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Finding common ground imperative to the region

February 6, 2010
By Joe Hackett

As I sat atop Scarface Mountain recently to enjoy the vista of the sprawling Saranac River valley, a schizophrenic symphony of 1970s era protest tunes ran through my head.

One was a fabled environmentalist anthem: Big Yellow Taxi, written by Joni Mitchell. Considering the potential blight that was nearly brought upon the nearby landscape when a proposed a box store attempted to settle into the town, I hummed along with it, "And they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

In my typical contrary fashion, the economic benefits of a big box couldn't escape my attention. In my left ear, played a faint chorus from Matt McCabe's long forgotten, 1970s era, APA-antebellum. The song was titled "The APA Song, It's Insane."

With a catchy tune and a strong beat, the tune's chorus asked, "Somebody mentioned the APA, how much land did they steal today? It's insane, it's insane, annnnnnd everybody knows it's insane."

It was a favorite mantra of protesters during the heady days of the early APA, but as with many protest movements, it was the combination of time, financial responsibilities and numerous other commitments that eventually depleted the ranks of the anti-APA crowd.

Matt's recording never topped the charts like Joni Mitchell's, but it certainly heated up jukeboxes in the many honkytonks stretching from St. Regis Falls to Woodgate, and most points in between.

In recent weeks, some folks have even been asking him for a re-release or put out an updated version.

McCabe is an old friend of mine from Elizabethtown and he wrote the song in protest after APA regulators stopped a legendary local logger from building a simple two-room log cabin for his mother on family-owned land in Elizabethtown.

Reading the lyrics of the two songs provided musical insight into the unique and often contrary contradictions that local inhabitants of this region have been dancing to for centuries.

From a geological prospective, this vast patch of forested lands, soaring peaks, raging rivers and limitless lakes has been in constant conflict since before the advent of recorded time.

The land alone has been engaged in a perpetual seismic struggle. Small tremors continue to rattle the region in an ongoing series of small, relatively harmless earthquakes. The mini-rumbles are a result of the earth's crust rebounding from the accumulated pressure brought on by the tremendous weight of glacial ice that passed this way tens of thousands of years ago.

The rebounding process provides an interesting, anomalous analogy of the land and the people that have inhabited it.

Life in these parts often parallels this relatively undetected and unending cycle of rebounds where the civilized societies of man and the uncivilized societies of nature struggle to survive through cycles of both boom and bust.

The composition of this territory has been an intrinsic element of the region's trouble from the beginning and it remains so to this day. The territory was once highly valued as a great beaver hunting ground until the near depletion of that long-toothed, flat-tailed natural resource restored it's value to Couchsaraga, or the 'dismal wilderness' it once had been.

Adirondack beaver pelts, which were the New World's primary commodity and the first means of trade, were depleted within a span of less than a century.

Native peoples traveled through the area but there is scant evidence of permanent villages. The combination of extreme weather and extreme landscape likely deemed it too inhospitable for long-term occupancy. A section of the country was considered the dividing line between warring factions of Mohawk and Algonquin Nations and hunting parties generally respected the border.

Although most of the region was eventually divided into land patents and grants following the nation's early wars, the land remained sparsely settled when waves of settlers largely bypassed it and traveled west on the Erie Canal.

It was deemed incompatible with most agricultural endeavors due to the terrain and the poor quality of the glacial till of soil. The growing seasons were short and travel to markets was difficult.

The first few hardy souls who settled the region arrived primarily by water and remained in the valleys and near waterfalls to tap the supply of water power necessary for development.

When the region's vast stores of natural resources were eventually discovered, the lumber stocks, iron ore and a host of similarly earthly produce were quickly exploited, as were many other natural products.

There are startling historical accounts in the journals of Forest and Stream and the old Woods and Waters magazine regarding the vast quantities of Adirondack "long-horned, white-tailed" beef that were shipped off to urban markets.

In the mid-to-late1800s, there were unheralded tons of Lake Champlain sturgeon, salmon, trout and bass that were netted or speared and then barreled for transport south. Eventually the sealed and salted casks found their way to willing buyers at the Fulton Fish market in New York City.

Over time, many of the ongoing and ecologically exploiting enterprises denuded the Adirondack landscape and expended local natural resources to such an extent that the industries of extraction eventually paved the way for such unique concepts as protection and preservation.

Initially, these efforts focused on protecting the precious watersheds that fueled New York's growing industrial canal system. Later, the region's value was recognized in the potential that natural fresh water reservoirs could provide the state's ever-expanding urban population.

However, at some point in the mid to late 1800s, a movement began to grow calling for the preservation of the wilderness simply for the sake of the land itself. Protectionist groups flourished and a few, including The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, remain to this day.

Although it was initially a "good ol" boys club of wealthy landowners who wanted to protect their private preserves from the ravages of industry, the association prompted the formation of numerous other "protectionist" organizations.

The turn of the 20th century saw a variety of groups forming to protect, restock and restore a variety of the region's natural resources beyond the depleted woodlands. Protected species included moose, elk, beaver, black bear and more as a new environmental ethic seized the land.

Wealthy landowners including Litchfield, Whitney, Morgan and others provided the financial resources to restore beaver, elk and moose and they offered their vast estates to incubate young animals that were transported to the Adirondacks by rail in order to restore their populations.

There was even a turn of the century advocacy group known as The Society to Protect Adirondack Spruce, which organized to prevent the overharvesting of spruce trees that were being exploited for camp ornamentation.

Local residents who complain about the power and influence exerted by current day advocacy groups would be surprised to learn that in 1897, the Society to Protect Adirondack Society rallied around this proclamation: "Save our Spruce! One can barely find a spruce tree along an Adirondack lakeshore that is larger in diameter than a man's wrist!"

Although it wasn't a very catchy battle cry, it must have done the job since we've sure got our fair share of spruce.

After enduring nearly three centuries of cyclical explorations and cynical exploitations, there came a realization that the wild lands of the Adirondacks offered unique benefits for human enhancement.

It was decided that greater value could be achieved when the forests and streams, lakes and mountains, raging rivers and howling wildlife of the region remained intact in a natural state, rather than being packed out as industrial freight.

The concept is easy to grasp when considered from the standpoint of a mountaintop overlook or upon a stillwater trout pond or while trailing a big buck. However, our focus tends to become increasingly fuzzy when there's a family to feed, a house to heat and the land taxes come due.

The need to get past the give and take, push and pull of competing forces that have been historically dueling in their efforts to bring about a suitable and sustainable, long-term industry to the region has never been more pressing. Despite such differences, members of each faction have made the decision to settle in the Adirondacks for a reason. While our differences may vary, our reasons for living, working and playing in the region likely have much more in common than we would ever admit.

The region's most contentious challenge will remain the effort to balance the perpetual protection of our natural resources while ensuring the preservation of a small segment of the American society that consists of a unique breed of people that have proven to be stubborn enough to last, resilient enough to care and smart enough to weather the extremes of the numerous natural and political storms that seem to pass this way so often.

In such severe national and international economic times, it is a testament to the strength, compassion and fortitude of our small towns and their unique sense of community that permits the Adirondack region's tourism-based economy to continue to flourish.

Despite our obvious differences, we all have a vested interest in this land.



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