Lithgow Osborne and the Future of the Adirondacks
By Anthony F. Hall
Monday, November 21, 2016
Three years after he became Commissioner of Conservation in 1932, Lithgow Osborne noted that “anything that was not wanted elsewhere was placed in the Conservation Department.” Even he, however, was surprised when Governor Herbert Lehman decided to create a bureau of publicity and charge the Conservation Department with managing it. Soon enough, “the people of New York’s Western Frontier and the North Country” were among those banging upon his door in Albany, insisting that he give pride of place to their particular “recreational delights.” Osborne had already complained publicly about the many interest groups who felt they had exclusive claim upon the resources of his department. Anticipating the headaches of today’s Commissioners of Environmental Conservation, who must reconcile the conflicting demands of sportsmen and wilderness preservationists, legislators and advocacy groups, budget cutters and department heads, Osborne said, “They always want us to take their point of view. It is the same with forestry as with fish and game. These groups have extreme viewpoints.” Osborne, born into a prominent upstate family, was a Harvard graduate who had a distinguished career as a diplomat before returning to New York State. He appears to have used the diplomatic skills he honed in Berlin after the first World War and at disarmament conferences in the early 1920s to accommodate the opposing views of those foresters and fishermen. His goal at all times, he said, was “finding the middle ground.” Those same diplomatic skills must have been useful when negotiating New York’s purchase of George O. Knapp’s Lake George estate, since the state acquired those 7,000 acres and nine miles of shoreline for a price far below market value. Once the land was part of the Forest Preserve, Osborne negotiated another compromise: opening part of the land to public recreation while leaving most of it as wilderness. Here, as elsewhere, Osborne had found “the middle ground.” Osborne was still advocating “a middle ground” twenty years later when commenting upon the Adirondack Forest Preserve’s 75th anniversary in The New York Times. “The more wild land we can acquire and preserve in a natural state, the better. The more accessible lake frontage that can be acquired for camping, picnicking and other simple forms of recreation, the better. We can have both ample recreation and ample wilderness in the Adirondacks, providing we move carefully, considering each step we take.” As the Adirondack Park Agency weighs the potential uses for the recently-acquired Boreas Ponds tract, it could do worse than deliberate in the spirit of Lithgow Osborne: proceeding slowly and finding a middle ground between advocates of recreation, on the one hand, and of wilderness on the other. A middle ground, allowing some relatively easy access but placing most of the 20,578 acre tract in an expanded High Peaks Wilderness Area, is being promoted by groups such as the Adirondack Council. If that compromise is successful, another goal of Lithgrow Osborne’s will become feasible, one that he adopted when Governor Lehman appointed him New York’s publicist-in-chief: “making New York, with its unsurpassed natural beauties, better known, to its own people and to others.” With a new wilderness area larger than the Rocky Mountain National Park, that shouldn’t be difficult.
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