Three Hills

“Saving” the Adirondacks

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New York’s Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Great Smokies National Parks combined. It has one thousand miles of wild and scenic rivers, and hundreds of crystalline lakes and lofty peaks. It is one of the largest unbroken deciduous forests on earth, and it has been cited as a model in the global campaign to control climate change.

New York’s Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Great Smokies National Parks combined.

But here is an even more amazing thing about the Adirondacks. Most of the Park’s land is privately owned, and eighty-five million people live within a day’s drive. Yet the Adirondacks seem almost completely undeveloped. How did that happen? The answer is a dramatic story about people and conflict that is the subject of the new book, A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks

But here is an even more amazing thing about the Adirondacks.

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Adirondack Park Agency Act. The Adirondack Experience Museum is building on the research from A Wild Idea to commemorate this milestone with a virtual symposium, a documentary film, an online exhibit, and a season of book talks and community discussions inside the Park.  It should be an interesting summer!

Photo: Forest Ranger Bill Petty, Laurance Rockefeller, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the Adirondack High Peaks, October 1965. Credit: Rockefeller Archives.

A Land Use Revolution

The land-use plan of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), adopted in 1973, is based on the ideas of landscape architect Ian McHarg. In Design With Nature (1969), McHarg described ways of determining how much development a parcel of undeveloped land can bear without damaging the ecological integrity of surrounding areas, using assessments of slopes, soil, vegetation, wildlife, and other natural features. McHarg’s book led a revolution in land use planning. The revolution began in the Adirondacks when New York State places permanent regulations on land use in an area the size of Vermont.

A small group of activists spent decades arguing that the Adirondacks needed to be protected from development. By 1968, they had amassed overwhelming public support. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who was fond of big ideas and bold government action, set up a commission that studied the Adirondacks for two years before issuing 181 recommendations that were audacious. Many of them had never been tried before. But Rockefeller knew a winning political issue when he saw one, so he eagerly supported the activists’ cause.

Rockefeller strong-armed state lawmakers into passing the bill that created the APA. He ordered the brand-new state agency to write two master plans for all six million acres in the Park and to complete them in less than two years.

A Furious Backlash

The APA’s young staff was brilliant, passionately devoted to their cause, and extremely hard-working. But they lacked two critical things: money and time. The plans they produced were complex and imperfect. They also did not try very hard to explain their tough new regulations to local landowners, even though zoning laws had been almost entirely unknown in the Adirondacks. The activists were so focused on saving land that they didn’t think about the 100,000 people who lived in the Park year-round. And many of those people were outraged.

Over its first fifty years, the APA has been praised and studied as a triumph of land-use planning. But a lot of people who live inside the park see it differently. Even after fifty years, they still think that the Agency and its restrictions on private land development are un-American. They say that private property is private and that the Adirondacks doesn’t need more wilderness as much as it needs better jobs.

*Featured photo: Grace Peak, Adirondack Mountains. Credit: Thomas Dils.

Cover image of A Wild Idea.
Read more about this book.

Brad Edmondson is the author of Environmental Affairs in New York StateIce Cream Social, and Postwar Cornell. Visit bradedmondson.com for more information.


While you are here…

A Wild Idea is based on more than fifty interviews collected by the author between 2002 and 2020, so it tells the story in the voices of the people who fought for and against the APA. These interviews will be used in a documentary based on the book that will be released by Mountain Lake PBS in the fall. 

The ADKX’s free virtual symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of the APA will feature in-depth discussions by activists and alumni of the agency. Click here to register for June 22.

An online newsletter lists virtual and in-person meetings and books throughout the summer; sign up here to learn more. 

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