Nearly every winter Saranac Lake, New York receives the honor of being the coldest spot in the nation. It’s a small claim to fame, one that most likely goes unnoticed outside of this small town of 6,000 in the heart of the Adirondacks. But growing up I always felt a bit of pride on those mornings, getting ready for school with my brother and sister, when Saranac Lake appeared on the weather map with a negative 30 or 40 degree symbol next to it and the designation of coldest spot in the nation.
Saranac Lake and more broadly the Adirondack State Park were back on the map again recently. This time however, the distinction was a disgrace and not an honor. President Bush came through for Earth Day and thanked North Country residents for giving him, “the opportunity to hammer and stack,” and to “place gravel in a beautiful part of the world.” The president participated in some light trail work and then delivered an uninspired speech inside the ski lodge at the base of Whiteface Mountain.
He lauded residents of the Park for cooperating and told them he was, “most impressed by how–by the discussion of the beaver dams and the care for not only the trail system, but for the beavers, themselves. It was an understanding of the importance of good stewardship.”
The President’s message belittles not only the efforts of Park residents but also reveals his naive understanding of conservation. After invoking TR, who “used to hang out,” as Bush put it, “in this very Park,” the President said that, “Thousands of acres in the Adirondacks are unchanged…because people have cared for the acreage.”
But the six million-acre State Park established in the late nineteenth century has undergone enormous changes and it is a dynamic relationship between the people and the land that they live on that has given rise to a strong conservation ethic.
During the early decades of the twentieth-century much of the Park was logged. The presence of softwood species, including the prized red spruce, were particularly attractive to lumbermen who floated the logs or bolts to the mills for pulp. Clear-cut logging devastated the old growth forests and left behind a tinder box of slash that led to a number of forest fires throughout the region.
Three summers ago I worked as a summit steward on Hadley Mountain in the Southern Adirondacks not far from Lake George. Hadley still has an old fire tower built from steel in 1917 on its summit. From Hadley one can see the Catskills to the south, the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east, the High Peaks to the north, and the relatively unpopulated expanse of land that makes up the western Adirondacks.
Aside from the tower, the old observers cabin, and the exposed rock on the summit it’s not easy to discern the ecological changes that have taken place over the last century. But as E.H. Ketchledge writes in his short study of the forests and trees of the Adirondacks, “All sorts of disturbances have occurred and are occurring in the high peak region, and in consequence we see a great diversity of forest conditions: different species, in various stages of health, vigor, and form, from pure stands of one species to mixed stands containing many species; tall, lordly trees on fertile, undisturbed sites to dwarfed, contorted specimens at timberline; different stages of revegetation reflecting a particular history of use or abuse.”
And disturbances in the Park have not ceased. The number of visitors has increased significantly. Much of the alpine vegetation in the High Peaks destroyed during the 1960s and 1970s has been restored, thanks in large part to E.H. Ketchledge who spearheaded a revegetation program. On Hadley there were days I saw over 150 people and wondered if the Park could possible withstand such numbers.
Acid rain continues to plague the region affecting its lakes and rivers. And development continues as well.
The state however has recently acquired easements on land that was privately owned. Much of it has been designated forever wild. Wal-Mart has been kept out, at least for now, from both Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, after spirited debates within both towns.
It’s not surprising that the President would exploit a place like the Adirondacks to deliver a message on Earth Day. It would have been more fitting though, if he went to the proposed Yucca Mountain depository in Nevada or to the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. Maybe then statements about sensible limits on development, respecting the natural world, and making every day earth day would have been revealed for what they are, hollow proclomations from an administsration out of touch with the interests and concerns of the American people.
Adam Federman is a native of Saranac Lake, New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org