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The forest that will be saved.


Not many natural-resource planners get to go back and do their plans over again 15 years later. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "There are no second acts in American lives." But Fitzgerald didn't reckon on George D. Davis, who, as executive director of New York's Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century, was given a second shot at saving his beloved Adirondack Park - a six-million-acre hunk of big-tree hardwood forest that is larger than the entire state of New Jersey.

The commission, chaired by Peter A. A. Berle, president of the National Audubon Society, was established last year by Governor Mario M. Cuomo. The idea was to eliminate the loop-holes in laws created in 1973 - Davis played a key role then as well - that many (including this writer) thought would forever protect this vast assemblage of scattered public forest preserve lands (2.3 million acres) and private ownerships (3.7 million acres) and confine development to the 13 villages and 70 unincorporated hamlets scattered amid its magnificent lakes and forests.

But nobody figured on leveraged buyouts weakening the grasp of giant forest-products companies on their holdings. Nobody figured that foreign investors would think that Adirondack land would be cheap at five times its asking price as sites for jet-set recreational development. Nobody knew how suburban condomania could metastasize into the far-north backcountry. Nobody (although Davis warned of it 15 years ago) knew how easily the primeval ambience of this last vast northeastern forest could be shattered by roadside zoos, roaring speedboats on the lakes, doublewide trailers along the highways, tacky advertising signs, and all the other whatnots of recreation-mad America the Ugly.

Now, if Davis and his colleagues have their way, new laws and regulations will snap the loopholes shut and sever some of the greedy worms within them into the bargain. Here are the key elements of what the commission - which counts among its membership the cream of New York state conservation, civic, and business leadership (see "The Commission Members" on page 57) - strongly recommends:

* The creation of the largest true wilderness area in the Northeast. In fact, at 400,000 acres, the Oswagatchie Great Wilderness, as it will be called, will be the third largest wilderness east of the Mississippi. But it is to be managed much more stringently than any federally designated wilderness area. In all, the Adirondack wilderness system will include 16 units and 1,650,000 acres. Remaining public lands are to be managed for low-intensity recreational use.

* The purchase of an additional 650,000 acres of land in fee title, mostly to go into the wilderness system and to protect biological diversity; and the authority to purchase conservation easements over the years on as much privately owned resource land as possible - theoretically all of it - to guarantee in perpetuity that the land will never be developed and to provide for recreational access as needed.

* On privately owned resource lands (87 percent of nonpublic lands, about 3 million acres in all, mostly in forest use), to reduce the building allowed under present regulations by 90 percent by allowing every landowner one residential unit, regardless of the size of holding. Those with larger acreages can build one additional residence per 2,000 acres. In addition, a "transfer of development rights" program permits owners to retain much of the development value of land under previous regulations. A forest-use tax-limiting program, along with the aggressive conservation easement program, rounds out the plan designed to preserve the park's forested character.

* Shoreline development along the many thousands of lakes and ponds and more than a thousand miles of rivers would not be permitted any closer than 650 feet in backcountry areas and 200 feet anywhere in the park; nor would owners be allowed to disturb vegetation, except for a five-foot path that must be designed so that no structure would be visible from the water.

* Development would be permitted in already-settled parts of villages and hamlets but not allowed to sprawl into surrounding landscape by: making county governments, not small towns and villages, responsible for rigorous land-use and subdivision regulation; setting up an "Adirondack Park Community Development Corporation" to provide for appropriate and affordable housing and public facilities; requiring that all future commercial land uses be confined to settled areas; eliminating all off-premises outdoor advertising with on-premises signs allowed only on a permit basis.

* In undeveloped areas, no buildings would be allowed within 200 feet of a roadway unless fully screened by vegetation; pre-existing eyesores would be purchased by a nonprofit authority when the property comes on the market, the buildings would be torn down, and the land transferred to state ownership or resold.

"This time," says Davis of these tough new recommendations - there are nearly 250 in all - "I hope we got it right."

Actually, he got it right last time. It's just that times change - and almost any change in this environmentally and aesthetically fragile northern forest brings new perils. And Davis, a forester trained at the State University of New York's College of Forestry at Syracuse, is as sensitive to this fact as anyone could be. A wilderness man through and through, he gave up his doctoral studies at Cornell in 1968 when the late Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, established a Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. Davis applied for a job on the staff as a forest ecologist and got it. As a New Yorker born and bred, he was no stranger to these woods, but youthful proximity wasn't all of it. Every wilderness man, or woman, knows of the Adirondacks, for this is more than your typical lightly developed forested mountain region; it is, in fact, one of the most significant of the remaining climax hardwood ecosystems of the temperate zones of the entire world.

But Davis responds to something besides board-feet and the scientific data of forest ecology. He knows that the Adirondacks present a collection of lakes and peaks and big trees and animals that combine in a unique way to make Adirondack Park an aesthetic treasure the likes of which exist nowhere else on earth. "It is a landscape of infinite variety," writes Courtney Jones, a well-known North Country author. "It has millions of acres of forests, thousands of acres of wetlands. It has high waterfalls, deep gorges, rolling countryside, alpine summits. It houses both endangered and abundant species of plants and wildlife. It has names that linger in the ear, names like Noonmark, Boreas Pond, Tahawas, Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds. Its images linger in the mind. It is, in short, a natural pageant of unusual richness, a feast for the eye and spirit in a time of unusual needs."

Such was not always the case. During the 19th century these mountains were ruthlessly cut over by unprincipled loggers who in complicity with corrupt officials would buy land from the state, sometimes for as little as 15 cents an acre, fell every tree in sight to build the tenements of Manhattan and the rowhouses of Flatbush, and then move on, letting the land revert back to state ownership for nonpayment of taxes. The devastation was so pervasive that in 1857 a journalist by the name of S. H. Hammond complained, "Where shall we go to find the woods, the wild things, the old forests?

"Had I my way," Hammond suggested, "I would make out a circle of a hundred miles in diameter and throw around it the protecting aegis of the constitution. I would make it a forest forever."

Such a plan would have produced a reserve of some five million acres, surely a romantic journalist's impractical fantasy. And yet, in time, the state of New York actually followed Hammond's advice. First, the legislature prohibited, in an 1883 law, the sale of state-owned forestlands; henceforth, the cutover land reverting to the state for back taxes could not be resold and would be designated as part of a "forest preserve." Then in 1892, the legislature established the Adirondack Park with a "blue line" encompassing all the bits and pieces of state-owned forest-preserve land thus far accumulated, with the hope that more would be acquired. Finally, in 1894, the protective aegis of the constitution was indeed invoked by an amendment that would make these forest-preserve parcels "forever wild."

There was only one problem. As the 20th century unfolded, the rate of tax-reversion land coming into state ownership (effectively at no cost) slowed, and then finally stopped. One hundred years after Hammond first made his suggestion, the "forever wild" forest-preserve parcels in the park aggregated only a bit more than a third of the six million acres within the present blue-line boundary. The rest of it was privately owned forest. (Today the ratio is 42 percent public, 58 percent private.)

Despite the imbalance of public to private land in a region designated as a "park," a period of stability ensued in the Adirondacks. The forest-products industry, which owned most of the private land (as it does today), went about its business, but now with modern, and more responsible, forestry practices. The wealthy enjoyed their elaborate Adirondack "camps" around the lakeshores in holdings often totaling thousands of acres. Vacationers from the under classes who managed to straggle into the park erected their tents in the public woods and could fish and hunt with nearly as much freedom as could the millionaires on their private preserves. The conservationists - the latter-day S. H. Hammonds, including the father of the American wilderness idea, Bob Marshall - were a bit jittery about this state of affairs during the first half of the 20th century, but were by no means panicky about the fate of the North Country, despite the unfavorable ratio of public to privately owned land.

And then something happened. During the 1950s, postwar prosperity encouraged Americans to see the U.S.A. in their Chevrolets, and President Dwight David Eisenhower multiplied the impulse to the point of near-infinity with the 1956 National Defense Highway Act. Ten years later, the gleeful highway builders produced a plan for an Interstate from New York City to Montreal - I-87 - that would skirt the edges of the park and instantly put 50 million people within a day's drive of the Adirondacks. That's when the privately owned land became a ticking time bomb in the bosom of the woods. Resource planners like George Davis knew it was only a matter of a few years before the checker-boarded tracts of private land throughout the mountains and around the lakes would be inundated with cabins and trailer courts and tourist-oriented commerce that would turn the great north woods into a tacky recreational suburb of the whole Atlantic urban region. Roadside viper exhibits, peep-shows, miniature golf courses, and souvenir emporia with glass rocks out front and wooden Canada geese with wings paddling in the breeze would prove beyond all doubt H. L. Mencken's assertion that nobody ever went broke underestimating the level of American taste.

The two-year study by Rockefeller's Temporary Study Commission concluded (in 1970) that what was obvious had to be recognized: the Adirondack Park needed regional land-use regulations and the firm hand of a state-level planning authority to implement them. There was a protracted battle, of course, for such reforms would greatly reduce the hegemony of local governments and scotch the plans of the big second-home developers who were moving in on the woods.

Despite enormous political pressure, however, Governor Rockefeller prevailed: in 1971, the Adirondack Park Agency Act was passed into law, and a limited moratorium on further building was imposed pending the creation of state-mandated land-use regulations. In short order, the agency was a functioning body, creating a plan that would severely limit future development in the park. The planning director was George D. Davis.

The plan Davis and the park agency created dealt with all the land within the blue line, but was most controversial in its provisions for limiting the development of the park's private lands. After all the legislative compromises had been made, it was settled that a limit of 15 buildings per square mile would be permitted on "resource management lands" (53 percent of the private land), 75 buildings per square mile would be permitted in "rural use" areas (34 percent of the private land), with the rest (13 percent of the private land) in more liberal development categories. In the haggling with the legislature, the agency planners found that to maintain a truly low development density in the resource areas of the park - largely commercial forest - the tradeoff required was to relax restrictions on waterfront development and development in and around villages and hamlets. The final regulations did not permit the agency to regulate the settled areas at all. As for waterfront restrictions, 26 buildings per shoreline mile in the resource-management category were allowed, 36 per mile in rural use, and up to 106 per mile in hamlets - effectively a building every 50 feet.

The planners, including George Davis, were terribly worried that the tradeoff of lakeshore and hamlet densities for the more rigorous limits in the remote sections would effectively make "sacrifice areas" out of the most visible parts of the park. Still, they figured, at least the forest-resource and rural-use lands would be beyond the reach of developers.

They were half right. The lack of tough regulations did create uglified sacrifice areas, especially around Lake George and in some other areas. They were wrong about chasing out the developers. In fact, during the 1980s, developers found that they could actually market land profitably for recreational use even at what amounted to 42-acre zoning.

The most notorious example of the new market for the Adirondacks' deep woods was the sale of 96,000 acres, sight unseen, acquired from a British corporate raider named James Goldsmith by Henry Lassiter, an Atlanta developer, for $17 million. This was the so-called "Diamond International-Lassiter Deal" into which the state of New York belatedly entered to buy some of the land back, at greatly inflated prices.

The effect of the deal, along with a good many other real-estate shenanigans, was galvanic - as galvanic as I-87 had been 15 years before. It was time to go back and fix up the earlier plan.

By this time, George Davis was champing at the bit. After his stint with the Adirondack Park Agency as plan maker, he left the mountains to become executive director of the Wilderness Society in Washington, DC, at a time when that now-booming organization was on its uppers. Davis was a brilliant forest ecologist and resource planner - a field man, not a person at ease in the rarified drawing-room atmosphere of high-level fund-raising. So he left to become a coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service's RARE-II program, identifying roadless areas for possible inclusion in the federal wilderness system, first in Washington and later in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

The western mountains were beautiful, but George and his wife, Anita, longed for the Adirondacks. Eventually they just came home. Davis bought a small farm in Wadhams, set himself up as a consultant, and tried to piece together a living. Enter the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century. The executive director's job turned up at an opportune moment for Davis - and in the nick of time for the great six-million-acre park itself.

In the nick of time, that is, if Governor Mario Cuomo gets behind the commission's recommendations and if the state legislature adopts them without too much tampering. To give the commission's report as much grassroots exposure as possible, Davis and his colleagues have developed a dog-and-pony show which they will gladly present anywhere in the state.

What those who view the show will come to understand is that the 21st century recommendations not only strengthen earlier land-use controls but add an entirely new dimension to the conservation policy debate about the park. The dimension, as George Davis puts it, is that the land-use regulations now reflect an "economic focus" that is complementary to the environmental one. "In the Adirondacks," says Davis, "the focus is the forest-products industry - though not just hauling away logs on flatbed trucks. We've also got to create an important secondary hardwood-manufacturing capability." In addition, he would like to encourage the permanent settlement of people who can make a living - as increasing numbers of us do - as independent enterprises or as telecommuters working from home, people who would contribute to the economy as well as strengthen the community, not just feed off of it.

Withal, says Davis, the vision is of a "real landscape, not a tourist mecca, a place where the communities are honest communities. I want a real-people place as well as wilderness and biodiversity."

In this approach to planning, even though the Adirondacks are an area of great natural beauty, tourism is well down on the list as an economic consideration rather than at the top. The commission sees, no doubt correctly, that tourism and the second-home development that comes in its wake are the problem, not the solution, for the Adirondacks. For the woods to stay intact and the landscape to remain beautiful and the real communities to survive, the last thing you need are condos on hillsides and millionaire mansions on ridges or along the shores, which just drive up land prices, says Davis. "Let `em go to Lake Tahoe."

As for Davis himself, he hopes to be heading out to Central or South America after his commission assignment concludes in midsummer of this year. Using some of the "genius grant" money he recently received from the MacArthur Foundation to finance his studies, he wants to see what to do about those decimated woods too. But he'll be back. George Davis always comes back to the Adirondacks. And as long as people like him still can, maybe the great North Country will be safe.

PHOTO : Development will continue in hamlets like Lake George.

PHOTO : Tupper Lake (above) and Tahoe Resort on the west shore of Lake George are both included in the new Adirondack Park boundary, outlined on the map on the facing page.

Charles Little, author of many books on conservation and the environment, is an unapologetic partisan of the Adirondack woods and a general all-around tree lover.
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Title Annotation:Whose Woods Are These?; Adirondack Park
Author:Little, Charles E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:The Northern Forest: our last best chance.
Next Article:The lands nobody knows.

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