This Land is Your Land: The Birth of ‘Forever Wild’
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In 1864, George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature. The book raised public awareness about how significantly humans impact their environment. A best seller, the book ignited a social fervor in the hearts of Americans, profoundly altering environmental attitudes and ideas about conservation.1 In Man and Nature, Marsh argued for rational resource management, specifically in reference to logging. He believed deforestation was “the most destructive among many causes of the physical deterioration of the earth.”2 Marsh claimed that deforestation led to the degeneration of forest soil and ultimately to ecological collapse. He argued that as deforestation occurs, the land loses its ability to hold and manage water fluctuations. Wetlands dry up, spring runoffs increase, and rates of erosion accelerate.3 Marsh drew direct parallels between the fallen empires of antiquity and the current state of the Adirondacks, stating that the effects of over-logging “are already perceptible”.4
Marsh called upon New York State to conserve the Adirondacks for both its environmental protection as well as the enjoyment of the commonwealth, stating that:
It is desirable that some large and easily accessible region … should remain… in its primitive condition … for the recreation of the lover of nature … in the enjoyment of such imperfect protection and the laws of a people.5
Man and Nature raised awareness that unchecked logging in the Adirondacks had led to dangerous levels of erosion that could clog the Erie Canal and affect “the navigation of the Hudson”.6 The Erie Canal system, which linked the eastern seaboard with the western interior of the country, was indispensable to New York’s economy.7
In order to assess these threats the New York State Legislature commissioned Verplanck Colvin to survey the Adirondacks in 1872. Colvin’s 1873 report to the legislature intensified concerns when he stated that the loss of tree cover would affect the drinking water supply for New York City and the downstate region by reducing the amount of water available and polluting the remainder. 8 In his second report in 1874, Colvin further argued that:
Unless the region be preserved essentially in its present wilderness condition, the ruthless burning and destruction of the forest will slowly, year after year, creep onward after the lumbermen, and vast areas of naked rock, arid sand and gravel will alone remain.9
It was thus utilitarian, water-based arguments (devoid of aesthetic, recreational, or spiritual reasoning) that formed the foundation of the Adirondack Park and New York State’s Forest Preserve.
In 1883, the New York State Legislature formed a committee to examine the possibility of preserving state-owned land in the Adirondacks. In 1885, a law was passed forming the Forest Preserve. This law protected state-owned lands from being sold and created a Forestry Commission charged with the oversight, management, and sale of timber from the lands. This commission was overwhelmingly recognized as inadequate in scope and a failure in execution. Combined with droughts and forest fires in 1893 and 1894, this led to fearful outcries that the watershed of New York was being destroyed by logging.10
1 David Lowenthal. “Nature and Morality from George Perkins Marsh to the Millennium” Journal of Historical Geography 20 no. 1 (2000): 4.
2 George Perkins Marsh. Man and Nature. (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864): 217.
3 Paul Schneider, The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997): 220.
4 George Perkins Marsh. Man and Nature. (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864): 236.
5 Ibid. 235.
6 Ibid. 235.
7 Philip G. Terrie. Forever Wild: Environmental aesthetics and the Adirondack Forest Preserve. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985): 95.
8 Verplanck Colvin. Report on the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness of New York for the year 1873. (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1874): 115.
9 Verplanck Colvin. Report on the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness of New York for the year 1874. (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1874): 116.
10 Philip G. Terrie. Forever Wild: Environmental aesthetics and the Adirondack Forest Preserve. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985): 100.