A Wilderness of Roads

Part 2 of 4

The year 2000 was memorable for two reasons: I had met Barbara McMartin that winter and became her newest guidebook assistant, and in the summer DEC opened Little Tupper and Rock Pond to overnight camping for the first time. It just so happened that Little Tupper and its environs were among my first assignments, and I knew if I was going to be deserving of any association with the great McMartin then I needed to be thorough and observant.

Because of these two events – the need to write about the place, and the ability to stay multiple days – this was when I began my thorough explorations. The waters of Little Tupper Lake and Rock Pond were one thing, but I was equally curious about the woods surrounding them. And so I returned week after week, setting up my camp at one place or another, and then setting off on foot with my dog Purdy to systematically explore the area’s “trails.”

I already had an idea what I was in for. When the governor’s negotiators first reached a purchase agreement with the prior owner, Marylou Whitney, in December 1997, the property was described to the media as a “crown jewel.” Each subsequent Pataki land acquisition also turned out to be a “crown jewel of the Adirondacks” in some way, but in this particular case it was understood by everyone familiar with the property that the “jewel” was the lake; the land surrounding it was just padding.

Marylou Whitney had come into this land through marriage, and became its administrator upon the death of her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, in 1992. The late Cornelius had been the grandson of William C. Whitney, a wealthy New York City businessman who, in the spirit of his times, espoused the idea of the private preservation of the Adirondack wilderness. He purchased many thousands of acres in northern Hamilton County in 1897 and called the place Whitney Park. His successors developed a forestry management plan for the property, and a few family members built isolated camps here and there, but Whitney Park did remain a gently used wilderness for many years.

By the end of the twentieth century, however, things had changed. A few of the outlying corners of the property had been sold to International Paper, although the remainder of Whitney Park was still a sizeable block of land at about 51,000 acres. The forestry plan, though, had fallen to pieces. Instead of the original idea of harvesting the mature forest growth every thirty years or so, logging activities increased in pace over the decades until much of that mature growth was completely removed. In other words, the monetary value of the forest had been liquidated, and while the property wasn’t exactly “clear cut” as far as I’ve observed, much more than thirty years will need to pass before these high-graded areas will sport any merchantable timber again.

When the timber was removed, the next way to derive income from the land, of course, was to develop it. And so it was early in 1997 when representatives for Marylou Whitney submitted a plan to the Adirondack Park Agency to subdivide nearly 15,000 acres around Little Tupper and Rock Pond into forty luxury estates.

Whether such a plan would have been successful or not, APA involvement aside, is anyone’s guess. Three pieces of the Little Tupper shoreline had already been punched out of the Whitney’s holdings by this time, and the results can be observed to this day. One of them, the 55-acre Camp Bliss, was acquired by The Nature Conservancy in August 1997 for $575,000 and bulldozed out of existence; it is now a rather uninteresting designated campsite. Camp Francis and Camp-on-the-Point flank the administrative complex still known as Whitney Headquarters; while they still stand, I have never observed signs of life at either property in twenty-two years of exploration (except for a spell a few years ago when Camp Francis was remodeled).

The full subdivision of the land never occurred, however. The very idea was anathema to the people who were working to protect the park at the time, and it became the impetus for the state to get involved and acquire what was left of the 15,000 acres – including the “largest family-owned lake east of the Mississippi.” News reports from 1997 make it clear the negotiation process between the state and Marylou Whitney was not a wine-and-roses affair; Whitney seemed convinced she could sell her “luxury estates” for as high as $9000 an acre, and therefore wanted New York to pay at least $4000. In the end she settled, reluctantly, for $1161 an acre.

“I know if we went ahead with the 300-acre-per-lot subdivision, or sold this portion of the property to an outside buyer, we would have made a lot more money,” she announced in December 1997 during a news conference at the State Capitol. “But because of my love for this state and the memory of my late husband and his family, I have settled on a deal that I would normally not do. Today, it is with a very heavy heart that I part with this portion of my land.” One can imagine the stick that was used to persuade her to act against her business interests: the unlikelihood that an administration seeking to buy her land for the Forest Preserve would otherwise issue her a permit to subdivide it.

The resulting 15,000-acre state acquisition was therefore preserved in a wild condition, but what most of its promoters had tactfully omitted was that the place was far from pristine. Sure, there would be no additional luxury estates, but the road network that would have serviced them was already in place – and in such good shape as of June 1998 the only things preventing me from driving them with my ’88 Ford Escort were the yellow gates at each trailhead. The scraggly woods surrounding these roads were scarcely tall enough to shade their gravel surfaces.

And so when I began exploring the area by foot in 2000, it was immediately apparent that some time needed to pass before this became a place of interest to hikers. This new William C. Whitney Wilderness, as it was christened in March of that year, offered something of a John Denver experience, with “trails” that were more like country roads. One needed a vivid imagination and an appreciation for natural processes to see how this place would grow into its wilderness designation over time.

Part of a Series on Whitney Park:

Part 1: Roads of Recovery

Part 2: A Wilderness of Roads

Part 3: Wilderness by Description or Proscription?

Part 4: The Future Forest

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