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June 2012

Laying It on the Line

Is the park really defined by its blue border?

Illustration by Mark Wilson

I RECENTLY ASKED a distinguished park scholar if he knew the thickness of the Adirondack Park’s Blue Line that wraps around these 5,859,893 acres. I also asked him if he knew the exact length of that line if it were measured from end to end, every dip and jag included. When he politely replied that he had “no idea,” that his take on the Blue Line is that it is “a jurisdictional map line like the border of a county or a village,” I realized I might as well have asked for the acreage and indigenous flora of Honalee. And I realized my obsession with the boundary that delineates what I write and edit each day.

After years at Adirondack Life, the Blue Line has morphed in my imagination into a shin-high wall that you’d trip over if you weren’t paying attention. It meanders through forests, hugs mountain slopes, drops beneath rivers and lakes, and would probably amuse the cartographers who first applied the park’s border to paper 122 years ago. Back then, when they hunched over the drawing board to create a map of a proposed Adirondack Park for the New York State Forest Commission, they worked from an old one with a bunch of colors that indicated state ownership and land condition. They likely grabbed the blue ink because they needed something that would pop against all those earth tones. In 1892 the park was officially established and, through time, the Blue Line expanded with, among other tracts, the Lake George islands, in 1893; the Town of Webb, in 1900; and the Champlain shore from Crown Point to Valcour, in 1973. All these lands were corralled as the Adirondack Park, in part, to save them from resembling a final page of The Lorax.

That’s where the commonality ends. Once you cross the Blue Line you’re in vast, disconnected country. From May­field to Mountain View, Wadhams to Wanakena, these are, seemingly, tribal lands with disparate landscapes and cultures. The scene is sea-level in Nich­olville, high-altitude in Placid. What’s appropriate at Silver Lake might not fly at Silver Bay. Bolton Landing’s post office bustles and Upper Jay’s might disappear. Barns sag in Bakers Mills and condos rise in Wilmington. The park, after all, touches 12 counties, includes more than a hundred towns and plenty of pocket-size hamlets—each with fiercely individual identities. Blanket that jumble with land-use agencies, resort developers and environmental organizations and you get a confusing, often contentious mess.

Of course you do. This is a state park, not a national one (that plan, put forth by Governor Rockefeller in the 1960s, tanked). In Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks—whose combined acreage would fit within our Blue Line—residents are mostly furred or feathered unless they work for the federal government or at a tourist venue or live on grandfathered property. The Adirondacks doesn’t have an entry fee, visitors might ramble from public trails to a private patio, and those of us who live here possess parcels that, for better or worse, may be logged or built upon or outfitted with swimming pools and trampolines right near state-owned waterfalls. We all have a stake in this place, so it’s no wonder there are so many interpretations of how it should look and operate, evident by the Adirondack Council bumper stickers or the Screw the APA ball caps.

Still, wrapped around this complicated package is that sapphire ribbon, binding the Adirondacks’ people and places into a collective community. Our iconic Blue Line protects this park, and it warns those who cross it that they’re headed for wild territory.

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