Conditions can change quickly on any Adirondack peak, high or low. Here at St. Regis Mountain, our young friends from Pace Law School gather to sign the trail register in dry conditions, but soon encounter wet snow falling steadily above 2500 feet elevation. Fortunately, they have dressed warmly and have brought extra food, while Adirondack guide Dan Plumley carries the lunch along with the first aid kit. Their high spirits carry them into the clouds encountered at the summit, where a trip leader hoped to provide them with view of the St. Regis Canoe Area spread out below. While the view remained occluded, the group was undaunted and posed in front of the St. Regis Fire Tower, the subject of ongoing policy discussions as it stands in the middle of the canoe area that otherwise must be managed as wilderness.
Photographs ©2010 Ken Rimany
November’s wet snow was falling steadily now, sticking to the balsam fir. Youthful hikers paused to catch their breath, eat some trail mix and to absorb the ethereal quality of the light en route to a wild mountain summit north of Saranac Lake. This was a class of law students and friends from Pace University School of Law, and for some this was their first Adirondack hike. For this moment, the personal and group challenge of finding their footing on St. Regis Mountain near Paul Smith’s College competed with their growing knowledge of legal theory and precedent.
Seminar on Comparative Constitutional Law: The Forever Wild Provision
The hike was led by partners with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, who had first met this class at Pace Law School in White Plains. We had been invited by Nicholas A. Robinson, Pace’s Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law who, together with his equally distinguished colleague Phil Weinberg, had engaged these young legal minds to find fresh intellectual and practical meaning in New York’s foremost wilderness law which keeps the Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks “forever wild.” His seminar was examining in great detail the “forever wild” provision contained in Article 14 of the NYS Constitution. In a time of climate change, and enormous social and environmental stresses, how can critical thinking once again place New York as the global leader in the protection of our wilderness and life support systems? What new economic as well as ecological arguments can gain a foothold in public policy? And how can Adirondack Wild assist?
Educating for the Wild
We enjoyed conversing with the class and engaging the students in the field. Adirondack Wild is commited to broadening student understanding of how these parks work a model for true wilderness and wild land protection at a national and international level. One goal of Educating for the Wild is to integrate understanding of our State’s wilderness into existing curricula, and show how current generations can apply that understanding to better safeguard wild lands, and enhance their own lives and careers in the process.
So, here we were on a wild mountain conversing, and breathing hard. The students on this hike were Jeff Auger, Jessica Silver, Hilary Atkin, Kate Leisch and Jenny McAleese.
“I feel the McDonald Court left it to the State Legislature to further define reasonable uses of the Forest Preserve,” said one student. She had clearly already dug deeply into her research topic.
“Are floatplanes consistent or conducive with a wilderness in law? Why and why not? After all, the forest and its trees are apparently left untouched.
"The laws suggests that New York is striving for as much Park as possible, meaning do whatever it takes to preserve it,” said another.
Others spoke of aesthetics, means of access and the reasonableness of regulations.
Pace Law student Hilary Atkin responded to us in writing after the field trip:
“I was interested in Professor Robinson and Professor Weinberg's course primarily because they are both amazing scholars, professors, and advocates, and I wanted to take the opportunity to learn from them. I was also generally interested in the story behind Article XIV (of the NYS Constitution), and how it could be utilized to protect the Forest Preserves in the Catskills and the Adirondacks. I had spent time in both regions prior to taking the class, and being a flatlander in origin, was amazed by the beautiful scenery.”
The professors are encouraging their students to tease out new perspective on not only maintaining, but advancing our Forever Wild law through service to society, employing economic, health and welfare, environmental service arguments. Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo is calling for a Constitutional Commission which would narrow and tailor issues for a Convention. In the chaos of today's politics, unless a firm “floor” is placed under Article 14, for example, it could either be ignored or trampled. The professors look to their students to present this fresh new perspective that would continue to marshal popular public and political support for a wilderness law that is unique on planet earth.
Hilary Atkin writes in this regard:
It is easy to read the words of Article XIV and get caught up in interpreting them, but forget the practical and human considerations that go into implementing those words.
In the classroom and on the trail, Adirondack Wild partner Dan Plumley particularly impressed the group. As a seasoned Park resident of 25 years, Dan knows all about the myth that all Adirondack residents feel burdened and embittered by overregulation. He wants these students to know that many residents want the State’s Adirondack Park Agency to be better guardians and guarantors of their quality of life, and the clean water, wildlife and communities that distinguish the Adirondack Park - their homeplace - from anyplace USA.
From the classroom to the Park, and back again
Back in class, the professors quizzed their students about the benefits of legally protected landscapes. "They make me feel better knowing it is there,” one said. The professors were not satisfied with that facile answer. "Forests are the lungs of New York" said another. "They’re a sanctuary for our freshwater. And a boon for tourism. They are a carbon dioxide sink.” The proverbial class bell rang.
Back in the Adirondacks, the class was truly in the clouds. A white world surrounded us, the sun trying to break through but failing to open our view to the dozens of lakes that spread out below St. Regis summit. Undaunted, the students cheered their success, warmed themselves, and then encouraged by us debated the policy of maintaining and restoring the fire tower on the summit of this wilderness. “It’s no big deal. It does not conflict with wilderness in fact, and should be permitted to rust in place,” said one. “I find it ugly and out of place,” said another. We informed the students that by designating this tower as Historic, the Adirondack Park Agency had commited to restoring its broken stairs and maintaining it in the midst of land that otherwise must be treated as wilderness.
One of the students wrote to us about her hiking experience:
“The hike up St. Regis kind of confirmed my idea of what "wild" would be in the Adirondacks. Wild in the Adirondacks doesn't appear to mean devoid of human influence. Even the fire tower made the whole thing feel more real, like the mountain had a history that was connected to the people who have been living there for a few hundred years. At the same time, I did feel like I was experiencing wilderness. There were mountains, trees, and no residences as far as the eye could see.”
The hike was over, and we departed our new friends with promises to stay in touch, and our plan to be in the audience when their research papers are orally presented in a December symposium at Pace Law School.
Again, law student Hilary Atkin writes about her particular research interest: “Water quality and quantity was a major concern in enacting Article XIV, yet from my research on agriculture in the Adirondacks it seems there is so much more that can, and arguably must, be done to protect water and fulfill the commands in Article XIV. The information presented, and the work being done, by Dan Kelting and the Watershed Institute (at Paul Smith’s College) should be used to inform Forest Preserve policy.
I will be advocating for agricultural policies and programs that encourage agriculture but work to preserve wilderness within the purposes and mandates of Article XIV and have more of a long term feel.”
The students have selected the following for their research papers:
- Economic Development: Preservation through an economic lens
- History of Article 14 and its amendments, contemporary relevance
- Archeology and historic preservation in a wilderness
- The Public Trust doctrine
- Wildlife Management in Adirondacks and Catskills
- Recreational uses and wilderness preservation
- Agricultural uses in these Parks
- Legal aspects of resource extraction
- Endangered species and wildlife reintroductions
- Climate Change and wilderness law
Engaging Students: Q&A with Hilary Atkin, Pace Law School more >
Engaging Students: Q&A with Jeff Auger, Pace Law School more >
Engaging Students: Q&A with Jessica Silver, Pace Law School more >
Press Release: 11/11/10 Hike to St. Regis Mountain Helps Secure Next Generation's Interest in "Forever Wild" read PDF >
Featured Writer: Nicholas A Robinson, Pace University Professor for the Environment, and Pace Law School’s Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law more >
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