THE ADIRONDACK PARK AS A PARK: ENVISIONING THE PARK’S SECOND CENTURY By Paul M. Bray
“What they call the Adirondack Park, you understand, is no small roadside park, no cutesy little campground with public toilets and showers I mean, we’re talking six million acres of woods, mountains, and lakes, we’re talking a region the size of the state of Vermont, the biggest damn park in the country – and most of the people who live there year round are scattered in little villages in the valleys, living on food stamps and collecting unemployment, huddling close to their fires and waiting out the winter, until they can go back outdoors and repair the damage the winter caused.
It is a hard place, hard to live in, hard to romanticize. But surprisingly, not hard to love – because that’s what I have to call the feeling it evokes, this strange combination of fear and awe I’m talking about….”
This passage from The Sweet Hereafter highlights the magnitude, depth, mystery, pathos and contradictions of the Adirondack Park as seen through the eyes of novelist Russell Banks. To love the Adirondack Park is to not only to embrace contradiction, but to also seek common interests which transcend the competing differences inherent in its contradictions.
A Centennial for an enduring and evolving legacy with all its contradictions is an opportunity to look back and commemorate and a good occasion to assess the present and share dreams for the future of the legacy. The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks is providing a real service to us and future generations by organizing a forum which will be a beacon for the future.
The 1891 Forest Commission correctly forecast that one couldn’t “call the Adirondack Park into existence by the touch of a wand.” One hundred years later, Eleanor F. Brown points out in her centennial article, “42%/58% and Counting,” that the Adirondack Park is still undergoing the painful process of creation. The time has come to move the process along and create an Adirondack Park that is truly an inspirational, educational, recreational and ecological park.
Envisioning the Adirondack Park as a park for its second century calls for drawing from the best of the American park tradition and a developing land and resource park ethic.
Parks ranging from Olmsted’s pleasure grounds like Central Park in New York City and urban park systems like the city of Buffalo’s park system to the national and state parks and park systems are a great American social and environmental invention.
City parks have been in the vanguard of urban planning and an integrating force connecting people and neighborhoods for more than a century. A wide compass of societal concerns have been addressed throughout the history of urban parks.
The national park concept has been called “the best idea America ever had.” The organic act of the National Park System enacted 76 years ago provided that the scenic, natural and historic resources of the System be left “…unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This preservation objective inherent in the idea of a park can be seen as a 20th Century continuation of the public trust doctrine which dates back to the 6th Century Institutes of Justinian. Under the public trust doctrine, the government has an obligation to protect the public’s interest in certain common resources for present and future generations. Through the National Park System the public interest and rights to special natural and cultural places has been preserved for future generations. The New York State Courts apply a common law notion of public trust to limit alienation of park land without legislative approval. We may increasingly rely on the National Park Service and other park entities and the park approach as we come to understand that land and natural resources are a common heritage of humanity to be managed to provide equal benefits for all persons in all generations. The ideas of parks and public trust may provide the framework for managing this common heritage. Our National Park System as a system to advance preservation objectives has been emulated, adopted and improved to fit the varied economic, social, land use and cultural conditions in more than 125 countries.
The American park tradition has had both a static – park centric and a dynamic – community and regional dimension. The static dimension comes from the treatment of parks as a public estate or refuge separate and apart from the remainder of the community in the case of urban parks and from the surrounding environment for state and national parks. Seen through the lens of this model, the Adirondack Park with its checkerboard of public and private lands hardly resembles a park.
Yet, our nation’s park tradition has also had a dynamic dimension where parks have been an integrating and unifying force for social and environmental values. Olmsted’s pleasure grounds were intended to attract and equally serve all citizens and be an integrating force in society. He viewed himself less a landscape artist than a sort of social engineer and educator of hearts. Urban parks were also a major tool in city planning. Olmsted advocated and planned systems of complementary parks and parkways in cities like Boston and Buffalo to provide not only varied pleasure grounds throughout the city but also to redeem disagreeable environs, prevent the random spill of city expansion and manage urban growth.
The dynamic dimension for national and state parks has come to the forefront in the last twenty years. In National Parks for a New Generation the Conservation Foundation reported that in the 1960s and 1970s “…the idea of a park was itself broadening: in so-called greenline parks, human settlements are viewed as integral to the landscape to be protected and interpreted, rather than as intrusions on the natural scene.” Cities like Lowell, Mass. and numerous settled regions have begun to be developed and managed in a park manner by the National Park Service. (“There is no single ‘park’ at Lowell National Historical Park, the city is the park.” said the Times.) In 1982, New York State established the first in the nation statewide system of urban cultural parks or cities as parks. The expansion of the park idea has been in response to contemporary needs for resource management to protect our common heritage and regional planning to integrate economic and environmental values.
The Adirondack Park is a good example of the dynamic dimension of the park idea and has been looked at as a model for what planners call “greenline parks”. Even though the notion of the Adirondack Park as a park was just a dream or merely an after thought when the Park was enacted in 1892 and it is an ambivalently treated reality today, the importance of the Park being a park is substantial. The fact that the Adirondack Park is a park has framed the dialogue on land management into a parkwide context and thereby helped maintain the distinctive nature of a vast special place.
Without the blue line defining a park, we would most likely still have forest preserve lands, a Lake George State Park and other state parks around the North Country, but we would not have a regional land use plan covering the area which makes up the Park. The Park makes each individual hamlet and attraction part of a vision much greater than itself and this strengthens the tourism economy. As Amy Godine concludes in a Centennial Essay in Adirondack Life, “…the park’s most renewable and enduring (economic) resource turns out to be the park itself.” It may have been the inchoate sense of the Park which has consistently led the public to reject Constitutional Amendments designed to weaken the forever wild protection of the forest preserve in the Adirondack Park. Park status has protected the forest preserve.
At public campgrounds and beaches, on trails across public lands, on and along lakes and rivers, at commercial resorts and from scenic overlooks at Whiteface and Prospect Mountains, the Adirondack Park has been a public resort for millions of people. The Park has been used for hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, bird watching, skiing, snowmobiling, tobogganing, canoeing and other water related activities, golf, tennis and innumerable other recreational activities. In the Adirondack Park Agency Act the legislature declared that, “The wild forest, water, wildlife and aesthetic resources of the park, and its open space character, provide an outdoor recreational experience of national and international significance.” The Park has also been recognized as a public health resort, a “sanitarium… known from ocean to ocean, and from land to land.” Outdoor conservation education and park interpretation services are provided by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Adirondack Park Agency at two visitor centers and private institutions like the renowned Adirondack Museum and the up and coming Adirondack Discovery program.
Much of why the Adirondack Park has succeeded as a park has to do with circumstances rather than a widely shared vision of the park. There are many reasons for this lack of a shared vision of the park. Viewed through the park centric lens, the Adirondack Park can only be a park if it became an exclusive public estate. The lack of support for and quick demise of the proposal for an Adirondack Mountains National Park in 1967 laid to rest any notion of the Park as a totally public domain.
Some Adirondackers who have rejected park planning as an encumbrance of civilization, as Mason Smith pointed out, “cling to the feeling (too inarticulate to be a belief) that the Big Woods are still real, natural wilderness, undeveloped because inhospitable, as it was for the Bark-Eaters who gave it a name beyond a frontier whose progress is stalled at its edges, through poverty and neglect-thank God.” But as Smith further points out, “It isn’t, of course. The Adirondack Park is a deliberately and still tenuously preserved place.”
Fear is also a factor. Preservationists fear that a focus on park making will widen opportunities for facilities development, motorized recreation and other development. After all, Robert Moses once dominated park making in New York State and he cared little about protecting natural resources. Others who feel that preservationists have had too much influence, fear that a Park as a park agenda will be dominated by the preservationists to further their protectionist agenda. There has always been a tenuous balance between preservation and use objectives in the history of American parks, but there is more to be gained from embracing the challenge inherent in this balance than running from it.
The state has also contributed to the lack of vision or plan for the Park as a park. “Administratively, the state has seemed bent on dissecting the Park rather than seeing it whole,” wrote Eleanor F. Brown. DEC, the state land manager, and APA, the land use regulator, each concentrate on their respective missions with, at best, indifference to the notion of the Park as a park. DEC rejected out of hand the recent proposal for in-house reorganization to establish an Adirondack Park Service and Governor Cuomo’s proposed Centennial year legislation containing nothing to further or improve park organization or practices.
But perhaps the primary reason why the Park is still in the painful process of becoming a park is its daunting size and complexity. Its pattern of settled and other privately owned land mixed with forest preserve land has been a planning nightmare because of overlapping ecological, scenic, historic and scientific as well as economic, social and cultural factors. The Park’s principle values, its open space character and diverse combination of wildlife, forests, wetlands, waterways and mountains and settled areas, are difficult to manage. For example, vastness or million s of acres of open space does not make its management easier. One rule of thumb is that the first five percent of development in open country does fifty percent of the damage by altering people’s mental geography of an area. Needless to say, maintaining the distinctiveness, stability, economic viability, traditions and historic structures and association of the people with the landscape for any small, rural community is difficult in these fast paced, changing times. It is no less of a challenge for hamlets in the Adirondack Park.
While the lack of a shared vision or plan for the Park as a park can be understood, the purposes and necessity for a vision for the Park to finally and fully realize its potential as a park should be evident. It may be the only way for the Adirondack region to survive shifting political winds and the mounting and seemingly unyielding forces of urbanism and sameness which consume so much of our landscape.
Management of the Adirondack Park as a park can be the unifying and integrating force necessary to protect the qualities of the Park for future generations and assure their beneficial enjoyment for the present generation. As Olmsted used a complementary system of parks, parkways and other improvements to physically knit together and organize an expanding city, a system of scenic vistas, roads as parkways, trails and other park related improvements throughout the Adirondack Park would be a major unifying force. It would strengthen the visibility and awareness that one is in a park and a very special place. No longer would people say, as former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall did, that, “…I can never tell when I’m in the (Adirondack) park and when I’m out.”
More attention and planning for the Adirondack Park as a park would help the Park attain Olmsted’s goal that the choicest natural scenes in the country and the means of recreation connected with them be laid open to the use of the body of the people. The Adirondack Park today has too many “no trespass” signs, too few-trails and facilities for family outings and no effective strategy to attract the attention and interest of the “hamburger tourists” to the special qualities of the Park. One could expect that a Park plan, for example, would provide for acquisition of easements and cooperative agreements with private land owners for limited recreational use of private lands. As part of these agreements, protection from liability would be provided to cooperating property owners. A much greater effort would be made to put people in the woods, on the waters and in touch with the historic resources of the Park in a manner consistent with preserving the resources. The parkwide interpretive services that one would expect for the Adirondack Park would be interwoven from many public and private providers and would be visible and accessible to all who ventured in the Park.
A more extensive commitment to the Adirondack Park as a park would provide greater stimulus and support for the local economy. It would focus attention of state, regional and local entities on community development of hamlets to preserve and develop these traditionally settled areas as attractive outfitting, service and/or resort centers. This would encourage prudent use and development of infrastructure and provide a concentrated alternative to the spread of development.
As previously noted, parks are closely related to the notion of the public trust. Public values of the Adirondack Park are presently protected by Article 14 of the State Constitution (the forever wild clause) and the police power of the state. These are strengthened and complemented in protecting the common heritage in the land and resources of the Park by the public trust interest associated with the notion of parks.
Managing the Park as a park would open up many avenues for dialogue and linkage between the many individuals and organizations interested in the Park including year round residents, seasonal residents, Adirondack advocates and the array of public officials involved in one form or another in management and/or use of Park resources. As demonstrated by the successful Committee for the 1992 Adirondack Park Centennial, the Park offers many areas of interest where common ground can be found. Commitment to the Park as a park won’t make all the factional differences easily resolvable, but it does offer far greater possibilities for useful engagement by all interested parties.
In the Adirondack Park’s second century, we need to think of the Adirondack Park primarily as a park and engage in a park research and planning process to protect its natural and cultural resources for future generations, to foster access and beneficial enjoyment of these resources consistent with their preservation, to expand interpretative and other traditional park services and to maintain settled areas as integral to the Park. The principles of social values, preservation and education found in the American park tradition can be the compass to move Adirondack Park making from the painful process of creation to a rewarding process of realization. It is time for there to be an Adirondack Park which realizes our best dreams for a special place we love.