2. Before 1895: Discovering Nature
The Forest Preserved
As supplies of wood, wildlife, and water ran low, the state began investigating what it would take to sustain them. In 1862, the Morrill Act enabled states to sell public lands to finance land-grant universities, which were to teach agriculture and the mechanical arts. Cornell University was established as New Yorks land-grant college in 1865, and it quickly became a national center for the study of forestry and the natural sciences. In 1868, the state established a Fisheries Commission to study the impact of logging on fish and water supplies. And in 1872, the state created a Commission of State Parks and asked its members to evaluate the idea of a large public park in the north woods.
One of the Commissioners was Verplanck Colvin. Another was Franklin B. Hough of Lowville, the first native-born American forester. Hough was a renaissance man -- a country doctor, historian, and naturalist who also directed the state census in 1865 and the federal census in 1870. Houghs study of lumber statistics convinced him that the state faced disaster, and he became interested in the scientific work of foresters in Europe. In 1873, the Commissions report combined Colvins prose with the ideas of Marsh and Hough. They recommended a park that would be managed not as wilderness but as a working forest, with controlled logging and replanting. Although the report was initially ignored by the legislature, Colvin took its conclusions to various groups and relentlessly lobbied the public for support.
Meanwhile, Hough patiently worked from the inside. He sought state protection of forests at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1873, and the AAAS responded by appointing him chair of a committee for forest protection. Three years later, Hough was appointed the first Forestry Agent of the US Department of Agriculture. He completed an influential Report Upon Forestry in 1877 and published the first guide for American landowners, The Elements of Forestry, in 1885.
Slowly the tide began to turn toward protection. After a decade of debate and continued logging, the State Legislature prohibited the further sale of state lands in ten Adirondack counties in 1883. Also in that year, Governor Grover Cleveland and the Legislature established the Niagara Reservation. The land around Niagara Falls was purchased by the state and reserved from private development in 1885, creating New Yorks first state park.
Early in 1884, after a vigorous campaign by Morris Jesup and the Chamber of Commerce, the State Legislature established a commission to "investigate and report on a system of forest preservation." The head of the commission was Charles Sargent, a Harvard professor and early advocate of scientific forestry. Sargent was doubtful that the state could manage the north woods well, and favored a policy of preservation while the forests recovered. His Commission proposed a law creating a forest preserve in 1885.
By this time, the press was regularly publishing accounts of a landscape being utterly destroyed by relentless logging. Two engravings published in Harpers Weekly on December 6, 1884 were typical: one showed a rushing mountain stream protected by towering trees and captioned, "A Feeder of the Hudson -- As it Was." Next to it was a dry streambed straddling slopes of charred stumps and captioned, "A Feeder of the Hudson - As It Is." Accompanying the illustrations was an article by Sargent warning that continued logging would reduce the Adirondacks "to the condition of a desert." Opposition to the park was strong among upstate loggers and farmers. Grover Cleveland also opposed the law, claiming that the land would revert to the state anyway after it was logged. But scientific, social welfare, and business interests were allied, and New York City was solidly in favor of the bill.
On May 15, 1885, the Adirondack And Catskill Forest Preserves were signed into law by Governor David B. Hill. The legislation provided for a three-member Forest Commission, hired wardens, required railroads to take actions to prevent fires, and stipulated that the state would pay the taxes on Forest Preserve lands that were due to local governments. Following Sargents recommendation, the law also said that "All the lands now owned or which may hereafter be acquired by the State of New York . . . shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be sold, nor shall they be leased or taken by any person or corporation, public or private."
But the law proved hollow. Logging continued, wardens were routinely ignored, and private clubs continued to buy land at inflated prices. Forest Commissioner Theodore Basselin, a Lewis County lumber baron, even used his position to exclude lands he owned from the park, creating a series of scandals that seemingly confirmed Sargents fears.
Even an important environmental advance sometimes happens for mercenary reasons, and this was the case in the Catskill Forest. The Sargent Commissions 57-page report dismissed the entire region in a single paragraph and recommended against adding it to the Preserve. But Cornelius Hardenburgh, an assemblyman from Ulster County, deftly put about 34,000 county-owned acres in his district into the package just before Governor Hill signed the bill. Hardenburgh was not a conservationist, but he was an ardent opponent of taxes, and Ulster County had owed $40,000 in taxes to the state for those acres. His move wiped out the debt, created a perpetual revenue source for Ulster County, and -- as an afterthought -- began a park that now encompasses more than 1,100 square miles.
The decree said that the new Forest Preserve was "wild land," but it took a decade for cultural and political changes to catch up to the law. The new Adirondack Preserve was 681,374 acres widely scattered over eleven counties, and many of those acres had already been logged. Private lands in the region were unaffected by the law, and logging there reached a peak between 1890 and 1910. The new frenzy for logging was due to a technological innovation: the substitution of wood pulp for rags in paper-making. Almost any kind of tree could make pulp, so lands that had recently been harvested for hardwood were logged again for spruce and other species, often leaving little behind. Timber corporations and wealthy sportsmen continued to consolidate their holdings, so that more and more land was owned by fewer and fewer people. And the railroads were pushing further and further into the forest, opening the most remote areas to development. It became clear that the Forest Preserve law had not saved the Adirondacks.
In Washington, important moves were being made toward large-scale public ownership. Congress empowered the President to establish forest preserves in public lands in 1891, and Benjamin Harrison immediately set aside 13 million acres of public land in the West. Slowly, New York began putting teeth into the Preserve law. The legislature appropriated $25,000 for land acquisition in 1890, and Governor Hill directed the Forest Commission to recommend the boundaries of an Adirondack wilderness park. Two years later, Gov. Roswell P. Flower signed the Adirondack Park Enabling Act, placing 2.8 million acres within an imaginary "blue line," of which 551,000 acres were owned by the state and "forever reserved . . . for the free use of all the people."
In the next legislative session, a law was passed that allowed the state to sell lumber from its land, and legislators were excited by this long-term revenue source. In 1894, the state sold timber rights to 17,500 acres of spruce on public land, netting about $53,000. But loggers on state land were often sloppy and destructive, and the "cutting law" was unpopular with the influential members of private hunting clubs. In 1893, the first commissioner of the USDA Forestry Division, Bernard Fernow, charged the Forest Commission with incompetence in managing its land. That summer, smoke from forest fires in the Adirondacks hung in a haze over the Hudson Valley.
In May 1894, when a convention was called in Albany to revise the state constitution, the New York Board of Trade and Transportation took action. They arranged for a delegate, David McClure of New York City, to introduce an amendment on July 31 that would prohibit logging on state lands. After holding hearings in August where strong support emerged for the amendment, McClure moved it on September 8 and the Convention approved it unanimously. In November, voters ratified the new constitution with a 56 percent majority.
Article VII, Section 7 read, "The lands of the State, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold, or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed." The strict final clause prohibited not only logging, but also the removal of dead timber or the creation of dams that flooded Preserve land. But it did not say anything about the use of privately-owned lands within the Blue Line. The state would not tackle that piece of unfinished business until 1973.