Call of the Wild

The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness

by Paul Schneider
Henry Holt, 368 pp., $25.00

Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks

by Philip G. Terrie
The Adirondack Museum/Syracuse University Press, 223 pp., $26.95

If you snowshoe up Blue Mountain, which is more or less in the middle of the Adirondacks, you look out over the greatest wilderness in the East. I’ve lived in this wilderness most of my adult life, and yet every time I get up high I am startled by its rugged emptiness. You see lake and forest and ridge and then lake again, stretching out in every direction. The Adirondacks, a mixture of public and private land, cover six million acres, about a quarter of New York State. That makes it bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks combined, not to mention bigger than the state of Massachusetts, bigger than Connecticut, about the same size as Vermont but with one sixth the population. Along with the city five hours to the south, this park is one of the Empire State’s two great gifts to the planet. In many ways it’s the place where the world’s sense of wilderness was born.

It’s also, right now, politically the most exciting spot in the state. In three days at the end of 1997, Governor George Pataki—who controls this wilderness because it is a state, not a federal, park—ended years of dithering by Albany and began taking aggressive steps to chart the park’s future course. He committed $11 million to closing the last small local landfills in the park, effectively ending large-scale schemes to import vast amounts of urban trash into the Adirondacks. He canceled plans to build a super-maximum security penitentiary at Tupper Lake, which would have been the seventh prison in what was becoming an Adirondack gulag. And, by far the most important, he announced that the state would buy 15,000 acres of crucially important land in the center of the park.

This land, the heart of the baronial Whitney Estate, which included the largest privately owned lake east of the Mississippi, was about to be divided up and sold. Instead it will now be at the core of the park’s largest wilderness area, one big enough to allow the possible reintroduction of species like the wolf. If the land had slipped from the grasp of the state—as happened with another key parcel during the Cuomo administration—the park would forever have had a gaping hole in the middle. Now, the Whitney deal opens the prospect that the state will finally ensure both the ecological integrity of the park and its economic future as a working forest. The fate of about 350,000 additional acres of land now in private hands will soon be decided. Most of it is owned by large timber companies which would like to sell “conservation easements” and “recreation rights” to the state, while continuing to harvest trees—an outcome that would help to protect the jobs of Adirondackers as well as the intact mantle of green that makes the park stand out on any map of eastern North America.

Still it’s not yet certain that Pataki will finish what he has started. He continues to employ a…

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