The Era of Referendum and Recall

I’ve been following the discussions currently underway between the State of New York and The Nature Conservancy, considering what would be best for the future management and ownership of Follensby Pond. Bill Ingersoll, in his blog entitled “Have a Little Faith in the Forest Preserve,” argued in favor of turning the land over to the state. He mentioned that in the past when “a river was threatened by a proposed dam,” or if some other forested area was threatened by development, the “preferred method of protection has always been to acquire it for the Forest Preserve.” There has often been a lively debate, over the years, about whether state officials were doing a good job of protecting the Forest Preserve.

One of the first such controversies took place a century ago, when preservationists complained about the way state officials were allowing lumber companies to cut trees on land that was supposed to be protected by Forever Wild. One very well documented discussion of the problem took place in 1922, when the Adirondack Mountain Club was first getting organized, and forming a conservation committee. One of the charter members, John S. Apperson, felt strongly that the club should take a stand, officially, to protect the vulnerable forested land of the high slopes, and prevent the lumber companies from clear-cutting the fragile land. Warwick Carpenter, who had been serving as Secretary of the Conservation Commission, shared Apperson’s concerns, and published a pamphlet called Mountain Slope Protection and Recreational Development in the Adirondacks.

We know that at least a few of the founding members of the Adirondack Mountain Club were very supportive of Carpenter’s report. In fact, both Apperson and Carpenter were invited to visit one of the club’s most prominent board members, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at his apartment in Manhattan, just before the club’s first organizational meeting, and won his endorsement. Unfortunately, however, about six months later, when the conservation committee made its report, the officers voted against adopting the “memorial,” arguing that it was too specific in its recommendations.

Although several club histories have mentioned the outcome of the vote, they seem to have missed an important detail. John Apperson was there at the historic meeting, in October, 1922, and delivered “a minority report,” arguing eloquently for saving the steep slopes. He also took the opportunity to remind the board members about all the illegal activities that had been going on under the lax supervision of state officials. He made a powerful and persuasive speech, saying:

            The minority member of your Committee has made a long and detailed, personal examination of the territory covered by the motion and, also, of forest lands in other parts of the Adirondacks. In the high, mountain region, vital areas are still unprotected while in that same region and in other parts of the mountains, large areas of lumber, burned and utter despoiled land have been acquired at State expense. The very tract which we photographed and used in the campaign to secure the bond, as an example of the devastation which was to be stopped in those mountains, has been purchased at a cost of half a million dollars and, at the same time, lumbering has been allowed to continue on it under a timber reservation. The same destruction has been extended to other areas since the bond issue was obtained and it will be still further extended unless the State acquisition of those tracts is immediately completed.

            The second main reason advanced by the majority of the Committee against Mr. Carpenter’s motion is that the State authorities should be given an entirely free hand in their conduct of land acquisition. The majority report says, “The men best qualified to judge regarding these matters are the experts on the ground, the Conservation Commissioner, the Land Board, the Superintendent of State Forests, all of whom pass on each project. These men are familiar with the tracts that may and should be acquired. It is believed that they should continue to have the broadest authority in the exercise of their judgment in selecting lands for purchases.”

            The minority of your Committee is unable to accept this view. We are not living in an age when it is believed that the King can do no wrong. Our entire system of government is founded upon the theory that the citizens of the State shall inform themselves accurately regarding the conduct of public affairs and if they do not approve of them, will take proper action to change their course. We are living not in an era of the divine right of Kings, but rather in one of the referendum and recall.

We may never know whether Apperson’s speech had much impact on any of those who heard it. It would take about seven years for the club to take a stand against illegal logging in the High Peaks. Finally, by 1929, many of these prominent men began to change their minds, and spoke out against the construction of a toboggan run on state land near Lake Placid.

It is interesting to note that by 1922, Carpenter was no longer working for the Conservation Commission, but had been fired after stirring up a lively controversy over the Tahawus Club. Carpenter had made remarks at a hearing to the effect that “the Tahawus Club simply wanted to keep people out of that part of the woods.” Soon afterward his boss, Commissioner George Pratt, had been forced to resign. To read more about this fascinating episode in New York’s conservation history, find a copy of Frank Graham’s wonderful book, The Adirondack Park: A Political History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), especially in the chapter called “A Wilderness Philosophy.”      

High Peaks Lumbering by John S Apperson

According to my research into the early years of New York State’s management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, decisions to purchase land and bring it under the protection of “forever wild” were not implemented very smoothly. In fact, there were many instances when state officials purchased land, just after lumber companies had cut and harvested trees. It often took self-appointed citizen watchdogs to pay attention to these problems and to blow the whistle when illegal logging occurred. Much of the land acquired by the State was often not pristine forest, but consisted of tracts of forest land and mountain slopes that had already been clear-cut by the big lumber concerns. State officials were turning a blind eye to the practice, and they were very secretive and slow to produce maps and accurate reports for the general public. It took the persistent efforts of many concerned activists who were paying attention to these illegal activities, taking photographs, writing letters and editorials, and finally getting the laws properly enforced.

So, suffice it to say that there have been many instances, over the years, of mismanagement of state land and of the public staying poorly informed about the details. That is why it seems so important to me to study the activities of the group known as the “Schenectady Force,” also now referred to as “Grass Roots Activists,” who served as watchdogs and whistle blowers, trying to keep the public accurately informed about what the State was doing to protect and preserve land in the Forest Preserve.

The acknowledged leader of these activists was John S. Apperson, an engineer working at GE in Schenectady, but who had a second career, or avocation, fighting to defend the Forever Wild clause of the NY Constitution. By 1922, when the Adirondack Mountain Club first formed, Apperson had already completed several impressive projects. He took an interest in Lake George, and, in particular, the state-owned islands in the Narrows, and noticed many problems there, including erosion of the island soil (caused by the operations of the dam at Ticonderoga), the logs floating in the lake and disrupting navigation, and the problems associated with illegal squatters on state-owned islands. By 1913, Apperson had been sent to Albany to represent a Schenectady conservation organization, and he participated in important debates while also listening to arguments being put forward by leading lawyers and politicians of the day.

A Lake George Island by John S Apperson

By 1915, he made a name for himself by delivering an impassioned speech at the Constitutional Convention, asserting his belief that the state should not get into the business of leasing campsites in the Forest Preserve. He won the support of many key delegates, and within a few years he was able to go back and ask for state funding to pay for the riprapping of the shores of over fifty islands at Lake George. And, working closely with state officials, he began investigating the status of those who were squatting on the islands. He served as an unofficial supervisor to the efforts to protect the islands and remove squatters, and he deserves credit for setting the stage for the state to begin opening and maintaining public campsites on the islands of Lake George.

To sum up my ideas about how well the State of New York has managed its responsibilities in the Forest Preserve, I would argue that the State can only function properly when there are ample checks and balances, and with the close scrutiny of its citizens. As long as the State constitution’s Article XIV, Section I (the Forever Wild Clause), is upheld, there is a very good legal framework in place for adding more parcels of land, and thereby insuring that tracts such as Follensby Pond will be in good hands.

If John Apperson were here today, I believe he would remind us that he played an important role in launching the Nature Conservancy, and he would point to the successful management, for over 65 years, of Dome Island, the beautiful centerpiece of Lake George. He cared about the island ever since he first saw it, back when it was still under private ownership. He found volunteers to help repair the shores on the north side when there had been damage by erosion, and in 1939, when he saw evidence that the owner was marking trees to be cut down for some sort of development, he found the money ($4,500) to purchase it.

And, in 1956, he finally negotiated an agreement with the leaders of the Eastern NY Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and donated the island as memorial sanctuary. His friends raised $20,000 to be used as a sort of endowment fund, to pay for further repairs, and to make use of the island as a site for scientific research, and education. He also insisted that a committee of local people be appointed, forming a Dome Island Committee, to provide oversight. Today the Committee is still holding meetings, sponsoring tours for the public, supporting scientific research, and sometimes making donations to institutions, such as the Adirondack Research Library, to continue their work with the Apperson archives.

It seems to me that a decision concerning the best management or ownership for Follensby Pond is one that will require plenty of study and deliberation, with the help of a goodly number of “citizen watchdogs.” It is nice to know, however, that there are two good alternatives to consider, knowing that the State of New York and The Nature Conservancy have both had considerable experience in managing other beautiful, priceless lakes and forests.

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