Two conservationists committed to preserving wilderness in our world and in the Adirondacks sat together for an Adirondack Mountain Club dinner in New York City. The year was 1945. Driven by long pent-up demand after the Great Depression and World War II, the roar of big machines was heard across the nation—to clear, to move, to build, to pave, and to dam.
“What do you know of two large dams planned for a place called the South Branch of the Moose River?” George Marshall asked his ADK dinner companion.
“I know nothing,” Paul Schaefer answered. “But I should know.” With that simple declaration of purpose, Friends of the Forest Preserve was born.
Paul Schaefer founded Friends of the Forest Preserve that very year. Schaefer (1908–1996) was the foremost wilderness leader and conservationist for New York’s Adirondacks in the 1900s. He was also a master builder and restorer of fine American homes and Adirondack camps—because he so deeply felt their importance as our heritage. Schaefer was an Adirondack guide, hunter, photographer, filmmaker, author and premier conservationist. His was a national reputation for protecting the Adirondacks and their wild areas, and for defending New York’s “forever wild” Forest Preserve. When Audubon magazine listed the 100 top conservationists of the 1900s, Schaefer was included. Throughout his life he received dozens of awards, authored three books about the Adirondacks, and produced two award-winning documentary films about the region. Schaefer’s first book, Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer (1989, Syracuse University Press) tells the history of the founding of Friends of the Forest Preserve. We draw from this chapter of his book.
It was Russell M. L. Carson, author of Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, who invited Schaefer to the ADK dinner, and to sit next to the first man in our story, George Marshall, “renowned Forty-sixer.” George had climbed all 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks with his brother Bob Marshall. Bob Marshall, who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935, had already met Schaefer on Mount Marcy’s summit in summer 1932. Their meeting would have far-flung consequences for both men and for the state’s and nation’s wilderness. Defending the Wilderness tells that story, too.
George, Bob and James Marshall were the sons of Louis and Florence Marshall. Louis Marshall was a lawyer, behind-the-scenes strategist for and author of New York State’s “forever wild” clause. The clause asserts that the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” which was inserted into the NYS Constitution after popular vote in 1895. Louis championed wilderness management for the Adirondacks as he knew them in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the world’s foremost defenders of civil and minority rights, Louis was also founder and president of the board of the State College of Forestry at Syracuse.
But back to our story: At dinner, George Marshall asked Paul Schaefer what he knew about plans for two large hydroelectric dams on the South Branch of the Moose River in the west-central Adirondacks. Marshall said he had seen maps and descriptions of these dams in government offices in Washington, D.C. What would the impacts of these dams be on the wildlife and forests of the area?
Schaefer was dumbfounded. He did not know the answers. He had spent nearly thirty years exploring the Adirondacks but had never been to the Moose River region. Nor had he even heard about these dam projects. Embarrassed, he promised George he would find out and report back to him.
On the train back to his home in Schenectady, Schaefer pledged to himself that he and like-minded friends must try to make a large topographic map of the Adirondacks to better understand the impacts of these dam proposals, and other activities threatening the area’s wild country. As a result of this pledge, a large relief map of the Adirondacks took shape in his Adirondack Room located at his home. The project required nine years, fifty volunteers, and thirteen thousand hours of work to complete.
At the same time, Schaefer located key people who knew the Moose River Plains and who also sensed the enormous impacts that the power dams would have. Later in 1945, a bush pilot named Harold Scott flew them over the area.
Schaefer recorded what they saw that first day, and for many expeditions to come: “Forests unlimited, dotted with lakes, sparkling in the sunshine. Rivers threading like quicksilver through the plains and into the evergreen woods westerly. The crowns of giant pines rising above the green canopy of woods. And in the distance, to all points of the compass, mountain on mountain fading into far horizons.”
From this vision emerged Friends of the Forest Preserve. The successful fight they and others waged to save the wild country and rivers of the Moose River Plains had the effect of preventing nearly thirty other dams on wild rivers across the Adirondack Park. This campaign took a full decade. From its beginning the organization offered a broad umbrella for diverse interests to coalesce around “forever wild.”
Friends of the Forest Preserve enjoyed many other successes in coalitions with the Adirondack Mountain Club, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, the Wilderness Society, Izaak Walton League and others. Friends was among the first to aggressively promote funding to acquire more of the New York State Forest Preserve; to prevent the State from losing title to those lands; and to foment studies of wild rivers and of wilderness areas in the Adirondacks.
Friends viewed the Forest Preserve as the place where wilderness preservation began in America. Bob Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society in 1935, was inspired to undertake his tireless crusade for the wilds by exploring the Adirondack Forest Preserve as a youth in the early 1900s. Howard Zahniser, newly serving as executive secretary of The Wilderness Society, accepted an invitation from Paul Schaefer to hike into the Flowed Lands of the Adirondack High Peaks in 1946
Howard Zahniser, left
From conversations at a lean-to in that wilderness, Zahniser clearly saw the need for a national wilderness preservation system protected by something as enduring as New York’s “forever wild” Constitution. It took 18 years of Zahniser’s life, and 66 drafts of the legislation before the National Wilderness Preservation Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Along the way, the Schaefer and Zahniser families developed a lasting friendship in the Adirondacks that extends to the current, fourth generation
Details of its early work are contained in the organization’s Forest Preserve magazine published from 1945-1955. By 1990, Schaefer and Friends of the Forest Preserve were busy organizing the thousands of documents, letters and photographs that they had collected over the previous fifty years. The materials were not merely archival – they were used to mount new campaigns to influence the protection of Follensby Pond and the Upper Hudson River and other wild Adirondack places. Pursuing his quest until the end of his life, Paul Schaefer died on July 14, 1996.
In 2010, the organization enters a new and exciting era. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve builds on a rich legacy, equipped with historical knowledge, and staunch faithfulness of purpose. And the organization applies ecological and philosophical thinking to critical advocacy and educational work. We are primed to safeguard and extend Adirondack wild lands, and to educate each new generation about the benefits of wild lands and the important role they play in people’s lives.
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