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June 2016

A Piece of the Park

Scenery everybody wants

Half my life ago I spent summer weekends at a family camp on Lake Ozonia, with perch-catching extravaganzas, epic campfires and other multi-generational traditions. After that, while renting a place along Lake Placid’s Main Street, tourism—crowds, gift shops and parking tickets—dominated my surroundings. Next stop was a solitary farmhouse near Black Brook, not a neighbor in sight but Whiteface looming in my windows. From there I landed in Jay, a river-valley hamlet where the sun always seems to shine.

Despite these experiences—and what I’d call a continuing Adirondack education—I’m still from away, native to a place just beyond the Blue Line. So why my sense of ownership over land that’s not really mine? Why the wash of sadness when I drive through, say, Wilmington, and there, where the view of the Stephenson Range is best, lies a leveled swath of forestland, a bulldozer parked where a foundation awaits? That plot just might be someone’s dream, the reward of decades, maybe even a lifetime, of hard work. But without the trees it looks naked and vulnerable, even jarring—like a long-time beard-wearer just after he’s shaved. And I know that whatever rises in that spot will probably interrupt what was a stunning, unobstructed landscape.

I can’t blame people for wanting a piece of the park. Nature shapes us, it changes us. It releases the squeeze of a chaotic world. It reminds us what matters most.

But is it possible to love this place too hard, whether we’re here for a weekend or a lifetime?

More than 3,500 sets of boots on the trail—like what happens on Mount Marcy in August—threaten alpine ecosystems. Caravans of cars snaking along our spiderweb of roads spit exhaust and, in icy weather, require salt that pollutes waterways. New homes on remote shorelines or tucked far from towns and hamlets require additional roads that chop up forestland, harming wildlife. Backcountry building contributes noise and light pollution as well as sprawl that’s a turnoff to visitors seeking a wilderness experience.   

That’s enough to crush the cabin-in-the-deep-woods fantasy that lures so many people here. And yet, backcountry subdivisions, such as one on former Boy Scout property at Woodworth Lake, in the town of Bleecker, still happen. At press time 16 of the 1,119-acre Woodworth development’s two-dozen lots—some up to 145 acres—are already sold, and they’ve been available just a couple of months. Environmental groups are unanimous in their opposition, citing, among other threats, the subdivision’s sprawling design, its impact on shorelines and surrounding state lands. Meanwhile, at Whiteface Outlook—an 80-acre development of 29 lots in its first phase, with sublime views in the heart of Wilmington—only a handful of houses have been constructed. The development was approved without controversy by the Adirondack Park Agency a decade ago. Its “clustering” design—lots close to one another and one road connecting them all within an established residential community—follows the less-invasive style of building that environmentalists favor. Most of Whiteface Outlook’s lots are smaller than two acres and sandwiched in succession. That doesn’t seem to be what people want.

How best to live here without disrupting the delicate balance of human and wild landscape? That’s our enduring challenge and what makes this place so different from New York’s Green Lakes, Niagara Falls, Taughannock Falls, Letchworth and Taconic State Parks, where gates, admission fees and hours of operation separate people and shared public space. A better name for our park might be the Adirondack Territories—land that’s far from cohesive, that is, for better or worse, a disparate jumble of classifications, economies, ideologies and rules.

Adirondack dreams are here to stay. But can we realize them without ruining things? Nobody wants to damage something they love.