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Preservation might restore faith in USA

The view from the Stillwater Fire Tower is seen Sunday evening, with a reminder of the heritage and tradition that made protection of this wilderness possible. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Over the past week, we have, collectively, been given reason to pause and think about what it is to be a citizen of the United States of America. Whether you were glued to the television on Wednesday or tried to distance yourself as much as possible; whether you thought those protesters cruel, anti-democratic, lumpenproletarians or dedicated patriots, it has hopefully caused you to think a bit about what this country stands for — in what ways it has remade the world for the better and in what ways it fails to be the proverbial “city on a hill.”

So many innovations have emerged from the crucible that is America. Whatever your opinions on the sum total of our national history, we have seen the nexus of some vile excesses and some beacons of light in the darkness. In my opinion, one of those that represents the best that America has ever brought to the world table is a dedication to protecting our wild spaces for future generations and, increasingly, for their own sake.

The incoming administration has signaled quite clearly that protecting the environment is back on the executive and legislative agenda for the next presidential term, so what better time to look back on our successes as a nation as far as protecting wild lands? From the 1872 dedication of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, Americans steward a long and storied history of protecting natural wonders that fall within its borders. Even presidents as controversial as Richard Nixon signed acts safeguarding wild places and their denizens. Though we have had moments of national weakness and have seen our elected officials bow to the allure of capital gains, we have resisted the worst excesses of those who would seek to exploit and dismember our pristine wild lands for profit.

New York state was early to commit to this tradition — the Adirondack Forest Preserve is the perfect representation of an innovative and experimental spirit which embodies the brighter parts of our legacy. Its history echoes themes from other now-protected spaces. Rapacious resource consumption by a nascent forest products industry was performed hastily and greedily, without plan or purpose other than immediate profit in mind, which led directly to severe degradation of a vast and sweeping resource base. But the Adirondack story is unique among similar stories in the vastness of its scope. The response by the state, philanthropic captains of industry and members of the budding environmental movement was to create, arguably, the most robust protection for a chunk of land that had ever been put forth as serious policy. This was not some law that could be overturned or repealed with ease by a future state Assembly. It was written into the governing charter of our state.

The result was a massive chunk of land being boldly marked for protection in a uniquely American fashion. This space was not to be purely a wilderness preserve, devoid of human inhabitants. Rather, it was an experiment whose subject was the interrelation between human communities and wild nature. It was a place where well-heeled industrialists followed scruffy hermits to find hidden natural wonders. Where freedom fighters helped to sow the seeds of emancipation. Where profiteers and philosophers made strange neighbors and, all the while, wilderness reasserted its vitality where humans once laid waste to age-old forests.

The Forest Preserve continues, to this day, as an experiment in the relationship between humanity and wilderness. The Adirondacks (and the Catskills) are an expression of our greatest creativity and an ecological and social vault containing the plans for rebuilding wild spaces across the globe. Today, a patchwork of institutions, civilian groups and governmental organizations work together to continue protecting this place.

In the picture shown, you can see the hard work of the volunteers at Friends of Stillwater Fire Tower, in conjunction with private landowners and the state, on display. These sorts of partnerships are models of dedication and humility, a love for the land that trails travel across and towers overlook, are a success of the greater American project.

From the tower, you can see so many parts of this story. Lands that are managed and farmed for timber in a modern and responsible fashion; little forested hills that hide remote ponds where isolated, truly wild breeds of trout still boast their ancient and distinct coloration; a reservoir dammed in 1925 that now serves as a sanctuary and escape for hundreds of visitors every year; and a distant view of Whiteface, across 70 miles of nearly uninterrupted wilderness.

In keeping with another grand American tradition, however, the Adirondacks equally evokes our ability to bicker and fight over our opinions, rights and visions of how things should be. Despite the unifying grandeur of this incredible landscape, people find plenty of reasons to pick at each other, to complain about management, to debate the proper use of these spaces and question for what purpose they were protected in the first place. Debate holds a critical place in the American ethos — ideally (though not always in practice) it is the representation of our democratic spirit at work. But to debate, we need to work to see all sides of an argument, to understand those we disagree with rather than just cling to a single perspective. This process is written into the very spirit of the Forest Preserve, so let’s appeal to the braver, bolder side of our heritage and continue working together towards keeping this place as an ideal representation of the American tradition of wilderness conservation. That’s just one way we could help contribute to the greater national process of healing and growth that must begin in earnest.

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