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NY – The Adirondacks: Whose Park Is It Anyway?

America’s largest state park is a battleground between conservation activists and small towns desperate for development.
BY  | AUGUST 2016

Brian Wells looks out over the Cedar River at the end of an old dirt road deep within the Adirondack Park in upstate New York. The road is in the town of Indian Lake, and he is town supervisor. For years, Wells has fought to build a bridge over the river to a connecting trail on the other side as a way to attract snowmobilers, horseback riders and hikers.

Like many other rural municipalities within the park, Indian Lake has seen its economy suffer a slow and steady decline over the past several decades. A large furniture manufacturer left long ago, and few jobs in the logging industry remain. When Wells was growing up, there were many more diners and gas stations all along the main throughway. The mild winter this past year meant fewer skiers and snowmobilers, leading both a local motel and a diner to close their doors for good. Twice as many students were once enrolled at the local school as there are today.

What’s left of the economy is largely tied to tourism, so Wells has worked with the state government and other nearby towns to try to lure more people to the region. The bridge and proposed trail system would give Indian Lake a direct link to other towns, and, it is hoped, prop up the area’s businesses by attracting more tourists. “We have to have that connection,” Wells says. “It’s not going to be the total answer for us, but it’s going to be huge.”

But construction of the bridge and trail are on hold for now. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to block the project, arguing it violates state law and is redundant given the existence of other trails in the area. It’s just the latest in a long line of debates over development that have been playing out in the park for several years.

All across the Adirondacks, small towns and villages find themselves in a struggle for survival. With mining and logging jobs nearly gone, with businesses closing and with the population growing older, the towns are looking for any way they can find to halt the decline. Frequently, though, efforts to revive local economies come into conflict with concerns over preserving the park. The battle between conservation groups and pro-development town officials amounts to a dramatic test for a park long viewed as one of the country’s grand experiments in conservation.

The Adirondack Park is, in many ways, unlike any other in the nation. Roughly the size of Vermont, it is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. It’s a patchwork quilt of public and private property; the state of New York owns just under half the land. It is distinctive in another important way: There are 102 towns and villages within its boundaries, and it is home to more than 130,000 year-round residents.

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