On Election Day, New York State voters approved a plan to allow a mining company to explore for minerals on a 200-acre parcel of wilderness deep in the Adirondack Mountains. In exchange, the NYCO Mining Corp. will donate 1,500 acres elsewhere in the Adirondacks to the state.
As is common in such debates, proponents of the swap argued it would protect jobs while some environmentalists objected to giving up protected wilderness for use by a private industry. What was unusual was that voters had a chance to decide the outcome of the debate, because the disputed parcel was part of the State Forest Preserve, which is protected by the state constitution.
During Fall Break last month, 13 Vassar students spent a week in the Adirondacks, learning about such land-use issues. They met with residents, ecologists, and conservationists to learn how these debates are addressed and resolved in New York’s Adirondack Park. “The trip enabled the students to get a sense of how competing interests interact and, if possible, co-exist,” says associate professor of geography Mary Ann Cunningham, who organized the trip for her Geography/Earth Science 260 class.
The Adirondacks serve as an ideal laboratory in which to explore such issues, Cunningham says. The region has been a focus of conflicting ideas about land-use policy since at least 1894, when the New York State constitution established the State Forest Preserve as “forever wild.” New York’s forest preserve is unique in the United States in having such strong constitutional protection. But at the same time, about half of the six million-acre park – roughly the size of Vermont -- is privately owned, and over 100,000 people live there.
“Looking at conservation policy in this way – asking whether it can coexist with economic growth and sustainability – is becoming increasingly important throughout the country and the world,” she says.
The students stayed for the week in bunkhouses at a field station in the Adirondacks operated by the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Newcomb, NY. One night they camped in tents near Saranac Lake.
The trip focused on field research projects, Cunningham says, “to learn how we can evaluate the resources we want to conserve.” In classes before the trip began, the students sorted themselves into project topics such as water quality, forestry, or ecology and studied scientific papers to find methods for studying them.
Hannah Snyder-Samuelson ’15 says studying such issues at their source rather than simply in a classroom, helped her and other students gain a deeper understanding of land-use issues. “We’re lucky to be at a place like Vassar where the small class sizes allow us to take trips like this,” Snyder-Samuelson says.
She was part of a group that studied the history and impact of the region’s timber industry. Once a major factor in the economy of the Adirondacks, logging has declined significantly in the last few decades because paper companies have found cheaper sources of timber in the South and overseas.
Snyder-Samuelson says she and the other two students on her team, Luke Kachelien ’15 and Elizabeth Ruiz ’15, noticed that sugar maple trees, once a prime target of loggers, are no longer prevalent in many forests, in part because their growth is being hampered by acid rain and deer browsing.
“The economy is definitely lagging in most of the Adirondacks as the extraction of natural resources has diminished,” she says. “As a result, towns up there are struggling. “ Unable to find work, many young people are leaving the Adirondacks, Snyder-Samuelson said. That means that communities are dwindling and aging, like other rural and resource-based areas of the United States.
The state agency responsible for overseeing conservation and for negotiating between conservation and economic interests is the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), which maintains some of the most comprehensive land-use planning in the country, Cunningham says. “There’s a mosaic of rules and regulations in the park,” she says. “For example Wilderness Areas allow no motorboats or chainsaws or snowmobiles, and that causes tension because the snowmobiling business is big money in some communities.”
Given the competing interests of residents, business owners and conservationists, the system the state has put in place to regulate the Adirondacks seems to be working surprisingly well, Cunningham and Snyder-Samuelson say.
“The people who live there are independent, and they often resent the government telling them what to do,” Cunningham said. “But in speaking to longtime residents, Chamber of Commerce people, and conservationists, we found that most of them are increasingly finding ways to collaborate with the APA most of the time.”
Snyder-Samuelson says she and her fellow students finished their field trip concluding that issues surrounding land-use policy are complicated. “One thing I took away from the trip was that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to many of these problems,” she says. “But it was good to be able to see how things work in the real world, to see the big picture in a way we could not have done in class.”
Photos by Hanna Snyder-Samuelson and Mary Ann Cunningham