Back to the Adirondacks
Photographs by Blake Gordon
Hovering gleefully over a map of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Mike Carr is like a kid who requested a pony for Christmas and found a whole dude ranch under the tree.
“For 35 years the conservation community dreamed of protecting the Finch lands,” he says. “They were at the geographic center of the park, surrounded by protected lands, connecting about 800,000 acres.”
A big man with a booming voice, Carr directs The Nature Conservancy’s work in the Adirondacks. Pilot, skier, hiker, paddler, volunteer fireman—he has been avidly exploring the Adirondacks since he was a kid and his Illinois family would ship him here every summer to visit relatives. But the map he’s pointing to justifies his enthusiasm. The Finch timberlands—161,000 acres formerly owned by paper company Finch Pruyn & Company and purchased in 2007 by the Conservancy—look like puzzle pieces completing a jigsaw of the Adirondack Park. The map alone explains why the Conservancy would race to pull together $110 million in just a few short weeks upon hearing the lands might be for sale.
All over the world, forests are being cleared and fragmented, but here, the Conservancy wanted to piece one back together. And what a forest: The Finch lands include 300 lakes and ponds, 90 mountains, nearly 16,000 acres of wetlands and 29 untouched miles along the upper Hudson River. They contain land formations that have been off-limits to the public for more than a century. And they reconnect the Adirondack Park’s 6-million-acre landscape, providing the large tracts of land and elevation gradients that are increasingly critical: Species from moose, bobcats and bears all the way down to mosses and liverworts need this room to move and adapt to changing climate conditions.
But there was another species in the Adirondack Park that needed help adapting: human beings. The Finch deal was not as simple as buying some land and handing it off to the state for its forest reserve. Communities with longstanding logging and mining economies don’t tend to look kindly on conservation that restricts development. And New York law said that any of the 27 communities affected by the Conservancy’s purchase and resale of land to the state could scuttle the entire deal with a single veto. For the deal to go through, the Finch lands would have to benefit nature and people.
If you gathered up Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks and stuck them in the Adirondack Park, you’d have nearly 800,000 acres left over. Designated a park in 1892 by the New York State legislature, the Adirondacks is one-fifth of the total land area of the Empire State. The park encompasses massive stretches of forests unaltered from the 1850s, when transcendentalists like poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson came here to establish what became known as the Philosophers’ Camp.
“The Adirondacks is one of the most intact forests of its kind—temperate and deciduous mixed forest,” says Dirk Bryant, director of conservation for the Conservancy in the area. “Of the remaining big intact areas, the Adirondacks ranks among the top three globally. And if you look at where the best bits in the Adirondacks are, Finch is the keyhole.”
Conservationists had long coveted the Finch lands for the state forest preserve. Bryant had the job of helping a team of scientists identify which areas were the most important, from a conservation standpoint, and should be sold to the state for permanent protection. But that wasn’t just about identifying the most valuable ecological features. It was also about figuring out how to get conservation to work in communities where timber, not tourism, had always paid the bills. New York legislation gives communities veto power over land transfers to the state inside their boundaries, so to sell any of the former Finch timberlands to the state for preservation, the Conservancy had to get 27 towns on board. From the outset, it was clear this was going to be as much conversation as conservation.
“Mike and I probably spent at least a year going to town meetings almost every night,” Bryant says.
The Adirondack Park is an unusual preserve. Roads entering it have no national park-style gatehouses, just signs that read, “Entering Adirondack Park: public and private lands.” The “blue line” defining the park’s boundaries encompasses immense wildernesses, but also towns, roads, timberlands, sawmills and mines. Up here, cars sport European-style bumper stickers that say “ADK ,” and the Adirondacks is indeed like a nation. The area has its own lexicon—a summer house is a “camp,” whether a hunting shack or a 12-bedroom mansion—as well as its own way of life. But that way of life is changing rapidly.
Many of the region’s mines are closing. Logging—once a source of hundreds of jobs—has grown increasingly mechanized: Two men can now do the work of 10. And paper companies no longer interested in vertical integration have been divesting their timberlands. Finch Pruyn was the most recent to do so. But the company’s paper mill, sold at the same time as the timber forests, was still one of the largest employers in Glens Falls. To keep running, it would need a steady supply of pulp. So local communities wanted to keep the timberlands as working forest.
Another strike against state ownership was the absence of a well-developed tourist industry near the area. The land had been private timberland for so long that tourist services would need to be enhanced or even developed in some of the towns. If this area was to become a destination for even more cyclists, canoeists and hikers, it would require new infrastructure, from trail heads and boat launches to restaurants and B&Bs.
And there were the private recreational leases: At the time of sale, half the revenue from Finch Pruyn’s woodlands division came from leases, mostly to hunting and fishing clubs that had long enjoyed exclusive access to the land. The Conservancy immediately offered recreational leaseholders a three-year renewal while it figured things out. Then the staff went to work talking with locals. They would pull into parking lots and see rows of pickups. Meetings could be contentious.
“Everyone was terrified—including us,” Carr says. “The key was that people felt like they were being listened to—this wasn’t precooked. At the end of the day, this was our investment and our ownership. We were not going to make everyone happy. But we were going to be honest and upfront and try to do right by the communities.” Doing right meant everything from identifying rare bog plants to helping the towns develop new economic resources.
George Cannon belongs to a hunting club affected by the purchase, but his initial skepticism went beyond recreational leases. The raspy-voiced Newcomb town supervisor has a sign over his desk that reads, “Keep private lands in private hands.” He also has a reputation for not mincing words. His town—population 436 as of the 2010 census—is a six-packs and pickups kind of town. Jobs and development are the watchwords among the loggers and former miners here.
“All in all, I’m not terribly displeased by the way this turned out,” Cannon says. High praise from a man who, like many of his constituents, has long viewed preservation as a dirty word. The same might be said in North Hudson, Minerva, Long Lake and Indian Lake—towns that, with Newcomb, make up 80 percent of the former Finch lands.
When Cannon heard that the Conservancy had acquired the Finch timberlands, he assumed the worst: that most of it would be turned over to the state. Today, he offers up an almost-reluctant endorsement of what happened instead.
In the end, the Conservancy agreed to sell 65,000 acres of the Finch lands to the state over five years—the largest addition of land to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in more than a century. Inevitably, New York State was criticized for making such an expensive purchase in the midst of the national financial meltdown. But the governor saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity. And it was hard to disagree when looking at what scientists called the most ecologically significant and recreationally valuable parcels. They included Blue Ledges, a striking blue marble cliff face on the Hudson River gorge; OK Slip Falls, at around 250 feet one of the highest waterfalls in the Adirondacks; and the Essex Chain Lakes, a string of more than 11 lakes and ponds surrounded by seamless forest. As the state adds lands to the preserve, a public review process helps determine whether they should be designated wilderness or allow motorized recreation.
The Conservancy sold another 92,000 acres of timberland to an investment group that will continue harvesting trees under a conservation easement. That means it must stay working forest—no conversion to housing developments or shopping malls—and it must be logged sustainably. Tree farming is prohibited, and waterways and wildlife will be protected. During its interim ownership, the Conservancy harvested timber in accordance with the highest sustainable forestry practices to fulfill its part of a fiber supply agreement with the paper mill in Glens Falls, which employs more than 700 workers.
Conservancy staff also worked with people like Cannon to identify smaller parcels the towns wanted to buy for their own needs.
“The whole idea of The Nature Conservancy trying to be helpful …” Cannon says, the sentence trailing off as he recalls his initial surprise. “The first thing I wanted was a snowmobile trail, a connection. That’s a big deal for us.”
The Conservancy, the state and the new timber company worked out an easement for a snowmobile trail on more than 45 miles of old logging roads connecting Indian Lake, Newcomb and Long Lake. Snowmobilers—and in summer, mountain bikers and horseback riders—now have a reason to stay in the region for several days, allowing the towns to share new visitors rather than compete for them.
Newcomb bought some other parcels from the Conservancy, including land for a welcome center, an industrially zoned area where Cannon hopes to install small-scale private enterprises, and land abutting the town’s increasingly popular nine-hole golf course, to allow for expanding it to 18 holes.
Cannon is also enthusiastic about a new canoe takeout on the upper Hudson River. Previously, paddlers could enter the Hudson at Harris Lake in Newcomb, but the private timberlands left no place to exit before the river got wild.
“Now it’s a fairly easy paddle from here to the outlet with the Goodnow River,” he says. Cannon seems like a man who never needed to give much thought to recreation in the past. But he, like his fellow townspeople, sees the part it will play in Newcomb’s future.
“For 30 years, we’ve been going by ‘Posted’ signs,” says Bob Rafferty, president of the Hudson River Professional Outfitters Association. He owns Indian Lake-based Adirondac Rafting, which uses an archaic spelling of the mountains’ name. “It was forbidden lands. And that whole corridor—the Hudson River Gorge up to Newcomb—is one of the remotest wild areas in New York State.” Visitors could legally paddle the 26 miles of river but weren’t allowed to set foot on the private shorelines.
Lanky and bearded, Rafferty has the coiled energy of someone more comfortable on a choppy river than in an office. He takes hundreds of whitewater enthusiasts down the Hudson every year, through some of the most scenic and exciting whitewater in the nation. Now the dramatic sights that it churns past will be open to the public.
The new recreational opportunities are outstanding, but a key to making the deal work was helping communities benefit from them. Old logging and mining towns with little tourist infrastructure will need help transitioning to a new, more recreation-focused economy.
“We have communities that are at the doorstep of some of the most scenic and beautiful recreational opportunity land in the Northeast and even nationally,” Jim McKenna says from his office in Lake Placid’s former Olympic complex. “But the towns aren’t in a position to take advantage of that. There’s a lack of businesses there.”
President of the regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, McKenna knew the problem was dollars: Providing what tourists need requires capital investment. The Conservancy saw his point and established a grant program to help towns create tourist resources—things like signage, parking and guide services—that will help the towns adapt to a new economy. The Conservancy and state partners will distribute $500,000 in development money to the winning proposals.
As the towns continue adjusting to their new economic prospects, the local timber industry’s business plans are evolving as well. Len Cronin was a forest manager for Finch Pruyn for nearly 20 years. He’s a soft-spoken man with a serious tone; only his flannel workshirt fits the stereotype of a logger. But the Finch lands don’t fit the stereotype of timberlands: Flying over them, it’s difficult to distinguish the logging operation from the forest preserve. The lands have been Forest Stewardship Council certified and sustainably logged since 2003, but according to Cronin, Finch Pruyn had hired professional foresters since the early 1900s.
“The emphasis of the Finch board and family was to keep the value of the land,” he says. The company managed its lands not only to provide pulp for the mill, but also to ensure that the forest stayed strong and healthy. That’s how the tracts retained their conservation value even after decades of logging.
After the sale of the Finch lands and paper mill, Cronin’s entire forestry team was immediately hired by the Conservancy to manage the woodlands as well as the recreational leases. For the foresters, it was step one in building a new business that leverages their decades of experience in sustainable forestry. The team of former Finch Pruyn employees re-incorporated as Finch Forest Management, a timberlands consulting company.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘What are you guys going to do now?’” Cronin says. “We’re not just sitting back on our heels. We’re acquiring new clients.” His group now manages timberlands for clients from large companies to familyforest owners, producing both value and vibrant forest.
“It’s a turn of the page, a new chapter,” Cronin admits. “The slogan for Finch Forest Management is, ‘Keeping forests as forests,’ and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That, and adjust to a new economy. This land may remind us what the world once looked like, but it’s also a testament to change, evidence of nature’s ability—and people’s, too—to adapt not just to survive, but to thrive.