Forever Wild

New York State’s sprawling preserve strikes an extraordinary balance between modern interests and the forest primeval.

This story appears in the September 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

From where I live a couple of hours north of New York City, I can feel the peculiar gravity of the Adirondacks, which lie another two hours to the north and west. It's a gravity as strong as Manhattan's but the opposite kind—the beckoning of few roads and few people, the pull of a wild region large enough to have an "interior." Here, the outside world seems to vanish behind enfolding mountains, quarantined away by river, still water, and wetland. Crest one of the High Peaks, and all you see is Adirondacks.

Visitors have been coming steadily to these mountains since the mid-19th century. In the early days they came by horse-drawn wagon, Lake George steamer, and train. Today you can get to the Adirondacks by making a left off the highway from Albany to Montreal. And yet some approaches still let you feel you're being devoured by remoteness.

The soil changes mile by mile on a drive up from the south. Soon a dark wall of trees—red spruce, balsam fir, beech, hemlock—surrounds you, and there's a sudden stony persistence. You're climbing onto the Adirondack dome, an exposure of ancient rock thrusting upward, rising faster than anything around it. Then comes water, some of it visible, much of it secret: ponds, lakes, creeks, rivers, and bogs too saturated to bear the weight of anything much heavier than a beaver. Here is a place, as the philosopher William James wrote more than a century ago, to "aspire downwards."

Aspiring downwards for James, like so many visitors then and now, meant climbing upward, as he did in the summer of 1898, hiking up Mount Marcy and Gothics and Basin Mountains all on one memorable day. Others aspire downwards deep in the St. Regis Canoe Area, floating in a seam of light, a silent wake trailing behind their canoe. At such moments it's possible to pretend you're looking straight back into history, well past 1898, if not quite so far as 1609, when Samuel de Champlain came within eyeshot of these mountains.

It's easy to believe, even now, that almost nothing has changed in what James called the "primitive forest." But with few exceptions, almost everything has changed in the Adirondacks. The unbroken green of the summer landscape rolling out from the High Peaks hides a singular fact: New York's Adirondack Park may be the most complicated park on the planet.

The best way to grasp its complexity is by considering a simple question: How do you make a park? In Yellowstone—the first national park in the world—the land was set aside in a single, nearly virginal lump. But by the time Congress protected Yellowstone in 1872, portions of the Adirondacks had been industrial zones for more than half a century, especially along the tributaries of the Hudson River and Lake Champlain. The forest was being cut for charcoal to heat forges working iron from Adirondack mines, for hemlock bark used in local tanneries, and for sawlogs milled downstream. This was the logging of legend, before mechanization: breast-high stumps left by men swinging axes or wielding crosscut saws, horses skidding logs, rivers regulated as "public highways" for log driving.

By 1890, according to the New York Times, there was widespread fear that it was "too late to preserve the Adirondack forests." The intrusion of railroads brought tourists but also extended the reach of loggers. There were "few live trees in sight" along the rail lines, and visitors passed through a country "still blackened from the fires that have passed over it."

Part of the miracle of the Adirondacks is how quickly these abused lands healed. Just decades earlier, in the 1870s, the state had begun taking over parcels of cutover land forfeited for nonpayment of taxes. By 1892 it was ready to make a park of them. The original boundary embraced 2.8 million acres, only half of which actually belonged to the state. (Private land today makes up roughly half the park.) New York enshrined its sprawling forest preserve in the state constitution, which protects the state-owned park as "forever wild."

Since then the park has grown to almost six million acres—the largest park of any kind in the lower 48 states. It encompasses nearly every type of land classification imaginable: wilderness, wild forest, primitive area, land owned by investment groups and private clubs, industrial land, land held in trust by environmental organizations, private land under state easement, and private land without easement, not to mention 103 municipalities within the park, including towns and villages like Tupper Lake, Lake Placid, and Keene. The result is an intricate mosaic of lands and an equally intricate mosaic of humans, all of whom influence the governance and direction of the park itself.

A warm August weekend. At the early morning trailheads, casual hikers are setting off on long and short loops. Climbers ready their gear impatiently, eager to get to the rock faces. Cyclists thread past them, heads down. On the grounds of the Adirondack Museum and along the highway leading to Blue Mountain Lake, crafts and antiques are being set out. Breakfast smoke rises from campfire villages deep in the woods. Canoes and kayaks work their way along the perch-colored shallows of Lower St. Regis Lake. Hikers are waking in lean-tos down the trails, and someone is surely drinking coffee over a laptop in a modern lodge modeled after one of the great Adirondack "camps"—vast log mansions that were once the pinnacle of rustic luxury.

While these capillaries of civilization reach far into the park, there's an inescapable sense wherever you go in the Adirondacks that just a short distance away a wilderness begins—many wildernesses, in fact. What's arresting about the Adirondacks isn't the tantalizing promise of another view lying out of sight, though the park is an endless beaded chain of new perspectives. What's arresting is the absence of a view, the dense enclosure of the eastern forest, the depth of the biotic floor you step across as you move deeper and deeper into a kind of Leatherstocking shade. It seems irrational to feel the trees closing behind you, as if the forest is cutting you off from the present. But the gravity you feel—drawing you over rock and moss, through small streams where the light opens overhead, across deadfalls, and into pure dim stands of hemlock—is the returning wildness of the place.

"The Adirondacks are the Eden of restoration," says Bill McKibben, writer, environmentalist, and longtime Adirondacks resident. "This is probably the place on Earth that went brown to green most resoundingly over the 20th century. Many places in the park you need to be a silviculturist to know you're not in virgin forest. Almost all the original species are back."

When the Adirondack Park was established in 1892, it was intended to be a preserve, not an experiment. And yet the park has become an inadvertent laboratory exploring the coexistence of a nature preserve with a resident population of some 130,000 humans and millions of summer visitors. The biological experiment has been an unqualified success—biodiversity is rebounding—but the social and economic experiment is ongoing.

That experiment is overseen by the Adirondack Park Agency, established by the New York legislature in 1971. Its commission is planning and policy for a park that embraces one-fifth of the state and a maddening puzzle of land types and uses, putting the agency at the center of tension between development and preservation.

"There's almost nothing that's strictly prohibited in the park," says Curt Stiles, the agency's chairman. "It's just a matter of finding the right place for it." Somewhere within the park there is provision, through land classification and environmental impact assessment, for nearly every kind of human activity, from industry to wilderness solitude. Judging by the political temperature in the park at the moment, there seems to be a tolerable, perhaps even sustainable, balance between protection and use. But the scales require constant adjustment in response to shifting conditions—not least of which is the threat posed by climate change.

There's good evidence that climate change is manifesting itself in the park: Average summer temperatures have increased by about two degrees over the past hundred years, winter temperatures by about five. Lakes are freezing up later in the year, and spring is arriving earlier. The park is the southern limit for some plants, and rare alpine species that once thrived atop the High Peaks are now at risk of vanishing.

I find myself imagining a time-lapse photo of future changes, imagining, as well, a time-lapse of the past century and a half in these timeless mountains: the logging and mining and burning, the movement to protect the last fragments of untouched forest, the regreening of this resilient landscape. The remembering is reassuring. For decades now, the stewards of this cherished park have been searching for balance. More often than not, it seems, they've found it.