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The Adirondacks: birthplace of the modern environmental movement

September 26, 2012
By Tony Hall , Lake George Mirror

Other than attending the National Governors' Conference at Bolton Landing's Sagamore hotel in 1954, Richard Nixon did not, so far as I know, ever visit the Adirondacks.

Yet he was recently ranked the second most environmentally progressive president in American history because, I would argue, of his connection to the Adirondacks.

That connection was supplied by Russell Train, Nixon's first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Ford. Train died last week at the age of 92.

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Russell Train

According to his obituary in the New York Times, "Train was among those who shaped the world's first comprehensive program for scrubbing the skies and waters of pollution, ensuring the survival of ecologically significant plants and animals, and safeguarding citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals."

At the age of 45, Train abandoned a successful legal and judicial career to become a full-time conservationist - a decision that was prompted in part by his passionate attachment to the outdoors, which he had acquired during his summers in the Adirondacks.

Train was the nephew of Judge Augustus Hand, and he spent virtually every summer of his youth at the family home in Elizabethtown, which served as a base for explorations of the High Peaks and Lake Champlain.

Appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1974, Train made his first public official comments in the midst of that decade's energy crisis. The crisis, he said, had become a smoke screen behind which elected officials were attempting to roll back the curbs on air and water pollution. As demands for offshore drilling and the exploitation of natural gas grow, those comments should be borne in mind; they are as relevant today as they were then.

Of course, it's not surprising that the father of modern national environmental policy should have Adirondack connections. The president accorded the highest rank as an environmental progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, was also introduced to the Adirondacks as a child, during family vacations on Lake George. His first book, published while still an undergraduate at Harvard, was about the Adirondacks: "The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks," which he wrote after an extended stay in Franklin County with his friend Henry Minot.

In fact, it would not be too much an exaggeration to claim that the Adirondack Park is the birthplace of modern environmentalism - and not just because of the state constitution's early and far sighted protection of the Adirondack wilderness, which, among other things, served as the model for the 1964 law establishing a national wilderness preservation system.

The Adirondacks have also exercised a powerful influence upon writers, who as Bill McKibben argues in his introduction to "American Earth," an anthology of environmental writing since Thoreau, "so often drove the movement and on whom the movement continues to draw."

Somehow, the Adirondacks have seeped into the bones and the souls of generations of politicians, policy makers, artists and writers, and have thereby altered the course of a country far larger than its six million acres. Perhaps no other argument in defense of the protection of the Adirondack wilderness is needed.


A version of this essay originally appeared as an editorial in this week's issue of the Lake George Mirror, of which Tony Hall is editor and publisher.



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