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Why are the Adirondack and Catskill Parks labeled 'national_park' ?

Posted by ke9tv on 10 July 2019 in English (English)

The tagging of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks as boundary=national_park has been fraught with controversy. I’m more or less responsible for the tagging decision, and I’ve decided to make a diary entry explaining it, so that I don’t have to keep repeating the explanation.

These two entities are not ‘State Parks’ - unlike other parks such as Allegany State Park or Harriman State Park. In fact, they are unique entities in New York, and quite possibly the US and even the world.

Unlike most parks, which are created by statute, or even by executive proclamation, the Adirondack and Catskill Parks were created by a constitutional convention in New York, and are explicitly enshrined in article XIV of the state constitution, which begins:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the Forest Preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

This is the strongest protection enjoyed by any park or nature reserve of which I am aware. While all the others that I know about could be destroyed by a legislature’s passing a bill, any significant change to the Adirondack and Catskill Parks requires a constitutional amendment. There have been several such over the years, but none has come close to repeal. The most significant ones were the authorizations to construct the Olympic sports complex at Lake Placid, to build Interstate 87 through the Adirondacks, and to permit New York City to construct reservoirs and draw its water supply from the Catskills.

The parks are represented by an arbitrary line on the map (called the Blue Line because of its traditional rendering on official state maps), in which any land that the state acquires for conservation purposes becomes ‘Forever Wild.’ The private land inside those parcels is extremely tightly regulated to control development. While the parks contain highways, villages, farms, working forests and mines, the inholdings up north are beholden to what has been called the world’s toughest zoning board: the Adirondack Park Agency.

The boundary of the park is, to the locals, the most important administrative boundary in the region. For instance, real estate listings in the area will almost always state whether a property lies within or outside the Adirondack Park - that fact is far more significant to the landowner than which county or township the land falls in.

The way the parks are organized is reminiscent of National Parks in Europe. As an example, the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland contains villages and farms, aerodromes, aquaculture facilities, airfields, ski resorts. It is a mixed-use area, although the primary and overarching land use is conservation.

I’m comfortable as well with the word, ‘national’, because in the US the States are sovereign entities in their own right. Virtually all issues of land ownership and use are the prerogative of the States, and in most cases the Federal government may not intervene. New York’s two great parks therefore are designated by a sovereign entity and enjoy stronger legal protection than any of the US National Parks.

The level of significance is also consistent with the ‘national park’ designation. The Adirondack Park encompasses a greater land area than Yellowstone, Everglades, Grand Teton, Glacier and Cascade combined, and the portion that is owned by the state and Forever Wild is bigger than any two. In fact, there was a proposal floated in the 1960’s to transfer the Adirondack Park to the National Park Service, creating an Adirondack National Park. The proposal was spectacularly unpopular, and failed, but provoked a significant reorganization of the state’s executive agencies, including creation of the independent Adirondack Park Agency.

Moreover, just as in Scotland with the Cairngorms, other designations would give rise to considerable confusion. When there are parks - actual parks, with a single land use - within another park, rendering becomes confusing (particularly if the alternative is leisure=park, shown only by a coloured infill) and topologic queries are equally confusing. This sort of issue affects the Adirondacks (with, for instance, the Lake George Battlefield Park within the Adirondack Park) and the Cairngorms (the Glenmore Forest Park within the Cairngorms National Park) alike.

There truly is no good tagging available, in the sense that the choice of tag will avoid controversy. The tagging chosen is far from the least controversial that could be chosen, but comes closest to expressing the intent of the People when the constitution that created the parks was ratified.

This is not wholesale tagging of State Parks as boundary=national_park, but rather a considered choice for two features that are truly unparalleled in the nation. When I looked farther afield than the US, the only comparable features that I found were national parks in other countries.

The only coherent objection that I’ve heard thus far is that they don’t have ‘National Park’ in their names and that they they aren’t administered by the National Park Service. That itself is tied up in the history of our National Parks: New York had the idea first, and Teddy Roosevelt took it with him to Washington. (To this day, New York has very few NPS facilities, because we got along quite well indeed without them.) These two parks serve the same function and have most of the same indicia (other than trademark) of our large National Parks. They simply happen to have existed before the Federal government was in that business. (The only National Park that’s older is Yellowstone - and it couldn’t have been a state facility when it was established, because it predates Wyoming’s statehood.)

Besides, I’m willing to tolerate a few anomalous tags for an administrative region that’s the size of a small country. (The Adirondack Park is about equal in land area to the State of Massachusetts. It’s considerably bigger than Slovenia or Luxembourg, a little smaller than Belgium.)

Comment from alexkemp on 10 July 2019 at 04:44

I’m impressed. Well written, coherent and, in my view, exactly what these diaries are designed for. The argument you set out makes good sense to me.

Comment from ke9tv on 10 July 2019 at 05:26

Thanks!

I don’t write diary entries often, but sometimes I have repeatedly to deal with the same issue. (The previous entry, about Camp Smith, was to avoid firing the first shot in an edit war.) Demonstrating that you’ve done your homework is important when the you-know-what starts flying. :)

Comment from Richard on 11 July 2019 at 10:07

You might be interested to know that there is precedent for this in the UK. We tag the Broads as a national_park even though strictly speaking it isn’t quite one. (National Parks in the UK have to abide by the Sandford Principle - “where irreconcilable conflicts exist between conservation and public enjoyment, then conservation interest should take priority” - whereas on the Broads, navigation has equal priority.) But it quacks like a duck, and after I enjoyed cycling through the Catskills a few years ago I can see why you’ve taken the same decision.

Comment from Circeus on 11 July 2019 at 17:03

Of course, what really on is that a) no sane tagging scheme can encompass all possibly status designations and level (the USNPS alone has units of over 20 different designations!) and b) these systems were originally drawn for European countries where only the national government can make protection designations whereas, as you point out, federal systems (and even non federal: I believe Brazil has state-level natural parks) can have state-level parks with the same degree of protection as national designations (Germany, Switzerland and the UK do not have, as far as I can tell, any system for designation of conservation/natural areas of any sort at the subnational level.)

Comment from ke9tv on 11 July 2019 at 19:45

Richard - Thanks for the vote of confidence! It means a lot, particularly because the tagging of State-level recreational and conservation facilities in the US is embroiled in a rather heated controversy at the moment. Hearing from a European with boots on the ground in both continents is tremendously encouraging, and may go far to deflate the argument that the decision is inconsistent with international practice.

Comment from ke9tv on 11 July 2019 at 19:59

Circeus - It gets even more complicated than that. We have some fairly significant natural areas that are designated by counties or municipalities. In New York, these include many thousands of hectares that New York City has purchased outside its boundaries to protect its water supply. (This is an unusual case. From the point of view of governing law, New York City is a private landowner. It doesn’t export its law to these parcels, which continue to be governed by the county in which they’re situated.)

Moreover, we have a fair number of protected areas that are administered by NGO’s (the Nature Conservancy, the Open Space Institute, the National Audubon Society, the Appalachian Mountan Club and Ducks Unlimited are some of the more significant ones in my area). If State-level protection engenders controversy, imagine what NGO protection dredges up!

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