The Adirondack Park: Where Wilderness Preservation Began
Submitted by David Gibson for Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

Dave Gibson

David Gibson - Roadside notes along Cascade Lake
© 2011 Ken Rimany

Adirondack and Catskill residents and a broad swath of our society here in the northeast and around the nation are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Because the Wilderness Act in the US has influenced similar efforts around the globe, the anniversary also has international significance. This national anniversary and its daily impact (109 million acres of US public land are now managed as Wilderness) has origins traceable to decisions made by 19th and 20th century New Yorkers to place public lands in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks within the ironclad protection of the New York State Constitution.  Here we cite examples or episodes showing how the Adirondacks heavily influenced wilderness preservation in America, and how wilderness in America has in turn influenced the Adirondacks.

New York State Forest Preserve
The mandate that public lands known as the Forest Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” under the NYS Constitution (1894) caught the nation’s attention right from the start. Our constitutional mandate was influenced by the growing conservation movement that yielded the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and creation of a federal office of forestry just a few years later, but mostly it was influenced by the public’s impatience with the unchecked commercial exploitation of Adirondack forests and wildlife that had accelerated every year after the Civil War.

Most thought the constitutional mandate to preserve the forest would be temporary, and that as “scientific forestry” advanced in the early 20th century the need for and popularity of such restrictive mandates on timbering and building roads through the public’s forest would retreat. On the other hand, New Yorkers determined to maintain constitutional safeguards were acutely conscious of its lack elsewhere, with striking results: the over-cutting of forests, loss of all older trees to commercial exploitation, extermination of wildlife predators, vast loss of soil and ruined rivers and tributaries, from Vermont, through the upper midwest, in the southwest, and even within our National Parks – Yosemite and Yellowstone.

NY’s Forever Wild clause was severely challenged by “scientific foresters” at the 1915 NYS Constitutional Convention, but New York City lawyer Louis Marshall, the top civil rights attorney and wilderness preservationist of his era, persuasively cited case after case why the timbermen and state’s administrators still could not be trusted with the public’s forest. The key section of Article 14 was upheld at that Convention, vigilant citizens and courageous administrators have enforced it ever since, and the article remains unchanged almost a century later despite regular threats to its integrity.

Conservation and Forever Wild Movements Gain Momentum
1932 presidential candidates Franklin Roosevelt and Al Smith, both governors of NYS, tested the wisdom of New York’s “forever wild” Constitution in a national debate. At the outset of the Great Depression and Dustbowl, New Yorkers passed an amendment to the State’s Constitution that permitted state lands outside of the Adirondack Park to be lumbered and reforested in order to create jobs through tree-planting, soil and water conservation and the practice of silviculture. At the same time, the size of the Adirondack Park was increased by a million acres to reach its natural geological boundaries, thus maintaining and greatly increasing in size constitutionally protected forests within the Park where trees shall not “be sold, removed or destroyed.” The architect of this legislation was none other than Paul Schaefer’s mentor John Apperson of Schenectady, NY. This legislative compromise at the intersection of forest and soil and watershed conservation and public employment was hotly debated on the campaign trail around the country, and influenced President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, Soil Conservation Service, and expansion of the National Park System.

Wilderness Visionaries
Louis and Florence Marshall bore Bob Marshall, Jim Marshall and George Marshall, who grew up in the Adirondacks and who played such vital roles in the 1935 formation, support and later ecological understanding undergirding The Wilderness Society. Meanwhile, hunter, fisher, photographer and early American homebuilder Paul Schaefer was rapidly growing into New York’s most influential coalition leader for wilderness conditions. Influenced by John Apperson of Schenectady, NY, on July 15, 1932 Schaefer stood on top of Mount Marcy photographing forest fire raging amidst the logging slash on nearby Mt. Adams (then still in private forest ownership) when he met Bob Marshall by chance.

Paul divulged to Bob the threat to the Forest Preserve from commercial cabins proposed on the fall ballot, and both men could plainly see the forest fire in front of them resulting from another form of exploitation. Bob famously exclaimed to Paul: “We simply must band together – all of us who love the wilderness. We must fight together wherever and whenever wilderness is attacked. We must mobilize all of our resources, all of our energies, all our devotion to wilderness. To fail to do this is to permit the American wilderness to be destroyed.” The formation of The Wilderness Society three years later was no doubt influenced by Marshall’s experiences that day and on many other peaks in the Adirondack Park, and by his career in the US Forest Service and Office of Indian Affairs.

Bob served first as the Assistant Silviculturist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Experiment Station from 1925-1928 before engaging in exploration, ecological studies, and anthropological research in northern Alaska from 1929-1931. From 1933-1937 Marshall served as Director of Forestry, Office of Indian Affairs, for the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1937 Marshall was appointed Chief of Division of Recreation and Lands, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, the position he held at the time of his death in 1939.

Friends of the Forest Preserve
After Bob Marshall’s sudden death in 1939, Paul Schaefer met Bob’s brother George Marshall who brought to Paul’s attention several large dams planned for the South Branch of the Moose River in the SW Adirondack Park. Paul investigated, and launched a ten-year campaign to save this wild valley, or “plains” from inundation for hydropower. In 1945, he and others took a film of the Moose River Plains to the annual National Wildlife Conference in New York City. In the audience was Howard Zahniser, newly hired executive secretary of The Wilderness Society. Zahnie pledged his complete support for the campaign to preserve the Moose River Plains, and understood the precedent these dams would set. At least fifteen other Adirondack river valleys were under consideration for dam projects.

Paul needed an umbrella organization to defend this wild river valley and dozens of others, and to persuade Governors and Legislatures to buy additional Forest Preserve and later to classify some of that land as Wilderness. That organization became Friends of the Forest Preserve launched in 1945. Today, that organization is Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

Zahniser in the Adirondacks
After seeing the Moose River film, Howard Zahniser decided to investigate the Adirondack Park with Paul Schaefer and Ed Richard as his guides. Their August 1946 climb went through the High Peaks, from Heart Lake to the Flowed Lands and down the Opalescent River. Zahnie was overwhelmed with the wildness of this country and told Paul at their Flowed Lands lean-to: “I’ve been trying to make a comparison of this view to some other ones I know, but there’s nothing else I’ve seen quite like it. It has the same kind of perfection I have sensed when looking at the Grand Teton. So this was Bob Marshall’s country. No wonder he loved it so.”

Then he and Paul began their lengthy discussions of the relevancy of New York’s Article 14 to the national situation. Paul recalls Zahnie saying: “In addition to such protection as national parks and monuments are now given, we need some strong legislation which will be similar in effect on a national scale to what Article XIV, Section 1, is to the New York State Forest Preserve. We need to reclaim for the people, perhaps through their representatives in Congress, control over the wilderness regions of America.” It took 18 years of Zahniser’s life as chief lobbyist for the bill, and 66 drafts of the legislation before The Wilderness Act of September 3, 1964 was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

A short time after they left the High Peaks in 1946, Zahnie bought a small cabin in the Adirondacks near the Siamese Ponds Wilderness just above the slope where Paul’s cabin was located. Paul secured it for Zahnie with a $10 bill he gave the seller as a deposit, and a promise the rest would be forthcoming shortly. Once purchased, this Adirondack cabin gave Zahnie the rest, wilderness setting, inspiration and distance from Washington he needed to relax with his family and consider and probably draft key language in the evolving Wilderness bill. The cabin remains in the family to this day. It not only stands as a landmark appreciated by the family and people in this Adirondack Township, but by national wilderness stalwarts who consider a visit to the cabin a pilgrimage. A number of national wilderness figures visit the Schaefer and Zahniser cabins: for example, in 1999 during The Wilderness Society’s Adirondack meeting and 2004 during the 40th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act conference at Lake George.

The Adirondacks on the Global Stage
One of best chroniclers of the Adirondacks as the region that has historically led the way in the establishment and management of Wilderness is George Davis. Davis was the first professional planner for the newly formed NYS Adirondack Park Agency, and helped delineate and author our earliest Wilderness guidelines, maps and plans in 1972. He left the region to work for the Forest Service and study roadless areas, Wilderness conditions and designations on these vast national holdings. In 1980, Paul Schaefer produced a film, The Adirondack- The Land Nobody Knows, whose footage and narration were so compelling it persuaded Davis to move back to the Adirondack Park and make it his home for the next seventeen years. He won a McArthur Genius Award in 1989, in part on the recommendation of Paul Schaefer, and used the award to transport the principles and techniques of the Adirondack Land Use Plan, including its Constitution and Wilderness studies, to the magnificent Lake Baikal watershed and other parts of Asia and Russia. Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild’s staff Partner, helped Davis and now continues the work of Adirondack-Buryat-Mongolian International and Cultural Exchange.

Truly, the Adirondack Park and Article XIV of the NYS Constitution are now playing out on not just a national but a global stage (Wilderness: New York Sets a Global Stage by George D. Davis, in Where Wilderness Preservation Began, Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser (Ed Zahniser, Ed.), 1992 by North Country Books, Utica, NY).

Wilderness Celebration
The staff of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve were mentored by Paul Schaefer from 1985-1996. They not only have this personal knowledge of Paul and his history, but also access to the Schaefer wilderness archive at the Adirondack Research Library in Niskayuna (now the Kelly Adirondack Center, a part of Union College). During 2014 Adirondack Wild is a leading regional collaborator for the NYS Wilderness 50th Anniversary. Together with our Steering Committee partners, activities and events are in the planning stages. We invite you to follow news and events at www.adirondackwild.org.

Selected Bibliography

  • Angus, Christopher. 2002. The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty: Wilderness Guide, Pilot, and Conservationist. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Bergon, Frank (ed.). 1980. The Wilderness Reader. New York, NY: New American Library.
  • Brown, Eleanor. 1985. The Forest Preserve of New York State: A Handbook for Conservationists. Glens Falls, NY: The Adirondack Mountain Club.
  • Brown, Phil (editor). 2006. Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks: Writings of a Pioneering Peak-Bagger, Pond-Hopper and Wilderness Preservationist. Saranac Lake, NY: Lost Pond Press.
  • Cordell, H.K., Bergstrom, J.C., and Bowker, J.M. 2005. The multiple values of wilderness. State College, Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, Inc.
  • Glover, James M. 1986. A Wilderness Original: The Life Of Bob Marshall. Seattle, WA : Mountaineers.
  • Harvey, M. 2005. Wilderness forever: Howard Zahniser and the path to the Wilderness Act. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  • Harvey, Mark (editor). 2014. The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
    Jamieson, Paul (editor). 1986. The Adirondack Reader. Glens Falls, NY: The Adirondack Mountain Club.
  • Klyza, Christopher McGrory (ed.). 2001.  Wilderness Come Home: Rewilding the Northeast. Hanover, NH: Middlebury College Press.
  • La Bastille, Anne. 1976. Woodswomen. New York, NY: Dutton.
  • Nash, Roderick. 2001. Wilderness and the American Mind. Fourth Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Porter, W.F., J.D. Erickson and R.S. Whaley. 2009. The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Schaefer, Paul. 1989. Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Schneider, Paul. 1997. The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.
  • Terrie, Philip G. 1994. Forever Wild: A Cultural History of Wilderness in the Adirondacks. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
  • Zahniser, Ed (editor). 1992. Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings Of Howard Zahniser.Utica, NY: North Country Books.

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OVERVIEW: New York State is where wilderness preservation began in America read more >
Guidelines and Suggestions for NY State Wilderness 50th Anniversary Celebrations read more >
The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act
read more >
The Adirondack Park: Where Wilderness Preservation Began read more >
Celebration of 50 Years of Wilderness Protection read more >

Archives for Wilderness 50th Celebration











The mission of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is to advance New York’s ‘Forever Wild’ legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promote public and private land stewardship that is consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research.

Top left, Raven flying over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo © Ken Rimany

Peter Brinkley, Honorary Chair
Terry Jandreau, Chair
Kenneth J. Rimany, Partner
David H. Gibson, Managing Partner
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