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1 June 2010 The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park
Brian Donahue
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The Great Experiment in Conservationis a big book about a big subject: a great experiment in conservation that has been running now for over a century inside the “blue line” drawn in 1892, which created the Adirondack Park. Two years later, state-owned lands within the park—most of which had been logged over, acquired for back taxes, and already made a forest preserve to protect timber and water supply— were declared “forever wild” and placed under constitutional protection. The Adirondack Park contains six million acres—it's three times the size of Yellowstone. More than one million acres are motorless wilderness, which amounts to one-quarter of the designated wilderness in the United States east of the Rockies. In 1970, in the face of mounting development pressure, New York State formed the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), giving it broad powers to control private land use within the park and unleashing decades of controversy. These two watershed moments, almost a century apart, have made Adirondack Park one of the great “crucibles of conservation” in American history.

The editors of The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park have performed a heroic task in assembling 34 compact essays, along with their own introductions, a foreword by economist Herman Daly, and an afterword by Bill McKibben. The editors are deeply qualified: They have distinguished academic careers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and at the University of Vermont, in addition to years of public service in the Adirondacks— they have been in the crucible themselves. William F. Porter is director of the Adirondack Ecological Center, Jon D. Erickson is editor of the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies, and Ross S. Whaley has served as chairman of the APA. The book's contributors are similarly credible, and include many of the leaders involved in Adirondack research, policy, and activism.

The book begins with essays on the natural and human history of the Adirondacks, moves through the development of the park's conservation institutions, and closes with voices from the controversies of the past four decades. The issues discussed are among the most fundamental in conservation: protecting nature (and particularly wilderness) versus fostering economic development (sustainable or otherwise), public versus private control of land use, and outside “top-down” control versus local “bottom-up” control of agendas and policy. Most of the essays are engaging and clearly written by people who are passionate about what is at stake.

The book contains remarkable juxtapositions that highlight both conflict and efforts at reconciliation. In one essay, Robert Glennon, former APA executive director, charges that regulations to control development have been compromised and undermined from the start, leading inexorably to a “land not saved”; in the next essay, local newspaper editor John Penney portrays those same regulations as outside, top-down control run amok, stifling local rights through the hypocritical application of nebulous standards. Later come essays by Whaley and another former APA chairman, Richard Lefebvre, who presents a guardedly optimistic picture of gradual movement toward inclusion and common ground, though hardly a consensus.

A thoughtful essay by forester Roger Dziengeleski outlines the pressures on large-scale forest industries in the park: parcelization of holdings, past overcutting that has reduced the forest's productivity, and environmental regulations that make it difficult to survive global competition from regions where such regulations do not exist. This, he fears, is leading to the gradual extinction of the industry. Will the Adirondack Park inevitably become a six-million-acre wilderness preserve? Such an outcome might be celebrated by wilderness advocates such as Elizabeth Thorndike, who argues that bringing these large private holdings into the wilderness fold through some combination of public acquisition and conservation easements is essential to consolidating the fragmented public forest preserve that exists today—though she is a bit guarded on what “small-w wilderness” on such private lands would mean. Would it include timber harvesting? Motorized vehicles? She is followed by a noteworthy contribution from seasoned wildlife biologist Rainer Brocke, who advocates a “new wilderness paradigm” in which not only conservation easements but the continuation of largescale wood harvesting on forest industry lands is welcomed to create productive early successional habitat. Brocke values the aesthetic qualities of unmanaged old growth, but he argues that wild areas alone cannot sustain viable populations of some species within the park, partly because the Adirondacks are isolated from the broader Northern Forest bioregion by waterways and developed lands on all sides.


This brings us to perhaps the most interesting question in the book: To what extent is the Adirondack Park a fascinating but isolated case, cut off by unique political and physical boundaries? Is it a model for other regions? The Great Experiment in Conservation is a great success at painting a picture of the Adirondacks as a distinctive place, and at illuminating the challenges that face the park and its residents. Much more difficult is the question of what significance these issues have for other regions beyond the blue line—and not just other parks and formal conservation areas around the world, such as the Abruzzo Park in Italy and others in developing countries. The book does suggest some things about the future of other rural regions facing similar pressures and uncertainties.

The challenges facing the Adirondack Park are not that different from those of a much larger forested region—in particular, the Northern Forest ecoregion stretching east through New England, north into Canada, and west to Minnesota. As the authors point out, many of the hardships confronting park residents are not caused by restrictions placed upon them by the APA, as much as those may rankle some. Across the region the challenges include the decline of the forest industry, even as it continues to shape the ecological and social landscape, coupled with the lurking promise (or threat) that a sustained rise in world energy prices might invert the situation by reviving the forest industry (e.g., for the large-scale production of biomass fuel). Similarly, the entire region, along with many other rural areas, endures low standards of living and losses of jobs and population—yet at the same time (at least in the most scenic districts) also the promise or threat of a continuing influx of affluent ecotourists and vacation homebuilders, who bring economic stimulus but also an altered landscape and way of life, the disappearance of affordable housing, and costly demands for improved services.

How is this great forested region to address these fundamental challenges? How do we balance protection of a wonderful green infrastructure at the landscape scale while guiding necessary development and building a sustainable economy? The conflicts involved and the range of ecological, social, and political mechanisms at hand are universal, and issues in any area are not that different from those that have been experimented with inside the blue line.

Beyond that, as the authors of the essays in this book make clear time and again, the greatest threats come from outside the Adirondacks: invasive plants and pests, air pollution and acid rain, and above all, rapid climate change. These problems belong to human society at large. Addressing them will require vast societal change in which rural areas obviously play only a part. Urban and suburban places must also take up energy and resource conservation, and the protection of a healthy natural environment with which we actively engage in our own backyards— not just on occasional rejuvenating trips to the wilderness or to our vacation homes, should we be so lucky. In the end, we all live inside the blue line.

Brian Donahue "The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park," BioScience 60(6), 471-473, (1 June 2010).
Published: 1 June 2010
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