Harold Jerry takes on a Rockefeller
This is the third 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
On Sunday, July 30, 1967, Lyn Jerry came back from town and plopped The New York Times on the table of her remote Adirondack cabin. “Here,” she said to her husband. “This will make your day.”
Lyn wanted to see Harold Jerry’s reaction to a front-page story that described a surprise proposal to add the Adirondacks to the National Park System. She knew that “Jerry,” as she called him, loved nothing more than the feeling of righteous indignation. She suspected that he would hate the idea, and she was right. As soon as he stopped fulminating, Jerry, who was then a planner for the state Department of Conservation, began organizing to kill the idea.
The national park proposal achieved something rare in New York politics: consensus. Everyone hated it. Jerry and other hard-core environmentalists were unwilling to trade their beloved “forever wild clause” for the National Park Service’s more recreation-friendly policies, and nearly everyone in the Empire State, from hunters and hikers to small-town officials and Wall Street financiers, bristled at the thought of giving one of New York’s crown jewels to the feds. But Jerry also knew that the proposal couldn’t simply be ignored, for two reasons. First, it came from Laurance Rockefeller, one of the world’s wealthiest men. Parks were his passion, and his older brother and closest friend, Nelson, was the governor.
Second, the guy had a point. “Development was changing the atmosphere of the Adirondacks,” said Laurance Rockefeller’s top environmental advisor, Henry Diamond. “It was uncontrolled, and the laws were extraordinary. You couldn’t cut a tree on state land, but in the next acre you could build a Ferris wheel or whatever else you wanted.” The 6-million-acre Adirondack Park needed a land-use plan that would control development on 3.5 million acres of private land that had almost no local zoning. It would be the largest such plan ever attempted.
Moving quickly to ‘save the Adirondacks’
Harold Jerry was a Plattsburgh native who had gone to Princeton and Harvard Law School before serving as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He was precise, disciplined, articulate, and a snappy dresser. He was also a friend of Nelson Rockefeller. The governor trusted Jerry, and he knew that Jerry shared Laurance Rockefeller’s belief that something had to be done quickly to “save” the Adirondacks. He asked Jerry to write a report that gently rebuked the proposal, and then, a few months later, he appointed Jerry to lead the staff of a new venture, the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks.
The governor appointed several commissioners he knew would be sympathetic to his brother’s national park vision, including Henry Diamond and Leo O’Brien, a recently retired congressman who had helped Laurance Rockefeller create Virgin Islands National Park. But Gov. Rockefeller also appointed several commissioners who wanted to strengthen enforcement of the “forever wild clause,” including wealthy Blue Mountain Lake camp owner Harold Hochschild; Richard Lawrence, a retired businessman and philanthropist from Elizabethtown; and a young Wall Street lawyer, Peter Paine, whose family had deep roots in the Champlain Valley. “I had just gotten home from overseas, and I thought the Adirondacks were interesting,” Paine said. Paine would end up devoting much of his professional life to the park.
Jerry was choosy when hiring staff. As soon as he got to work, he called Larry Hamilton, who was on the natural resources faculty at Cornell, and asked if he knew of any exceptionally talented graduate students who wanted to “save” the Adirondacks. “I know just the guy,” Hamilton said. “Come on over.”
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.”