Three Hills | 2021 | 304 pages
It’s easy to agree with the idea that if a place is remarkable, it deserves protection. But how do we apply that adjective in the first place? What makes some places appropriate for everyday use, while others call out to be set aside for special use? The answer lies less in some objective measurement of rarity or beauty than in the particularities of human relationships: politics, class, and personal connections. To put it plainly, the parts of the earth that earn the appreciation of the wealthy and powerful are apt to be seen as needing to be defended from the poor and marginalized.
In its most acute and timely form, that urge leads billionaires to buy up far-flung retreats or build luxury bunkers where they intend to ride out the apocalypse.[i] The privilege of claiming space has only become more sharply class-based. But even if we’re just talking about conservation measures in the past, this dynamic has played out many times. Native Americans were pushed out of their homelands to make way for national parks. Near where I live in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park came into being as hardscrabble farming families lost their mountain homesteads. A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks, the title of Brad Edmondson’s new history of New York’s Adirondack State Park, refers to the 1973 law that gave a single agency power over all public and private lands in the region. Edmondson reveals how the park—the nation’s largest, covering an area the size of Vermont—represents a tangled history of wealth, politics, and resentment that reaches back to the 19th century and forward to the cultural divides we feel so acutely today.
New York had established the park in 1892 and, two years later, amended the state constitution with the “Forever Wild” clause, restricting what happens on public Adirondack lands. Today, 3.4 million of the six million acres inside the park boundary are privately owned and also substantially protected.
Part of what makes the Adirondacks a “special place” is simply that it’s convenient to New York City. That proximity, along with the region’s undeniable beauty, has long drawn privileged part-time denizens who, with the fortunes they made elsewhere, built lavish upstate summer homes (what Edmondson calls the “world’s nicest porches”). These “Great Camps”—one of them owned by the Rockefellers, whose scion Nelson Rockefeller was New York’s Republican governor during the 1960s and 70s—were a visible symbol of outsider wealth that contrasted sharply with local poverty and insularity. One small detail is very telling: In the early 1900s, local boys “sometimes earned a dollar just to chase deer toward the guns of wealthy men.”
As the mid-20th century took hold, various forces conspired to get certain folks talking about the need to preserve the Adirondacks. Rising concerns about global population growth coincided with increased interest in outdoor recreation and a new ethic of preserving the intangible, spiritual qualities of open spaces—the “untrammeled” aspect that would be enshrined in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
The idea that some places should be used only very lightly, or not at all, may have been the right one in terms of the very real ecological value of the Adirondacks. But concealed behind that wilderness ideal was the fact that only some members of society can afford to prize the untrammeled or to avail themselves of the escape it offers.
Through many interviews and archival research, Edmondson recreates the political process that ultimately resulted in the regional land-use plan that restricts development in the Adirondacks and remains a landmark of conservation today. There’s a wonky narrative here about the way Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission (TSC) and, later, the new Adirondack Park Agency (APA) did their work during the late 1960s and early 70s: compiling reports, proposing plans, and drawing maps. But the real juice of the story lies in the dualities that work highlighted—between rich and poor, urban and rural, public and private interests.
While some (including Rockefeller’s brother Laurance) had a vision of opening the Adirondacks to more intensive recreation and development, others dreamed of keeping much of the region a wilderness, largely free of humans. In 1969, researcher George Davis spoke to the TSC about what exactly it meant to preserve wilderness, which he compared to “God, love, or beauty,” adding, “How do we manage a state of mind?” It was a cutting-edge development when, two years later, the qualities Davis highlighted—“feelings inspired by untouched hillsides and vast silences,” as Edmondson puts it—informed the commission’s real-world proposals.
Yet class divides were inseparable from the laudable urge to protect. As Edmondson puts it, “It’s tempting to believe that the best way to preserve beautiful natural areas like the Adirondacks is to keep people out. And that argument is even harder to resist if you already own a house there.”
Meanwhile, the year-round residents of the economically depressed Adirondacks (19 percent of one local county’s residents received welfare payments in 1971) saw the APA’s land-use plan as a barrier to opportunity, imposed by outsiders. Indeed, Edmondson calls it “the toughest [law] in its class” in terms of the APA’s power to oversee local planning. Though locals’ objections sometimes took the form of untrue rumors—i.e., that the Rockefellers wanted to seize their property—they were nonetheless on to something when they accused the state of paternalism.
In 2021, with cultural divides cutting deeper than ever, it’s important to take an honest look at how social-political resentments began. In the early 1970s, environmentalism drew broad enough support to be seen as safe politics, even by Republicans like Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. But 50 years later, even the urgency of climate crisis can’t break through the partisanship that has Congressional Republicans chipping away at the clean-energy and electric-car provisions of President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Their constituents, of course, often see climate concerns as a hoax and federal environmental policy as a form of tyranny. Meanwhile, the Trump administration found it good politics to attempt to remove protections from at least 35 million acres of public lands.[ii]
If, in the decades since the ‘70s, the environmental movement has come to be seen by many as untrustworthy or out-of-touch, there are clues in A Wild Idea as to why that’s so—like how middle-class tourist spots, mini-golf courses, and travel trailers were frowned upon by an environmental movement with deep connections to the Adirondacks’s upper crust. Or how the APA chair, after a contentious public hearing in 1973, told another APA member, “Don’t worry about the locals. It’s good for the animals to exercise their vocal cords.”
Preserving the land for everyone, whether it’s meant to be actively used or kept roadless and wild, can be seen as the ultimate common good. But a failure to involve people from all layers of society in the making of that policy means that preservation will come to be seen in terms of who was, and wasn’t, invited to the table.
Header photo of Adirondacks in autumn by Engel Ching, courtesy Shutterstock.