Adirondackising of New York State

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Eye from Albany
February 2007

Adirondackising of New York State

By Paul M. Bray

In 1892 the State Legislature make the remarkably far sighted act of drawing a blue line around approximately 4 million acres of the great north woods of the state and declared the area within the blue line to be the Adirondack Park. (Today, the Adirondack Park blue line encircles 6 million acres).

The creation of the Adirondack Park preceded the establishment of the National Park System in 1916 and the New York State park system in 1924. National and state parks were still a new concept in 1892 and the legislature did not have a vision or plan for what the Adirondack Park would be. It dropped this hot potato on the lap of the State Forest Commission.

The scale of the Adirondack Park made it unmanageable. Within the Park was forest preserve land protected to remain forever wild under the state constitution. More than half of the Park was privately owned land by forest companies, private camps and villages. In effect, the new Adirondack Park was a grand land bank for future additions to the forest preserve, forestry use and what would become the civic and recreational landscape.

The Park becoming a park evolved slowly with, for example, public and private land use plans not being adopted until the 1970s and park visitor centers being established in the 1980s. Yet, the blue line and park designation worked their magic by embedding the notion of conservation of the north woods in the minds of many generations of New Yorkers. The three American landscape ideals of wilderness in the forest preserve, sustainable use in the privately owned forest lands and civic in camp grounds and resort areas like Lake Placid and Lake George manage to co-exist and flourish within the blue line.

In a quiet way the Adirondack Park model of designating and mapping special areas of the state to be parks has proceeded in the last 30 years to the point where most areas of the state can be considered to be Adirondack Parks or special protected areas only under names like heritage areas, greenways, preserves and reserves.

The most far ranging example of this is heritage areas. The above map identifies the 19 state designated heritages area that range from the eastern tip of Long Island to border with Ohio along Lake Erie. In addition to these state heritage areas, three national heritage areas have been established by the U.S. Congress. These are the Hudson River Valley National Heritage area that includes the area of the Hudson River Valley from Saratoga County to the northern border of New York City, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor spanning an area from Lake Erie to the Lake Champlain and, the most recent addition, a Lake Champlain partnership national heritage area that includes portions of the state of Vermont.

(The map of state designated heritage areas is from the website of the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).

Regional greenways are also Adirondack Park like constructs. They are the Hudson River Valley Greenway and the Niagara River Greenway. Other special areas designated and mapped include the Long Island Pine Barrens, Albany Pine Bush, Historic Saratoga-Washington on the Hudson Partnership covering the river communities in Saratoga and Washington Counties and the area of the Tug Hill Plateau.

Like the Adirondack Park, each of the aforementioned designations represent various stages of inchoate visions for preserving our natural and cultural heritage and realizing the benefits from intersecting goals of conservation, recreation, education and sustainable development. They are also a form of regionalism in a state that at least in this time eschews regionalism and an impetus for partnerships between governmental entities and between the public and private sector.

2007 marks the 30th anniversary of RiverSpark aka the Hudson Mohawk Urban Cultural Park (a state heritage area initially created by 6 neighboring municipalities at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers) and the 25th anniversary of the NYS Heritage Area System and Program.

This is a time to take stock of the state’s special protected areas to celebrate what we have but also see what needs to be done to realize their full potential. The Adirondack Park experience says that realizing potential can be a slow process. In 1920 Alfred Donaldson wrote a History of the Adirondack Park and bemoaned what he saw to be “supine indifference” when it came to taking full advantage of what the Park had to offer.

In our time we don’t have the luxury of supine indifference when it comes to taking full advantage of our environmental and cultural assets. The winners in the global economy will be states with the greatest endowment of assets capable of enriching quality of life and the greatest ability to protect and enjoy these assets.

Paul M. Bray is an Albany attorney specializing in planning and environmental law. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com