The legacy of an Adirondack power broker
by Brian Mann
A few months before the November election, Peter Paine Jr. was fuming. He sat in the living room of his farmhouse in Willsboro—one of several homes he owns in the North Country and New York City—unlacing his work boots. He’s a tall, lanky guy. He’d been out tending chickens and looking after his beloved bird dogs, Wendy, an English pointer, and Chase, a Brittany spaniel. “They’re among the best bird dogs I’ve ever had,” he said.
These are favorite pastimes for the 81-year-old, but his mood on this day was grim. “It’s sickening,” he grumbled, “and I say this as a lifelong Republican.” He was talking about the man he describes as “that ass Donald Trump.”
This was before Trump’s stunning victory, but Paine was already lamenting the death of a once-powerful political culture he was born into and later used masterfully to help create the modern Adirondack Park. “All the formative environmental stuff was done by us, by Republicans,” he said, his voice rising with indignation. He ticked off the list of big-vision national policies enacted by the GOP, from the Endangered Species Act to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Paine himself played a key role in the early 1970s as part of the Temporary Study Commission that Governor Nelson Rockefeller formed to re-envision the future of the Adirondacks. Paine personally drafted the park’s revolutionary State Land Master Plan (fellow commission-member George Davis would later describe Paine as “the last word” on the document), and he also penned New York State’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act.
These rules, still in use today, brought sweeping reforms to the way the park’s “forever wild” lands would be managed by the Conservation Department, meaning more wildness and solitude, with fewer roads and less motorized recreation. The modern architecture of the park was conceived at a time when the environmental movement was still young, raw and untested, and it was shoved through New York’s Republican-controlled legislature by Rockefeller, a Republican governor who still hoped to be president. “Kind of blows your mind in some respects, doesn’t it?” Paine said.
He looked up from his boots, grinned and gave a philosophical shrug. “I am desperate for a scotch.”
Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent long hours with Paine, skiing, paddling the Boquet River, talking about the park’s history and its future over ham sandwiches and bowls of soup. Never was it more obvious than at that moment that Paine is, in many ways, a figure from a lost age. He was born in an era when conservatives actually cared about conservation, when wealthy families were often deeply rooted in their communities, and when the backroom deals they concocted sometimes produced astonishing results.
“The Adirondack land use structure was imposed from above,” Paine acknowledged, when I ask about those turbulent times. He sounded a little sheepish at the strong-arm tactics he and his allies—some of the most powerful men in New York politics—resorted to. But he was also defiant. “It was leadership,” Paine said. “We were all part of the elite and it was bitterly resented. Particularly in the early years it was ugly. But it wouldn’t have happened if it had not been imposed.”
This chapter of Adirondack history is still controversial and is the source of lingering resentment for many critics. Paine and his allies were, after all, introducing new and untested regulations that would sharply limit the way Adirondackers could use their own land, while also changing radically how they could enjoy and profit from the state lands around them. For several years, the conflict was so tense, Paine receieved death threats and was advised by state police to travel with a pistol.
“There were serious concerns about personal safety,” he said. At the time, Paine drove a distinctive Peugeot automobile—he worked for the company, often commuting to offices in Paris—and state police advised him to drive a less distinctive car so that local residents couldn’t identify him so easily. “Drive a Chevy, they told me,” Paine said with a laugh. “There were also threats to burn this house down. From 1973 through about 1976, it was really scary. But that’s history.”
Sometimes as we talked, I could see why Paine and his fellow white-shoe environmentalists stirred such resentment. If there’s a dictionary definition of “establishment,” his generation of Republican leaders came pretty close. Many of these men were to the manor born, dividing their time and their loyalties between the North Country, New York City and the capitals of Europe.
Paine himself started life as heir to a family fortune that included a paper mill, Champlain National Bank—he’s still chairman of the board—and vast land holdings around Willsboro that include two miles of the Boquet River; a Great Camp, Flat Rock; and three miles of the Lake Champlain shoreline. “My family was prominent and wealthy,” Paine acknowledged. “They owned the mill, they owned the bank, they owned the library and the golf course, and they owned half the houses in town.”
The Paine family’s role in the Adirondacks began in 1885, the year the New York State Legislature created the Adirondack forest preserve. Paine’s great-grandfather Augustus Paine Sr., a New York City banker, foreclosed on a loan and stumbled into ownership of Willsboro’s paper mill. He sent his son to run the operation and the company grew into the New York and Pennsylvania Paper Company, which would operate until the mid-1960s, supplying paper to Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post.
The Paines also built one of the park’s most remarkable Great Camps on the shore of Lake Champlain. Flat Rock Camp, begun in the 1890s, stretches across a sprawling slab of Potsdam sandstone with epic views of the lake and the Green Mountains. This was the landscape that shaped Peter Paine Jr. as a boy. “When I was growing up, I didn’t go off to tennis camp,” he recalled. “Most people I knew went to the Hamptons or Cape Cod or the Connecticut shore in the summer. I worked on this farm. When I was 10, I looked after the chickens and the horses and then I learned how to milk by hand.”
He says those years and his father’s decision to “re-root” the Paine family more deeply in the Adirondacks prepared him for the work that followed. “It grounded me, it changed me,” he said. By the early 1970s, Paine was a young lawyer and banker—an alumnus of Princeton, Oxford and Harvard—when his family’s connections put him in the orbit of the Rockefellers. Laurance Rockefeller, brother of the governor, was himself a Republican power broker and an ardent environmentalist who came north to hunt grouse on the Willsboro farm.
Paine Jr. fell into an argument with “the great man” over whether the Adirondacks might be better off if made into a national park run by the federal government. “I tried my best to explain to him why this wasn’t going to work,” Paine said. He gave the mischievous grin that I saw often during our conversations. “I told him it just wouldn’t fly. My father thought I was a bit too frank, but I called the shots the way I saw them.”
That encounter led to Paine being named to the Temporary Study Commission. He was the youngest member of the working group and says he had no idea at the time the outsized role he would play. “It was a series of coincidences,” he said. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. And fortunately I was born with a very quick mind.”
Paine soon grasped that the stakes were high. Thanks to the growth of the interstate highway system and the popularity of the automobile, real estate developers were looking for new ventures. They had begun eying the millions of acres of private land in the park that seemed ripe for vacation home projects. “The question was what do we do about private land that had no zoning?” Paine recalled.
“That was the looming catastrophe and we focused on it with razor sharpness. We were seeing the beginning of the smash-and-grab subdivision game. It started in Vermont and Maine and it was creeping into the Adirondacks.”
During our talks, I often tried to picture what the park might have been like if it hadn’t been reinvented and protected by men like Paine. What if mega–real-estate projects then on the drawing table, such as Ton-Da-Lay and Horizon (both of which envisioned massive subdivisions with thousands of new building lots apiece), had been allowed to go forward? What if whole valleys had been chopped up, with row upon row of vacation homes? But the Adirondack Park Agency Act passed in 1971 and within a few years Governor Rockefeller was declaring that the “Adirondacks are preserved forever.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. Paine acknowledges that shorelines and lakes were left vulnerable to dense construction. He blames compromises with the real-estate industry that were made in Albany to squeeze the new regulations through the legislature. He also thinks the park’s rules don’t offer clear enough guidelines for punishing wrong-doers, and he’s emerged as a fierce critic of Governor Andrew Cuomo for “politicitizing” Park Agency decision-making.
Still, development under the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) was strictly curtailed, with minimum lot sizes and a bible’s worth of rules designed to lessen the environmental impact of new structures. Paine himself served as an APA commissioner, which has oversight over new projects in much of the park, for nearly 25 years. He also played a crucial role chairing the board of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy at a time when that organization engineered massive land protection deals.
Our conversations sometimes swerved back to national politics and the direction his Republican Party—far more populist now, often hostile to science, regulation and environmental protection—has taken in Washington DC. “That scene is a little different,” Paine said, shaking his head at a movement, now defined by President Trump, that left him and his culture of East Coast power brokers behind. “I worry about air quality and climate change and coal burning if we start going backward, which I think we will. But there’s not much I can do about that personally.”
In the end, this work was personal for Paine. In addition to the years of fighting for stricter protections for wild lands, he has donated huge tracts of land and development rights to protect the Boquet River and its estuary and the shore of Lake Champlain. He showed me that shoreline on a paddling trip, pointing to places in the woods where he played as a boy, taking obvious pleasure in the fact that this land will remain wild forever.
Paine and his wife, Patty, still spend much of each year in Willsboro; their three children, Peter Paine III, Lea Paine Highet and Alexander Paine, and seven grandchildren have seasonal residences in the area, with Peter and Alexander serving as directors of Champlain National Bank. Paine told me he expects his family to continue playing a role in the community for at least another generation. “I’m a lucky man, I’m a very fortunate man,” he said.
When I asked him to sum up his own legacy in the Adirondacks, Paine thought for a minute and said, “You know, I’ve seen the length of my shadow. I’ve had an impact. And I think we have done it. We have saved the park. Yes, there’s more work to be done cleaning up the rough edges, but when you look at the macro level, we’ve done it.” Paine gave that boyish grin and said, “It is fun to sit here and be able to say that.”
Brian Mann is the Adirondack bureau chief for North Country Public Radio. His article “Manhunt” (December 2015) won Gold in General Features at the 2016 International Regional Magazine Association awards.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year the forest preserve was created.