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By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

On The Idea Of An Adirondack Mountains National Park

On a fall Saturday afternoon in the early 1990s some friends and I met up with wilderness coalition leader Paul Schaefer (1908-1996) at his cabin. Deciding to spend the night with him at the cabin, we drove Paul into North Creek for something to eat. We tried the area’s hotel. One of the hotel staff took a look at Paul’s red plaid hunting jacket and asked him if could change into something more formal. At that, we turned heel and, walking across the street, the side bordering on the Hudson River, entered Smith’s restaurant. Paul was immediately comfortable, having eaten here many times. Someone greeted him, a fellow deer hunter who remembered him. We took a booth and Paul ordered a steak.

As we ate, Schaefer told us how, eating breakfast one morning at Smith’s restaurant in July 1967, he had picked up a copy of The New York Times. On that late July morning, Laurance Rockefeller’s proposal for an Adirondack Mountains National Park, submitted in a report with the official seal of New York State, was in that newspaper and many others.  The Times headline read: “Huge U.S. Park Urged in Adirondacks.”

Paul and Laurance Rockefeller, brother of the Governor and chairman of the New York State Council of Parks, were acquainted. Paul and Governor Nelson Rockefeller were, in fact, acquainted. Just the year prior the Governor had come to a state meeting of the New York State Conservation Council and presented Paul with the NYSCC’s 1966 conservation achievement award, a miniature carved bald eagle. In the mid-late 1960s Schaefer was at the center of a well-organized citizen campaign to preserve the upper Hudson River, its tributaries and towns like Newcomb from being flooded by the proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam to be called Big Gooley at the Blue Ledges, just below the Indian River confluence. Governor Rockefeller was very aware of this (ultimately successful) campaign to save the wild upper Hudson, and of Schaefer.

Paul told us he was stunned by the national park proposal. The plan for a national park within the central portion of the Adirondack Park was released by the Office of the Governor and proposed as consisting of 1.12 million acres owned by the state as part of the Forest Preserve and 600,000 adjoining acres owned by timber companies and other private landowners to be acquired over time for the national park. The approximate boundaries of the proposed national park would be Saranac Lakes/ Lake Placid/High Peaks to the north, the I-87 Northway to the east, Indian Lake to the south, and Fourth Lake/Stillwater Reservoir to the west. The Laurance Rockefeller plan excluded from federal acquisition Lake Placid and four other villages, Saranac Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Inlet, and Indian Lake, all envisioned to become the principal commercial service centers for the national park.

To quote the report, written for Laurance Rockefeller by former National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth, “the national park would include the best of the varied natural scenes and physiographic features that characterize the Adirondack Mountain region including the High Peaks.” According to a 1999 paper about the National Park proposal authored by Tom Cobb, park preserve manager with the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, “the primary rationale for the national park idea was to offer federal protection to the core area of the Adirondacks by consolidating ownership into a large single block of public land. It was also thought that a strengthened federal role would make the region more readily known and available to the 100 million people living in the northeastern United States. Findings of Laurence Rockefeller’s Council of Parks in 1966 concluded that “current state administrative policies and practices were inadequate, that the park concept competed with the forest preserve concept, and that the administrative structure of the Adirondacks urgently required attention. Conrad Wirth went so far as to suggest that the Adirondack Park in its present state existed only as a myth.”

Paul Schaefer told us that after reading the New York Times, full of conviction, he walked out of Smith’s restaurant that July morning of 1967 and went to the river. The Hudson River at North Creek must have been running low. Paul told us he found a rock in or near the river, sat down on it, pulled out a pen and, whether on the newspaper itself or a notepad or his breakfast napkin, wrote a letter to the New York Times which he later typed and submitted. While eating our supper at Smith’s restaurant he told us that his letter was the first of many to be published over the next few weeks, all speaking out against a national park.

I never asked Paul to see a copy of his New York Times letter. But thanks to Tom Cobb there is a record of it. Tom, a close colleague of Paul’s, park preserve manager at Minnewaska State Park Preserve and staff member with the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century, wrote a paper for a national parks conference hosted by the George Wright Society in Ashville, North Carolina titled “On the 1967 Proposal for an Adirondack Mountains National Park.” Ken Rimany, editor of the Forest Preserve magazine (published by The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks) reprinted Cobb’s paper – which included Paul Schaefer’s 1967 letter.

The Schaefer letter read “that even if many state conservation leaders espoused the proposal, the people as a whole would reject it. The reason for this is that the citizens of New York State have personally identified themselves with proprietary ownership of the State Forest Preserve. They have been involved in long, weary, expensive and yet successful battles to prevent exploitation of the Preserve and in public referendums registered such opposition with pluralities of more than a million votes. The people of our state feel themselves part and parcel of every acre of the Forest Preserve and will not transfer their personal ownership and control to any outside agency.”

Paul Schaefer’s letter to the editor in the New York Times was followed by others, including this one by former State Conservation Commissioner Lithgow Osborne: Osborne wrote “the real crux of the matter, however, lies in the character of the administration of Adirondack lands under Federal management. The National Park Service, despite many accomplishments, has been over-susceptible to the pressures of the highway builders, of those who conceive of parks as highly developed, semi-rural playgrounds and amusement centers, and also of those who hope for private profit from operating establishments for entertainment nearby…The issue is very clear. If New York State cedes to the Federal Government state-owned Forest Preserve lands, it is virtually certain that their wilderness character will be destroyed, sooner or later…Control of the area should remain where it is.”

Osborne’s letter was reprinted in a special 1967 report of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks which resolved that “we reject the plan of Laurance Rockefeller…as a solution to the mounting recreational pressures of the day and believe it would result in the eventual loss of the wilderness character of the area.” In her 1985 book The Forest Preserve: A Handbook for Conservationists, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, Eleanor Brown (later a member of the Adirondack Park Agency) wrote of the national park proposal “hunters were against it because of the ban on hunting in most national parks. The Conservation Department…argued that it would disrupt the lumber industry, dislocate much of the tourist industry, disturb the balance of nature, particularly for the deer because of the hunting prohibition, adversely affect state water resources, hamper commercial traffic through the park and affect property tax payments to park municipalities.”

In his classic The Adirondack Park: A Political History (Knopf, 1978) author Frank Graham, Jr. wrote of the national park plan, “as the national park proposal slid toward oblivion late in 1967, Laurance Rockefeller flew to Warrensburg to give a talk to the Adirondack Mountain Club. ‘The weather was bad, and the plane was late,’ recalled Henry L. Diamond, later a New York Conservation Commissioner, who accompanied Rockefeller. ‘The bar had been open for some time, and when we came in there was an audible growl.’ Rockefeller backed off a bit from the proposal during his talk. He implied that its true purpose was to stir some discussion of the park’s problems, that it was, in essence, a ‘trial balloon.’ Shortly afterward, the Conservation Department issued an unfavorable report on the plan and, officially, it was dead.”

For his 1999 paper delivered at the George Wright Society meeting Tom Cobb had interviewed a much older Laurance Rockefeller about his memories of the national park idea. Cobb wrote: “The suggestion that the idea for a national park in the Adirondacks was a political tactic to pave the way for the Adirondack Park Agency does not have a firm basis. Reflecting back on the original proposal, Laurance Rockefeller pointed out that “I always felt a little wistful that if Connie (Conrad) Wirth had not insisted on making it a Park over one million acres and instead had thought merely to protect the scenic mountain area, it might have successfully gone through.”

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild