16 October 2008


September 20, 2008

The Adirondacks is the largest intact temperate forest in the world, a vital wild space in itself, and a link to the Green Mountains and the rest of the 80 million acre Northern Appalachians. Though established as a protected park in 1885, much of it is privately held with no protections. I became interested in this magical place as the result of a project with the Northeast Wilderness Trust, http://www.newildernesstrust.org/, which asked me to help in the effort to preserve a thousand-acre parcel of land. LightHawk, http://www.lighthawk.org/, a fantastic group that flies environmentalists, had volunteered to fly us in that endeavor. My idea was a project that would examine the negative environmental impacts on this place that is so essentially part of our American heritage, and LightHawk’s great pilot, Bob Keller, agreed to fly me on this mission, too.
The Adirondacks was once home to much industry that has, for the most part, left the area in recent years; lumber and paper were tremendous, and still are a large presence; numerous mines littered the landscape, with the mills and processing plants that accompany them. With the help of Sid Whelan and some others with local knowledge, I was able to identify and locate a number of these sites, and plot a mission. In addition, I was able to get great support from Peter Kelley and his team at Kelley Campaigns, http://kelleycampaigns.homestead.com/, who brought The Adirondack Explorer and Adirondack Daily Enterprise on board for the project; suddenly, we had a full plane. Bob was going to be doing some maintenance on his plane in Schenectady where the Amtrak from NYC stops at a station minutes from the local airport (love that train). Our plan was to work up the East side of the park, shooting the sites we had identified, then pick up the reporters at Saranac Lake and do the locations in the North and West.

The first target was the defunct Palmer Paper Mill in Corinth, site of one of the original International Paper locations. Though the mill is closed, the site remains, waste tanks full, a deep wound left behind on the town whose livelihood once depended on the mill’s successful operation. The river there was dammed to provide power for the mill, the dam an enduring relic of a different time, and an ecosystem alteration with permanent effects on the flora and fauna that depend on the river.

One of our next sites was a paper mill still operant in Ticonderoga, with an environmental record to make the bold weep. We think of paper as a benign product, made from natural sources, associating it with the Chinese and Egyptians that invented it. The reality is that paper production is an environmental disaster from start to finish. The process is so terrifying that I will not even take a paper napkin at a restaurant any more. We flew over Lake George, looking for the Asian Mille Feuille that has clogged this most bucolic Eastern resort location; but we were too late in the year, and only managed to get some good shots of storm-water runoff into the Lake from residential locations. Bob (the pilot) was so great. Aside from his expert piloting, local knowledge, and understanding of the issues, he was able to provide further insights into the terrain below.

Next on the agenda was the old Republic Steel Mill in Port Henry (great name). Republic Steel was once the third largest steel producer in the country, founded in Youngstown, Ohio in 1899. Republic Steel’s Port Henry operation opened its doors in the mid-to-late 1800s, and was headquartered in Mineville and Witherbee, neighboring towns that were built up specifically to serve as communities for the mine workers and their families. All that remains today (as far as one can see) is a mountain of waste, a beautiful old factory building, and some water bodies with mysteriously colored sludge on the surface and lining the edges.

The journalists were awaiting us in Saranac Lake, and from there we flew over the High Peaks to the old Tahawus lead and titanium mine at the head of the Hudson River. Apparently, this was once considered a vital “national security site,” titanium and lead being crucial for many things military. But, imagine a lead mine at the head of one or our most important rivers. The site is beautiful: a mountain of waste, ponds of various bright blues and greens, and strange arrangements of detritus that remind us of nothing so much as unexplainable phenomena often attributed to UFOs.

In the end, we missed the last train out of Schenectady, so Bob flew me down to the next stop on the line in Hudson NY, and a taxi met me at the small airport and raced me to the train station.