Forty-Six: On the Occasion of the 2021 Presidential Inauguration

We started Adirondack Wilderness Advocates in 2016, a year with implications in the political history of this country. We weren’t anything close to a national movement then, nor do we aspire to be now, but as America welcomes its forty-sixth President this week it does call to mind the climate in which AWA made its first efforts in wilderness advocacy.

Of course, as many people already know, we began as a direct response to the state’s acquisition of the Boreas Ponds Tract, which had been completed that spring. Adding this vast property to the Forest Preserve was one thing, but deciding how to manage it going forward was another. And quite soon it became evident to many people that the state had already dismissed entire options from consideration – before the process had begun.

Located at the southern foot of the Great Range, that string of rugged peaks culminating in Haystack and Marcy, the Boreas Ponds Tract seemed like an obvious candidate for a wilderness designation – except that it wasn’t, not entirely.

That fall, the Adirondack Park Agency issued a set of four proposals for the Boreas Ponds classification, accompanied by a haphazard set of counterproposals made by the various interest groups. Not a single one of these maps contemplated a full wilderness classification for this property, despite its vast site and remote reaches, so those of us who made up AWA’s original ranks felt short-changed by both the state and the established watchdog groups one might rationally expect to take up the cause without too much provocation.

So a few of us got together, coined the name “Adirondack Wilderness Advocates” while bushwhacking across Ragged Mountain, and launched this same website you are now reading. We were literally nothing more than three guys and a website at first, with no money to spend other than what we were individually willing to fund on our personal credit cards.

The classification process required public hearings, the first of which was held in November at the APA office in Ray Brook – just days after the 2016 presidential election. The timing, though coincidental, had profound effects on the turnout.

Writing this now, over four years later, it seems odd to think of November 2016 as a historical period, now safely buried in the dusty records of the past. But for those who need a refresher: the race for the White House that year was viewed in nihilistic terms by both parties; no matter who won, the other side would see the results as spelling the potential end of their way of life. That seems the best way to describe the election. More was perceived to be at stake than was perhaps really the case; in other ways, the results proved to be worse than anyone could’ve imagined at the time.

But clearly, the results on the election strongly influenced the public turnout at this first APA hearing on Boreas Ponds.

Normally, a public hearing for a state land classification is a stilted affair, of much importance to the people who care about these things but difficult to comprehend for almost everyone else. A few dozen people showing up would be a good turnout.

But on November 9, 2016, scores of interested citizens showed up at Ray Brook.

So many people that the latecomers exceeded the APA’s building capacity limits and were ushered to an alternate site next door at a DEC office building, where they could watch a video feed of the main proceedings.

The APA staff made their presentation and then ceded time for members of the public to speak, a few minutes at a time. Dozens of people had signed up, and the hearing lasted well into the evening.

And to our delight, many of those people spoke in favor of a full wilderness classification – the counterproposal that AWA alone was officially proposing at the time.

One might expect wilderness to be a non-politicized issue, agnostic to distinctions between “right” and “left.” After all, we are talking about the Great Outdoors here, something as quintessentially American as Teddy Roosevelt and the Grand Canyon. It’s the wilderness, backdrop to all those stories about Daniel Boone and Natty Bumppo – the type of thing that should unify people, not drive them into their separate camps.

And while the modern concept of protected wilderness has bipartisan origins, the unfortunate truth is that wilderness has been swept up into the larger political discussion on economics, natural resource consumption, and environmental protection. Show me someone who supports more wilderness protection, and I can probably predict many of this person’s other political views.

In short, wilderness can be a wedge issue.

During that November 2016 meeting in Ray Brook, it was clear the national zeitgeist was permeating the room. Specifically, the people who felt their worldview was threatened by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump seemed to feel a need to take a positive action somewhere else. One Hamilton County official even said as much in his oral statement when it was his turn to speak: “Looks like a lot of people are upset about Trump.”

It’s important to note that one interest group – not us – was handing out green “We Want Wilderness” T-shirts to anyone who wanted one. Thus more than half the room was clad in a color often associated with the liberal environmental movement.

Was that a bad thing? Not at all, although I’m one of the few pro-wilderness types who declined a green T-shirt.

But if those attendees wearing green tended to be people who were also redirecting their disappointment in Hillary Clinton’s loss, it wouldn’t be unfair to characterize the other attendees – those who’d prefer to see all of the main features at Boreas Ponds available for motorized access – as people who had been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s victory.

At least, this was my observation. But the result was a lot of support for a strong wilderness classification at Boreas Ponds, at Ray Brook and many of the other six hearings conducted that fall. And that is not anything I regret at all.

AWA was an informal organization at the time. We met in restaurants across the Adirondack Park, which seemed like a good idea at first, since we wanted to demonstrate to anyone watching that support for wilderness could also be good for business. These weren’t board meetings so much as strategy sessions, planning our next steps over beers and burgers. Early in the process, four of us met at Logan’s in Speculator; by December, we were better than a dozen strong at Long Lake’s Adirondack Growl and Grub – their best customers that evening, as I recall.

We skewed young, and we were thrilled at the influence we were wielding. Other organizations were spending tens of thousands of dollars on a mixed-designation proposal that sounded wilderness-y but was rhetorically hard to defend; nevertheless, their money bought a celebrity endorsement. Elsewhere, several local government entities had banded together to offer a pro-motor proposal couched in the same brand of libertarianism that would mark the upcoming Trump administration.

But we were spending next to nothing and still collecting hundreds of supporters through our website – with “supporter” defined as anyone willing to send our pre-written comment letter to the APA. When we met at one of those public gathering places every few weeks, we weren’t electing officers or applying for grants; we were a campaign focused on goals, wary of whatever darkness the next four years might bring.

That was 2016; this is 2021. AWA is no longer an informal campaign, and the Boreas Ponds classification was settled years ago (not that we’re satisfied with the results, and aren’t prepared to reengage this issue should an opportunity ever arise). We are now a registered 501(c)(3) organization, and I am the chair of its board of directors. Instead of a single issue, we seek a variety of topics on which we may provide a meaningful contribution.

Regrettably, many of those people who had been drawn to the “campaign” format have since drifted away – although as far as I’m concerned, any Boreas veteran will always have a seat on the board, theirs for the asking.

I am pretty sure many of those people approached wilderness advocacy through a “green progressive” way of thinking – which is fine, great. Support for wilderness is awesome, no matter how anyone arrives at it.

But in New York State, wilderness preservation has traditionally sported a conservative streak a mile wide, going back at least to the legendary conservation efforts of Teddy Roosevelt. During his short stint as governor, Roosevelt didn’t have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the Adirondacks, but as President of the United States he single-handedly preserved millions of acres of parks, monuments, forests, and wildlife preserves.

The Roosevelt legacy was so strong that he inspired generations of future wilderness enthusiasts; although it’s easy to forget now, the original Adirondack Park wilderness areas were preserved in 1972 during the Republican administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Thirty years later, Governor George Pataki, also a Republican, doggedly pursued the acquisition of some of the Adirondacks’ largest properties – including lands that became the William C. Whitney Wilderness and Round Lake Wilderness.

By contrast, the twin administrations of Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo have overseen the diminution of the APA’s influence in Ray Brook, and the recentralization of most meaningful Adirondack policy making back in Albany.

What I am suggesting here is that the narrative of wilderness protection in the Adirondacks has gone astray. For several decades wilderness has been perceived as an elitist, left-leaning idea, even if the origins of the wilderness preservation movement lie elsewhere.

If you think that preserving vast tracts of wild open space is a progressive idea, AWA welcomes you, as always.

But if you are an old-school conservative who thinks leaving nature to its own devices for the enjoyment of all is a worthwhile endeavor, then please speak up; your voice is getting trampled in the cacophony that sees wilderness as a threat to an individual’s “right” to operate a snowmobile or ATV wherever they damn well please. This view is not conservatism as I understand it, but some kind of neo-libertarianism that places personal liberties over civic responsibilities; to those people, I’m not sure I can be much help.

I’m going to be honest here: I was never a fan of Donald Trump, although in August 2018 his motorcade passed near my place of employment, and of respect for his office I took time off from work to photograph the presidential limousine as it passed through Rome, New York. For three years I tried to understand the nature of his support, but my understanding was stretched to its limit in 2020; the White House was effectively an empty office for the final three months of his administration while its occupant abandoned his duties in pursuit of his own interests.

Presidential motorcade in Rome, NY, 2018

But here we are, at the beginning of the forty-sixth president’s term in office. Forty six: a number that I reflexively associate with the Adirondack High Peaks, and (apropos of nothing) also happens to be my age this year.

I am convinced wilderness is anything but a wedge issue. It should be a quality-of-life issue, something we have in abundance here in Upstate New York, a resource that draws people from miles away. Sure it has its issues, but what a pleasant topic to tackle!

Certainly, it’s easy to get tripped up in the details: when to insist a road be closed to motor vehicles, deciding at what point human recreation becomes a nuisance. The problem, though, may not be ideology but an absence of hard facts. And here might be a way forward: agreeing on the facts before insisting on preordained solutions.

As AWA matures from its earlier campaign-style format into a lasting organization with something meaningful to offer to the discussion, we need your continued support more than ever. As the board chairman – as long as the board is willing to entertain my presence in that role – I want to do a better job at engaging our followers. I want to re-center the wilderness narrative. I want to kill the idea that wilderness is some kind of job-killer. I want to be a living demonstration that wilderness preservation is hardly an elitist pursuit.

For me, wilderness is essential; this is the common element for everyone who has supported this organization, from 2016 to the present. If you have ever experienced the thrill of a wilderness experience, of having an entire forest to yourself or encountering an unmediated experience with natural processes, we are the organization for you. Despite the common perception, these experiences are very much possible in New York State, and they do require advocates capable of articulating their value.

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