3. 1895 to 1970: The Conservation Era
Robert Moses and Franklin Roosevelt
Before 1925, public land in New York meant the Adirondacks and the Catskills. The state owned 19 small parks outside the Forest Preserve, and one 1,000-acre tract in the gorge of the Genesee River. The parks offered few public services, all of them were west of the Hudson River, and most had been donated. Buffalo financier William Letchworth had purchased and donated the Genesee property, for example. The Treman family of Ithaca bankers purchased and donated Enfield Glen.
Independent boards ran the parks on small budgets, without support from the state, but parks had few needs before the age of automobile tourism. Most of them were really undeveloped preserves, such as the open land around the American side of Niagara Falls, or historic sites, like the Revolutionary War battlefield near Saratoga. It couldnt be more different today: in 2000, the New York State Park system served 65 million visitors to 152 parks and more than 100 historic sites, beaches, swimming pools, golf courses, and nature centers.
The changes began in 1923, when Robert Moses wrote and released a comprehensive plan for state park development. They were set in motion in 1924, when Robert Moses led a successful campaign to pass a $15 million bond act. Then a strong State Parks Commissioner Robert Moses shoved the philanthropists aside and built the system he had imagined.
Robert Moses probably did more than any other single person to change the landscape of New York. Between 1924 and 1968, he headed dozens of appointed commissions and authorities that built dams, bridges, highways, and parks. He changed the courses of the St. Lawrence and Niagara Rivers. He filled in thousands of acres of marshland around New York City and filled the new lands with houses and roads. He created 27,000 acres of parks in New York City and Long Island alone, starting with Jones Beach, the largest public beach in the world, in 1926.
Governor Al Smith appointed Moses the executive director of the State Council of Parks in January 1927, giving him broad authority over the once- independent park organizations. Moses state park building program proved enormously popular with voters because Moses understood the aspirations of the new middle class. He built parkways from New York and other urban centers to Jones Beach and other playgrounds, and he took pains to see that they were pleasant places for a weekend drive. The parks offered amusements that went far beyond hiking or sightseeing. Jones Beach had an amphitheater for concerts, and many rebuilt state parks included swimming places, tennis courts, golf courses, and cabins.
Robert Moses was secure enough and successful enough that in 1928, newly elected governor Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly re-appointed him. When the Great Depression engulfed the state, inexpensive state park vacations became more popular than ever. Moses kept his position as State Parks Commissioner, but he also directed programs in New York City that used unemployed men to build more parks and playgrounds.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in 1882 and raised on an estate in Hyde Park overlooking the Hudson River. Like his distant cousin Theodore, Franklin was an outdoor explorer with signifiacnt physical weaknesses and a strong spiritual attachment to nature; even as President, he spent time designing and ordering new plantings at Hyde Park.
Park-building was popular with the wealthy, who favored preservation; with the middle class, who sought outdoor recreation; and with the poor, who needed affordable ways to escape form the city. This lesson was not lost on Roosevelt when he was elected President. One of the earliest and most popular New Deal programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired 3 million young men to complete roads, trails, and buildings in parks all over the country. In Ithaca, unemployed masons built artful stone walkways through Enfield Glen and Watkins Glen, making them at once easier to visit and more beautiful. By the time the Depression ended, a vast system of public recreational facilities had become an institution in New York and many other states.
The Depression also caused thousands of acres of privately owned land in New York to revert to state and federal government. Agriculture in New York had been in a slow decline since 1890, as exhausted soils and better transportation favored farming in the Midwest and South. The number of acres in farms peaked in 1900 at 22.6 million and then declined steadily. Farming in New York collapsed between 1920 and 1930, with the number of cultivated acres declining 13 percent. As the agricultural crisis deepened in the 1930s, Roosevelt moved quickly to provide relief. Federal laws established a Resettlement Administration that would buy marginal farmland and move its former owners to better land or other jobs. Between 1938 and 1941, about 16,000 acres of failing farmland was purchased along the high rocky ridge that separates Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. In 1985 this land was re-named the Finger Lakes National Forest, and it is the only unit of the US Forest Service in the state.
Other Federal Laws in 1929 and 1934 enabled Washington to buy migratory bird habitat and regulate hunting on those lands. The expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge system was also a conservation measure, as wetlands not suitable for farming were being filled and plowed by desperate farmers. The government acquired almost 7,900 acres at the north end of Cayuga Lake to create the Montezuma refuge, and more than 10,800 acres of muckland near Batavia became the Iroquois refuge. In 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service manages 13 refuges in New York that cover more than 28,000 acres.
New York State began acquiring land outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Preserves in the early 1900s, taking up more of the slack left by the long-term contraction of New York agricultural land. The number of acres in cultivation in New York in 1970 was 10.1 million, less than half the acreage of 1900. In 1990, the acreage total had declined even further, to 8.4 million. Agriculture remains important to the states economy because the land remaining in cultivation is highly fertile. But millions of acres of former farms have reverted to forests, and nearly 700,000 of those acres were purchased and converted to forest by the state. State Forests, like National Forests, are managed as "multiple use" facilities; unlike the Preserves, they allow logging and grazing with hunting and hiking.
Since the middle of the century, New Yorks public lands have been managed according to three different philosophies. Gifford Pinchots conservation ideal of maximum sustained production is the rule in the state forests. The recreational vision of Robert Moses still governs the state park system. And in the Adirondacks and Catskills, great public reserves of untouchable open land reflect the Roosevelt cousins patrician love of the wild.