Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Forever Wild and the Great Blowdown of '95: Part 1

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the "Great Adirondack Blowdown of 1995." My personal experience with the "Great Blowdown" started while I was sleeping soundly in the Staff House at SUNY Cortland's Huntington Outdoor Education Center, which is located on a peninsula on the roadless eastern shore of Raquette Lake that is accessible only by boat in the summer, and ice road during the winter. The Huntington Center was originally named Camp Pine Knot, and is justly famous for being the first of the Great Camps of the Adirondacks and the birthplace of William West Durant's "Adirondack Rustic" style of architecture. It was the last day of the "Adirondack Park Policies and Issues" course that I had co-taught for the past week with my colleague and friend, Bob Buerger, who was also sound asleep a few bunks away. The Staff House (also known as the Huntington Cabin) is a log cabin that was built by the camp's second owner Collis P. Huntington after he acquired the property from William West Durant in the late 1800's. The cabin is made of thick pine logs, and it still has its original glass windows without screens to preserve the architectural and historical integrity of the facility. The entrance to the cabin does have a screen door, however, so we left the inner door open when we went to bed to allow fresh air to circulate throughout the cabin since it was extremely hot and humid.

Somewhere around dawn the next morning the inner door of the Staff House slammed shut with surprising force. Bob and I sat up and looked groggily over at each other. We heard the sound of a storm raging outside. I concluded that wind from the storm had blown the door shut, and I assumed that Bob had reached the same conclusion since he quickly laid back down. I followed suit and, even though thunder was crashing and the wind was howling outside, I felt secure behind the the thick walls of our cabin and quickly fell back asleep.

A little later the Director of the Huntington Center at the time, Joe Pearson, opened the door to our cabin and called in "Are you okay?" Bob and I sat up again and looked at each other less groggily, but more quizzically, than we had earlier since the director rarely visited our cabin and never visited this early in the morning. The sun was shining brightly around our drawn curtains, and the wind was no longer howling outside, so his query made no sense to us. By then he had reached our room and, when he saw that we were obviously just waking up, he said something like, "Don't tell me you slept through all this?" Bob and I looked at each other sheepishly since, whatever "all this" was it was obvious we had indeed slept through it. Joe quickly filled us in. The storm had knocked down trees all over camp. Our students, who were sleeping in a wooden-frame building with open screen windows that faced directly into the path of the storm, had tried to signal us with their flashlights when trees began to fall all around them and they were unable to close their storm windows as rainwater blew through as though someone were throwing it in with a buckets. He concluded by telling us with obvious relief that some buildings around camp had been struck by falling trees, but none of the students or staff had been hurt and only one of the historic buildings had suffered minor damage.

After a quick breakfast, Bob, the students, and I went to work helping the Huntington staff with cleanup. They cut fallen trees apart with chainsaws, and we hauled the debris away. At every turn the students took delight in reminding Bob and I that we had slept through what seemed like the end of the world to them. As we worked, news filtered in by walkie-talkie from SUNY Cortland's Antlers facility on the other side of the lake. Roads were blocked and power was out all over the park, and at least one person had died at the nearby Eighth Lake State Campground when a tree fell on their tent. We briefly considered staying at Huntington for another day to help with cleanup and avoid traveling under what seemed likely to be dangerous conditions but we decided to head home since there was no way for our students to let their friends and families know they were okay because all the land phone lines were down and there was no cell coverage on the peninsula at that time. We drove slowly past emergency crews who were clearing trees and fallen power lines. It is normally a three hour drive from Huntington to our main campus in Cortland, but on that day it took us closer to six hours. The relieved looks on the faces of the people who were there to meet our students told us we had made the right decision since news of the death and destruction caused by the storm had spread quickly to the rest of the state.

Over the next several days news reports continued to document the events surrounding what was now being called the "Great Blowdown." Five people died as a result of the storm, and many hikers and campers were briefly stranded. Approximately 150,000 acres of forest suffered severe (60% or more of trees affected) or moderate (30-60% of trees affected) damage. A few months later a proposal emerged to salvage timber from trees on the Adirondack Forest Preserve that had fallen during the blowdown. The precedent for this proposal was the timber salvage operation that took place on Forest Preserve land following a large cyclonic storm that damaged trees in large areas of the Adirondacks in 1950. As in 1950, the legality of the 1995 salvage proposal hinged on the interpretation of the Forever Wild Clause of the New York State Constitution. Since the Forever Wild Clause is arguably one the strongest laws ever established in the area of environmental protection, its origins are worth examining.

The creation of the Adirondack Park in 1892 did not halt logging on state-owned lands within its boundaries, nor the sale and exchange of prime sections of Forest Preserve to timber companies, so conservationists went to work during New York's constitutional convention of 1894 to change this. Eventually they were able to secure passage of the Forever Wild Clause, which stated that: "The Lands of the State, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed, or destroyed."

The significance of the Forever Wild Clause is manifest in three ways: Its inspiring language ("forever kept as wild forest lands"), the extra protection (delay and referendum)afforded by its status as part of the New York State Constitution, and the historical impact of the last minute addition of the words "or destroyed" to the original language of the amendment. Later this summer we will travel to Lake Lila to see how the Adirondack forest has fared in the thirteen years following the blowdown, and in subsequent posts we will examine the policy lessons the Forever Wild Clause provides for those interested in preserving natural ecosystems in the modern world.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Good Morning Tom,
Nice entry. I admire how you interwove the experience with some history and background info on the ADK. Congrats.