Retiring ADK chief Neil Woodworth’s 30-year mission to protect the park
By TIM ROWLAND
The best time to have been an Adirondack tourist was perhaps in the latter part of the 19th century, when hotels were going up, wholesale swaths of forest had yet to be mowed down and anyone with a canoe and a Wallace guidebook was basically free to wander wherever mood and muscle would allow.
With the turn of the 20th century came mechanized logging, and the industry’s captains began buying up great tracts of forestland that for the next hundred years would be taken out of public view.
The history was not lost on Neil Woodworth years ago, as he dipped his paddle in waters that had been closed to the public since the days of the Lombard steam-powered log tractor. It was a seminal moment in the 30 years that Woodworth spent with the Adirondack Mountain Club, as he inventoried lands for potential acquisition by the state.
Woodworth, who is stepping down as the ADK’s executive director at the end of 2019, helped shepherd through a transformational era in the Adirondack narrative, a time when a million acres gained state protection, hundreds of millions of dollars were raised to fund that protection and the park grew as a model for the restorative powers of nature. It is now possible, Woodworth said, to see a time when Adirondack travelers can, as they did in the 1880s, pack up a canoe and go most anywhere they please.
Not a bad legacy for a one-time insurance litigator from Albany.
“Neil has had an incredible positive impact on the preservation of wildlands, protection of and opening to the public of waters such as Little Tupper Lake, and the Boreas Ponds,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, who has worked alongside Woodworth for 35 years. “He and his wife Holly have also educated and inspired tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts.” Woodworth’s name, Janeway said, is virtually synonymous with the ADK itself.
Although Woodworth in no way foresaw the Adirondack Mountain Club in his future, there were unseen hands that seemed to be ever pushing him in that direction.
He had the outdoors imprinted on him from a young age, when his dad would take him fly fishing and he joined a Boy Scout troop that was classically Adirondack in nature—its leaders had little use for parade pageantry, but they knew the woods. “We were great at camping, but terrible at marching,” Woodworth said.
At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he helped found the outdoor club, and gravitated toward environmental law at Albany Law School. But oddly enough it was an insurance case he handled that ushered in his entry to the ADK staff.
Woodworth had gone to work in the offices of Seymour Fox in Albany, a firm of enough importance that its attorneys had pilots’ licenses to cut down on travel time. He enjoyed the work—the research, the brief, the motions, and among his biggest cases were ones that involved insurance litigation.
Later on in the 1980s, and unrelated to Woodworth’s day job, a couple on a winter outing who had rented gear from ADK’s Adirondak Loj became lost and were out for three days in frigid weather for which they were not adequately prepared. They developed acute frostbite, and sued the club, contending that someone should have come looking for them when they did not return their gear on time.
‘It’s what you want to do’
The club had insurance, but there was a difference between the club’s coverage and the figure asked for in the suit. As an ADK member who just happened to have experience as an insurance litigator, Woodworth stepped in to help. At the same time, two ADK staff members were leaving their jobs, and the club saw the wisdom of hiring someone with a law degree. (In October, ADK announced it had hired another attorney, Michael Barrett from the Missouri public defenders system, as Woodworth’s successor.)
“I wouldn’t have gone to work for the ADK if it hadn’t been for these two very different events happening at the same time,” he said. It was not entirely an easy call. Woodworth was on a path to being a well-compensated private attorney. It was money a nonprofit could never match. “But my wife said, ‘Take it, it’s what you want to do,’” Woodworth said. “Obviously it’s the best career decision I could have made.”
Woodworth started work at ADK in 1989, at a time when progress was becoming possible. For a decade or more after the formation of the Adirondack Park Agency, some private landowners reacted with anger and violent threats over the idea that the state could tell them what to do—or not do—with their own land.
And while the APA remains the focus of political debate, by the late ’80s it had gained grudging respect for thwarting some massive second-home subdivisions that had threatened to change the character of the park.
The park, of course, was different then. There were no hiking apps. “Overuse” was not at the tip of everyone’s tongue. But there was something in the air, most notably the mercury and particulates bellowing from the stacks of Midwestern power plants fueled by coal. Before there were climate-change deniers there were acid-rain deniers, even as the pines on the Adirondacks’ western slopes were turning brown. Changes to the Clean Air Act had, by 1990, required scrubbers on any new coal plants, or existing plants that received major upgrades.
The Bush administration was trying to roll back these regulations, and power companies tried to get around the rules by claiming that improvements that extended the life of the plant amounted only to “routine maintenance.” It marked the entry of the Adirondack Mountain Club on the national stage as it partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to rebuff efforts to soften or circumvent the law. “We argued that changing out furnaces and major components was not routine maintenance, and we were quite successful,” Woodworth said.
Woodworth had proved his mettle at litigation, and he was about to prove it at negotiation.
Bob Stegemann, a regional director of the Department of Environmental Conservation and an 18-year veteran of International Paper, was at the table when the Adirondack Mountain Club and its compatriots began to look at great almost unfathomable tracts owned by the timber companies and envision them as part of the state forest preserve.
These were wildlands that had been closed to the public and included an incandescent portfolio of natural wonders—wild rivers, lakes, ponds, waterfalls, mountaintops and heart-stopping vistas of the High Peaks.
An epic moment in Adirondack history was at hand, and success was not a given. Along with the timber companies, the towns feared an economic hit if the lands were closed to development, and government funding was always problematic. Bringing everyone together would be a tall order.
“Both of us were looking at the same issue from different vantage points,” Stegemann said. “He could work with different groups to find middle ground, and I have great respect for him and his contribution to the Adirondacks.”
“I always tried to understand what the person on the other side of the table needed to come out with,” Woodworth said. “I wanted both my side and my adversary’s side to consider it a victory.”
But those victories required money, and the cash the state was willing to set aside for preservation was achingly small at a critical point in time.
“The cupboard was bare, and it was scary because we had land deals that we were not going to be able to make without the money,” Woodworth said. Conservation groups pored over the budgetary fine print for a funding source, first making a play for the cash from unredeemed soda bottles. But under the law, that revenue stream reverted to the bottlers, and Coke and Pepsi weren’t interested in losing it. “We had to find money that no one more powerful than us had claimed,” Woodworth said.
‘George Pataki loved to preserve land’
That funding was discovered in the property transfer tax, a share of which was dedicated in 1993 for the Environmental Protection Fund. Woodworth calls the night that it passed one of the happiest in Adirondack history. The fund has grown to an annual $300 million from its modest $31 million appropriation in its inaugural fiscal year of 1994-95.
Something else happened in 1994: George Pataki was elected governor. “George Pataki loved to preserve land, and I loved to help him,” Woodworth said.
As Woodworth steps down, he and his allies can be credited with protecting a million acres in the Adirondack Park, a slice of land significantly bigger than the state of Rhode Island. There is more land to save, more “Posted” signs to come down, particularly in the central part of the park. There are other new issues as well—some, such as crowding and keeping ATVs at bay, can be managed internally. Others, like climate change, are uncontrollable forces the park will have to face.
Woodworth said in retirement he and Holly have other parts of the world to explore, but they will still be here to help the ADK cause from their Wanakena home on the Oswegatchie River, which is a far cry from the noisy hallways of the Albany state Capitol. Or for that matter, the parking lot of the Adirondak Loj.
But he’s confident the organization and the park are in good hands. “I’m optimistic that the land trusts can help protect the natural state,” he said. “As the decades go forward, we can continue to protect more and more land in the forest preserve, and people can hike or paddle around in places that had been private for years.
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