Property Rights Foundation of America®

The Adirondack Park Agency Idea

By Carol W. LaGrasse
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.

Thirteenth Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 17, 2009
Holiday Inn Turf Lake George, Lake George, N.Y.


Welcome to our special conference on the Adirondacks! It is just wonderful to see you! Our theme this year is "The Adirondack Park: The Idea, The Experience, The Future." This is our thirteenth annual national conference on private property rights and our event is the first such all-day event sponsored by a group that is pro-freedom, pro-private property ownership, and private property rights, and dedicated to the future of the rural communities and culture seemingly trapped within the Adirondack Blue Line.

This is the first time that we have held the conference up north here, rather than in Albany. I am happy that this location at beautiful Lake George with the breathtaking colors of fall still covering the mountains has made it possible for more people from the North Country to come. Thank you all for coming to our conference. Thank you to those of you who have faithfully traveled a significant additional distance from the south this year to join us.


Deepest appreciation is expressed to our conference co-sponsors: the Building and Realty Institute of Westchester and the Mid-Hudson Region, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Gardner Residents for Individual Property Rights, and The National Center for Public Policy Research. These organizations have contributed to this conference in spite of the difficult economic times that have greatly curtailed finances for purposes like donating to this conference.

In addition, I'd like to express appreciation to Great Circle Foundation Inc. for their generous educational outreach grant, which has made it possible for PRFA to reach out to new participants. The grant has funded our exhibits this year on the negative impact on the hunting culture of the Adirondacks caused by the New York State acquisition of private land for the forest preserve. The exhibits have received a lot of interest.

The Idea.

Early this year, my husband Peter and I spent some time in the Library of the State Legislative studying documents that recorded legislative hearings related to the creation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Our State Senator Betty Little made it possible for the librarian to provide whatever archives that we could possibly need. We wanted to fully understand the thinking behind the decision of the Legislature to require that the state pay local real estate taxes on land that it would require for the Forest Preserve.

We did indeed learn from legislative testimony in 1885 that the legislature was concerned about being fair to the local communities because the state ownership of land to restore the forests that had been recklessly clearcut would also hamper the local economy. The state's payment of taxes was an attempt to restore some balance and protect the local communities.

We also learned that the purpose of the Forest Preserve was not what today would be called environmentalism. It was to protect commerce.

As every school child knows, the Erie Canal and the mighty Hudson linked the great harbor of New York City to shipments of goods to and from Buffalo, the link to the Great Lakes and the entire Midwest. New York City soon outstripped every city on the East Coast. But by the late 1880s, the Erie Canal was drying up during the summer, making shipping impossible. The Hudson was running dangerously low, also, and the saline front was migrating upstream.

The summer flow in the streams feeding these essential commercial waterways had decreased by 30 to 50 percent because the Adirondack forest, which acted like a great reservoir, was being denuded by radical logging.

The forest to the north had to be restored so the fountains of water from the Adirondacks could steadily and reliably feed these essential waterways. The forest floor had to hold the water like a great sponge in the spring and release it gradually during the summer.

As you know, the forest was gradually reestablished, starting with the 681,374 acres of land that the state owned in the Adirondacks in 1885. The idea was in the background that when the forest was in good shape again, it would be scientifically managed to provide commercial lumber and other goods. It was not intended to remain "forever wild."

The state comptroller's report to the legislature stated in 1885 that the comptroller would receive revenue from cutting trees to improve the remaining trees.

Who would have ever thought that in 2009 there would be almost three million acres of forest preserve in the Adirondacks? What fair-minded person of the late nineteenth century could have envisioned a property transaction device called a conservation easement that would add another 700,000 acres of eradicated development rights to the DEC's giant repository of deeds at its Albany headquarters?

And who could have imagined that, with all development on nearly four million acres of land obviated by these acquisitions, the state would still consider that it needs a relatively new agency called the Adirondack Park Agency to restrict land use by the beleaguered local people and other landowners?

But such is the case. The APA, as it is called, has a land use plan that restricts homes to a minimum of 42 acres per house on about half the private land and to a little over 8 acres per house on about 37 percent of the private land. When wetlands and water bodies, steep slopes are added in, almost no land remains for the "generous" zoning on the remaining areas, zoned "hamlet" or 3.2 or 1.3 acres minimum.

The situation is a far cry from the vision of the public-spirited people and the legislators who created the Forest Preserve and gave it constitutional protection a few years later.

It should be remembered that New York State's Constitution is a different sort of document than the U.S. Constitution, with which people are far more familiar. The State Constitution is a large, unwieldy collection of laws that are modified rather often, rather than a minimal outline of the structure of the government and protections of fundamental rights.

In New York, the Constitution is so unwieldy that if National Grid wants to bring a power line to the isolated, once thriving village of Tupper Lake from the northwest, a constitutional amendment is required, because state-owned land is located too close to Route 56 to allow the transmission line without entering on sacrosanct Forest Preserve. That is why there is actually a constitutional amendment to allow the construction of an ordinary power line on the ballot throughout New York State this coming Election Day. What a far cry from the concept of a forest preserve to protect shipping on the state's major commercially navigable waterways!

What happened over the years was that the state's policies affecting the Adirondacks became simply an agenda of the New York City wealthy—not the commercial interests that served the people of the country, but the interests of the wealthy to keep the Adirondacks to themselves for their own private recreation.

Nelson Rockefeller's brother Laurence wanted to make the central Adirondacks a National Park, but the local people objected and the individuals concerned with preservation thought that the park would be too small. I have an original copy of the Adirondack National Park proposal that the late Assemblyman Glenn Harris's gave to me. It is not just a rumor that there was a Rockefeller plan to make our region a National Park.

When the idea of a National Park was stymied, they appointed one of those study commissions, this called the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. The chairman was Harold Hochschild, the man behind the Adirondack Museum. The commission soon came up with a plan entitled The Future of the Adirondacks to create a regional zoning agency appointed by the governor to control land use on the government-owned and private land in the entire six million geological formation created by a great pre-Cambrian uplift called the Adirondack Mountains. This area would be called the Adirondack Park and the agency governing the area would be called the Adirondack Park Agency.

With some compromises to protect local people that Assemblyman Glenn Harris got into the bill, such as the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency Local Government Review Board, taking away aesthetic jurisdiction of houses along county roads, and an exemption of hunting and fishing camps under 500 sq. ft. in size from jurisdiction, the final Adirondack Park Agency Act was passed in May 1973. It is a voluminous law, painstaking to read and inscrutable to the average person.

Their first zoning plan for the Adirondacks came out during 1973, also. At the hearing in January 1973, I began to receive signals of what was afoot, but was totally unaware of any idea to gradually eradicate the local people, along with their culture, from the countryside, in favor of the very wealthy who would continue to enjoy the region, as well as their surrogates, the environmental groups, which had started to assume political significance. I got to look at a copy of the zoning plan by sitting on the floor and stretching out the map on the floor of the unfurnished office of the Sierra Club that had just been set up in Manhattan. A hearing was held on the land use plan at the Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan, which I attended on January 15, 1973, before we moved here. It was one of the first times in my life that I spoke at a public hearing. An event at the beginning of the hearing was all that I had to know. I've told this story before, but it should be retold.

Richard Lawrence, the APA director, conducted the hearing in the purple velvet-seated room with gilt-framed large paintings of substantial men from recent centuries covering most of the surface of the high walls. Among those in the audience were William Rockefeller, Avery Rockefeller, Peter Paine, and Arthur Crocker, The latter had an organization to promote the Adirondack legislation. Mr. Lawrence stood several feet from me, at a well-built wooden podium that was movable, as it turned out. He began by introducing himself, but picked up the podium and carried it about ten feet to the audience's left and set it down, nearer to where I sat. He looked over his shoulder, and then faced the audience.

He said, "I feel much more comfortable with my granddaddy next to me."

Interestingly, the Blue Line outlining the Adirondack Park Agency's jurisdiction is cut around the Rockefeller estate north of Lake Placid, leaving that branch of the family outside the so-called park.

Some of the extreme goals for the Adirondacks were not met with the 1973 Adirondack Park Agency Act. In 1989, Governor Cuomo appointed another study commission, which presented its predictably radical recommendations. The most notable were combining the 42-acre and 8-acre zonings category into a new "back country" zoning category with a minimum of 2,000 acres per house; a proposal for the state to acquire 657,850 acres of private land, which was laid out with an immediately controversial, accompanying map; a proposal to retroactively make invisible all houses from roads and canoeable waters (which I called cultural eradication) and what I called the Indian Reservation idea, to make all state agencies to be headquartered in Ray Brook, with the Blue Line as their jurisdictional boundary. There was an accompanying $2 billion environmental quality bond act, which then-New York State Comptroller Ned Regan told me was intended to buy up virtually all the remaining private land in the Adirondacks.

This was a period of great victory by the Adirondack people over the enemy who would like to eradicate our population from the Adirondacks. At that time I still believed that our enemy was the radical environmentalists. They have assumed great power and indeed they are the enemy, but the impetus still comes from the wealth of New York City.

Because of the phenomenal outpouring of organized opposition by people living in the Adirondacks, the Legislature never acted on the bill written by Bob Glennon, the executive director of the APA, to implement the Twenty-first Century Commission recommendations, or on any of the subsequent, ostensibly compromise bills. In this room today are many of the leaders who are responsible for this great local victory, which made national news: Dennis Phillips, Fred Monroe, Joe Rota, Claude Lecours, Susan Allen, Howard Aubin, Gary Barber, Peter LaGrasse. We were young then, but we are not slowing down yet!

The electorate rejected the Environmental Bond Act by 0.7 percent of the vote. Votes in the North Country ran as high as 16 to 1 against the bond act. Our group of four, which brought a successful pro se lawsuit that Peter and I conceived and wrote to challenge the Gov. Cuomo's use of taxpayer funds to promote the bond act, was blamed by the law journal published by Peter Berle's legal firm for the bond act's defeat, along with the Farm Bureau, because of our negative publicity about the bond act. Who was Peter Berle? The Assemblyman who was the point man against Glenn Harris for passage of the Adirondack Park Agency law, president of the National Audubon Society, the executive director of the Twentieth-Century Commission, which was often called the "Berle Commission."

International opportunities for industrial production, combined with global economic pressure on domestic production of paper and wood products, have combined forces with the incredible disposable wealth of environmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Mellon's Conservation Fund to have a disastrous impact on private land ownership in the Adirondacks. The Conservation Fund acted in 1998 as a surrogate for the State to purchase and flip the 139,000 acre Champion International holdings in mainly Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties to the state as 29,000 acres in fee simple and 110,000 acres in conservation easements. The Nature Conservancy flipped the largest private holding in the Adirondacks, nearly all the lands of International Paper Company, over 250,000 acres, almost entirely in conservation easements, to the state in 2004.

And currently The Nature Conservancy holds and is disposing of virtually all of the 161,000 acres lands of Finch Pruyn, the Glens Falls paper manufacturer, to the state. Some of Finch Pruyn's holdings are spread as far south as Stony Creek, where Peter and I reside and PRFA is headquartered. The Nature Conservancy intends to transfer 65,000 acres (about 100 square miles) to the state for "forever wild," never to be logged again. An irony is that Finch Pruyn's land stewardship, which goes back longer than the Forest Preserve has existed, has been recognized with prestigious award. However, the environmentalists are pressing that these, the most productive lands of that paper company, be relegated to "forever wild," with the trees to rot, never to be logged again.

The Nature Conservancy's plans to flip the 100 square miles of Finch Pruyn land to the state are currently stalled because of the state's budget crunch. In fact, the conservancy sought help from a Colorado authority for a loan to refinance their loan to acquire the Finch Pruyn lands. The Colorado Educational and Cultural Authority held a hearing at Glens Falls City hall last December about its proposed loan, which was packed with our people, who spoke in opposition. The paid directors of the big Adirondack environmental organizations spoke in favor. The Authority had never experienced public opposition to one of their proposals before. Unless we can get a lawsuit to enforce the IRS law about the bonds being appreciated by the public, I doubt whether our effort at opposition will have impact, however.

The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages released a report this spring that, in effect, heralds the success of the environmental groups and the wealthy New York elites, whose goal to eradicate the local population is now crystal clear.

First, I do have to make a qualification. There is a need for these people to maintain their dachas to allow some ordinary people to reside in the region. Somebody has to make their beds, so to speak. That explains why the economic development types working with the APA are pressing the need to install sewage treatment facilities in the hamlets, which would make it possible to intensify the dwellings in these tiny areas, and why they are expressing support for the creation of a little more somewhat dense housing in other very limited areas.

But the AATV report gets the point across. Of course, the association is not itself happy at its carefully documented discoveries that the population is dying out, jobs are being lost, and the like. Their leadership is working hard to get the news out and to arouse interest in the situation, while not being accusatory.

Their study, compiled by professional planners, the LA Group of Saratoga, with local government funds and a grant from Stewarts ice cream company, is quite effective in depicting the radical decline here. They reported that since 1970, enrollment in school districts inside the Adirondack Park has declined by 32 percent, or nearly 16,000.

An article in the Adirondack Journal summarized the drift of the study's conclusions: "Adirondackers [are] getting poorer, older—and their offspring are leaving."

A report in the Hamilton County News in December 2004 about the school in Raquette Lake had brought home the extreme population decline. The article asked the question, "What happens if a school has no pupils?"

"With only three students in grades K-6, and no new ones expected in the foreseeable future, that is the question facing Raquette Lake Union Fee School Board of Education," the paper reported.

A half-year later, the paper reported that the school held its last graduation and that in the future the Raquette Lake children would attend the Indian Lake school. However, the Indian Lake school graduated a mere ten students that June.

The pressure on access to land and home ownership was borne out by the AATV's study's observation that in Hamilton County, which is wholly within the Adirondack Blue Line, nearly 70 percent of home sales are to second home buyers.

State land acquisition, APA restrictions, and competition with more prosperous buyers from outside the region has undercut access to homes by Adirondackers.

I'm glad that the AATV report didn't rely on unemployment statistics, considering that the current New York State Labor Department report shows that Hamilton County has one of the very low unemployment rates in the state, 4.5 percent as of July. This is because when people of working age keep moving out, as the AATV study shows, the unemployment rate doesn't climb. In addition, there are a great number of retired people, people on disability, and people on welfare up in the North Country, and also low-earning partially and self-employed, which are not counted on the unemployment rolls because they are not actively looking for jobs.

My quip about the success of the environmental groups being demonstrated by the AATV report doesn't mean to express any lack of appreciation for the disciplined statistics. But I did want to refer to the report to help make clear how the idea of the Forest Preserve has evolved from one of practicality and fairness to a mean-spirited agenda that has no acceptable, practical purpose from a public interest viewpoint.

So the idea of the Forest Preserve has changed. Whereas in the nineteenth century, when the Legislature owned up to the fact that they weren't doing any favors for the localities by instituting the Forest Preserve, but thought of a way to be more decent to them within the limitations of the goal to commercially benefit the state as a whole, today there is no common ground with those with grandiose environmental ideas for the Adirondack region.

Yes, there exists the Adirondack Mountain Club's "common ground" group, which had its supposed success opposing Governor Paterson's proposal to gradually phase down state real estate tax payments on forest preserve land. (Actually many, many local governments, individuals, and state representatives who speak consistently for Adirondack community interests worked intensely to defeat the proposal.)

But the reason for the environmental groups' very publicly portrayed opposition was plainly stated by Neil Woodworth, the ADK executive director. "This is not only unfair, it is bad policy that would undermine local support for open space protection in the Adirondacks and Catskills"

In summary, the idea of the Forest Preserve has evolved through the guidance of self-interested wealthy and radical environmental groups, who are often their surrogates, from a practical one to promote the public interest of the prosperity of the state of New York to one that is against any potential of prosperity of the people dwelling in a vast 6 million acre region encompassing much of twelve counties. It has evolved from fairness to unrelenting meanness. It has evolved from a pioneering idea to protect the environment to one of pretend environmentalism. It has evolved from a period where freedom was respected to an era where the state government and the people of the state beyond the Blue Line are comfortable eradicating the fundamental property rights of a people of an entire region.

So, it was my idea to propose a new plan for the Adirondack Forest Preserve, one different from the dreary heritage that is sought for our future to one where true environmentalism and the respect for the rights and future of the local people combine. To a time where hunters and all types of recreation are respected on the Forest Preserve, to a time when the Forest Preserve is curtailed to a reasonable size, to a time when the Forest Preserve is well-managed for income for the people of the state of New York, with selected exceptions, to a time when the Adirondack Park Agency has jurisdiction over the Forest Preserve, but a locally elected zoning body has limited jurisdiction over major projects outside the state-owned land in the Adirondacks, with more zoning in the hands of local towns and village people, as in the rest of the state. I'd like to see this in my lifetime.

At the end of the day, we have a lot of time for your ideas after you have the pleasure of hearing our speakers. Thank you once again.

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