Ross Whaley loves the Adirondacks. He knows of no place else to see nature at its best or to see the very foundations of democracy and forest preservation.
What he loves best about the Adirondacks is the Park itself. The mixture of public and private lands, the year-round and the seasonal residents and the local and state governments are magical in their uniqueness in terms of parks in the United States, and has truly captured him intellectually.
Whaley said that the Park is not only special in and of itself but if one looks at it as a whole, that "great conservation experiment," there are lessons for others to learn from it in terms of finding the right synergy between the protection of nature and the nurturing of communities and the economy.
Ross Whaley and his dog Cinnamon, which he and his wife adopted from a U.S. Marine going overseas
(Photo — Stefanie Chipperfield)
He declared that May is the Adirondacks' finest month. "You see nature fabulously at work here, condensed into one short period - from bare ground to flowers emerging to trees coming into leaf to temperature changes. There's no other place on Earth to see this happening more vividly."
Born in Detroit, Mich., Whaley's passion for the outdoors led him to a bachelor's degree in forestry and a master's degree in forest from the University of Michigan and Colorado State University, respectively. He then returned to the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in natural resource economics. After working at three universities, from the Rockies to New England, he served in the U.S. Forest Service for six years in Washington, D.C.
While there, he was offered the position of president at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which he gladly accepted and, in 1984, he moved to Syracuse to fulfill.
SUNY ESF owns and manages roughly 20,000 acres of Adirondack property, including the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, the Biology Station in Cranberry Lake, the Ranger School in Wanakena, and the Pack Forest in Warrensburg.
"That was my first introduction to the Adirondacks," Whaley said.
He remained ESF's president for the next 16 years, after which he decided he wanted to explore and teach about sustainable development and environmental ethics, and was appointed university professor at the college for three years.
In 2003, former New York Governor George Pataki appointed Whaley to chair the Adirondack Park Agency in Ray Brook. He was chairman of the APA for the next four years.
As for the success of the conservation effort in the Park today, he said, "It is truly in the eye of the beholder."
He has heard both positive and negative opinions, and used to be critical of the viciousness of the debate.
His response now? "Wow, democracy is alive and well here."
Despite the vigorous debate and obvious friction in the Tri-Lakes Area, for example, it is brimming with good well intentioned individuals and institutions, hard-working people, and folks who love the place.
Whaley said he cannot think of anywhere else in this country where we have laid the foundations to maintain the ecological integrity and also the integrity of communities and of the economy. Nowhere are those foundations -a respect for wild lands and wilderness that resulted in the Forest Preserve and a recognition of the importance of regional planning that spawned the APA - better laid than here.
From the standpoint of these foundations, he feels very good about it. However, in practice, every day is another decision. "Everyday do we get all of those decisions perfect? No. Do we do better than in most places? Yes."
Whaley currently lives on Bungalow Bay, with his wife of 50 years; his three children and eight grandchildren often come to visit.
"Having a place in the Adirondacks is a magnet for the rest of the family," he said.
Though he is no longer with the APA, neither his involvement with the Park nor his passion for nature has diminished in the least. In June 2008, he co-chaired a national climate change conference at The Wild Center, and that November, also at The Wild Center, he co-chaired another, Adirondack-focused conference.
He has also been working for the Adirondack Landowner's Association, and with a private group of individuals to convert their 15,000-plus acres into a research forest that they have named the Shingle Shanty Preserve and Research Station.
Whaley's most consuming new project, however, is a book about the climate, the geology, and the ecology, and how those have shaped the economy, and in turn, policy. The book had its roots in two different ideas from two different people that Whaley brought together. One was Bill Porter, Director of the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb. The other was Jon Erickson, Associate Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. Porter was lamenting that ESF staff member Dick Sage who had recently passed away - as well as other people in the Adirondacks - had so much knowledge that had never been written down anywhere. Erickson was trying to capture the notion of ecology and geology leading to economy and policy. Whaley thought that the two ideas could be merged, and got the two of them talking about it.
"Then they wouldn't let me escape," he joked.
The original notion was that most of the book would be written by other people, and the three of them would just glue it together. However, they found that this information alone was interesting but didn't tell a story, so they did end up doing a fair amount of writing in terms of an introduction, transitions between sections and a conclusion. There is an afterward by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, and a forward by Herman Daly, ecological economist and "one of the fathers of sustainable development", according to Whaley. The book has been in development for at least three years and is being published by Syracuse University Press. He said it will hopefully be available by this June and be titled either "The Great Conservation Experiment" or "Cornerstones of Development: Voices of the Adirondack Park."