Origins of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve

The Adirondack Park was created in the late nineteenth century to preserve watersheds and forest resources. As parts of the eastern and northern Adirondacks were becoming deforested due to logging, farming, and mining, there was a genuine public fear that drought and economic ruin would follow as the mountains lost their ability to supply the rest of the state—and especially the Erie Canal—with water. It was also at about this same time that people were starting to recognize the Adirondack wilderness as a resource in itself—a pleasure ground for tramping, climbing, hunting, fishing, and camping.

The first official action taken by New York State was the establishment of the Forest Preserve through statute in 1885. Previously the state had been disposing of its Adirondack lands at tax auctions. It was not unusual for cut-and-run logging companies to buy land cheaply, log what they could, and then default on the property taxes. Ownership would then revert back to the state, and the cycle would begin anew. This law declared state-owned lands within the Adirondack counties—most of it acquired for non-payment of taxes—to be “forever wild” and withdrew them from the possibility of being logged or resold, making them instead public parklands.

The second state action was the establishment of the Adirondack Park in 1892. The original boundaries enclosed a much smaller area than they do today, “only” 2.8 million acres, with a noticeable shift southwest of the modern park's center—excluding the more developed eastern and northern regions. This map with its blue boundary line (a blue line is still the traditional representation of the park's boundary) provided the state with a focus on where to acquire lands for the Forest Preserve. The founders may have envisioned a park in complete public ownership, like the fledgling Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but ironically the establishment of the Adirondack Park and the Forest Preserve sparked a buying spree among large lumber companies and wealthy clubs, which established their own empires and preserves within the blue line. Property values have always been so high, and the Adirondack region so vast, that from the very beginning the Adirondack Park was destined to be a checkerboard mix of public and private land.

The third and most profound action occurred in 1894, when the statute creating the Forest Preserve became enshrined in the state constitution as Article VII, Section 7—the so-called “forever wild clause”. This made the alienation of public property in the Adirondacks and Catskills an unconstitutional act, and permanently prevented the sale of timber. Essentially, the right to enjoy the Adirondack wilderness became a guaranteed freedom. (The forever wild clause was later renumbered as Article XIV.)

The Adirondack Forest Preserve therefore enjoys a higher level of legal protection than either the national parks or the National Wilderness Preservation System. However, the forever wild clause did not address the issues that arose in the twentieth century, nor did it provide any protection against unchecked development of the park's private lands. Everyone agreed that the intent of the clause was to maintain the Forest Preserve in a wild state, but the phrase “forever kept as wild forest lands” offered little guidance about the appropriateness—and the legality—of fire roads, public motor vehicle access, campground development, and snowmobile use, among other things.

After decades of attorney general opinions, court rulings, and constitutional amendments that attempted to define what was and wasn't allowed in the Forest Preserve, the state legislature passed the Adirondack Park Agency Act in 1971. It authorized the creation of an agency, the APA, that would be responsible for zoning both the public and private lands of the park. The agency's original Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP) in 1972 zoned the Forest Preserve into two primary classifications: Wilderness and Wild Forest, with the difference hinging primarily on the use of motor vehicles. The APSLMP's wilderness area guidelines borrowed language from the 1964 Wilderness Act, which protected federal lands in the west, adding specific guidelines on allowable uses, campsite separation, and the like. Other smaller classifications were also included for unique situations such as canoe areas, historic areas, and intensive use areas.

Thus the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve have survived into the twenty-first century as a wild refuge where people live, work, vacation, and seek refuge from day-to-day travails.