4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
A politician who wants to dodge a problem often appoints a commission to study the problem and release a report. In 1968, Nelson Rockefeller appointed the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. The problem was the use of privately owned land within the blue line, which comprises the majority of the Park. Development pressure was increasing. In 1967, the Great Northern Corporation began selling a subdivision of 300 building lots near Indian Lake, with some lots as small as one-quarter of an acre. The Governors brother, Laurence Rockefeller, had already proposed turning the core of the state Park into a National Park, with the tacit assumption that land outside the National Park would be developed with no special requirements. The National Park proposal did not fly, but it got people excited and in the Adirondacks, it re-opened old wounds about the relationship between state government, old money, and working people who live on the land.
Regulating the private land in a public park was a mess that could have been solved in 1894, when the park was created, or 1915, when it was reaffirmed. But politicians sidestepped the problem then. Rockefeller might also have been sidestepping it in 1968. But if he was, he had misjudged Harold Hochschild.
Hochschild was a millionaire businessman whose family had owned a great camp on Blue Mountain Lake since 1904. He later became the founder and main benefactor of the Adirondack Museum, one of the nations finest regional museums, also in Blue Mountain Lake. He was appointed to the study commission in 1968, and things went as expected, with little action, until he assumed the Chairmans position in 1970. Rockefeller asked the Commission to recommend ways to assure that development on private land [within the blue line] is consistent with the long-range well-being of the area." Their report, released in December 1970, pulled no punches. "Unguided development on the 3,500,000 acres of private land will destroy the character of the entire Park if immediate action is not taken." The commission recommended further expansion of the Parks boundaries, to more than 5.9 million acres, and it also recommended that the legislature establish an Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to develop regional zoning for private land.
The Hochschild commission report fell squarely within the tradition of wealthy landowners defending an unspoiled landscape from entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, the despoilers were loggers and railroad men; in the 20th and 21st century, they are housing developers. Small businesses and local workers complained that the report did not represent their interests, but it was a compelling argument outside the Blue Line. In June 1971, Rockefellers bill that established the APA was passed into law. Rockefeller approved the Agencys master plan for state-owned land in 1972. In 1973, just before he left to become Vice-President, Rockefeller approved the agencys Private Land Use and Development Plan.
The Private Land plan color-coded every acre of land within the blue line and assigned it a permissible level of development. In most of the private land (53 percent), no more than ten housing units per square mile could be built, on an average lot size of 64 acres. The overall goal was to protect the parks character as a forested place. The immediate outcome was outrage from local landowners that felt that their rights had been stolen. In 1975, speakers at rallies held by the League for Adirondack Citizens Rights called the APA a "fascist bureaucracy" and burned Agency members in effigy.
The long tradition of local opposition to state control the Adirondacks has continued unabated since the mid-Nineteenth Century. It flared up again during the formation of the APA, and continues into the present day. In December 1989, when the DEC closed the road to Crane Pond, local residents removed the barriers to re-gain access to their traditional fishing spots. When environmentalists tried to put the barriers back in place, a scuffle broke out that was broadcast nationally on the program "60 Minutes."
The APA did put regulations in place that controlled some housing development in the Adirondacks. But through the 1970s and 1980s, conservationists warned that developments perfectly legal under the APA guidelines were still eroding the forested character of the park. In 1989, after a powerful article in the New York Times called attention to the Adirondack building boom, Governor Cuomo appointed a new commission, called the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century, to revisit the problem. In 1990, the commission reiterated what Hochschild had said twenty years earlier: that development was threatening the character of the Park. This time, opposition to the report became the rallying cry for those who believed in home rule for the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Fairness Commission, funded by local businesses, claimed that evidence of a crisis had been fabricated. The Adirondack Solidarity Alliance organized a "freedom drive" that created gridlock on the Northway. The report was dead on arrival, and housing development continued in the Adirondacks through the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the state pursued opportunities to add large sections of the Park to its holdings through acquisitions and easements. In 1998, the state purchased 14,800 acres of prime lake country, including Little Tupper Lake, from the Whitney family for more than $100 million. Several other large parcels are under consideration in 2000. The Sierra Club and other groups are promoting the idea of a Great Oswegatchie Wilderness, a 400,000-acre swath of state land in the western central part of the park. The vision of a great unbroken forest lives on.