Clarence Petty 100 Years Old Battles Development in Adirondacks

Monday, March 14, 2005

Clarence Petty is a hero to some environmentalists, but critics say he is too rigid regarding park development.

March 14, 2005 In Adirondacks, an Old Lion Is Still Baring His Fangs

By ANTHONY DePALMA

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. – Clarence Petty grew up wild, a lanky boy as untamed as the Adirondack wilderness that enveloped his family’s lakeshore shanty at the start of the last century. He spent his days fishing and trapping, and had it been up to him, he would have become an Adirondacks guide, like his father, and stayed wild forever.

But his mother had other ideas. When he was 11, she forced him to hike 16 miles into town every Sunday afternoon, and stay there all week to attend a proper school. Make something of yourself, she insisted.

And he did. Mr. Petty, who turns 100 this year, is widely considered one of the most important and inspirational figures in the history of the Adirondack Park, which has been around just a few years longer than Mr. Petty himself.

Through the years he has been a tireless advocate for the " ‘Dacks," the six-million-acre oasis of publicly owned and private land. He mapped the park’s most primitive areas and helped establish the agency that regulates the private lands. Even now, he speaks at public hearings with a voice as powerful as a spring-melt brook for the preservation of the last great wilderness in the Eastern United States.

"I would be just as pleased if I could stand on the Capitol steps in Albany and look towards Montreal and not see a damn thing except wilderness," he said, not raising his voice but leaving no doubt that he meant it as strongly as he has meant anything in his long life. "That’s the way I feel."

He is the real thing, a North Country native as authentic as the profile of Whiteface Mountain, one of the park’s highest peaks. But his unflinching opposition to development usually puts him at odds with most of his neighbors and smack in the center of the enduring conflict over what to do with the private land in the park, which is about half of the total six million acres.

"He’s a maverick when it comes to development in the Adirondacks," said Richard Beamish, publisher of the Adirondack Explorer. "But he’s not divisive because he’s so respected." Mr. Petty’s extraordinary history and personal integrity give him unassailable legitimacy, Mr. Beamish said, and a unique pulpit from which to speak.

"If Clarence gets up and says there shouldn’t be any more development in the park, you hear hardly a peep," Mr. Beamish said. "People will not attack Clarence."

But neither will they necessarily go along with what he says, living legend or not. Last year, for instance, he came out against a state plan to create more snowmobile trails in the park.

Carol W. LaGrasse, president of the Property Rights Foundation of America, which opposes state control over private land, called him a "radical preservationist" out of step with local concerns.

"The environmentalists treat him like the great father, a dignitary par excellence," Mrs. LaGrasse said in an interview. "But to my mind, he’s just a repressive arrogant individual who, along with others, has caused a great deal of hardship for lots of people who live in the Adirondacks."

The snowmobile plan is still under review.

Even Mr. Petty’s own late brother Bill, who was a forest ranger and regional supervisor in the park, thought he sometimes took conservation a little too far.

"Bill used to say to me, ‘You don’t even want to allow them to open an umbrella over state land,’ " Mr. Petty recalled. "But sometimes you have to be rather harsh, otherwise you’re going to lose what you want to preserve."

Mr. Petty has seen so much change through his long life that he believes anything less than an all-or-nothing battle to protect the forest will result in the grandeur of the Adirondacks being nibbled away lot by subdivided lot until there is little real wilderness left.

"And I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that," he said. "Not all people feel they need to have wilderness, but I do. If things go bad and everything seems to go wrong, the best place to go is right into the remote wilderness, and everything’s in balance there."

There is almost no important Adirondack initiative of the last half-century that does not bear the marks of Mr. Petty’s bony hands, no hiking trail that has not known his size 11 extra-wide footprint. He is a legendary trekker, silent as a deer, tireless as a mule. He has climbed all 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks.

In the late 1950’s, he mapped the most spectacular wilderness areas for a legislative committee studying the future of the park. After the Legislature created the new Adirondack Park Agency in the early 1970’s, he studied all 1,300 miles of rivers and streams in the park, mostly working out of a canoe or hiking along the water’s edge. By then he was already in his late 60’s.

His experiences in the wild made him an unmatched fountain of knowledge about the heart and soul of the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Explorer regularly carries a column called "Questions for Clarence." (Q: "What’s the coldest you’ve ever seen it in the Adirondacks?" A: 52 below in January or February of 1934, "but it was a beautiful day; the sun was shining and there was no wind.")

His intimate knowledge of the wild was an invaluable asset for the Adirondack Council, an advocacy group, on whose board he served for two decades. For the past seven years, the council has offered "Clarence Petty internships" to young environmentalists.

Mr. Petty’s work in the Adirondacks has been recognized in many other ways. One wall of the home his family moved into in 1911, a modest yellow wood-frame house on the edge of the woods where he now lives by himself, is covered with a constellation of plaques and framed honors, including a 2003 governor’s award for his work in preserving wilderness areas in the Adirondacks.

During his busy life he also found time to raise a family of his own and to stake out a whole other career as a pilot and flight instructor. He was the first person in New York State to put out a forest fire using lake water dumped from an airplane and, though he now regrets it, one of the first to spray DDT. He trained hundreds of people to fly at a school in Potsdam, N.Y., that he ran from 1967 until 2000 when, at age 95, he sold his planes.

Age has finally started to catch up with him. He walks slowly now, steadying himself with a wooden cane he calls his pogo stick, and marveling that he could once snowshoe 36 miles in a single day.

He can no longer shovel his driveway or clear snow off his roof, so for the winter he moved into a retirement home in Saranac Lake. But he plans to move back to the old house on May 1, in part because the attentive retirement home staff is making him "lazy as a pet ‘coon."

He lives simply at the retirement home, occupying one of the smallest apartments.

Mr. Petty brought a supply of chocolate – his one vice – and very little else: his scratchy woolen Malone hiking pants, a battered pair of hiking boots and the lavender 1934 Remington typewriter on which he painstakingly pounds out several letters a week, all with carbons, lecturing his state and federal representatives about what they need to do to preserve the Adirondacks for generations to come.

Part of his remarkable energy comes from the ease with which he can look both backward over the century-long course of his life, and forward far into the future.

"I would like to think that 300 years from now, people could come up here and find at least as much wild land as we’ve got now," he said. He has already decided that when he is gone, his house and the 10 acres that go with it – acres visited by bear and deer and, lately, by a finicky Algonquin wolf – will be donated to the Nature Conservancy, with instructions that it be kept forever wild.

It will be his last break with the locals, he says, and his final embrace of the wilderness.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: