Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Adirondack Park: where making a living and spiritual renewal collide

            Ever since the late nineteenth century when New Yorkers began seriously talking about creating a state park in the Adirondacks, they faced a dilemma. HistorianPhilip Terrie has phrased it this way, “Can our special corner of New York be both a spiritual retreat and a place to make money?”

            Answers to this question require difficult choices. One entrepreneur’s idea about how to make a living in the Adirondacks is often an environmentalist’s nightmare about wanton destruction of property in the park. Repeatedly, irresistible forces calling for economic sustainable communities in the Adirondack Park meet immovable objects demanding protection for park property.
Current controversial projects to make money in the park include: construction of a 60 mph zip line down French Mountain, near Lake George; mining for Wollastonite in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area; and the creation of trails for snowmobiles and bicycles in the 119-mile Lake Placid to Old Forge rail corridor.

            The latest war of words between Adirondack entrepreneurs and environmentalists was sparked by the publication of an update to the Adirondack Park Regional AssessmentProject (APRA 2014). It painted a dismal economic future for park residents and called into question current land use restrictions.
            Predictably, the report horrified Adirondack park preservationists who promptly labeled APRA 2014 the work of the “blame the park lobby.” With a nod toward Article XIV of the New York State constitution which guarantees that the 2.6 million acres of state-owned land within the Adirondack Park “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,” entrepreneurs could be heard calling the preservationists, “forever wild crazies.”
            Malone’s William Almon Wheeler, five-term congressman and 19th vice president of the United States, graces page one of the report. Brad Dake of Arietta, Hamilton County, the primary driving force behind publication of APRA 2014, featured Wheeler because of his influence on the report of the 1873 Adirondack Park study commission—the first official governmental building block upon which subsequent calls for the creation of a state Adirondack Park would rest.  Dake wanted to put the findings of APRA 2014 into historical perspective.

            The 1873 commission recommended that the state create a park in the Adirondacks to save its forests from “wanton destruction.” However, Wheeler and the other members of the commission refused to model an Adirondack Park after the recently created Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. The commissioners unanimously condemned the “creation of an expensive and exclusive park for mere purposes of recreation” and repudiated the idea that an Adirondack park be “unproductive and useless.” Instead, the 1873 report recommended that the Adirondacks be open to careful forestry and mining, as well as fishing, hunting and sightseeing.
            In other words, as APRA 2014 put it, from the very beginning of government involvement in the creation of a state park in the Adirondacks, the goal was to create a park where “healthy forests, responsible forest management and economically sustainable communities would co-exist.”
Unfortunately, the key findings of APRA 2014 indicate that this has not happened. According to the updated report, 58% of the park is restricted from further development and 62% of the land in the park is under some form of state-authorized resource management. In addition, the park’s population is aging rapidly and dwindling at an accelerated pace. The number of public school students who live in the park is declining at twice the rate of students who live outside the park.

            And so we come back to the dilemma that continues to torment New Yorkers who love the Adirondacks. Can our special corner of New York be both a spiritual retreat and a place to make money?

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