125 years of the Adirondack Park

Of all the natural wonders about which New Yorkers can boast, the largest and most breathtaking is the Adirondack State Park. This month, we are marking the 125th anniversary of the law that created the park. Let us take a moment to give thanks for this spectacular treasure.

The boundary of the Adirondack Park, which occupies much of northern New York, encompasses more than 6 million acres, making it the largest park in the continental United States, larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Great Smokey Mountains national parks combined.

About half of the Adirondacks consists of homes, towns, camps, farms, timberlands and businesses that are in private hands. There are 120,000 permanent residents who live in numerous hamlets in the Park. The rest, an estimated 3 million acres, belongs to the people of New York — and it always will, thanks in part to the determination of a man named Verplanck Colvin.

In 1870, Colvin, a lawyer and naturalist from Albany, challenged himself to make the first recorded ascent of Seward Mountain, near Lake Placid. By the time he reached the peak, he was able to view the damage being left by the clear-cutting practices of the logging industry. Not only was the pristine forest being destroyed, but as Colvin learned through subsequent explorations, the clear-cutting threatened the viability the Adirondack watershed. This, in turn, threatened to disrupt the operations of the Erie Canal, the waterway that was essential to the state’s economy.

Colvin, who devoted the rest of his life to mapping and preserving the region, argued for the creation of a state forest. Though he drew many supporters, political action was slow in coming. Almost two decades passed before Gov. Roswell P. Flower, working with the state Legislature, established the boundaries of the Adirondack Park, referred to as the lands within the Blue Line.

Two years later, they took the remarkable step of amending the state constitution to preserve the purity of the Adirondack Park region in perpetuity.

Today their achievement is visible for all to see: 3,000 lakes and ponds, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, vast forested lands and astonishing peaks, including Mount Marcy, the highest point in the state. There are 53 species of mammals in the Park, including moose, bears, beavers, fox and, yes, skunks, and a wide variety of birds. There are 2,000 miles of hiking trails, 10,500 miles of snowmobile trails and ample opportunities for fishing, hunting, trapping, boating, camping, skiing, bobsledding, snow tubing and every other sort of recreational activity — not to mention fine restaurants and other cultural attractions for those moments when outdoorsmen and women need to come inside.

We are not only protecting and growing the Forest Preserve; we are also promoting the Adirondacks as a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts and working with the communities and local governments in the Park to improve economic development opportunities.

Linking land conservation with economic opportunity for Adirondack residents has been a priority for Gov. Cuomo. Tourism in the North Country is on the rise. There are now more than 21,000 tourism jobs — an increase of over 10 percent since 2010. Direct traveler spending in the region has gone up 14 percent. And local tax revenue generated by tourism totaled $89 million in, an 11.6 percent increase.

Under the leadership of Gov. Cuomo, we are determined to attract even more visitors. Last year, the state added the 20,758-acre Boreas Ponds Tract, the final transaction that completed the single largest land acquisition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in more than a century. In this year’s budget, we committed $20 million to transform Gore and Whiteface mountains; $13 million to support public access to outdoor recreation as the state share of the $32 million public-private partnership to build the “Gateway to the Adirondacks” at Frontier Town; $38 million to create North Country Economic Development Hub at Plattsburgh International Airport; $7 million to promote North Country tourism through I Love New York — doubling last year’s commitment; and many other investments to promote the environment and economic development.

Our strategy is a comprehensive, multi-pronged strategy that includes many aspects. We have invested millions in grants to municipalities, including “smart growth” grants to support local plans and projects geared toward community and economic development that fit within and complement the region’s natural resources. The awarded projects demonstrate how Adirondack communities can grow using the unique natural assets of the Park combined with improved technology, attractions and infrastructure to bring in new businesses and citizens.

Among its many other glories, the Adirondack Park holds a unique spot in American culture. In this special anniversary year, I encourage all New Yorkers to come to the Adirondacks, and take advantage of their spectacular birthright.

Basil Seggos is commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.