deputy director for the Adirondack Council, pitched the questions and kept things from becoming too jargony, even though the rapt audience of nearly 70 was disinclined to find any ADK policy detail too arcane.
Paine’s role in park history was crystallized when an audience member asked what he thought of the Blue Line expansion into the Champlain Valley and he dryly replied, “You’re looking at the guy who made it happen.”
Paine said he was living in Paris in 1967 when a proposal to make a National Park out of the Adirondacks began to gel. It was fortuitous in that the idea united so many factions including towns, environmentalists, the state and hunters. “It is the only thing in my memory where everyone was opposed to it,” he said.
A national park would have precluded anyone from living life within its confines, plus, state conservationists felt that New York’s Forever Wild law was superior to the protections of a national park.
In his early 30s when tapped for the Temporary Study Commission, Paine said his family appreciated the irony that the son of Peter Sr., a paper mill magnate, was now among a select group of people who would be determining the future of forest and water protections.
If someone mistakenly dropped in on Paine’s dad looking for the environmentalist, he would say “You’ve got the wrong guy, this is Peter the polluter — you want my son who lives a mile up the road.”
More to Explore
The study commission was eventually chaired by the great industrialist and founder of the Adirondack Experience Harold Hochschild, who delivered the committee’s report to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1970.
Despite divisions on the committee, “the good guys tended to control things, or at least my idea of who the good guys were,” Paine said.
The sound and the fury that led up to the report was just the beginning of three decades of agitation, as local residents bristled at the thought that the state was telling them what they could and could not do with their property.
It was never as bad as opponents were claiming. “”Economically (subdividing into small parcels) wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “The demand for five acres in the middle of nowhere is very limited.”
But the anger was hot enough that the state police urged Paine to stop driving his distinctive Peugeot; he didn’t, but he did start carrying a pistol when he traveled.
‘Regulators and Rebels’
In 2021 the Explorer ran a nine-part series that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency. Adapted from the book “A Wild Idea,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
Compared to those days, the opposing forces in the park today exist in relative harmony. “It’s a big change from 10 years ago,” Fish said, noting that local leaders have come to understand that the era of extraction industries has passed and conservation and tourism are the future.
Paine spoke warmly of people he has worked with, including the late Tim Barnett who was instrumental, among other things, of preserving the Four Brothers in Lake Champlain, which had wound up in the family of John Jacob Astor of all people, and Mike Carr, now executive director of the Adirondack Land Trust, who was instrumental in incorporating the Finch-Pruyn lands into the Forest Preserve
Paine said he was both pleased with and disappointed in today’s APA. “It’s lost its environmental guts and its willingness to say ‘no you can’t,’” Paine said. Public hearings have all but disappeared, he said, and requiring them prior to turning a project down “is a disincentive to do the right thing.”
Still, this may be attributable to a chronic loss of staff and funding. “It’s made a serious effort to engage in serious land-use planning with a limited budget,” Paine said.
Looking ahead, Paine said he’s bothered by wealthy landholders encroaching on the northern part of the park at the same time that families are having trouble finding affordable homes and building wealth of their own.
Another influx of people, Fish noted, are climate refugees who are leaving “states that are on fire.” These fires, or the smoke from then, affected the park as well over the summer. Paine said it is both a literal and figurative cloud over the park, as carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost have turned even heavily forested Canada into a net contributor to the gases that are changing the climate.
“These are global issues that have an effect on us,” he said.