During a road trip I’ll be taking in June, I’m sure he’ll be one of the people who will cross my mind as I travel up the Hudson River Valley for the first time. This will be my first venture in that state beyond the five boroughs of “The Big Apple.”
As I pass West Point, it will be hard for me to envision that New York had only 25% of its overall tree canopy remaining when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was born along that route, the impetus, I’m certain, for his determination to reforest America with more than 3.2 billion trees during just the last half of his lifetime alone, more than half a million at his own expense.
FDR leaned more toward conservation than preservation, often giving his occupation when voting as “tree-planter,” long after he became famous according to the author of an excellent new book entitled American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation.
Planning for the trip, I’m reminded that my first exposure to FDR, while growing up in the Rocky Mountains, was a small photo hanging in my great-grandfather’s tiny living room, framed on each side by reproductions of paintings by Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, who were devotees of the Hudson River Valley School.
As I draw closer to where the river gets its start, I may stop at two sites which mark where my first American ancestors lived, one of whom first assembled the land where the town Hudson is now and the historic home of his grandson in nearby Claverack.
From there I will skirt the the dells of the Mohawk River and drive up and over the famed Adirondack Plateau, an area the size of nearby Vermont and framed by Lake Champlain on the east and the Black River on the west, until I spill out onto the plain leading to the St. Lawrence River, the ultimate end of this journey.
I’ll be cutting through the 26-million-acre Great Northern Forest, now the largest contiguous block of forest land remaining in the United States, stretching down from Maine through New Hampshire, Vermont and New York (which is back to 60% tree canopy) to the Great Lakes, 80% privately owned and possibly explored best via a 740-mile canoe trail.
Established in 1892, to me the Adirondack Park marks a pivotal point where Americans drew the line between unsustainable exploitation and renewable stewardship, which has become today the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, a state park greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National parks combined.
Including parts of 12 counties, the boundary of Adirondack Park encompasses approximately 6 million acres, half public and half privately owned. However, the viability of that area was in serious doubt as ancestors on both sides of my family migrated west in the mid-1800s where they became conservationists and perhaps even a few preservationists.
They migrated west for religious freedom but also partly because unsustainable farming practices had devastated ancestral lands in the east and made them unsuitable for upcoming generations, making it necessary to abandon farmland and move west. By FDR’s time, nearly 5,000,000 acres of New York farmland was exhausted or had been abandoned. Erosion and contaminated water were extreme threats.
My ancestors had been re-established for a decade as conservation-conscious ranchers along the far side of the Continental Divide by the time the Hudson River School’s Bierstadt accompanied and documented the Lander Survey Party’s 3,000-mile search on horseback to map a route for the transcontinental railroad planned through the same area their wagon trains had crossed in 1847.
Bierstadt was followed by that school’s Thomas Moran who documented the survey that led Yellowstone Park to be established a few miles from what would become my birth place nearly eight decades later.
I owe my own passion for trees and conservation, as well as preservation, not only to ancestors who were determined to leave a land sustainable for further generations but to awe-inspiring images spawned by those who drew inspiration along the Hudson River.
When the General Assembly in North Carolina, where I now live, took office in 2010, there had been 100 years of recovery and restoration since that incredible 60-year period of desecration between 1850 and 1910 during which fully two-thirds of the deforestation of the last 400 years took place.
Soon, over the objections of 9 out of 10 North Carolinians, a few in our NC legislature - including ethically questionable ring leaders - rammed legislation through that is revisiting the backwardness of 100 years ago on the state’s scenic roadsides clear cutting them to accommodate the outdoor billboard industry at no cost, with no requirement for replanting or selective cutting and without regard to local ordinances.
Only time will tell if once again leaders will arise to end this insanity as they often have during the last hundred years or when they do how long it will take to restore North Carolina’s scenic character.
Until then I am inspired by the words of the late Thomas Berry of Greensboro:
“We cannot own the earth…we own property in accord with the well-being of the property and for the benefit of the larger community as well as ourselves…
The Great Work that is before (future generations) is moving the human project from its devastating exploitation to a benign presence…
We are chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historic task…The nobility of our lives, however, depends upon the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role…
We cannot doubt that we too have been given the intellectual vision, the spiritual insight and even the physical resources we need for carrying out this transition…from the period when humans were a disruptive force on the planet earth to a period when humans become present to the planet in a manner that is mutually enhancing.”