The current mantra in everything from agriculture to urban design is “sustainability.” As a professor of ecological economics at the University of Vermont, Jon D. Erickson studies how to find sustainable solutions that embrace environmental, social and economic concerns. Long before the concept was in vogue, America’s oldest large-scale attempt to balance preservation and development began in Vermont’s backyard, so to speak: the Adirondacks. Erickson has coedited a new book, The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park, that captures the century and a half of colorful history and vigorous debate surrounding the 6-million-acre swath of upstate New York.
At 600 pages, the collection of essays looks like a scholarly tome. But deft organization and well-written intros to each major section make it remarkably readable. The Great Experiment tells the fascinating and important story of the park, which is large enough to fit Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Great Smoky Mountains national parks within its borders. The book’s thesis: The Adirondack region is “America’s cauldron of conservation,” the incubator of ideas and practices central to the country’s unique wilderness ethic.
The project’s genesis stretches back 15 years. During his grad-school days at Cornell University, Erickson helped found the Adirondack Research Consortium. In addition to fostering “transdisciplinary dialogue” among academics and researchers, a key goal, he remembers, was “to communicate more of their findings with local communities, local stakeholders, state agencies [and] not-for-profit agencies. And also to create a vehicle for those interests to basically direct future research in the park that would cater to local needs.”
Among members, the concept of creating a “textbook on the Adirondacks” gradually emerged, Erickson explains. “Let’s try and cover all of the different dimensions of the Adirondacks, from the natural sciences to the social sciences to people’s vision for the place.” With plenty of advocacy groups in the park, “all spinning their information for their own purposes,” he continues, “the idea of the research consortium, and the idea of this book, was to just advocate for good information.”
The Great Experiment’s essays cluster around three broad subjects: the region’s natural history, the history of the park’s formation and prospects for its future. The editors solicited a diverse mix of authors “to contribute different pieces of the puzzle,” recalls Erickson. Town supervisors and veterans of state and nonprofit agencies join the usual university suspects. As some major figures in the park’s recent history passed away, he adds, “We also saw this as a time ... to capture some voices while they’re still around; people who have deep perspective on this place.”
Several unique factors and happy accidents of history made the Adirondack Park possible. Harsh climate and remote geography meant relatively light Native American and European settlement. Intensive exploitation of timber and mining resources came late to the region, when the railroad finally arrived. But the same trains soon carried wealthy tourists. They blended a taste for adventure with mid-19th-century romanticism, Erickson says, “seeking a natural world untrammeled by man.” These newcomers viewed the Adirondacks as a “sacred place,” and made it the focus of early conservation efforts.
Passed in 1885, laws designating parts of the park as “forever wild” remain “some of the strongest protection on land ever seen in the world,” Erickson states. The book tracks how the bold experiment unfolds. But can the example apply in other locations?
The professor thinks so, and has given talks as far away as Iceland on the topic. “That’s the power of the Adirondack story as a lesson for the world,” he asserts. “We have protected a very large landscape ... in a way that included people, not excluded them. The typical preservation model has been ‘draw a circle on the map, and kick everybody out.’ In the Adirondacks, at least we have a shot of telling a story — and learning what went well and what not so well — where we drew a circle on the map and we kept everybody in.”