by David Gibson
When it comes to the Adirondacks and the “forever wild” provision of our state constitution, a number of us just lost a great, very determined, and very influential teacher in that field of green. Charles C. “Charlie” Morrison died this week in his mid-90s. After a long career as a natural resource planner with the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and, starting in 1967 with NYS Conservation Department and then in 1970 the Department of Environmental Conservation, Charlie’s retirement years were devoted to the not-for-profit world. These included (but by no means were limited to) board and committee service, all voluntary, with the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, the Club’s Adirondack group, the Environmental Planning Lobby, now Environmental Advocates of NY, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Protect the Adirondacks, and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.
Charlie began his career as a geologist studying North American glaciers. But it was North American landscapes being cut up, dug up, and paved over for industrial, commercial, highway, and residential developments that motivated Charlie to join the Secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall, in Washington D.C. There he was a key influence in the drafting and passage of the Land and Water Conservation Fund which has paid for land and water conservation throughout the nation all these years, and the nation’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act that spawned our own Rivers system here in NY and throughout the country.
He moved to Saratoga County in 1967 to direct the new state Commission on Natural Beauty. Imagine advocating for natural beauty today. How quaint, yet how fundamental to all feelings of environmental care, protection, and stewardship. Charlie was in the room when Laurance Rockefeller’s idea for an Adirondack Mountains National Park took a steep and fatal nose dive during a contentious 1967 public meeting in Warrensburg. He worked behind the scenes during the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondack Park, 1968-1970
Upon moving to upstate New York in 1984, I began my own job search. I had just come off a project focused on river conservation, so I was advised to visit Charlie Morrison at DEC, 50 Wolf Road, Colonie. I phoned him and he agreed to meet. By now, Charlie was Director of DEC’s Natural Resources Planning office, and his office door was open. Warm and informal, but also practical, Charlie put me on a path that led to an interview and three years of interning and working at the DEC and Office of Parks, OPRHP. That experience, in turn, led me to a job with the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.
Many people acting in an “official capacity” within national or state government would shun all intrigues with outside environmentalists. Charlie was not one of them. While working for DEC, Charlie conspired with nonprofit advocates behind the scenes to try to make things happen that would strengthen “forever wild.”
For instance, in 1989 I was two years into my job with the Association when Charlie called from the DEC to let me know that the federal General Services Administration was meeting in Colonie to auction off the, rail ties and railroad right of way (ROW) from North Creek to Tahawus. Could I attend? Yes, I could. These thirteen miles of rail line were once part of the Forest Preserve but condemned by the feds in 1942 for the railroad spur to Newcomb that enabled mining the essential war mineral ilmenite, or titanium dioxide, so crucial to the manufacture of tanks and planes. But the war emergency had ended 45 years before. Now, the moment for the state to outbid the private sector and reacquire the land and ROW had arrived. Charlie hoped his DEC would aggressively bid at the auction so that the rails could eventually be removed, and the condemned land restored to its State Forest Preserve condition. In this, he was bitterly disappointed. New York did not bid aggressively. The rails and ROW were auctioned off to the private company National Lead for a million dollars.
For the rest of his life Charlie never let any of his organizations forget about the abandoned rail ROW to Tahawus, and its deserving place back into the Forest Preserve. He wrote lengthy, detailed papers about the rail spur’s history since 1942. He drafted similarly detailed letters for his organizational heads to sign, arguing with logic to the Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) that the line was in effect abandoned and should be in law, also, and returned to the state. I signed my share of Charlie’s letters, no editing required. While the STB resisted these entreaties, Charlie lived long enough to see the North Creek to Newcomb ROW acquired by the Open Space Institute and Revolution Rail in 2022, a key step in the corridor’s becoming a greenway into the heart of the Adirondack Park.
Another passion that drove Charlie was the fundamental unfairness he perceived when Adirondack rivers passing through private land were closed and posted against travel by canoe and kayak. He argued, persuasively, that the state had long held an easement for the public to navigate our rivers, and that recreational canoeing and kayaking had become the most important way we exercise that right. Years before the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, reaffirmed the public’s right of navigation in a landmark 1998 case, Charlie was espousing the right inside DEC and for the Sierra Club. in 2005, Charlie wrote a brochure to illuminate the legal nature of the right, including limitations and circumstances under which the public right of navigation may apply. He knew that with public rights came public responsibilities.
Members of the Adirondack Group of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter were among those honoring Charlie in 2022. They wrote that “Charlie worked for years after the 1998 Court decision to get a list of navigable rivers established in regulation so that each river need not be individually tried in the courts. Charlie was a soft-spoken ‘behind the scenes’ player, and sometimes not so soft-spoken, who had a key role in most of the major land protection efforts in New York State in the last 25 years of the 20th century.”
One more example: in 2007 Charlie presented the key issues at stake with the Saratoga County Water Authority’s placement of water infrastructure on lands at Moreau Lake State Park. He and his wife Marie Morrison invested lots of their time on this one, documenting the affected lands from the water intake downstream of Spier Falls and through portions of Moreau Lake State Park. Although outside the Adirondack Park by a few miles, Saratoga County is a Forest Preserve County. Charlie stressed that these state park lands fell within it and did not meet any of the legal exceptions to Forest Preserve. He pushed the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks to address these concerns in writing to the Commissioner of NYS Parks, noting that the lands in question appeared to be Forest Preserve. A year later, under threat of litigation, NYS Parks signed a settlement agreement with the Association and other groups promising to take Article XIV more seriously in State Parks that incorporated parts of the sixteen Forest Preserve counties in the Adirondack and Catskill Park regions.
An entire chapter could be devoted to Charlie Morrison’s diverse, persistent efforts to improve urban and natural resource planning in his hometown of Saratoga Springs. Calling themselves the Charlie Committee, in 2022 members of the Sierra Club, Protect the Adirondacks, and others gathered at his Saratoga Springs home to wish Charlie Morrison, at age 95, bon voyage, as he was moving to Seattle to be closer to members of his family. Many warm, some humorous, all heart-felt testimonials were given and tears shed in his presence that June day. While physically diminished, he was all there mentally. He said to us all: “I still have environmental work left to do – with my grandkids.”
Some of this post draws from a tribute to Charlie Morrison by Roger Gray and Tom Kligerman of the Sierra Club’s Adirondack group, Atlantic Chapter.
Photo at top: Charlie Morrison volunteers at a conference, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Photo by D. Gibson.