Adirondack Park Agency

History of the Adirondack Park

Exploiting the Wilderness

The first harvesting of the Adirondack forests began shortly after the English replaced the Dutch as the landlords of New Netherlands and changed its name to New York. Logging operations generated wealth, opened up land for farming, and removed the cover that provided a haven for Indians.
After the Revolutionary War, the Crown lands passed to the people of New York State. Needing money to discharge war debts, the new government sold nearly all the original public acreage - some 7 million acres - for pennies an acre. Lumbermen were welcomed to the interior, with few restraints: "You have no conception of the quantity of lumber that is taken every winter... A great deal of land is bought of government solely for the pine on it, and after that is cut down, it is allowed to revert back to the State to pay its taxes." -- Joel T. Headley, The Adirondack: or Life in the Woods, 1849

This destruction of Adirondack forests became a growing concern after 1850, as the continued depletion of watershed woodlands reduced the soil's ability to hold water, hastening topsoil erosion and exaggerating periods of flooding. Lumbering was not alone in impoverishing the forest: the tanning industry depleted the hemlock; the paper industry consumed spruce and fir; and the charcoal industry devoured wood of all sizes and shapes. 1885: The Forest Preserve "Had I my way, I would mark 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. It would be a misdemeanor to chop down a tree and a felony to clear an acre within its boundaries."
-- S.H. Hammond Wild Northern Scenes; or Sporting Adventures With the Rifle and the Rod, 1857

Hammond sowed seeds that germinated in the efforts of others, perhaps most importantly in the writings of Verplanck Colvin. For almost thirty years, beginning in 1872, Colvin crisscrossed the Adirondack wilderness, supervising a state survey of the region. He used his annual reports to the legislature to call for the creation of an Adirondack Forest Preserve: "Unless the region be preserved essentially in its present wilderness condition, the ruthless burning and destruction of the forest will slowly, year after year, creep onward ... and vast areas of naked rock, arid sand and gravel will alone remain to receive the bounty of the clouds, unable to retain it."
-- Verplanck Colvin 1874 Annual Report to the Legislature

Persuaded by such testimony, the legislature established a Forest Preserve in 1885, stating that the Preserve "shall be forever kept as wild forest lands."

1892: The Adirondack Park

Colvin dreamed of even greater protection for his beloved Adirondacks than by that provided by the Forest Preserve legislation: the creation of an Adirondack Park. By 1892, a bill establishing the Park passed the legislature, indicating with a blue line the parts of the region where state acquisition of private in-holdings was to be concentrated. The law was a mixed blessing: while it created the Park "to be forever reserved for the free use of all the people," it weakened earlier protections, allowing the Forest Commission to sell state lands anywhere in the Adirondacks and to lease state lands within the Park to private individuals for camps and cottages.
"At the time one did not have to be an arm-waving tree hugger to understand that the Adirondack forest could ill afford any loss of protection. The forest was a mess ... Forest commissioners came under suspicion. There was talk of official skullduggery. How could a place be forever reserved for the people as wild forest land if the people allowed the forest commissioners to sell off the timber?"
-- John Mitchell, Audubon Magazine

1895 Constitutional Protection: "Forever Wild"

At the 1894 Constitutional Convention, a new covenant to achieve meaningful protection of the Forest Preserve was included in the new Constitution. Henceforth, the Adirondack Forest Preserve would be "forever wild."

"For years the State had been acquiring and holding lands, often denuded, to be sure, which lumber interests did not pay the taxes on. It was this nucleus of property that gave the idea for the Park. Curiously enough, in this way, avarice was its own undoing ... In 1885 the Forest Preserve was created, and the popular vote in 1894 set it aside for the use of all the people forever."
-- T. Morris Longstreth, The Adirondacks, 1917

Any relaxation of the total protection offered to today's 2.5-million-acre Forest Preserve requires the approval of a majority of the state's voters and two successive legislatures. It is rarely given. Voters and their representatives have continually resisted major changes, approving only narrowly drafted alterations: the cutting of ski trails on Whiteface Mountain (1940) and construction of the Northway, I-87 (1958) are among the most prominent.

20th-Century Development

Early in this century, recreational use of the Forest Preserve increased dramatically. As more people came, demanding conveniences, the State Conservation Department (now the Department of Environmental Conservation) responded by building more facilities in the state woods: boat docks, tent platforms, lean-tos, fire towers, and telephone and electrical lines, among others. With the opening of the Northway in the mid-1960s, private lands came under great pressure as well, for there was hardly a land-use control on the books in all of the Adirondacks. A proposal to save the region by establishing an Adirondack Mountain National Park spurred heated debate, forcing all sides to acknowledge the reality of development pressures. A study commission was appointed by Governor Rockefeller in 1968 to assess the future of both state and private lands within the Park.
The Commission's report recommended the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency and the preparation by the Agency of a master plan for state holdings and a land use and development plan for private land. The Adirondack Park Agency The Adirondack Park Agency was created in 1971 to develop long-range land-use plans for both the public and private lands within the Blue Line.
The State Land Master Plan was adopted by the Agency and first signed by the Governor in 1972. State Land Master Plan In consultation with the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Park Agency formulated the State Land Master Plan to accommodate outdoor recreation without diluting the intent of the "forever wild" protection of the Preserve. The State Land Master Plan classifies public lands in the Park in five major categories: Wilderness, Primitive, Canoe, Wild Forest, and Intensive Use.

Land Use and Development Plan

In 1973 the legislature adopted into law the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, covering the Park's private lands. In its simplest terms, the Plan is designed to channel much of the future growth in the Park around existing communities, where roads, utilities, services, and supplies already exist. Under the Act, all private lands in the Park are classified into one of six categories: Hamlet, Moderate Intensity, Low Intensity, Rural Use, Industrial Use, and Resource Management.

Depleting the Resources "No area in America has had a more miserable story of ruthless squandering of natural resources ... based on the supposition that the stock of fish and game, as well as trees, was infinite."
-- William Chapman White, Adirondack Country, 1954

More about the Adirondack Park...

Natural Communities
Adirondack History


Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan 30th Anniversary Tribute - May 22, 2003
Remarks made at the May Agency Meeting...