Knott presents Park’s knotty history well

I recently had opportunity to see the reading list SUNY Plattsburgh professor Gary Kroll used for his course in “Adirondack Environmental History” last semester.

There was one book I’d never heard of -?”Living with the Adirondack Forest,” by Catherine Henshaw Knott.

Naturally, I promptly ordered a copy. While a bit more academic than I had expected, the book offers a host of well presented information.

The author looks in detail at controversies surrounding land use in the region, with special attention to the impact of the Adirondack Park Agency. An anthropologist by training, she utilized a huge series of interviews to complement her own Adirondack experiences. Perhaps expecting criticism for not being a North Country native, she asserted early that sometimes a look by an outsider can assist in examining a difficult topic.

She does an admirable job of summarizing attitudes toward wilderness, from early colonial times through the later 20th century. This includes concepts of the sublime, the early sense of need to conquer wilderness, and then later the introduction of ecological principles and Aldo Leopold’s writings on land stewardship.

Terms like conservation, preservation and “wise use” appear. Two famous individuals in wilderness history, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, began as good friends then split permanently because of disagreement on how best to protect natural resources.

Knott pays careful attention to the observations of those who make their living in our region. One of the more interesting chapters offers views that loggers in the Tupper Lake region have of changing forest regulations. She goes on to cite perspectives from crafters, guides, tree farmers and maple syrup producers. In doing so, she develops a strong respect for the attitudes of those who spend their days in the woods, and who have contributed to a body of what she calls “indigenous knowledge.”

At times, the author can meander too much into the theoretical. Still, she makes clear how the difficulty of understanding -?and thereby accommodating – different world views has led to conflict when it comes to land use in northern New York. Such inability to appreciate each others’ vantage points makes it difficult to resolve any deadlocks that develop. Furthermore, in the case of the Adirondacks, she insists, early failure to assure participation of local residents in decision-making proved costly.

It’s not as if there are only two sides to every issue, either. Experienced woodsmen bring to bear their accumulated knowledge, often gathered not only from their own observations but also building on wisdom passed down over generations. Scientists will counter with their own studies and statistics, not to mention their unique jargon. Regulators then not infrequently ignore both parties in making decisions, all the while speaking an entirely different vocabulary, one dealing with zoning.

The author certainly has not come up with all the solutions needed to move forward in the Adirondacks. But she does go a long way toward building respect for varying points of view. That probably wouldn’t make her a good candidate for Congress in today’s highly polarized political environment, but it makes her a useful source of advice.

Although it may not be a breezy read for a general audience, this book will be well worth the time for those committed to better understanding of regional issues. Furthermore, it’s the type of text worth requiring for those in leadership positions, whether they be elected officials, advocates for lobbying groups, or media representatives. I can already envision how some spokespersons on various sides of Adirondack land use issues might find her too sympathetic to opposing opinions. That in itself tells me she’s struck a useful balance.