The Black River Wars

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A citizen may not have the title to his home, but he does have an undivided deed to this Adirondack land of solitude and peace and tranquility. To him belong the sparkling lakes tucked away in the deep woods and the cold, pure rivers which thread like quicksilver through lush mountain valleys. His determination to preserve his personal treasure for posterity has been tempered by memories of campfires, and strengthened by pack-laden tramps along wilderness trails and by mountaintop views of his chosen land. To him the South Branch of the Moose is a River of Opportunity, for he has come to regard it as the front line of defense against the commercial invasion of his Forest Preserve.

-Paul Schaefer1

For nearly three decades, plans for a series of 38 reservoirs across the Adirondack Region silently slipped through the eddies of New York State’s Department of Conservation. By 1942, construction was slated to begin2 on the first two dams on the Moose River at Higley Mountain and Panther Mountain. Together, these two dams would have flooded the Moose River Plains within the Forest Preserve. It was not until late 1944, when Paul Schaefer noticed illegal logging on the Panther Mountain dam site,3 that the existence of these projects came to the attention of conservationists. From 1945 until 1956, Schaefer led the charge against the dams in one of the largest and most successful grassroots environmental campaigns in legal history. They would become known as the Black River Wars.

The story of how the proposed dams and reservoirs eluded the watchdogs of the Forest Preserve is complex and bureaucratic. In 1913, the Burd Amendment modified the language of Forever Wild, Article VII Section 7, of the New York State Constitution, giving  “constitutional sanction to limited encroachment on the Forest Preserve”4 via the “construction and maintenance of reservoirs for municipal water supply, for the canals of the state and to regulate the flow of streams”5.

The Department of Conservation was given the management of this task. They, in turn, redirected the oversight of water regulation to the Water Power and Control Commission. In 1915, the Machold Storage Law was passed, allowing any property owner, private or municipal, the ability to petition the Water Power and Control Commission to form a “river regulating district”. Comprised of three people appointed by the Governor, a river regulating district held the power of both a public corporation and a state agency with the authority to exercise eminent domain, assessment, and taxation.6

1 Schaefer, Paul. The Forest Preserve, No. 3 (July 1948) 3-4

2 Correspondence, E. S. Cullings to Grace L. Hudowalski, undated.

3 Correspondence, Paul Schaefer to Ed Richard, January 1, 1945.

4 Martin, Roscoe Coleman. Water for New York: A Study in State Administration of Water Resources. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press) 1960: 147.

5 N.Y. Const. art. XIV, § 2 (Amended from N.Y. Const. art. VII, § VII)

6 Martin, Roscoe Coleman. Water for New York: A Study in State Administration of Water Resources. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press) 1960: 147-148.