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A Main Street Republican Who Liberals Can Love

By Anthony F. Hall

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Liberals, even and especially liberal Republicans, were never fans of the Republican Senator from Ohio, Robert A. Taft (1889-1953). Here in upstate New York, he was disliked for attempting to deprive Governor Thomas Dewey of the party’s presidential nomination. He demonized Wall Street in order to champion Main Street, a view that won him few friends in the city. He never overcame his reputation as an isolationist, a position he abandoned only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, in today’s political climate, he would be regarded as a champion of liberal values. Taft was a constitutionalist, perhaps the last in American politics. He believed that every policy, whether foreign or domestic, should be judged by the extent to which it expands or limits the rights of individuals. According to that standard, Taft would have opposed President Trump’s January 27 executive order banning visitors from seven largely Muslim countries and placing limits on our refugee program. Among other things, the executive order appears to violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government’s establishment of religion as well as the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. Taft would have been especially alarmed by Trump’s attempt to enlarge the executive’s powers at the expense of those of Congress in the area of foreign policy. An unrestrained power to respond to threats from abroad can lead easily to the abuse of that power, he concluded, noting, “If the President has arbitrary and unlimited power… there is an end to freedom in the United States.” The decision by the federal judge who blocked parts of Trump’s executive order to grant standing to the states challenging it would have had Taft’s approval. Taft never ceased urging state governments to assert their prerogatives and resist encroachments upon their powers by the federal government. He was less concerned about protecting states’ rights than he was about protecting a bulwark for the right to local, self-government. The habits of exercising responsibility for local communities had to be perpetuated, he believed, if Americans were to remain spirited enough to resist governmental infringements upon their rights. Taft’s last, great opponent in his fight to sustain the Constitution as a system of checks and balances was President Harry S. Truman, who in 1952 directed his Secretary of Commerce to seize the nation’s steel mills on the grounds that a national emergency existed. Taft declared, “The Constitution says nothing about national emergencies, and if the President could increase his powers by such a declaration, there would be nothing left to the limitations imposed by the Constitution.”

Robert A Taft

US Senator Robert A. Taft

The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Truman’s executive order was illegal. Truman complained, of course, calling the decision “crazy,” one that “tied up the country.” But he accepted the decision and deferred to the authority of courts. As the Economist magazine has noted, Trump’s predecessors in the White House “retreated… when checked. That is not an attitude that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric suggests he shares.” If he does not share that attitude, then the country will face, at some point in the next four years, a constitutional crisis of the sort that Taft sought to avert. It is unlikely that any Democrat in Congress will invoke Taft’s name or example, but for those who view politics through the prism of the Constitution, his principle that policies must be judged by their effects on the rights of ordinary Americans has much to recommend it. It’s one that should be embraced not only by liberal Democrats but by conservative Republicans as well, including, we believe, those who voted for Donald Trump.

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Lithgow Osborne

Lithgow Osborne

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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Lessons from New York’s Old Hall of Zoology

By Anthony F. Hall

Monday, July 11, 2016

“Turn left at the giant sloth” – that, it struck me at the time, must be among the most peculiar directions I have ever received.

I had been asked to attend a meeting in the New York State Museum, an especially brutal component of Albany’s Empire State Plaza, at least when compared with the original museum, now occupied by the Department of Education.

That building, completed in 1912 and distinguished by a colonnade of pillars facing the capitol’s north portico, is where those of us who grew up in this region first saw the state museum’s zoological collection, which famously included fossils, skeletons and life-sized reconstructions of the extinct mammoth and mastodon.

“Extinction,” writes science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, “may be the first scientific idea that children grapple with,” which is perhaps why those displays made such a lasting impression upon me.

To be honest, though, I don’t know what excited me more as a fourth or fifth grader – the Hall of Zoology’s displays of extinct creatures, the dioramas of Native American life, the meteorites or simply the thrill of a field trip to an unfamiliar place, especially on a bright spring day.

I still have photos I took of that trip with a Kodak Brownie for my neighborhood newspaper. I dug them out when I read about the work of two of the museum’s scientists, paleontologist Robert Feranec and geologist Andrew Kozlowski, earlier this spring.
The two have been analyzing the museum’s historic specimens in order to better understand when and why these creatures disappeared from New York.

Twenty-five thousand years ago, upstate New York was almost entirely covered in ice. As the ice retreated, plants and animals began to claim the newly exposed land for themselves. Roughly 17,000 years ago, the Caribou appeared, followed shortly thereafter by Mammoths. That species arrived when its preferred habitat, the tundra, began to emerge.  When boreal forests developed a few thousand years later, mastodons colonized the region. The last to colonize the territory was the first to become extinct. The mastodon disappeared 12,000 years ago. Caribou survived well into the 18th century.

As the State Museum noted in a press release announcing the publication of the scientists’ work, paleontologists are still debating the reasons why more than 50 species of large mammals disappeared from North America after the Ice Age.
Some, like Charles Darwin himself, have attributed extinction to the evolutionary process. Others, following the 18th century French philosopher Georges Cuvier, have posited some catastrophic event. Still others have attributed the mass extinctions to a loss of habitat caused by climate change.

The skeleton and life-size restoration of the Cohoes mastodon in the old New York State Museum.

Feranec and Kozlowski argue that habitat loss could not have been the only or even the most important factor in these species’ extinction.
Humans hunted mammoths and mastodons for at least one thousand years, and while hunting may not have been the only cause of the creatures’ demise, we definitely played a part in the extinction of many species, Feranec and Kozlowski argue.

They confirm, in other words, what Elizabeth Kolbert asserted in The Sixth Extinction: that “a wave of disappearances… coincided with the spread of modern humans, and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it.”
Human-induced climate change, she writes, has had a similar effect upon hundreds of species of plants and animals. “Humans are now so rapidly transforming the planet—changing the atmosphere, altering the chemistry of the oceans, reshuffling the biosphere—that many scientists argue that we’ve entered a whole new geological epoch: the Anthropocene,” she writes.
What future generations of visiting school children may learn from the museum’s sloth, mammoth and mastodon is not only that some creatures, perhaps all creatures, will someday disappear from the face of the earth. They will also learn, perhaps indirectly and perhaps only gradually, that they themselves are responsible for the future of the planet and its inhabitants. That, I imagine, is a lesson that even the most frugal school district would find worth the price of a field trip.

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The Cure For Democracy’s Ills Is Not Always More Democracy

By Anthony F. Hall

Friday, March 4, 2016

To the conservative mind, there is a latent wisdom in old institutions, even and especially in institutions that have outlived their original purpose. Think of the annual ritual of repairing a stone wall as it’s described in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” According to the narrator, a city dweller or a college professor spending a weekend at his country place, the exercise is a pointless one, “just another kind of out-door game… we do not need the wall.” But the neighbor, an old yankee whose pastures and fields are reverting to forest,  just keeps repeating his father’s ancient proverb, “good fences make good neighbors.” And, of  course,  the old fellow is right, perhaps more than even he knows: shared tasks sustain common interests, provoke at least a casual conversation and strengthen a relationship that is frequently a tense or adversarial one. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the Electoral College.  Dismissed as archaic, undemocratic and confusing,  it could be all of those things and still be the chief bulwark against an extremist of either the right or the left ever becoming president.  The framers of the US Constitution feared that a population as dispersed and as insulated as ours was in the 18th century lacked the information necessary to hold a national  conversation about the relative merits of the presidential candidates.  Unlike the compact city-states of ancient Greece and Rome, ours was “an extended republic;” we lacked the forums, literally and figuratively, that made direct democracy practical. Electors, however, that “small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass,”  would in all likelihood,  according to  the Constitution’s framers,  “possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”  To some, it may come as a surprise to learn that when we cast our votes for a presidential candidate, we are  actually voting for electors. Unless you’re one of the politicians who appoints people to those largely ceremonial positions, you probably have no idea who they are.  Nevertheless, they still gather in the chambers of their state capitols every four years to cast their state’s electoral votes, in all but a few cases for the candidate who won a plurality of popular votes.  Those who argue that the Electoral College is outdated and should be replaced by the direct election of the president and vice-president overlook a few things, the most important of which is that to win a majority of electoral votes, a candidate must carry states  at both ends of every spectrum: red and blue, rural and urban, conservative and progressive.  One hundred of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, for instance, come from states whose major product is corn. That’s why the two major parties tend to select candidates who can appeal to the center, where most voters in almost every state are still to be found. (The Republicans’ nomination  of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern in 1972 are the exceptions that prove the rule.)  The parties tend to reject candidates who will sacrifice victory for ideological correctness. In a direct election, however,  those institutional restraints on extremism are absent. A candidate can win the presidency merely by appealing to a mobilized faction. As the nation grows more polarized and the leaders of the established parties lose influence with the voters, it’s more important than ever that we retain whatever forces for moderation we possess.

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Another Chance to Patch the Kettle

By Anthony F. Hall

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Clouting the cauldron. Patching the kettle.

That’s how an English observer, the Reverend Sydney Smith, described the New York State constitutional convention of 1821, which reformed or abolished institutions established when we were still a British colony. Twenty five years later, in 1846, another constitutional convention was called. And just before the delegates adjourned, they voted to make the periodic reconsideration of the state’s fundamental law a part of that fundamental law.

While the US Constitution is framed for the ages, as Alexander Hamilton put it, our state constitution is made for the times. The constitution requires us, at least once every generation, to choose whether or not to hold yet another convention. We’ll decide the issue again in November, 2017. In advance of that referendum, the New York State Bar Association is calling upon state officials to appoint a non-partisan preparatory Constitutional Convention commission. According to State Bar Association President David P. Miranda., “A preparatory commission would provide citizens with impartial research on the issues covered in the Constitution prior to their vote…. The commission should educate the public about the state Constitution and the process for changing it; make a comprehensive study of the Constitution and compile proposals for change and simplification; research how past conventions were conducted; and prepare impartial background materials for the 2017 voters- and for delegates if a convention is held.” For the convention of 1967, delegates had the benefit not only of a commission created in 1962 but a series of reports drafted over the course of a decade. Governor Mario Cuomo appointed a study commission in 1993 to prepare voters for the 1997 referendum. Any commission appointed in advance of the 2017 vote will therefore have less time than its predecessors were given to conduct the necessary work. The Governor and the legislature should, therefore, make the creation of a constitutional convention commission a priority of the next legislative session. At the very least, the appointment of a commission will call attention to the fact that a vote is to be held in 2017, something too few voters are aware of.

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Louis Marshall, the Adirondacks’ Indispensable Man

By Anthony F. Hall

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

It is the fervent wish of fathers to be outshone by their sons. What better way to perpetuate the family name, not to mention the genes?

On occasion, though, the sons’ renown can be so great that we lose sight of the achievements of the father.

Here in the Adirondacks, James, George and Bob Marshall’s contributions to our appreciation of wilderness have tended to obscure their father’s part in protecting that wilderness.

“Mr Louis Marshall” by Alfred Bendiner

In 1894, Louis Marshall was a delegate to New York State’s constitutional convention. A young but promising attorney from Syracuse, he arrived foucused on the judiciary, intent on making the court system more rational. But he worked even harder to make the 1885 legislation protecting the Adirondack Forest Preserve a permanent part of the state constitution.

“If I were asked to state what the most important action of the Convention of 1894 was, I should say without the slightest hesitation that it was the adoption of the article which preserved in their wild state the Catskills and the Adirondacks,” Marshall said at another constitutional convention, one held twenty years later in 1915.

And, he went on to say, “the most important question which is to be acted upon by the 1915 Convention” was a proposal to amend the forever-wild clause to allow timber to be harvested in a large part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve.

“What would you have left after you adopted a provision of this character? Nothing but a howling wilderness. Not a wilderness of trees – of wild forest trees – but of stumps, enough to make one’s heart sick to behold them,” Marshall told the delegates.

Thanks in part to conservationists such as Lake George’s John Apperson, who organized a coalition of sportsmen, legislators and civic leaders to support Marshall, the attempt to dilute the forever-wild clause was defeated.

According to historian Phil Terrie, the vote at the 1915 convention was as significant as the decision in 1894 to constitutionally protect the Forest Preserve. Marshall and his fellow-delegates ratified that decision, demonstrating that it was not a hasty or ill-considered one, thus ensuring that the forever-wild clause would remain a part of the constitution.

“The affirmation of the forever-wild clause at the 1915 constitutional convention served to re-emphasize…. that most of the people of New York wanted the Adirondacks to continue to be predominantly a place of nature,” Terrie wrote in ‘Contested Terrain.’

After the convention adjourned, Marshall continued to defend the integrity of the forever-wild clause and support the cause of conservation wherever he could, including, even, drafting legislation to protect roadside wildflowers.

Conservation, however, was only one of his many concerns and his writings on the topic occupy a relatively small portion of his papers, a two volume edition of which was published in 1957.

But however much he achieved in the world as a constitutional lawyer, a civil rights advocate and a supporter of Jewish causes, no place was more important to him than the Adirondacks.

“He delighted in the rustic joys of Knollwood, a hilly woodland overlooking Lower Saranac Lake,” wrote one of his biographers. “There he a attained a degree of intimacy with his family difficult to maintain in the city. There he composed the satires, the dialect sketches and the cozy poetry that were among the tokens of affection that bound him to his wife and children.”

And from there he issued this plea on behalf of the Adirondacks:

“Let us preserve some of the simple things. Let us know that there is somewhere in our state a region not yet commercialized and citified, and to which people may repair who yearn for a restoration amid the vast silences of the eternal mountains and the primeval forests. Let us beware while there is still time. Let us not jeopardize this fine heritage. Let us not make a beginning which in time would be certain to make a barren waste of the most perfect mountain region in the world….”

Those words inspired his sons and continue to inspire advocacy groups such as the Adirondack Council, which presented its Conservationist of the Year award in 2014 to the descendants of Louis Marshall.

Louis Marshall died in Zurich, Switzerland in 1929.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on December 31

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Adirondack Bartlett

By Anthony F. Hall

Friday, June 5, 2015

Unlike many who have shaped the debate about the Adirondacks over the decades, the late Dick Bartlett, whose death we report in this issue, was a true outdoorsman. He was a member of the famed Gooley Club and, he once remarked, owned more guns than any single individual needed. It is probably because he was a hunter (as well as fisherman, sailor and boater) that in his second term as Warren County’s  assemblyman, he introduced legislation that would have dedicated 60% of the Adirondack Forest Preserve to fish, game and their stalkers, the individual hunter. “Our main problem in the Adirondacks,” he said when introducing his legislation in 1962, “is the gradual deterioration of the deer herd.”  Sustaining the deer population would require “limited cutting to promote the growth of reachable browse” and to provide  “reasonable access to our deer country for hunters.” Zoning the Adirondack Forest Preserve for various activities was an idea that had been promoted since the 1940s and it reared its head again at the state’s 1967 constitutional convention, to which, by the way,  Bartlett was a delegate. A measure very much like Bartlett’s was introduced by an Albany County Democrat, replete with support from professional foresters. It was defeated by a vote of 152 to 18, no doubt for the same reasons that Bartlett’s own legislation died: the cutting of timber, however limited in  scope and for whatever beneficial purposes,  violates the spirit of the constitution’s Forever Wild clause. The legislation was important though, because while the idea of zoning the Forest Preserve may have been an idea whose time had come, Bartlett’s bill was the first to introduce a comprehensive zoning plan for the preserve . His plan, as well as the recommendations of the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources, influenced the work of  Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which in turn produced the State Land Use Master Plan, adopted in 1972. The Master Plan divides the Forest Preserve into categories ranging from the most to the least restrictive, and debates about how much of the forest preserve should be left untouched by the hand of man and how much should be as accessible as possible still rage. Only last week, the on-line magazine Adirondack Almanack hosted a discussion about the extent to which newly acquired Forest Preserve lands should accommodate the old, the disabled and the inexperienced so as to be more “inclusive” than in the past. Give Dick Bartlett credit for playing a role in getting that discussion started. Bartlett will be remembered for many achievements, notably for reforming the penal code and the state’s court system, as obituaries in the New York Law Journal and other publications remind us. Even more important, to us, is that he demonstrated that one can have a satisfying professional career, one with immeasurable influence, without loosening the ties that bind one to one’s native region. Bartlett probably viewed his role in the evolution of Adirondack policies as a relatively insignificant aspect of his career. By the time the Adirondack Park Agency bill came before the legislature, he had left the Assembly. He was not enamored of the new agency, but he was not among its opponents. That being said, we thought this other contribution of his to New York State should be among those  we remember and remain grateful for.

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Photo by Veronica Spann

Photo by Veronica Spann

Adirondack Park Invasives Program: Good as Far as it Goes

By Anthony F. Hall

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

As we reported in last month’s issue, the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo is now supporting an Adirondack Park-wide approach to the control of aquatic invasive species. The meetings between state officials, local government leaders and representatives of groups and organizations to develop a coherent strategy, which we also reported, apparently have been productive. A Memorandum of Understanding, whose signers pledge “to work together in good faith to create an effective program for preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species in the Adirondack region,” has been endorsed, if it was not largely drafted, by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. It is now circulating within the Adirondack Park. Bolton became the first town to sign the MOU when its Board met last week. “The MOU is non-binding, but it describes what we’re working towards,” said Supervisor Ron Conover. Conover credited Warren County Supervisor Fred Monroe and Eric Siy, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George, with initiating the conversations among sportsmens groups, lake and landowners associations and municipal officials that helped convince the state to endorse a park-wide strategy. As Monroe and Siy envisioned the process, a partnership modeled on SAVE Lake George  would coordinate the effort, with Lake George organizations supplying much of the leadership. That no longer looks likely. Nor does it appear as though  Lake George’s  mandatory inspection and decontamination program will be replicated throughout the Park, not, at any rate, at any time soon. Instead, voluntary compliance with recommendations for inspections and decontamination will be favored.  The MOU also states that “any inspection, self-certification and/or decontamination programs will be done in such a way that does not unduly restrict recreational boating and fishing.” As we know from Lake George’s experience, attempting to accommodate those interests at the expense of water quality nearly derailed the program. In fact, the MOU specifically states that anglers may wish “to get on the water early to avoid boaters or to get on late to fish for walleye,” or, in other words, at hours when stewards or officers are unavailable to inspect and wash boats. This Adirondack-wide program, which will have gaps and holes, should remind people who care about protecting this lake from invasives that we’re fortunate to have the Lake George Park Commission’s more thorough program in place here. Conceived of as a pilot program with only one more year of funding committed, the Lake George program must become a permanent one. Making it permanent, and securing the funding necessary to sustain it should be the ranking priority of the lakeshore towns and environmental protection groups. We do not, however, wish to appear critical of an Adirondack  program that is still in the formative stages of development and which represents an impressive leap forward in the thinking of state officials. It was not that long ago that a DEC official told the Adirondack Park Agency, “Boat washing is not as effective as people think.”  Since then, DEC has adopted its own regulations prohibiting the launching of invasive species contaminated boats from its launches and camp grounds. Of greatest importance, a better protected Adirondack Park will make Lake George’s defenses against invasives even stronger.

 

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Anti APA activist Anthony D

Anti APA activist Anthony D'Elia, State Senator Ron Stafford and Governor Mario Cuomo in Essex County in the 1980s

Avoiding a Return to the Era of Ill Feelings

By Anthony F. Hall

Monday, March 2, 2015

After former Governor Mario Cuomo’s death on January 1, a former colleague reminded  us that when Cuomo signed the legislation authorizing the creation of an Environmental Protection Fund on Lake Champlain in 1993, much of the tension that had  on occasion erupted into violence as a result of the  restrictive recommendations of the 1990 Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century, was defused. A compromise had been reached. Funds were awarded for land acquisition, but there was also money for local governments in the form of grants for infrastructure and hamlet re-development. Of greater importance, the self-appointed leaders of the so-called Property Rights movement lost their constituencies and many of them left the area. Reasonable, responsible people on both sides of the issue reasserted control of the conversation. That’s how things have stood, more or less, until recently.  In December, Denton Publications published a bizarre editorial calling for the abolition of Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental advocacy group based in Lake George, supposedly on the grounds that the group wants to drive true Adirondackers from their homes.  “Fewer jobs means fewer people, thus more command by their like-minded. Shuttered schools simply mean less taxes on fancy lakeside second homes and vanishing downtowns means less blight enroute to the water’s edge,” the editorial stated. How a group can be abolished by those who disagree with its mission was never made clear, but well-reasoned logic was not among the piece’s strong suits. The papers’ publisher, Dan Alexander, disavowed the tone if not the meaning of the editorial, but not before the Essex County Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed it. It was also supported in Letters to the Editor columns by, among others, veterans of the 1980s Property Rights Movement. In January, we received emails from  Lake George residents who accused the Town’s Comprehensive Plan Committee and its consultants of surreptitiously placing within a draft of the plan new zoning regulations that would constitute “takings by regulation of our private property rights,” ignoring the fact that environmental protection had been identified as a priority and that the proposed regulations were merely suggestions as to how the town might achieve those goals. More disturbing than the authors’ arguments was the mistrust of the motives of anyone who disagreed with them, the conspiracy theories attached to the drafting of the document and the hostility expressed toward the committee. The most recent example of this return to the era of ill-feelings was the response we received when we posted to the web an article about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for an Adirondack-wide strategy to combat invasive species. The unthinking, visceral dislike of Cuomo expressed in comments was so vicious that we deleted most of them. Whatever the source of this renewal of animosity, it’s important to recognize it and realize how dangerous it is. No one who lived through the fierce debates in the Adirondacks in the 70s and 80s wants to see that animosity revived, and those of us who did should caution newcomers about demonizing and dehumanizing those with whom they disagree. We’ve seen the consequences of that, and frankly, they were horrifying.

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Political Stars of the North Country

By Anthony F. Hall

Thursday, October 30, 2014

For a region lacking obvious advantages – wealth, population, long-established institutions – the North Country has produced some impressive politicians: among them, Silas Wright (1795-1847), William Wheeler (1819-1887) and Roswell Flower (1835-1899).

Historians may remember Silas Wright as nothing more than a lieutenant in Martin Van Buren’s political machine, but he was once ranked the equal of Washington and Lincoln, at least by the novelist Irving Bacheller, who, like Wright, was a product of St. Lawrence County.

Bacheller once wrote that in the North Country (which he defined as the area between Plattsburgh and Carthage), “men are still created free and equal. There, the only uncommon person is the one that hasn’t common sense. There, no matter what his dress and manners may be, a man is as good as his heart and no better.”

While one could argue that a region shapes a politician’s character, Bacheller claimed  that it was a politician who shaped his region’s character.

“When and how came this spirit of my native hills and valleys?” Bacheller asked in a 1917 magazine article.  “Largely, I think, from one special source. The most of it came in the summer of 1819 with Silas Wright, then a young man. He settled in Canton and opened a law office.”

Wright would go on to serve in Congress, as State Comptroller, in the US Senate and as Governor. But out of modesty, obligations to his family and loyalty to others, he declined as many offices and honors as he accepted, wrote Bacheller, who based a novel, “A Light in the Clearing,” upon Wright’s biography.

In the North Country, wrote Bacheller, Wright was the  exemplary man, and the stories told about him were not-so subtle exhortations to virtue.

“If I thought my task too hard or too mean, I was told Silas Wright used to do it. If I were inclined to pride, I was reminded of the example of the great commoner. He entered the imaginations of the young in the North Country. His soul is still in the homes and courts and schools in the North,” he wrote.

Bacheller was not alone in writing fiction based upon New York State politicians. Harold Frederic wrote at least three novels based on the life of  the state’s Civil War governor, Horatio Seymour.  By the time Roswell Flower and William Wheeler achieved prominence, novelists such as Henry Adams and William Dean Howells were treating politicians with contempt, when, that is, they were being treated at all. So our knowledge of them comes not from fiction, but local histories.

Flower, a Watertown native, was  governor from 1892 to 1895, long enough to preside over the creation of the Adirondack Park and the passage of the constitutional amendment declaring all Forest Preserve lands “forever wild.”  And although the Blue Line was not extended to include Lake George until 1931,  Flower initiated steps to protect it by outlawing the sale of publicly owned islands to private citizens in 1893.

Flower’s efforts to protect the Adirondacks rested upon work begun in the 1870s by the first Adirondack Park study commission and its leaders, Verplanck Colvin and William Almon Wheeler, the Malone native who would later become Rutherford B. Hayes’s vice-president.

Like Flower, Wheeler believed that the Adirondack forests should be protected, but managed in the interests of the state’s coffers, rather than left ‘forever wild.’

And according to Herbert C. Hallas, a retired teacher and lawyer who has written the recently published “William Almon Wheeler: Political Star of the North Country,” Wheeler was among the first to argue that New York should support  the economies of the Adirondack settlements and to oppose the creation of a park devoted entirely to wilderness. Such a park, he argued, would be “useless and unproductive.”

Today, we remember Rutherford B. Hayes for becoming president under circumstances that anticipated the “selection” of George W. Bush over Al Gore. With the electoral votes of a few southern states in dispute, a commission was created to choose the victor. Hayes was named president, but on the condition that federal troops be withdrawn from the south.

If the presidency of Hayes is all but forgotten, imagine the fate of Wheeler’s vice-presidency! If he is less well-known even in his native North Country than he should be, Hallas argues, it is because his character was attacked after his death by a local newspaper editor, who happened to dislike him. Future North Country political stars: you’re forewarned.

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