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Brad Edmondson Talks About His Book On The Creation Of The Adirondack Park Agency

A Wild Idea book cover
Brad Edmondson
A Wild Idea book cover

The Adirondack Park Agency is 50 years old this year.  Its formation was controversial. The new book “A Wild Idea, How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks” traces the evolution of the agency and the people involved in its creation.  Author Brad Edmondson explains why the creation of the APA was a “Wild Idea.”

“It was a wild idea because nobody had ever tried it before. There were two things that were really out there for their time and they’re actually still pretty radical. One was the state of New York assumed zoning control over six million acres of land. Usually zoning is a town and village responsibility but the state of New York decided that the towns and villages of the Adirondacks couldn’t handle the challenges that the Park was facing so they basically assumed control over an area the size of Vermont. And as you might imagine the towns and villages didn’t like that one bit. So that was pretty wild. And then the other thing was that the ideas that were driving the land use plan that the state drafted were new at the time. It was essentially the Environmental Impact Statement, which as everybody kind of knows what that is now and that’s a standard part of any application process, but in 1971 people hadn’t really had very much experience with environmental impact statements. And it was kind of a proof of concept for that over a huge area. So it was a very very ambitious thing to do.”

Bradley:  “What drew you to take a look at the formation of the Adirondack Park Agency 50 years ago?”

Edmondson:  “Well initially it wasn’t going to be a book. I was approached by a friend who was involved with the formation of the Park Agency 18 years ago who gave me a little bit of support and paid my expenses to go do oral history interviews with some of the people who had set up the Park Agency. And I thought this is cool. This going to be a way to get my expenses paid to go camping in the Adirondacks and have some interesting conversations but land use planning is really kind of dull you know so this is just a good gig. I was a freelance writer. I started off with Clarence Petty. And you’ve probably met Clarence. Anybody who’s met Clarence is immediately hooked on the Adirondacks. He was a terrific storyteller. And I spent 10 hours taping him. And by the time I was finished with him I was completely absorbed in the story and the deeper I got into it the more interesting it got. This is anything but a boring story. There’s a tremendous amount of drama in it. Because it really is about a clash of values on a very deep level and that is continuing today.”

Pat Bradley:  “Brad Edmondson you mentioned Clarence Petty but you ended up talking to more than 50 people who were involved in some way in establishing the Adirondack Park Agency. How did you end up getting ahold of them and getting them to agree to talk about their experience. Because it’s not just people who were for the formation of the Adirondack Park Agency, it’s also some people that were adamantly against this whole idea. How did you approach them? How did you get them to be part of this oral record of what happened?”

Brad Edmondson:  “That’s a great question and the answer was surprising to me. I was funded by someone who had been the Atlantic Chapter president of the Sierra Club and he wanted me to capture the stories of the environmental movement. Which I did. But as I got more involved in it I got more and more interested in the opposition to the Adirondack Park Agency because I felt like the people who were fighting the agency really had some legitimate points. But I was concerned that they would sort of brand me as an enemy. And what I found actually was that if you’re just, if you just show up and say you’re interested in hearing someone’s story and you don’t really telegraph any other intention than listening people are eager to talk. And the Adirondacks is really a very small town. It’s the size of Vermont but there’s only about 100,000-110,000 permanent residents. Everybody knows everybody else. What I found was that a lot of the hardcore environmental people I spoke with actually knew and were friendly with the hardcore anti-APA people. And a recommendation from Peter Paine for example, one of the most famous environmental, pro-environment leaders got me in the door to Andy Halloran who was the Essex County judge and a real opponent of the APA. But the two men are friends.”

Bradley:  “Yet at some point during the formation of the APA, after it had gotten approval and was working, there was actually violence. A lot of people forget that there was violence and hostility. Your book does trace the fact that this was not easy and here we go we’ve got this set in the Adirondacks now.”

Edmondson: “There was violence. There was a lot more threat than there was actual violence. There was a lot more really tough talk, threatening talk and the actual violent acts that everyone remembers mostly took place between 1989 and 1992. In the 1970’s when the Adirondack Park Agency was being created most of the people who lived here either didn’t know what was happening or didn’t care. And by the time the private land plan was released for public comment at the end of 1972 really only a few full time park residents understood that something very big was about to happen. And the law was passed five months later so there really wasn’t very much time for the local people to react.”

Pat Bradley:  “You mention a lot of very familiar names in your book like the Rockefellers and Peter Paine, Clarence Petty. But when you look back at all of the people that you have talked to in crafting this book who do you believe were the most influential individuals that led to the creation of the APA?”

Brad Edmondson:  “When you go back to the early 1950’s about 20 years before the creation of the APA the environmental movement was a very small group of people and they were politically very much on the fringe. And there were several people who worked behind the scenes and built the movement over decades who are not very well known. One of my favorite interviews was a guy in Schenectady named Dave Newhouse who was an official at the Adirondack Mountain Club. The Adirondack Mountain Club was a hiking club. It was apolitical. But they had 2,000 members and they all loved the Adirondacks. Dave Newhouse got religion for the environmental movement and he wanted the Adirondack Mountain Club to start taking political positions. The president of the club said no we don’t do that. But he had such high regard for Dave that he said the conservation committee can do that if it wants to. And so Dave was off and running and under his leadership the Adirondack Mountain Club became one of the main voices for the environmental movement in the ‘60s in the Adirondacks.”

Bradley:  “Which people that you interviewed did you find to be the most interesting, and I will do air quotes, characters?”

Edmondson:  “Oh well there were a lot of really interesting characters.  Dave Newhouse’s pal Almy Coggeshall was just a hilarious interview. These both men lived in Schenectady. They both worked at General Electric as engineers. And Almy was this very jolly man who told all kinds of funny stories particularly about snowmobiles. In the early 1960’s Almy he loved cross country skiing, snow shoeing, being out in the woods in the winter. It was silent and beautiful. And he told me a story about how the first time he heard a snowmobile he just lost his mind and he went running after it and he chased it down. He said what the hell are you doing! ‘Cause it was shattering the peace of his winter revelry. And I’ll go ahead and say this word on the radio but at a meeting once where he was railing against snowmobiles, he became known as an anti-snowmobile voice, somebody who sold snowmobiles came up and said ‘Almy can you ever say the word snowmobile without saying the word *** first?’ So Almy was just hilarious.”

Pat Bradley: “How important do you think your interviews with these individuals have become since many of them now have passed on?”

Brad Edmondson: “Well I don’t know. My hope is that they will provide a record that people can go back to. What I learned as a journalist over the decades is that the paper records that are left behind from legislation and political movements really don’t tell the most interesting stuff about what happened. Because politics is about relationships between people and personalities drive political change. And so in these interviews I really tried to capture what the personalities were and how they interacted with each other and some of the things that didn’t show up in the historic records. So my hope is that they have lasting value and they certainly produced what I think is a pretty lively book.”

Bradley:  “One of the interesting things is that you also are able to look at some of the local and regional people and not just the more visible people, as I mentioned the Rockefellers earlier, and their reactions to ideas. And some of the ideas that occurred 50 years ago that we’ve forgotten. We’ve forgotten 50 years on that people did think about making the Adirondacks a national park in the past.”

Edmondson:  “Yeah. Exactly. I mean in 1967 the Northway opened. An Interstate highway up the east side of the Adirondacks and everybody was thrilled with the idea that you could just point your Thunderbird north at 55-60 miles an hour and not have any stoplights all the way from Albany to Montreal. And that was the modern way. People really wanted to get places in their cars. And in the 60’s national parks were all set up so that people could get to the scenic place in their cars and then go to the snack bar and have lunch. Hiking or being Forever Wild really wasn’t part of that. And so in 1967 when Nelson Rockefeller’s brother proposed that the Adirondacks become a national park he thought he was proposing something that would benefit the people of the United States because most of them wanted to use their cars to get wherever they needed to go. He really didn’t know about the intense dedication that people in the Adirondacks had to the Forever Wild clause and what that meant to people in New York state and he ran into a brick wall.”

Pat Bradley:  “Obviously we consider the Adirondacks unique particularly because of its mixture of public and private lands and now because of the way the APA regulates it. Could it ever be replicated elsewhere?”

Brad Edmondson:  “I don’t think the APA could be replicated elsewhere in the same way. The forces that created it 50 years ago are no longer present. Most notably I think Americans in particular don’t really trust top down government solutions as much as they used to and so I don’t really see it happening again in exactly the same way. But at the same time landscape level conservation, the idea of preserving entire bioregions and large unbroken forests, that is a crucial idea. That’s something that’s globally important as a way of controlling climate change. So while it can’t happen again in precisely the same way it needs to happen all over the world and we need to find ways to do that.”

Bradley:  “Brad Edmondson, a documentary is about to be released in conjunction with your book that highlights a lot of your videoed interviews. What will people see in that documentary?”

Edmondson:  “The documentary is going to combine some of the video interviews that I did with some new material that we shot with some of the people who are still around and a lot of archival photographs. I’ve been working with the Adirondack Experience Museum, with the New York state Archives, the Adirondack Research Center at Union College and other places to dig up a lot of pictures that most people haven’t even ever seen before. And I’ve been going into personal photo collections as well so there’s going to be a lot of surprises there. The Rockefeller Archives in Pocantico alone were just for me was like a candy store.”

The documentary based on the Edmondson’s book and interviews will premiere on Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh this fall.


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