NY's Adirondack Park Celebrates 100 Years

Increasing pressures to develop privately owned parcels challenge largest US state park

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR much of a 10-mile stretch along Route 9N inside New York State's Adirondack Park, it is hard even to get a glimpse of beautiful Lake George. Motels, fast-food outlets, and condominiums line the road from one hamlet to the next.

Yet just past Bolton's Landing, the scenery changes abruptly. The buildings disappear, and you feel you are in the most remote of forests and lake country. The Adirondack Park, which celebrates its centennial anniversary this week, is an unusual checkerboard mix of sometimes intensively developed private property - accounting for almost two-thirds of the six-million-acre park - and pristine public forest that by state law must remain "forever wild."

The park is the largest in the United States outside of Alaska, and until now its private-public land combination has worked reasonably well.

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Yet many environmentalists and park residents say the ownership mix and current tough economic conditions now make the park uniquely vulnerable. Tighter development controls are urgently needed on private land, they say, particularly along shorelines and on large open tracts, which timber companies and other owners now want to subdivide and sell.

"What happens on the private land ... in this crazy, quilt-like pattern of the park ... has a dramatic and sometimes devastating effect on the surrounding public land," says Eric Siy, director of the National Audubon Society's Adirondacks Campaign. He says the close to 80,000 homes now in the park will increase by 100,000 over the next 100 years if current trends continue.

"We're losing the park right before our eyes," Mr. Siy insists. "It's absolutely that serious."

"The recession really did the park no favors," notes John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondacks Council, a local preservation group. "It's put so much pressure on property owners to subdivide or sell off natural resources on their property."

In Westport along Lake Champlain where Mr. Sheehan lives, a developer has bought all the surrounding agricultural land and a huge condominium complex is being built.

The challenge is to strike a reasonable balance between preserving the best of nature and nurturing economic development in a region that has relied for years on timber and tourism for its livelihood.

Many Adirondackers say extremism on both sides for years has led to a deadlock. No measures have passed the legislature since former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller pushed through a density-control bill 20 years ago.

Environmentalists and state regulators say real-estate and home-rule interests virtually torpedoed the zoning controls and stepped-up public land acquisition urged in 1990 by the Governor's Commission on the Adirondack Park in the 21st Century.

"The report had a number of hot buttons in it ... and several property-rights groups were poised and waiting," recalls Robert Glennon, executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the state group charged with overseeing any development with regional implications on private park land.

"People thought there were all kinds of state plans to take their land and tell them what color to paint their houses," he says. "The report was certainly released into a hostile atmosphere."

Some landowners blame Mr. Glennon's ecological watchdog agency directly for the region's economic problems. Over the years his office in Ray Brook, N.Y., has withstood harassment that included everything from an unsuccessful arson attempt to the dumping of horse manure outside the front door.

"Developers would rather we weren't around and I'm glad they feel that way," he says. "We're doing our job."

THE Adirondack Park Agency needs a more democratic administration and should work more closely with local governments, says Robert Flacke, a former APA chairman and owner of the Fort Henry Motor Inn here in the village of Lake George.

"It's essentially a rogue agency making its own law," he insists. "The thing that's most needed is for the 130,000 people who live in the park to become part of the process. If you think you can run a large regional zoning agency without the cooperation of the people who live here, you're crazy."

One new group that believes strongly in the involvement of local citizens and governments in park planning is the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, a two-year-old grass-roots group of 1,400 members. The group wants to protect the park but also to promote selective, positive economic development within it. APA director Glennon calls the group the most significant political development in the Adirondacks in 20 years.

"We feel a lot of the answers to the problem of what's happening on the park's private land could be solved by local government and local planning," says Dan Ling, the committee's red-bearded executive director. "Unfortunately they're not solving them. Therefore we think the state has a legitimate interest and right to try to do something. Once a vast area is subdivided and developed, it's forever. There's no going back."

The Adirondacks Council also recently stretched its traditional role to successfully lobby the APA for approval of an economic development project in the northeast section of the park.

"Our organization is not opposed to development per se," explains Gary Randorf, past executive director of the Council and now a part-time staffer. "We're concerned about the density and where development is placed.... If it's not done carefully and in the right place, it ends up costing localities more money than the tax revenues that are generated."

Despite such signs of growing moderation, it is by no means clear that a new legislative effort to tighten controls on private land development in the Adirondacks will succeed. New York's Democratic-controlled Assembly favors the move. The GOP-led Senate is unenthusiastic.

Virtually everyone agrees that stronger measures to protect shorelines, omitted in the 1971 Rockefeller legislation as part of a political compromise, are needed.

"I think if there's any consensus, it's that shorelines then were bequeathed to developers on a silver platter," says Glennon.

Beyond that, however, there is little agreement. Mr. Flacke, for instance, insists that no one footage figure from the shore for allowable construction should apply to every body of water in the park. The subject needs much further study, he says.

Yet the Residents' Committee's director Ling, who spent much of his time hiking, canoeing, and fishing in the Adirondacks as he was growing up, says that widespread development in many of the areas since then includes an "ugly" metal boat house built on Indian Lake, just where he used to put his canoe into the water. "That whole part of the lake is now completely transformed visually - just from one person doing that," he says. "There is no control - it's really a shame."

But Ling says he is optimistic that a "new era" is beginning in the Adirondacks Park. "I think people are communicating more, and there's going to be a lot more shared decision-making.... It's time we looked at issues constructively to see where we all stand rather than simply throwing insults at each other.... It's been so polarized and politicized that solutions were really not possible."

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