Paul Schaefer Wilderness Award Acceptance Speech

On behalf of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, it is an honor to be presented with the Paul Schaefer Wilderness Award. We are thrilled that our efforts in the Boreas Ponds classification campaign have been recognized, and more importantly, deemed to have made a difference.

Certainly, everyone gathered around this podium has an inkling of who Paul Schaefer was, and why his name is so significant. Paul’s efforts to preserve the rivers of the Adirondacks from regulation and damnation are heroic in nature because, as a citizen-advocate, he stood up against a bureaucratic prejudice, dared to imagine a wilder alternative, and expended his own personal time and resources to build alliances and promote the value of “forever wild.” He is a towering figure in the Adirondack Park’s twentieth century history.

All of this has led Brendan, Pete, and myself to wonder whether we deserve such an honor, having our names associated with Paul Schaefer’s. Really, what have we done that even compares to what he accomplished?

Early in AWA’s existence we were contacted by someone who reminded us of the ordeals that Paul Schaefer faced to protect the Moose and Hudson rivers, suggesting that no current Adirondack wilderness advocate was putting forth even half his effort. That prompted a reflection on how much has changed in this park since the mid-twentieth century, when “forever wild” was a much more vaguely defined notion and less of a definable policy. I certainly agree that no living advocate has been subjected to the same Herculean labors as Paul, but that’s partly because the rules of the game have changed so dramatically.

First and foremost among those changes, we now have the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, which gives the citizens of New York a voice in every consequential decision that affects out public lands. Whenever our state agencies set out to, say, classify a tract of newly acquired land, one of the first things that must be done is conduct hearings and weigh public opinion.

Half a century ago, however, that was not the case. When New York State proposed turning the Moose River Plains and Essex Chain of Lakes into enormous reservoirs, it was acting on assumptions and policies that had originated in the nineteenth century. For the original conception of the Adirondack Park was not simply for it to be a wilderness preserve, but to also conserve the state’s major water resources. This utilitarian vision appears even in the otherwise romantic and enthusiastic writings of Verplanck Colvin.

If you search Google’s collection of digitally archived library books, you can find a PDF version of the Fourth Annual Report of the State Water Supply Commission published in 1909. In this tome you will find a catalogue of many of our rivers and their potential to be regulated. Some of these proposals were quite well developed, including a plan drawing for a dam on the West Branch Sacandaga River that would have converted Piseco Lake in the southern Adirondacks into an enormous reservoir extending south to Arietta. Nearly every Adirondack River of note, including the Boreas, was given at least some mention, and some rivers of course did become regulated by a system of dams.

It was this report, printed and bound at taxpayer expense before the First World War, that served as the state’s playbook when it began planning to dam the wild Moose River after the Second World War. There had been no SEQRA-mandated hearings on these dams, no mechanism to trigger public involvement. Because the proposals had been on the books for decades, it had been a matter of course that the state would eventually raise the resources to bring them to fruition.

This was the bureaucratic inertia that Paul Schaefer had to fight—why a contractor from Niskayuna took it upon himself to step up and speak out. If no one in Albany was going to seek the public’s opinion, he had to do the work himself. This meant educating people in communities across the state to convince them that this was an issue of direct concern to them, even if the actual sites were in remote locations that few had ever heard of or were likely to visit.

Another key difference between the mid-twentieth century and the twenty-first was the lack of professional advocacy in the Adirondacks. In Paul’s day the only permanent watchdog group was the New York-based Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. I assume many of you are familiar with the history of this organization? It survives today as an integral part of Protect the Adirondacks, a relatively small group with a reputation for feistiness, but when it came time to speak out against Panther, Higley, and Gooley, the Association expressed a tendency to remain above the fray. Rather than expose itself to the bumps and bruises of a vigorous public fight, or to court the average New Yorker not only for his support but for his action as well, it was left for someone like Paul to form his ad-hoc groups and committees. If I’m not mistaken, Friends of the Forest Preserve was one such project.

In retrospect, this might’ve been a more successful strategy anyway, because rather than toting around whatever baggage the Association carried with it, Paul—both a hunter and a hiker—had the agility to make alliances. Even in the forties and fifties sportsmen were having their doubts about a forest preserved for its own sake with no provisions for game management, but with Paul’s persuasion they could readily agree that flooding a productive deer yard would be a poor decision.

However, beginning about forty years ago almost in parallel with the development of the Adirondack Park Agency, the Forest Preserve has had the benefit of professional advocacy. People are now paid fulltime to lobby and speak on behalf of Article XIV. There is no longer one watchdog group standing sentry over the park, but four—with, I’d like to point out, overlapping missions and vaguely defined distinctions. I’m not aware of any other park that is so blessed with so much representation.

So, you would think, there is not much need for a citizen-advocate in the twenty-first century. Perhaps if Paul Schaefer had been born much later as a member of Generation X or as a Millennial, he would have been content to simply write a check to Adirondack Wild or whichever group he fancied most, and that would have been the end of his involvement. He could have gone about his business with the knowledge that Diamond Brook and the other places he loved would be protected on his behalf.

Or, perhaps he might have been persuaded to take action for other reasons.

This modern form of park advocacy falters when the people who are paid to fill these crucial roles lose their connection to the Forest Preserve—their personal connection to the wildlands of the Adirondack Park. Or worse, if they are merely hired guns who never had that connection at all. If they aren’t speaking from experience—the experience of having camped at a remote pond, or having bushwhacked to a rugged peak they discovered on their own, for example—then they are merely horse trading. The need to be a wilderness advocate must be organic to one’s lifestyle; you are not speaking for trees in general, or a mode of recreation, but for a specific experience that can’t be replicated in a mere woodlot. This experience is something that you’ve enjoyed and you wish others to enjoy too, long after you’ve lost the ability.

I say this because I’ve been to my share of hearings and committee meetings, and I’ve met more than a few self-styled “wilderness advocates” who I’m pretty sure wouldn’t know a West Canada Lake from a Siamese Pond. I see their names in print often enough, questioned by reporters and editors on a variety of backcountry issues as if they are the experts, but I have yet to meet these particular individuals on the trail.

Or even more impressive is the advocate whose values have become ever more self-serving with age. Perhaps he or she saw the value of roadless wilderness back in the eighties, when they had the wherewithal to visit such places. Thirty years later, with retirement staring them in the face, it’s all about the mile-long buffers for easy canoe access.

Such people attend the hearings and the advisory committee meetings, and they purport to speak not just for the wilderness but for people like me as well—the people who should be joining their groups and contributing money toward their salaries. And while serving on those committees they make deals and trades, so that when the proposals for various state land actions are finally brought to the public for review, the wild options I’ve been rooting for have already been eliminated as a possibility.

In Albany we have three-men-in-a-room political deal making, which a constitutional convention might or might not be able to resolve. But in the northern part of the state we now seem to have something similar going on, in which ideals are traded monthly for compromised political solutions. Thus in recent years we have seen so-called wilderness advocates pleading on behalf of a wollastonite mine, using their credibility to insist that swapping a couple hundred acres of the park’s smallest wilderness for a handful of scattered, cut-over parcels is a victory for the preserve. Or more recently, insisting that a road is necessary for easy wilderness access, and does not diminish the experience no matter how deep it intrudes—as if with wilderness acreage, quantity was more important than quality.

So perhaps you can begin to understand why some of us have started to lose faith in the ability of several watchdog groups to protect the wilderness experience, and decided to go our own way. We are people whose love for wilderness stems from the fact that we visit it often, or it has perhaps even employed us, and it therefore has a tangible and meaningful presence in our lives. Its availability was a factor in our choice of where to live, and some of us have specifically moved to communities in and around the Adirondack Park to be closer to it.

AWA cofounders Pete Nelson, Brendan Wiltse, and Bill Ingersoll with the 2017 Paul Schaefer Wilderness Award

If it was simply an appreciation for trees and scenery, then any old park would do. But it’s wilderness specifically, capital W, that has captured our imagination. Yes, there are all those thousands of people swarming through the High Peaks daily in search of an assigned number from the Forty-Sixers. But beyond the pursuit of objective goals, there is a sensuousness to life in the backcountry that is absent from our everyday routines, even if it’s just a weekend backpacking trip; wilderness represents the potential to escape from a world of electronics and mass-produced plastics to a place where we choose our own routes and write our own stories.

Therefore we have no interest in debating with these so-called wilderness advocates what the ideal length a canoe carry should be for a retiree. And when they say we are unrealistic for suggesting that an entire forestry road is no longer needed and should be closed—or even funnier, that we are elitist simply because we are still in the prime of our lives—we start to lose interest in their message. What such people really want is not wilderness, but a scenic parking lot. They scold us like children, and then wonder why we aren’t flocking to their clubs and councils and signing up for memberships.

It’s not that we have no interest in compromise; we live in the world, we get it. But at the same time, we don’t celebrate President’s Day because Washington won independence for only six colonies, or because Lincoln freed only half the slaves. No one named a candy bar after Babe Ruth because of a .150 batting average. Likewise, we don’t remember the Marshall brothers for climbing only twenty-three peaks, or Howard Zahniser for calling it a day after getting his Wilderness Bill through only one house of Congress. And Paul Schaefer didn’t win his Moose River battles only to call in sick for Gooley.

Rather, it’s the people who stand firm on an ideal who remain admired and respected over the passage of time, not the deal makers who profess one thing but sell another. History tends to remember those people differently, if at all.

And this brings me back to my original conundrum: do I feel worthy of this recognition? Does Pete? Does Brendan, or any of the other people, young and young-at-heart, who have spoken up with AWA on behalf of Boreas Ponds and other wilderness issues?

All of us are truly honored that Dave Gibson, Dan Plumley, and everyone else at Adirondack Wild sees some parallel between ourselves and the late Paul Schaefer, but I think I speak for everyone here when I say we see shortcomings whenever we try and draw that same comparison on our own.

So to me this award is a not a recognition for past achievement, but rather a challenge to do more in the years ahead. It is heartening to know that we’re on the right track, that standing up for Boreas and inspiring others to do the same might even earn us a page in someone’s book someday.

Until then, we are grateful to have allies such as Adirondack Wild, and we are delighted that our efforts have not gone unnoticed. Most importantly, we appreciate the opportunity to help advance the story of wilderness preservation in the Adirondack Park in the weeks, months, and years ahead, in whatever capacity we are capable.

Thank you.

Author’s Note: This was written on the occasion of accepting the Paul Schaefer Wilderness Award, presented to Pete Nelson, Brendan Wiltse, and myself by Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve on September 30, 2017. It was drafted a week earlier while sitting next to a campfire at one of my favorite backcountry haunts: Cotton Lake, located in the southern portion of the Black River Wild Forest—or as I prefer to call it, the “Cotton Lake Wilderness.”

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