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Edmondson tells APA’s 50-year story well

Review: ‘A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks’

Fifty years have elapsed since the birth of the Adirondack Park Agency. That interval has included conflict that almost became armed standoff. It’s also included considerable growth of the state-owned components of the Adirondack Park. There have been trade-offs when it comes to the economic issues, but there has been clear increase in recreational use of the land.

Brad Edmondson had the good fortune to do in-depth interviews with many of the key players in the APA’s formation some years ago. With the 50th anniversary approaching, he spent time with some of them again, plus he interviewed others. He used these as the framework for his detailed account on the machinations leading to the agency’s debut.

There were many reasons for consideration of such an entity. Water resources and questions about dams played roles, as did arguments about salvaging downed lumber. Growth of snowmobile traffic had an influence. However, the threat of huge housing developments in several parts of the Adirondacks loomed as the most immediate issues. Then, seemingly out of the blue, came the Rockefeller family: Nelson, who as New York’s governor had national aspirations, and Laurence with the idea of an Adirondack National Park.

A remarkable mix of characters joined the fray: experienced political operatives, young ambitious attorneys, idealistic graduate students, dedicated foresters and an occasional person like Clarence Petty who resists simple categorization. You’ll recognize a good number of the names, while others will be unfamiliar.

With these people came thoughts about new bureaucracies, modified roles for established state units, impact statements and new applications fostered by the growing knowledge base from research in environmental science. Environmental law began to mature as a discipline. Desire for a new type of land use program based on regional zoning, and regulated by an independent agency, became the centerpiece of the initiative.

The process became volatile at times but was also remarkably collaborative at others. Hostilities and suspicions arose, as did ideals and dreams. Outcomes reflected some hard work by some very dedicated people — and some counter-efforts by those who felt a new regional zoning system impacting private land would destroy their own concepts of the world. The author deals with all sides deliberately and with precision.

Along the way were moments of high drama, too. Let no one look back a half-century and conclude this process went smoothly. There was a lot more going on than the public hearings and colorful checkerboard maps that I remember. And the work is not done today. Just look at the disagreements about how to handle such places as Debar Lodge.

The realities of our complex political processes come through in the book. Outcomes weren’t perfect, and I’m not here to argue the Adirondack Park Agency proved to be a savior or panacea. However, I would assert that much more good than harm has resulted from the effort to change the way people thought about the region.

If nothing else, there’s considerable satisfaction in reading how people who disagreed with each other still managed to come to the table and argue, plead and negotiate, and yet generally remain cordial regardless of the result. One has to wonder if the process ever could have emerged in the hyper-partisan atmosphere that seemingly surrounds every societal issue today.

Edmondson has told his complicated story well. He writes clearly, shows a grasp of broad swaths of information and opinion, and capably explains how the various players evolved in their thinking. Along the way, he seems to know when more explanation is needed, for instance in delineating concepts of easements, and when to let the story tell itself. Hard work by very dedicated people has been effectively memorialized in this book’s pages. “A Wild Idea” merits the attention of everyone deeply interested in the Adirondack region.

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