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New York State Protects "Hallowed Ground" Of Conservation Movement

Lucas Willard

State officials and others gathered at a small Adirondack cabin this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Act. 

On a Johnsburg hillside in Warren County, with an unobstructed view of forest and mountains, a crowd gathered at a modest-looking cabin. 

Since 1947, the cabin has been owned by the family of conservationist Howard Zahniser. Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Federal Wilderness Act, much of it written by Zanhiser in his Adirondack refuge.

Officials marked the anniversary with members of the Zahniser family. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Director of Lands and Forests Rob Davies…

“This could be said to be the birthplace of the Federal Wilderness Act, and kind of hallowed ground. And a treasure that we want to recognize,” said Davies.

The Zahniser family has gifted the cabin and five acres that borders the Siamese Pond Wilderness in Baker Mills to the State of New York under a new conservation easement.

The state will prevent it from being demolished or redeveloped, but the Zahniser family will be able to decide how it’s used in the future.

Mathias Zahniser, the oldest son of the late Howard Zahniser, said over the years, the family has gotten offers to purchase the cabin from as far away as California, but they never sold it.

“We would like to keep it in the family, but the bottom line is we’d like to keep it in the natural environment in which we found it,” said Mathias. “So we have limitations imposed by the easement, which we want to have.”

Mathias said as time goes on, the property will stay in his sibling’s hands.

“If I die first then it belongs to my three siblings. If then another sibling dies, then it belongs to the other two. It will eventually get down to one sibling, and so that persons’ descendants will make decisions about how this land is used,” said Mathias.

Mathias said some of his favorite memories of the cabin as a child were playing with toy cars on the dirt floor of the barn and taking trips into nearby North Creek.

“There was a place along the road to Indian Lake where they had infinite numbers of hunting knives and things like that, so it was like heaven up here for me, as a child,” recalled Mathias.

New York is the first state to preserve its own forest lands under state law. In 1894, New York established its own “Forever Wild” constitutional amendment, known as article XIV, creating the 3 million acres of Forest Preserve lands in the Catskills and Adirondacks.

Article XIV was introduced to Howard Zanhiser by conservationist and friend Paul Schaefer.

Dave Gibson of group Adirondack Wild says it’s Article XIV and Scahefer that inspired Zahniser to begin working on what would become the Wilderness Act.

“Paul introduced [Zahniser] to all sorts of diverse people in this region, and he began to realize ‘I can do this nationally but I have to start with a place that’s done it. That’s proud of it. The fact that the national government isn’t here protecting wilderness, we are here protecting wilderness, and managing a great resource.’”

State Senator Betty Little spoke about the significance of the site’s protection.

“When you really stop and think about it, that Howard Zahniser was sitting here and Paul Schaefer across the road, and together they were discussing how they could enact, or get legislation enacted, that would protect the wilderness of not the Adirondacks anymore, but the entire country, this is really a national historic site that we need to promote,” said Little.

Johnsburg Town Supervisor Ron Vanselow said the protection of the cabin could draw more recognition to the life and work of Howard Zahniser.

“You could…go on the streets of North Creek and ask people who Howard Zahniser was, or what this building means, and most of them will not be able to tell you. They have no sense of what happened here. But I think this will bring more of an awareness of that, certainly with the locals,” said Vanselow.

Since the National Wilderness Act was signed, the federal government has designated 109 million acres of wilderness in 44 states.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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