By Philip Terrie
A half century ago, on the 15th of December, 1970, Harold Hochschild presented a substantial document to Nelson Rockefeller. Hochschild was a multi-millionaire industrialist, a seasonal resident of Blue Mountain Lake, and the founder of the Adirondack Museum. Rockefeller was the governor of New York. The document was the final report of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks (TSC), appointed by Rockefeller in 1968 and chaired by Hochschild during the final year of its investigations and public meetings and the composition of its final report. The result of the confluence of these two powerful figures and of the document Hochschild handed to Rockefeller was the Adirondack Park Agency and the beginning of the modern era of Adirondack history.
At mid century, after decades of relative calm following the feverish activity of the 1880s and ’90s that gave us the Forest Preserve (1885), the Adirondack Park (1892), and the constitutional provision forbidding any form of logging on the Forest Preserve (1894), the Adirondack scene began to get complicated. The Great Blowdown of 1950 led the New York Attorney General to issue an opinion declaring that the state could contract for salvage operations to remove downed trees from the Forest Preserve. Environmentalists wondered whether the forever-wild provision meant what they thought it did and whether the state might try other end-runs around the constitution and the integrity of the Forest Preserve.
Then the 1967 completion of the Northway suddenly made the Adirondacks more accessible, and a proposal that the central Adirondacks would be turned into a national park, also in 1967, shook up everyone interested in the North Country. The national park proposal originated with none other than the governor’s brother, Laurance Rockefeller. (For more on the events leading to the TSC, see my piece in the September/October 2018 issue of Adirondack Explorer, and keep a lookout for a forthcoming book on the establishment and early years of the Park Agency by Brad Edmondson.)
No one liked the idea of a national park. Environmentalists felt that New York’s protections were far stronger than anything the National Park Service was likely to offer, and while local government and business interests had for years resented state intrusion into local affairs, it was infinitely preferable to letting the feds in the door. But people were talking–not to mention arguing–and concluding that something dramatic was needed to figure out how New York should protect its crown jewel.
New threats seemed to be gathering: a vacation-home boom in Vermont suggested how quickly the Park’s essential open-space character, defined by vast swaths of undeveloped forest, could be compromised. So long as millions of acres of these forests remained in unregulated private hands, what was to prevent them from being turned into North Country Levittowns?
Rocky did what New York governors always do: he appointed an ad hoc commission to study the problem and report back to him. He selected a group of prominent individuals with Adirondack connections and gave them their marching orders in September 1968. The commissioners hired a professional staff, led by Harold Jerry, a planner and former state senator. After a slow start and after some leadership confusion, Harold Hochschild came on as chair in early 1970. Less than a year later, Rocky had his report.
After holding public meetings and hearing from just about every constituency with a stake in the game–environmentalists, recreation groups, and local business and government leaders–what did the TSC find and what did it recommend? A lot.
What it mainly found was that “a crisis looms in the Adirondack Park.” Mismanagement of public land and development of private land were occurring with little consideration of long-term effects: the worst had not yet happened, but without intervention from the state, the future could hold degradation of resources, destabilized ecosystems, and a general disruption of the Park’s wild, open-space character.
The TSC report was a product of its era. It was the same year as the first Earth Day. It was a time of heightened environmental consciousness from coast to coast, of growing fears that, left unchecked, modern, industrial, urban civilization threatened to pollute, devour, and destroy the natural world. The Adirondack Park had largely escaped the depredations of modernity and had remained a “sanctuary” from the “destructive hand of man.” But the status quo was not up to the task of keeping it that way. Whether the Park could continue to ne the manifest treasure it then was “depends on the foresight and resolve of all New Yorkers.”
Number one among 181 recommendations was the establishment of an Adirondack Park Agency. Everything else followed from this. The Agency should be created by law, i.e., by the legislature, with statutory authority. It would thus be more permanent, with greater powers, than any commission fashioned by the governor. The immediately following recommendations spelled out how this Agency would work: it would have authority over the entire Park, both the state-owned Forest Preserve and roughly 3 million acres of private land. Most important, perhaps, it would compose long-term plans for all six million acres of private and public land, guiding how state land would be managed and how and how extensively private land could be developed. By “developed” it meant how densely new buildings could be erected.
The TSC noted the complex interconnectedness of the Park’s private lands with the state-owned Forest Preserve. The continuing appeal of the constitutionally protected Forest Preserve depended on whether the private land outside the towns and villages remained largely forested and undeveloped. Lose the privately owned backcountry to piano-key plots of vacation cottages–something entirely possible under the current laissez-faire policy–and the Forest Preserve would be compromised forever. The report returned frequently to the notion of the “open space character of the Park.” This was what brought people and their money to the Adirondacks. If the private land became peppered with second homes and other commercial developments, “maintaining the Park as a lasting entity” would be difficult if not impossible.
Park-wide planning was essential, and only the “establishment of an independent, bipartisan Adirondack Park Agency with planning and land use controls over all land in the Park” could do the job. The TCS asserted that creating this agency should be a top priority for the state and that it should be on the job within a year.
The TSC recognized from the start that the new Agency would inevitably have complicated relations with both state and local government. What about the agencies that already exercised authority over Adirondack land? The Department of Environmental Conservation (newly formed, in early 1970, from a cluster of other state bureaucracies) currently managed the Forest Preserve. Local town governments already possessed the power to control development, though few did. The mandate for the new Agency was vague to the point that trouble surely loomed ahead. According to the TSC, “local governments should have a role in the planning and zoning of private land that reflects their legitimate interest in the private land.” Just how this role might be defined and protected, if at all, was left up the legislature. Likewise, while the Agency would “work closely” and be committed to “mandatory consultation” with the DEC, it would nonetheless be granted “general power” over state land. Would this shared authority lead to conflict? Stay tuned.
How did the TSC see the details of the proposed Park Agency’s management of this huge Park?
The private land that it considered both important and at risk was the backcountry, owned by a relatively small number of families, clubs, and corporations. And the key to its protection was density zoning, state control of how many buildings could be added to those that might already be there. The further from towns and villages a parcel of private land was, the lower the number of buildings to be allowed. As much as possible, new buildings should be concentrated, close to towns and highways, not in the backcountry. This was a familiar concept among planners, but it had never been proposed for a region so vast. The reason such a bold imposition of state authority was needed was that only the state could see the big picture. If one zoning plan was adopted in Queensbury, a different one in Indian Lake, and yet another in Fine, how could the Park retain its appeal?
Similarly, the proposed Agency was to plan the future of the Forest Preserve, with Article 14 of the state constitution remaining the guiding principle. What the TSC proposed that was new was that the Forest Preserve be zoned: “The lands of the Adirondack Park forest preserve should be classified according to their characteristics and their capacity to withstand use.” On the most tightly controlled areas, to be classified as “wilderness,” “the goal should be the perpetuation of natural plant and animal communities where the influence of man is not apparent.” The underlying principle aimed to identify the wildest, most remote parts of the Forest Preserve and limit development of infrastructure there as much as possible, while concentrating intrusions, like snowmobile trails or fire towers, on lands to be classified as “wild forest.”
In other words, the TSC declared that the Park Agency should examine every acre of land in the Park, both state owned and privately owned, and classify it. If private, how much development should be allowed? If public, what sort of recreation should be allowed? Some of the research for this massive undertaking in on-site study and classification had already been done, by the TCS’s own staff during its two years of intensive research or by legislative committees in the 1950s and ’60s. But bringing it all together, in maps and documents that would guide or limit actual land-use decisions, would be a heroic undertaking.
The TSC laid down the terms on which a high drama of policy and politics would play out. In less than three years, the Adirondacks had a Park Agency (1971), a State Land Master Plan (1972), and a Private Land Plan (1973). Those were tumultuous years, and they defined the contours of subsequent Adirondack history. It all began with the Temporary Study Commission.