From squatter’s cabin to trekking 2.2 million acres, Petty’s work laid foundation for State Land Master Plan
This is the second 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
Clarence Petty’s friend Noah John Rondeau lived alone in a shack in the Adirondack Forest Preserve, 18 miles on foot from his nearest neighbor. Petty once asked him if he ever got scared being way out there. “What happens if you cut yourself with an axe?” he asked.
“You got no business cutting yourself with an axe,” the hermit replied.
Adirondackers still cherish Rondeau’s memory for his extreme self-reliance, a prized virtue among full-time park residents. “I think he was the first hippie,” Petty said. “He hated the government. He loved to say he was not a slave to industry.” But the hermit wasn’t really self-reliant, he was a squatter. Rondeau built his shack illegally on land owned by New York State, and it was his home only because rangers allowed him to break the law for 32 years.
Many full-time residents of the park are deeply connected to land they don’t own. Some of them also resent the “flatlanders” who own it. Petty thought that attitude was silly. He was born in a squatter’s cabin in 1905 and spent almost all of his 104 years inside the park’s “blue line,” as it appears on maps, but he always had a passion for wild land, and he worked for a half-century to protect it from human influence. The laws that regulated land use in the park in the early 1970s could not have happened without Petty’s work.
Between 1959 and 1962, Petty and Neil Stout surveyed the entire 2.2-million-acre forest preserve for the state Department of Conservation, mostly on foot. They mapped the boundaries of roadless areas, documented illegal uses of public land, and reported their findings to the Legislature. Petty loved that assignment. He called it “a three-year vacation.”
Petty and Stout’s work laid the foundation for the State Land Master Plan, which sets about half of the forest preserve aside as nonmotorized “wilderness” and “primitive areas,” and half as “wild forests” where the use of motor vehicles is regulated. The plan also confirms that all tree cutting in the forest preserve is strictly prohibited by Article 14 of the New York State Constitution. Environmentalists refer to Article 14 as the “forever wild clause” and treat it as sacred text.
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An emerging environmental movement
Although he was a state employee, Petty played a big role in the environmental movement that emerged after World War II. Adirondack hunters, hikers and seasonal homeowners joined forces as “forever wilders” and became a power in Albany politics. The coalition’s work gained urgency in 1957, when plans were announced for an interstate highway that would connect Albany to Montreal. The route ran along the eastern edge of the Adirondack Park, substantially increasing development pressure.
The coalition’s leader was Paul Schaefer, who urged state legislators to turn Petty’s research into law. By the time the Northway opened in August 1967, it was clear that something had to be done. In a poetic coincidence, Rondeau, the hermit, died one week before the road was completed.
In fact, someone did come forward with a bold plan to “save” the Adirondacks that summer. The man with the plan had unlimited money and expertise, and he was also the governor’s best friend. There was just one problem. He was a Rockefeller.