2. Before 1895: Discovering Nature
Fate of the Forests
The first real victory for the environmental movement in New York was hard-fought, and the environmentalists won mainly because of support from business leaders. It was a legislative victory that protected large areas from logging and development, but a partial one: nine more years passed before the law was placed above politics and enforced, and many of the protected lands had already been logged. Yet the creation of the State Forest Preserve was significant in several ways. It was the first time several diverse groups came together to pass environmental legislation at the state level. It was one of the first times that state law-makers were persuaded by the opinions of naturalists and scientists. Most significant, it established the precedent that protecting water, soil, and timber resources were public goals that could override private property rights.
In the 1870s, old-growth timber lands owned by New York State were being sold to loggers for 70 cents an acre, and the state paid a bounty to hunters who brought in the skulls of wolves and panthers. Yet there were signs that these policies had gone on too long. Commercial-grade white pine, the most prized of lumber woods, was nearly gone by 1870. Spruce was being cut rapidly, and the bark of old-growth hemlock trees was being stripped for use in tanning factories, causing the deaths of the trees. In the eastern Adirondacks, the voracious need of iron smelters for fuel led to ruinous clear-cutting. As the paper industry gradually shifted its raw material from rags to wood pulp, more land was clear-cut. The state led the nation in the production of lumber in 1850, but over-cutting and fires caused it to drop to fourth place in 1880 and seventeenth place by 1900.
The first call to preserve the north woods came from Samuel Hammond, an Albany lawyer whose annual camping trips into the Adirondacks began in the 1840s. In 1857, decrying the "greed for progress" that measured all things in terms of economic value, Hammond said that he would "mark out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter, and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution." The land, he said, would be best kept as "a forest forever."
Hammonds view was typical of urban visitors to the north woods who expected pristine wilderness but found something very different. Seven years later, the call for some kind of regulation of Adirondack lands came from the heart of the Manhattan establishment. An editorial in the August 9, 1864 New York Times commented on the planned rail link from Saratoga to North Creek by saying, "the Adirondack region will become a suburb of New York. The furnaces of our capitalists will line its valleys and create new fortunes to swell the aggregate of our wealth, while the hunting lodges of our citizens will adorn its more remote mountain sides and the wooded islands of its delightful lakes. It will become, to our whole community, on an ample scale, what Central Park is on a limited one..." The Times continued by exhorting New Yorkers to "form combinations, and seizing upon the choicest of the Adirondack Mountains, before they are despoiled of their forests, make of them grand parks, owned in common..."
The Times editorial had a significant effect, and the public started to talk about a park. Yet the Times had endorsed the development of the Adirondacks as a multi-use region, not as a preserve marked "forever wild" in the state constitution. The journey to "forever wild" took thirty years, with many twists and strange turns along the way.
When the editorial ran, the only state agency dealing with natural resources was the New York State Land Commission, which had been established in 1779 to sell off excess property. The states first purchase of land did not happen until 1866, when it bought 700 acres of timber in Clinton County to ensure a supply of wood for the prison system. Land was added to the states holdings regularly, however, when it was reclaimed because of unpaid taxes. Most of the tax-delinquent land had been abandoned after logging for choice species such as white pine and spruce. Often the "cut-over" state lands retained a lot of timber, and hunters and trappers roamed freely between public and private land. As the years went by and logging accelerated, more lands were left to the state.
Tourism to the north woods increased sharply in the 1860s and 1870s, as the editorial had predicted, and sections of the mountains became pleasure grounds for the gentry. Typical of these visitors were the Roosevelts, who first made the trip from their Long Island mansion to Paul Smiths Hotel in 1871. In his journal of that summer, 12-year-old Theodore Roosevelt wrote that he fell asleep while his father read aloud from The Last of the Mohicans by the light of a campfire.
In the spirit of excess that was the Gilded Age, wealthy summer visitors demanded more and more from their Adirondack properties. They were served by William West Durant, son of a wealthy Adirondack landowner and railroad builder, who created a new architectural style. In 1876, Durant built the first "great camp" at Pine Knot, beginning a style of grand residences made of rustic materials like whole logs and native stone. Year-round residents were often employed as laborers and guides, thereby fueling the mythology of Adirondack craft-makers and woodsmen. The locals also worked in great inns like the 1882 Prospect House at Blue Mountain Lake, the first hotel in the world to provide electric lights in every room.
The north woods of New York were being used more extensively by many different groups, and concerns grew that ordinary citizens were losing a birthright. These concerns sharpened when consortiums of wealthy men began buying huge tracts of scenic land. In 1876, the Adirondack Club purchased several mountains, lakes, and valleys in the vicinity of Mount Marcy. Over the next two decades, other large purchases by groups like the Adirondack Mountain Reserve and the Adirondack League Club raised the prospect that wilderness recreation might soon become a pastime only for the rich.
Also in the 1870s, mainstream New Yorkers noticed that unregulated private land uses could create significant public nuisances. In 1872 and other years, cinders from passing railroads ignited the accumulated brush from recently logged lands, causing huge fires. White-tailed deer, bear, and beaver were being exterminated in all but the most remote areas. Also, a drought cycle that peaked in 1883 created the popular impression that fires, erosion, and logging were drying up the land, just as George Perkins Marsh had warned in Man And Nature. Marsh made a crucial connection when he argued that a societys economic growth depended on the protection of its wild land, and his book became a staple for preservationists.
One of the most persuasive voices for protection was Verplanck Colvin, a flamboyant surveyor who produced the first maps and detailed descriptions of various Adirondack peaks. Borrowing from Marsh, Colvin liked to refer to the north woods as a "hanging sponge." In an 1872 speech to the Albany Institute, Colvin said, "It has been proposed that the state reserve this region as a Wilderness Park for sportsmen, but that it a slight matter in comparison with the reservation of it as a timber preserve, and as the grand reservoir region of the cities of the valley of the Hudson."
The water argument was to prove decisive to the parks creation. In the mid-Nineteenth Century, freight traffic through the Erie Canal may have been the most important reason for New York States dominance of the North American economy. Without enough fresh water to float barges through the canal and Hudson, New York City would falter -- as it did, briefly, when water levels dropped dangerously in 1883. Even more important was ensuring clean drinking water for the expanding metropolis. Manhattan had drawn water from the Croton River through aqueducts since 1866 and had long-range plans to look even further upstate. Yet neighboring cities had to depend on increasingly uncertain sources. By the end of the century, Brooklyn was running out of fresh water. Access to Manhattans aqueduct was one of the factors that lead the five boroughs to merge, creating the present boundaries of New York City in 1896.
Thanks to the water issue, the chorus of nature tourists, naturalists, and physicians who supported the Adirondack Park was joined by a powerful fourth presence: the state Chamber of Commerce. In 1883, the Chambers President was Morris Jesup, an ardent naturalist and social reformer who was also the President of the American Museum of Natural History. At a meeting late in the year, Jesup proposed that the state use its power of eminent domain to set aside "perhaps 4,000,000 acres . . . for all time as a great forest preserve." Money talks. A law establishing the State Forest Preserve was passed within 18 months.