A Political History of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve
The Adirondack Park Agency and Beyond

The Adirondack Park Agency
One thing was becoming painfully obvious by the middle of the 20th Century: that despite the strict Constitutional controls over the use of Adirondack Forest Preserve lands, there were no regulations whatsoever regarding the use of private lands within the Blue Line. The Conservation Department had virtually no authority over private development, and development was on its way. The construction of the Adirondack Northway, or Interstate 87, greatly eased access to the Adirondacks, and cheap motels, taverns, and other evidence of commercialization quickly began to adulterate the wilderness character of the region. The subdivisions, housing developments, and second-home construction that had so tainted Vermont were all on their way to the Park. Governor Nelson Rockefeller was aware of all of this, and in 1968, after the effort for the Adirondack National Park had failed, appointed the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. Harold Hochschild, who founded the Adirondack Museum, became chairman. Two years later, near the end of 1970, the Commission submitted its report to Rockefeller. Numerous recommendations were made, and many of them were to be expected. For example, the Commission encouraged the State to leave Article XIV alone, and to leave the National Park Service out. Chief amongst the Commission's recommendations, however, was its first:
An independent, bipartisan Adirondack Park Agency should be created by statute with general power over the use of private and public land in the Park
The idea of forming such an Agency was monumental. The state was now attempting to intrude into the private affairs of the residents of the Park; the APA would be able to tell the people what they could and could not do with their own land. Yet the reasoning for the creation of the APA was very simple: it was the general consensus that something had to be done to stem rampant development, and individual towns could not possibly be expected to formulate their own zoning and development regulations, considering their lack of resources for the task. Nor were the interests of the State at large always upheld in the decisions of local planning boards. Both corners, the advocates of conservation and those calling the APA a violation of individual property rights, settled in for what was certain to become a very, very hotly contested matter. Some argued that the formation of the APA was a good idea, but one that was not necessary; the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), formed in 1970 to expand the power of the Conservation Department, could handle the extra workload. Unfortunately, the DEC, like the former Conservation Department, had no authority over private land use.

The battle in the legislature commenced when Rockefeller handed them the bill near the end of their session in 1971. The conservation lobby knew it didn't have much time before the legislature would adjourn for the year in early June, and many lawmakers would gladly see the bill filed away until the next session. A compromise was reached just before adjournment, allowing towns until September 1971 to write their own zoning ordinances, which would be untouchable by the APA. Hochschild, knowing full well that given three months, every single town in the Park would push regulations through, rejected the compromise. He offered the towns until July 1 to pass such plans, which was all but a symbolic gesture, considering that date was only three weeks away. The bill went to the floor with Hochschild's offer, and on Monday, June 7, 1971, it passed the Assembly 123 to 24. On the next day, the Senate adopted the bill, 22-14. It was quickly signed by Rockefeller. The Adirondack Park Agency was born.

The State Land Master Plan
The Agency had its work cut out for it. It had to develop two comprehensive plans: the State Land Master Plan, which was to cover use of the lands comprising the Forest Preserve, and the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, which was to regulate development on private land within the park. On June 1, 1972, the APA, in consultation with the DEC, submitted its State Land Master Plan, which, unlike the Land Use and Development Plan, only required the Governor's approval, rather than that of the entire legislature. The plan broke the Forest Preserve holdings into seven categories based primarily on the extent to which man had affected the landscape. The seven classifications are Wilderness; Primitive; Canoe; Wild Forest; Intensive Use; Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers; and Travel Corridors. The Master Plan states:
A wilderness area, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man - where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. A wilderness area is further defined to mean an area of state land or water having a primeval character, without significant improvements or permanent human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve, enhance and restore, where necessary, its natural conditions, and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least ten thousand acres of land and water or is of sufficient size and character as to made practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value.
Man has affected wilderness areas the least out of any of the other six classifications, and therefore wilderness areas have the most restrictions placed upon their use. The only conforming "structures and improvements" are lean-tos, privies, existing dams, and foot trails and their respective bridges and signboards. Ranger cabins, aside from the Lake Colden outpost, are non-conforming, and should be removed (the state has in fact carried out this mandate). The Lake Colden station is explicitly excluded from this death sentence, and "may be retained indefinitely" due to its location in one of the most heavily used sections of the most heavily used wilderness area. Perhaps most notably, motorized vehicles are prohibited from operating within the boundaries of a wilderness. The use of snowmobiles, float planes, ATV's, and chains saws, is therefore not allowed in a designated wilderness. Fifteen such wilderness areas were initially designated by the Plan, making up about 45% of the public land within the park.

On the other side of the coin are intensive use areas, which have the fewest restrictions placed on them. These areas include state campgrounds, developed beaches, boat launches, etc. Also included within the classification of "intensive use" are the bobsled and luge runs on Mt. Van Hoevenberg, the ski area and highway on Whiteface Mt, and the Gore Mt ski area.

Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan
The plan for Public Lands was relatively quietly approved by Governor Rockefeller. The same could not be said for the plan for Private Lands in March 1973. In generating the plan, the Agency consulted with representatives from Vermont who, in response to growing second-home and condominium development, enacted land-use regulations in the late 1960's and early 70's. The APA again divided the land up into several different classifications based upon intended use. These were industrial use, which was the least restrictive; hamlet; moderate intensity use; low intensity use; rural use; and resource management, which was the most restrictive. Lands owned by paper companies or sportsmen's clubs, such as the Adirondack League Club south of Old Forge, typically fell into the category of resource management. Further, the plan divided all proposed development projects into two categories: large-scale projects, or Class A; and small-scale ones, termed Class B. Class A projects required the direct approval of the APA, while Class B projects would be approved by the government at the local level.

The plan was eventually passed by the legislature after a number compromises, one of which guaranteed that the state would continue paying the towns property taxes on its lands, and a few of which weakened the development restrictions, particularly along shorelines. As Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan into law on May 22, 1973, he exclaimed, "The Adirondacks are preserved forever." In his book The Adirondack Park: A Political History, Frank Graham, Jr. notes, "'Forever' carries a lot of weight in a Constitution. Its weight is less easily gauged when it issues from the mouth of a governor who has one eye cocked on national office."

The heat generated by the Land Use plan was immediate. Adirondackers said the APA was effectively stealing their property, and that they were being denied basic rights to do as they wished with their own property. A nation-wide economic slump soon after the Agency's regulations took effect did nothing to help the image either; it was easy for Adirondackers to blame their troubles on the APA despite the fact that everyone else in the nation at the time had the same troubles. Paul Schneider, in The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness, writes: "It didn't seem to matter that the region had failed as an agricultural center, failed as a mining center, and failed as a manufacturing center all by itself long before the advent of the APA." For the most part, the hostility never amounted to more than harsh words. There were flare-ups, however, including one incident where a man was caught attempting to burn down the Agency's headquarters. The APA didn't do much to help its own image, however. It handled itself in a very beaurocratic fashion much of the time, and often took its time in processing permits. The first man cited for a criminal zoning violation was a DEC forest ranger, the second, a Boy Scout leader. Many of its actions were a public relations nightmare. It was easy to hate the APA.

Things did begin to get better, however. The Agency made many efforts to improve its tarnished image, and to act more on the individual level than as an official government agency. In 1976, due to a modification of the law at its own urging, the APA was allowed to provide civil penalties for zoning infractions, whereas previously its only discourse was criminal prosecution. The power of the APA was challenged several times in the court system, and was repeatedly upheld. Eventually the hostilities died down to a dull roar; things were back to status quo. Many who were originally vehemntly opposed to the APA now accept as a necessity. Pete Fish, for example, who retired in 1998 after nearly 25 years of service as Forest Ranger in the High Peaks, had this to say about the APA:
As much as I have wrangled in the past over what the APA has done, they are dealing with a tough population. ... All you have to do if you wonder about the APA is to go to the Catskills and see the lack of it, see what unbridled development and expansion has done there. You can see the ghastly old hotels crumbling to the ground, and look at bungalow colonies crumbling to the ground. You can see the tasteless display of crap all along the roadways and the rest of it to realize what an important thing the APA is.
The Adirondack Park Agency as it currently exists is made up of eleven members. Eight of these are citizens of the state that are not employed in any way by the state, and are appointed by the Governor and approved by the Senate. Five of these appointees must reside within the Park, each from a different county. The other three are the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Commissioner of Economic Development, and the Secretary of State. No more than five members can be from any one political party. The Agency is currently facing budget cuts due to governmental downsizing under the Pataki administration that are threatening not only its usefulness, but also its existence. And as of yet, there is still no one in public relations.

View a breakdown of land use classifications within the park

View the current Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan:
  • PDF format, 300K (recommended, although three pages do not appear to display correctly)
  • Plain text format, 220K

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