How a crazy idea 50 years ago led to the Adirondack Park agency

It has been 50 years since the Adirondack Park Agency was created. In his new book, “A Wild Idea,” Ithaca-based author Brad Edmondson chronicles the environmental and political battles that led to the creation of the APA. Edmondson has spoken to Emily Russell about her book and will speak at Whallonsburg Grange Hall on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Emilie RusselHow a crazy idea 50 years ago led to the Adirondack Park agency

Brad Edmondson’s book “A Wild Idea” chronicles the decades leading up to the creation of the Adirondack Park agency.

EMILY RUSSELL: Your book explores some of the major perceived threats to the Adirondacks, which ultimately inspired the creation of the APA. One was a series of proposed dams that would provide water for the upstate. How much would that have transformed the wilderness of the park?

BRAD EDMONDSON: Oh, I think if the dams proposed in the 1940s had been built it would have had an effect on a lot of Adirondacks. The entire Moose River plain would have turned into a reservoir. I think 25 dams were proposed, so that would have really made the Adirondacks a quieter place like the Tennessee Valley, and less of that wild, scenic riverside place that it is today.

RUSSELL: Another big controversial idea was to create a national park. How would that have changed the kind of park we have today?

EDMONDSON: Well the idea of ​​the national park is really fascinating and for it to make sense to people in 2021 you have to go back to 1967 life. The Northway had just opened and people really wanted to. go forward. in their cars. The national park model was large recreation centers with parking lots, snack bars, beaches and hotels and that would have fundamentally changed the Adirondacks, because if the lands had been transferred to the federal government, the Eternally Wild Clause, which prevents the forest reserve from having any development would have disappeared. The Adirondacks would have looked a lot more like Yellowstone or Yosemite. But in 1967, the car was king and most Americans wanted to get where they wanted to go. So it wasn’t such a crazy idea at the time. It sounds pretty crazy.

Author Brad Edmondson (right) with son Will and grandson Charlie on Balm of Gilead Mountain, June 23, 2021. Photo courtesy of Brad Edmondson

Author Brad Edmondson (right) with son Will and grandson Charlie on Balm of Gilead Mountain, June 23, 2021. Photo courtesy of Brad Edmondson

RUSSELL: Another big fear for many people was the idea that private land, especially owned by logging companies, would be subdivided and turned into vacation homes, essentially like small suburbs. How real was this possibility before ABS?

EDMONDSON: The specter of huge vacation home developments really drove the founding of Adirondack Park. And again you have to go back to when we’re talking about the late 60s, early 70s. Companies had sprung up to meet the increased discretionary income of the middle class and we are selling lots in. scenic places like southern Vermont, Arizona, the west coast of Florida, etc. They would carve up these vast swathes of rural areas and simply sell them in tiny pieces. But there was no zoning and there was no control over what happened after the sale of that land. People were sort of dismayed that this was happening in the Adirondacks, that those really large, unbroken forests suddenly became this kind of random, scattered housing development. The fear of this happening and the desire to prevent it from happening, more than anything else, led to the creation of APA and it worked.

RUSSELL: You say in your book that the APA could not have been created at any other time. What led to the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency at this time in history?

Peter Paine Jr. was one of the founders of modern Adirondack Park.  NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann

Peter Paine Jr. was one of the founders of modern Adirondack Park. NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann

EDMONDSON: The APA really had perfect timing. I mean, it was a really bold idea. It was really there for its time to make a 6 million acre piece of land under the control of the state zoning agency. It was a bit unprecedented. But there were two things about her that worked in her favor. One of them was the environmental movement that exploded in the late 1960s and in reality there was a huge demand among voters for government action in all its forms against pollution and the kind of threats to Earth.

The second thing that really made the Adirondack Park agency possible was Nelson Rockefeller, who was an unusual governor. Nelson Rockefeller was a frustrated builder. He liked to build big things, he liked new ideas, he liked to bring smart people together in a room and get them to find the answers to social problems. And that was a time when it was possible. Most people were confident that their government would recommend the right solution to a problem, and those in positions of power weren’t often interviewed as they are now. So these two things combined made ABS possible and I don’t think either of these is really at play in the same way today.

Autumn scene.  A North Country School student watches the fall color while hiking in Balanced Rocks.  Photo of the day Archive image by Nancie Battaglia

Autumn scene. A North Country School student watches the fall color while hiking in Balanced Rocks. Photo of the day Archive image by Nancie Battaglia

RUSSELL: I wonder, when I walk out of my back door in the Adirondacks or walk through the park or go out for a hike, how much do you think what I see is owed to the park agency? Like what key characteristics of Adirondacks exist because of ABS?

EDMONDSON: This is an excellent question. I think it is very difficult to answer because it is very difficult to see the border between public land and private land in the Adirondacks and this is largely because of the APA, because of the plan of land use which was adopted in 1973 makes certain that the large private forests which adjoin the forever wild state lands would have a very low density, they would not have many buildings.

So in other large open spaces, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, you have subdivisions and buildings that extend to the boundaries of the national park. This does not happen in the Adirondacks. The idea was to manage the land so that people felt like they were in a desert. The Adirondacks are not a desert. It’s far from intact, but the plan the APA put in place was to make sure that visitors always felt like they were in a wide open place where the impact of humans was minimal and i think that’s what you see when you walk through your back door.


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