“The Abruzzo and the Adirondack: Parks in the New and Old World”, Sanctuary, Vol. 38, No. 1 (1998)

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June 1998

Parks in the new and old world

by Paul M. Bray

“Mission impossible” declared Franco Tassi at the conclusion of a presentation on leading Italy’s Abruzzo National Park for the last quarter century. Tassi was talking at a 1997 wilderness roundtable in New York State ‘s Adirondack Park. He was beginning a process of the international twinning of two complex, unusual and wonderful parks.

The Abruzzo Park is a mountainous park in the Southern Apennines, about two hours drive from Rome or Naples and equidistant from the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas.

It is a 110,000 acre park with shepherds and pastures, a thriving wildlife population of Marsican brown bears, chamois, red deer, Apennine wolves, lynz, medieval villages and a surround of 6,000 foot mountains.

New York State Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Cahill with a resident of the Abruzzo Park village of Avitella Alfredena (the “wall” village) during a visit by an Adirondack delegation to the Abruzzo Park in 1999

Vastly larger at six million acres or the size of the whole state of Vermont is New York ‘s Adirondack Park. Encompassing the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River as well as 130,000 permanent residents in numerous villages and hamlets scattered throughout the Park, the Adirondack like the Abruzzo Park is a park of nature and people. Their primary difference when it comes to nature is the focus on wildlife in the Abruzzo Park and on wilderness and open space in the Adirondack Park. Tassi calls these parks without gates ‘ancient ‘ because the Abruzzo is Italy ‘s oldest national park having celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997 and the Adirondack Park was established in 1892.

The Abruzzo Park Authority owns less that one percent of the land within the Park borders. The rest is owned by the villages and private parties. Slightly less that half of the land in the Adirondack Park is publicly owned.

When a ‘blue line ‘ was drawn on a map around some millions of acres of land under mixed ownership in the Adirondack region in 1892, a very different idea of a park from the public estate model like Yellowstone was being initiated. The challenge was not only how to reconcile nature preservation with the demand for recreational use found in the public domain national and state parks, but how to meet the economic needs of the park ‘s resident population in an ecologically compatible manner.

These two ancient parks, one in the old world and the other in the new, turn out to be on the cutting edge of the same challenge of integrating the highest conservation objectives with social and economic needs.

In the 1960s both the Abruzzo and Adirondack Parks shared similar threats to their natural values and even their very existence as parks. New highways brought the Parks closer in time to major cities and the Parks became contested landscapes between conservationists and voices of ‘progress ‘ from residents within. Progress would include vacation villas scattered on the mountain sides of the Abruzzo Park and large second home developments which threatened to damage the environment and character of the Adirondack Park.

Abruzzo National Park Director Franco Tassi and President Fulco Pratesi at a street naming ceremony in 2000.

Franco Tassi was hired as the Abruzzo ‘s Director at the end of the 1960s. Not only were years of park records missing, the wolf population was endangered and the Park ‘s museum had become a storehouse for tools. Tassi received a phone threat. ‘Renounce the position ‘ he was told ‘or get a bullet in your forehead. ‘

While Tassi is uncompromising in his belief that the Park must protect the ‘top values ‘ like wildlife and biodiversity, he needed to develop a policy of ‘eco-development ‘ to save the Park.

The revival of the Park ‘s wolf population from an endangered number of around 13 to the present stable population of 40 to 50 wolves illustrates his approach.

Anyone familiar with current controversies about wolf reintroduction to parks like Yellowstone knows the social resistance to the wolf. In the Abruzzo Park which has shepherds residing within its borders, the predator wolf was a lightening rod issue. But to Tassi the wolf was the bellwether for restoring the natural conditions of the Park.

Revival of the wolf population and the Park began with ‘Operation St. Francis ‘ to restore the wolf ‘s image. An education program in the Park village of Civitella Alfredena led the children of the village to adopt the once frightening wolf as a friend. The more business minded village elders were attracted to the offer of development of a wolf museum in the village as a potential popular tourist attraction.

The wolf became a poster child for the transformation of the village from what local architect Camelo Bordone called ‘a place in a state of utter neglect where only poor shepherds used to live ‘ into a successful example of ecological redevelopment based on eco-tourism. Since the development of the wolf museum annual visitors to the village have grown from 2,000 to 3,000 a year to over 100,000 per year. And local opposition became local support for the Park ‘s efforts to restoring the wolf population to sustainable levels.

Tassi has a good eye for connecting the Park ‘s mission with the concerns of Park residents for finding jobs and making money. He encourages local residents to become the first actors of the Park, hosting guests in their home instead of seeing second homes built for city folks. As the image of the Abruzzo Park as a very special place rebounded, value was added to products of the Park like honey and specialty park product stores opened. The successful local bank adopted the Park logo and new businesses like an artisan confectionery making park sweets brought former park residents back home from cities like Rome and Milan to make their living within the Park.

Along with eco-development, a zoning system identifying the land uses and human activities possible and compatible with the existence of the Park was established. The most fragile ecological area is designated for ‘absolute conservation ‘. Development is reserved for the inhabited villages whose historic buildings are restored and revitalized.

brayabPaul M. Bray speaking at the Camerino 2000 Conference

The Adirondack Park had its own rocky road since the late 1960s. At that time a proposal from Laurance Rockefeller to consolidate the core of the Adirondack Park to create a National Park had been rejected and applications for state environmental permits was pending for proposals like the 20,000 acre Tondalay second home development project. Local government planning and zoning was almost nonexistent within the Park and the State ‘s jurisdiction over development in the Park was limited. The Park ‘s private land appeared to be up for grab by developers.

Many of these threats to the Adirondack Park have been addressed by the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency which administers a resource based private land use plan for the Park. The Park ‘s first two visitor centers and key acquisitions of property by the State including the recent acquisition of 15,000 acres of spectacular back county have occurred over the last 25 years.

Yet, as exemplified by a current controversy over a proposal put forward by the Defenders of Wildlife to reintroduce the wolf the Adirondack Park, the Park remains a contested landscape. In response to the wolf proposal, some county legislators within the Park who reject the whole idea of the Park are advancing legislation to ban the reintroduction of wildlife into the Park. Property rights advocates and promoters of private development and the siting of a new state prison within the Park as a cure for the weak economy in parts of the Park continue their unrelenting attack on the Park.

At stake with the Abruzzo and Adirondack Parks are both the preservation of very special natural areas and whether a way can be found for people to live where natural values have a priority. Tassi told an Adirondack audience that, ‘The villagers in the Abruzzo use to say, ‘before thinking about the bear, care for man ‘. This idea is on the verge of extinction, since the success of the Park, not only in preserving wildlife and scenery, but also in granting economic benefits to the local population. ‘

The Abruzzo and Adirondack Parks have discovered each other and Tassi and Commissioner John Cahill of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation signed an agreement to cooperate. Unlike other cooperative arrangements between parks, this one will involve more than park officials and staff. Planning is underway for exchanges between village mayors, young people who live within the respective parks and artists among others.

Historian and wilderness expert Roderick Nash told an audience in Italy that, ‘While Italy is in the vanguard in the protection of man ‘s cultural and artistic heritage, the United States has led the world in nature protection. ‘ The growing relationship between the Abruzzo and Adirondack Parks shows that Italy and America have come to have allot more in common than many people have previously realized.

Published in Sanctuary