Fifty Years After the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks was formed, historians assess its significance and its role in the creation of a unified Adirondack Park
Phil Terrie, the historian of the Adirondacks whose volume of essays “Seeing the Forest,” I discussed in a previous issue of the Lake George Mirror, has a piece in the September/ October edition of Adirondack Explorer that commemorates an anniversary that has been mostly forgotten, but for the long-term protection of the Adirondacks, it’s an important one.
Fifty years ago, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller announced the formation of the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, whose most important recommendation was the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency, which was signed into law in June, 1971.
“What (the Temporary Study Commission) accomplished was huge,” writes Terrie. “For most of the 20th century, the Adirondack Park didn’t mean much. But after the work of the Temporary Study Commission, for the first time, New Yorkers had a coherent park…”
Terrie writes, “The best source on the Commission – how it was constituted, how it worked and what it did – remains Frank Graham’s The Adirondack Park: A Political History ‘(1978).”
Perhaps. But there is much that Graham omitted, or was unaware of.
A Source of the APA: The Original Lake George Park Commission
For instance, one of the sources of the Adirondack Park Agency was legislation creatiing an Adirondack Park Authority modelled on the original Lake George Park Commission.
It’s not surprising that few people are aware of it. After the legislative session of 1964, the enabling legislation was shelved, and by 1967, the public’s attention had shifted to Laurence Rockefeller’s proposal for an Adirondack National Park and later, to the Temporary Study Commission itself.
Thee idea for this first Adirondack Park-wide commission originated with Richard W. Lawrence, Jr. of Elizabethtown (1909-2002), a member of the Study Commission and the Adirondack Park Agency’s first chairman.
“I floated this idea several times with Eustis (New York State Senator Eustis Paine) and after a while he came to see some merit in it,” Lawrence recalled in a note to me in 1997. “It’s a good thing nothing came of it! It needed the Adirondack Study Commission under Nelson Rockefeller to land that troublesome beast.”
“That troublesome beast,” was, of course, a regional land use plan to protect open space and channel development into appropriate areas.
A Regional Land Use Planning Agency
“For some years, conservationists, civic leaders and residents of the Adirondack region have been concerned that with the coming of the Adirondack Northway, the population growth in the privately-owned areas of the park, and the increasing demands of the people for outdoor recreation facilities, much of the natural beauty of the area may be spoiled,” my father, Robert F. Hall, wrote in an editorial for his newspaper, the Warrensburg-Lake George News, in 1963.
The Adirondack Park Commission, as the proposed board came to be know, was the first, albeit unsuccessful, effort to address those concerns. Legislation authorizing the creation of the Lake George Park Commission had been signed into law in 1961. In December of that year, Eustis Paine wrote to Jud Morhouse, the chairman of the state Republican Committee and the father of the Lake George Park Commission, asking, “Would it not be possible to make a quiet study of, and perhaps even enter a bill for, the creation of an Adirondack Park Authority Commission, (whose duties would consist in part of) assisting in the planning, zoning and development of private lands?”
Apparently, it was possible, because by March, 1962, Paine had produced a draft of a bill, which was then revised by Judge Sheldon Wickes, the former Assemblyman from Essex County and a prominent Ticonderoga attorney who was serving as counsel to the Lake George Park Commission. “We need industry and commerce badly in the Park area, but must control the location thereof, in order that areas which should be reserved for residential and recreational purposes may not be ruined…” Wickes wrote to Paine.
The power to locate commerce and industry in specified zones was not to be given to the commission outright. Rather, the Commission would be authorized to help towns develop their own, mandatory zoning plans. “In the bill there is no power given to the Commission to zone any land lying within the Adirondack Park. The wording very clearly states that the Park Commission can only aid or assist any locality that requests such help,” Paine wrote to a Lake George constituent.
Although the power to zone would remain with be the towns, the new Commission’s advisory role would ensure that some uniformity in local zoning plans would develop, lending the Adirondack Park a coherence that it still lacked. “If a uniform approach to zoning by local municipalities were the result of the park Commission’s work, it would have accomplished a great deal,” Assemblyman Dick Bartlett wrote at the time.
Like the original Lake George Park Commission bill, the legislation carried a minimum of compulsion. The new Commission would rely mainly on persuasion, urging property owners to co-operate in covenants and deeds to protect the natural, scenic qualities of their lands.
Warren County’s Board of Supervisors was among the bill’s supporters. “The bill will enable town boards to start a zoning program and will help the local people realize the advantages which would come from town zoning and planning,” wrote John Wertime (1916-2011), the Supervisor from Chester who was chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
The bill passed the assembly in 1963, but opposition, led by the Adirondack Park Association (known today as ANCA) soon came to the surface. Art Bensen, the founder of Frontier Town, emerged as the voice of that opposition. “If you are a property owner, this bill will enable the commission to restrict or control the use of any of your land, lakes or streams (and) stop you from lumbering or farming your lands or for using it for any other business purpose,” Bensen wrote.
In words that would be repeated with little variation by others in the decades to come, Bensen stated, “the root of our troubles in the Adirondacks is the sad state of our depressed economy. This bill does nothing to help. In fact, it puts more burdens on the Adirondack people who already are having so difficult a time.”
Paine introduced the bill again in 1964, but he clearly had no stomach for a fight and he allowed it to die. Paine announced that he would retire from the Senate that year. “Eustis just decided that he had had enough of the Senate; he didn’t enjoy it,” Dick Bartlett once told me.
A Modest Proposal
Dick Lawrence had come to the conclusion that local governments, left to themselves, would never create voluntary zoning plans equal to the challenges posed by encroaching development.
And so, as a member of the Temporary Study Commission, he was the first to propose the idea of the Adirondack Park Agency, which mandated rather than encouraged zoning.
Lawrence once told me that the recommendation emerged relatively late in the Commission’s deliberations.
In fact, he said the Commission was prepared to recommend nothing more controversial than a zoning plan for the Forest Preserve, something that had been discussed since the 1950s and which became the basis of the APA’s Public Land Use Master Plan.
Rockefeller could have rejected the recommendation to establish a regional land use agency as too controversial, but he chose instead to publicly support it and then spend political capital on its behalf.
Making certain that Rockefeller didn’t waiver was Harold K. Hochschild, the plutocratic founder of the Adirondack Museum who replaced Leo O’Brien in 1970 as chairman of the Temporary Study Commission.
Oppsing the APA Act
Opposition to the proposed land use agency surfaced almost immediately after the Temporary Study Commission released its recommendations in January, 1971.
Seventy five negative votes in the Assembly would have defeated the bill, and Clinton County Assemblyman Andy Ryan claimed that he had secured promises from 89 assemblymen to vote ‘no.’ Despite the fact that the Republicans held the majority in both houses of the legislature, the bill appeared likely to die in committees.
Ryan and his fellow Adirondack assemblyman, Glenn Harris, wanted to delay passage of the bill by at least a year, or substitute the proposed agency with another commission that would study the regulation of private lands further. It was a position supported by county boards of supervisors and newspapers like the Post Star.
(The Adirondack Daily Enterprise favored immediate passage of the bill; Bill Doolittle, who would become one of the Adirondack Park Agency’s most vociferous opponents, had yet to purchase the paper. In the spring of 1971, it was still owned by Roger Tubby and Jim Loeb, himself a member of the Study Commission.)
Senator Ron Stafford announced that he would use his influence to kill the bill in the upper house, a position diametrically opposed to one he had expressed in private conversations with Study commission member Peter Paine.
Stafford later told the Knickerbocker News, “It’s the first time I’ve bucked the governor, and it’s going to be tough for us, but I think we might be able to do it.”
Passing a Bill
Meanwhile, Hochschild was working behind the scenes to counter-act the growing opposition.
Harry Albright, one of Rockefeller’s key aides, told Hochschild that the administration was nervous about Ryan, Harris and Stafford. “He said that against their opposition it would be difficult to get passage of the legislation,” Hochshild wrote in a memo to the members of the Study Commission.
The Commission was formally disbanded in March; it lost its staff, offices and funding. Hochschild and the other members of the Commission, however, agreed to work as private citizens to secure passage of the bill.
They set up meetings with Stafford, Ryan and Harris, but nothing of any substance was accomplished.
Harris told a newspaper at the time, that, while “(the legislators) had been trying to negotiate amendments, only minor compromises were offered.”
The members conducted a public relations campaign that produced editorials and letters from conservation organizations and the legislators’ constituents in support of the bill.
Hochschild also urged the Commissioners to solicit “letters to the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker from large contributors to the Republican party.”
It’s quite possible that those “letters from large contributors” helped persuade Senate Majority Leader Earl Brydges and Speaker Perry Duryea to pressure to the rank-and-file legislators to drop their opposition to the bill.
In return for abandoning the fight to defeat the bill, the legislators were given cover that would preserve their political credibility back in their districts.
My father, who was appointed to the commission at least in part to give the Lake George region a voice in the process, was still publishing his weekly newspapers, The Warrensburg-Lake George News, the Hamilton County News and the Lake George Mirror.
He agreed in advance to write and publish editorials praising Harris and Ryan as “tough opponents” and publicizing the concessions they had won from Rockefeller and Hochschild.
In my father’s files is a letter from Speaker Duryea making it clear that a complimentary editorial was part of the bargain.
“Knowing that it would be forthcoming made our task considerably easier in gaining support for the bill,” Duryea wrote.
An Unfulfilled Legacy
Not long after the Temporary Study Commisssion had completed its work but before the legislative battle had begun, Harold Hochschild circulated among the members and staff of the Commission a note he had received from his daughter-in-law, Arlie Hochschild, then an assistant professor of sociology at Berkeley.
“I had a student come into my office the other day to talk about ecology. At one point I happened to mention the Adirondack Commission Report and before I had a chance to say anything more he said: ‘Oh, the Adirondack Commission Report – that’s the best thing of its kind. I understand Nevada is considering that report as a model,’ so, I modestly confessed that my father-in-law was a member.”
Hochschild’s pride in the work of the Commission and in its potential as a model for land use planning throughout the nation helps explain why he fought so tenaciously to translate its recommendation for an Adirondack Park Agency into statute.
But as grateful as we may be for the work of the Temporary Study Commission, we can still acknowledge that after fifty years, the Adirondack Park Agency Act and the Private Land Management Plan could stand some revisions.
Most notably, the state legislature should adopt a bill that requires conservation-oriented design for large subdivisions in the Adirondack Park.
By protecting water quality and curbing sprawl, it would help complete the work of the Study Commission, honoring the individual members by honoring their intentions.
Portions of this article originally appeared as essays on the Adirondack Almanack web magazine.