A 1967 map of Laurance Rockefeller’s proposed Adirondack National Park, courtesy of the Adirondack Experience
Fifty years ago, the Adirondack Park was defined by a disagreement between two powerful men
The view from the top of Lake George’s Prospect Mountain is amazing. You don’t have to take a long, sweaty hike to enjoy it, either, because of the Veterans Memorial Highway that opened in 1969. It is the only scenic drive through the state-owned forest preserve that Laurance Rockefeller built in the Adirondacks. He wanted more, but Harold Hochschild stopped him.
Rockefeller and Hochschild took opposing sides in an argument about what kind of development should be allowed in the Adirondack Park. The argument started in the summer of 1967 and raged for six years. Both men agreed that government should step in to limit large housing developments inside the Blue Line. They disagreed about who should do the job, and how. And their debate became heated when they started talking about the forest preserve. Hochschild made a sour crack about how Laurance’s side wanted to put a luxury hotel on top of Mount Marcy. Laurance’s people accused their opponents of planning a “wilderness museum” off-limits to almost everyone. The argument continued long after the two men left the scene. In fact, you could continue it tonight at any rural North Country bar, if you’re in the mood.
The Rockefeller Brothers
America does not have a royal family, but in the 1960s, the Rockefellers came pretty close. Nelson Rockefeller, perhaps the most powerful governor in the history of New York, had three younger brothers, and Laurance was his favorite. Laurance helped invent the field of venture capital, making the family’s vast fortune even bigger. But Laurance’s real passion was creating parks.
Young Laurance and Nelson loved to play cowboys on the family’s Hudson Valley estate. When they visited Western national parks with their father in 1924, the boys took their 10-gallon hats. These were not typical family vacations. A National Park Service (NPS) administrator met the Rockefellers’ private train, saddled them up, and led them on horseback through the ranchlands of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The NPS hoped to turn the Rockefellers into donors, and it worked: teenaged
Laurance was hooked. At age 30, his father put him in charge of a family corporation that secretly bought thousands of acres of land and donated it to the federal government.
Rockefeller wealth played a central role in the creation of national parks in the Grand Tetons, Smoky Mountains, US Virgin Islands and elsewhere. In the 1960s, Laurance chaired a Congressional commission that launched federal programs and supercharged the movement, buying millions of acres for parks. He also chaired the New York State Parks Commission, assisted Lady Bird Johnson’s national beautification program, and led a team that drafted a recreational plan for the Hudson River. Laurance was no slouch.
Laurance’s goal was to extend outdoor recreation to as many Americans as possible. Open spaces near big population centers were especially valuable—he referred to them as “effective acres”—and the Adirondacks, within a day’s drive of 85 million people, must have seemed like the ultimate prize. But Laurance also knew, from surveys he had taken, that most Americans of the 1960s wanted their outdoor recreation centers to have roads, parking areas, bathrooms, snack bars and the other amenities found in national parks.
The Adirondacks had a problem with that. The state’s “forever wild” clause, an 1894 addition to New York’s Constitution, makes it illegal to sell or even cut a single tree on state-owned land in the park without a constitutional amendment. It makes building national park–style amenities all but impossible. To Laurance, the solution was simple: get rid of forever wild.
Laurance started the six-year argument in the summer of 1967 when he released a surprise report proposing the creation of an Adirondack National Park. About one-third of the existing state park would be transferred to federal ownership, extinguishing the forever wild clause. The new National Park would contain the state park’s highest peaks and most beautiful lakes. It would encompass Lake Placid and other villages, which would be subject to National Park Service oversight. The proposed area also included 600,000 acres of private land which would be acquired by the federal government, through condemnation if necessary.
Nelson Rockefeller loved big ideas and cutting-edge thinking, and he loved his brother. But he was also a shrewd politician, and he didn’t love the way the public reacted to Laurance’s plan. Everyone in New York hated it. Hunters were outraged, because hunting is prohibited in national parks. Timber companies and local towns didn’t like the idea of being obliterated. People in big cities who had nothing to do with the Adirondacks were insulted by the idea of giving the state’s crown jewels to the feds. State conservation officials wondered what they were supposed to do with the four million acres of state parkland that Laurance didn’t want.
Full-time residents of the Adirondacks also hated the idea, although their objections were almost completely ignored. They were used to it. Adirondackers loved the land and probably knew it best, but most of them didn’t own much of it. A lot of them also depended on summer residents and tourists for their livelihood. And when you take orders from a boss, a bureaucrat or a customer who lives hundreds of miles away, it can leave you feeling pushed around and misunderstood.
Laurance was particularly surprised when his own crowd—people like businessman Harold Hochschild, who were wealthy enough to own luxurious second homes they called “camps”—hated the national park idea, for reasons that were almost religious.
Hochschild and his allies found spiritual renewal in the Adirondack Park’s vast, deep silences. He was horrified by the idea of turning these natural cathedrals into asphalt-rimmed picnic areas and overcrowded campgrounds. He rallied environmental leaders and hired a public relations firm to coordinate the fight against Laurance’s proposal. Hochschild was in his mid-70s then, long retired from running a global mining conglomerate. He had money, connections, charm and cunning. He was devoted to three things: his wife, Mary, Adirondack history, and the forever wild clause.
Nelson Rockefeller enjoyed hiring talented people and watching them attack complex problems by making big, bold plans. “If somebody said two words to label Nelson Rockefeller as a politician, I would use ‘task force,’” said R. W. Apple, of The New York Times. “He loved task forces.”
Rockefeller side-stepped the controversy over Laurance’s proposal by setting up the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. The first commissioner he appointed was Laurance’s environmental advisor, Henry Diamond. Its chairman was Leo O’Brien, a former congressman who had helped Laurance to set up Virgin Islands National Park. Laurance was definitely not giving up on those effective acres.
Nelson also needed to appoint fans of the forever wild clause for two reasons: environmental groups were key to his third re-election campaign, and many Adirondack Great Camp owners, including Harold Hochschild, were major donors to the state Republican Party. So he appointed Hochschild to the Commission, along with Elizabethtown philanthropist Richard Lawrence and Peter S. Paine Jr., a 31-year-old Wall Street lawyer whose father and Laurance were friends.
The commissioners were standard-issue wise men—all of them men, and all of them comfortable in a boardroom. They did not include any North Country elected officials, contractors or small business owners. After all, the state had about 14 million potential voters, and only about 75,000 of them lived inside the Blue Line. The Governor probably figured that Adirondack residents would do as they were told.
The Commission’s staff director, Harold Jerry, did not want to allow any buildings in the Adirondack backcountry. And he picked a staff who agreed with him, starting with his friend and colleague Clarence Petty and continuing with a 28-year-old Cornell graduate student named George Davis.
The Commission collected a massive amount of data in 1969. The commissioners had to digest it while holding meetings all over the North Country. Then they had to settle on recommendations, all on a tight deadline. It quickly became apparent that the weakest link was Chairman Leo O’Brien. “Leo was a bad drunk,” said Peter Paine. “He would go off at the worst possible moment,” embarrassing the commissioners in North Country bars and stumbling into meetings the next morning severely hungover.
By the fall of 1969, Harold Jerry and the commissioners agreed that they needed a new leader. Harold Hochschild had more gravitas than all the others put together and was eager to take the job, so they elected him in January 1970, over the objections of the Rockefellers. “Harold had run American Metal Climax, going toe to toe with prime ministers, and so he was not frightened by Nelson Rockefeller,” said Paine. “I think that Nelson wasn’t terribly happy.”
Laurance was even more unhappy, because Hochschild’s election was a clear signal that the Commission was turning away from his National Park vision and toward a stronger version of forever wild. So he switched tactics and tried to use his State Parks Commission post to get a foothold in the Adirondacks. Laurance asked his brother, the Governor, to give responsibility for Adirondack state campgrounds and public areas to the brand-new State Office of Parks and Recreation, where Laurance played a prominent role. The Conservation Department would continue to manage the open spaces of the forest preserve.
Adirondack forest rangers, who usually preferred hunters to car campers, were mostly pleased when the Governor floated the idea. But Harold Hochschild saw it as a mortal threat. He suspected that Parks, once it was let in, would continually push for the development of state lands, and he couldn’t abide that. On March 6, 1970, Hochschild stowed his charm and took out his weapon.
His weapon was John Oakes, a friend and fellow forever wild advocate who wrote editorials for The New York Times. Hochschild prepared a press release announcing that the Commission was disbanding because the influence of Parks would make it irrelevant. He didn’t send it to Oakes: instead, he showed it to Henry Diamond, along with signed resignation letters from every commissioner, and he threatened to send the release to Oakes unless the Governor backed down.
In March 1970, Nelson Rockefeller was behind in the polls and facing an election in November. The Times had the power to make or break politicians in those days, and the environmental movement was at its zenith. Faced with Hochschild’s ultimatum, the Governor squashed his beloved brother’s dreams. Parks stayed out of the forest preserve, the Commission went ahead with its work, and Nelson Rockefeller was re-elected decisively.
50 Years Later
In December 1970, the Temporary Study Commission released a landmark report. Its first and most important recommendation was for a new state agency that would write and enforce two master plans for the Adirondack Park—one for the state forest preserve, and one for the private land. Hochschild mobilized statewide environmental groups who applied overwhelming pressure to the Governor and the legislature, and the Adirondack Park Agency Act passed in June 1971. It was a complete triumph for the forever wild team. Yet Laurance Rockefeller got a lot of what he wanted, too. In 1973, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) proposed stringent density controls on private land that were strictest in private forests. The APA rules made it nearly impossible to build large second-home developments in the backcountry.
A 50-year perspective on this story reveals two lessons. First is the remarkable far-sightedness of the Temporary Study Commission. In the last decade, preserving huge, unbroken forests has emerged as a key strategy for controlling climate change. The Adirondack Park is now recognized as a global model, and many more parks like it will be needed to capture enough atmospheric carbon to prevent catastrophe.
The second lesson is the potential of listening carefully to people with whom you disagree. Laurance Rockefeller didn’t do that: he preferred to deal with private inholdings by using cash to make them go away. The APA’s zoning solution was more thoughtful, but throughout the six-year argument, the 100,000 people who were trying to make a living in the Adirondacks complained consistently that the wise men and activists ignored them.
It was a costly error. After the 1973 law was passed, a determined minority of full-time Adirondack Park residents organized to “abolish the APA,” and their protests attracted wide support from less-involved Adirondackers who were just as insulted by the law. The opposition made the early APA much less effective than it could have been. Local officials knew they would not be re-elected if they cooperated with the APA, and their reluctance to write local zoning laws that met agency standards left the state agency with an impossible burden. It became the zoning board for a territory as large as the state of Vermont, it was underfunded, and it stayed that way for decades.
What would have happened if local voices had been taken seriously? After all, the locals’ point was a good one. They didn’t need even more wilderness. They needed better jobs. The Temporary Study Commission could have pushed the state to make serious efforts to ease the North Country’s high levels of poverty. But their vision of “saving” the Adirondacks did not include economic security for the people who live there.
During her long tenure on the APA board, Liz Thorndike was a consistent advocate for locals’ concerns. But she says she held a different view in the early 1970s, when she was a Rochester-based environmental activist. “I don’t think it ever occurred to me or the people I was working with that maybe the local people might have a different attitude about the private land plan,” she said. “It just didn’t occur to us.”
The problem endures. Too often, the effectiveness of the environmental movement is still blunted by its own self-absorption.
Brad Edmondson is the author of A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks (Cornell University Press, 2021; www.bradedmondson.com).