ITHACA, NY -- In 1971, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created the Adirondack Park Agency, a governmental agency that performs long-range planning for the future of the Adirondack Park. Uniquely, it oversees development plans for private landowners, as well as activities within the Adirondack Forest Preserve. The passage of the law that created the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) led to an extremely polarized political climate within the rural towns of the Adirondacks.
In his new book “A Wild Idea,” author Brad Edmond-son details the full story of the birth of the APA — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Edmondson has spent his entire career in Ithaca, including — full disclosure — as the editor here at the Ithaca Times from 1981-1985. He then moved on to write for the American Demographics Magazine for 13 years, and has been working as a freelance writer ever since. One connection led to another, and Edmondson was approached to tell the story of the APA. He did close to 40 interviews with the folks who made the agency happen, sitting down with them for oral history interviews, transcribing them, and having them archived.
This work was paid for by a grant, and when that money ran out, Edmondson filed the 1,500 pages of transcripts away and went back to freelancing.
“I was still self-employed and had to make a living,” he said. “I left things in my filing cabinet for 10 years […] I had a pretty good understanding that this could be a good book, but nobody was paying me to write it.”
Eventually, he went up to the Adirondack Experience: The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake and asked if he could submit his transcripts into the archives there to keep them safe. The director of the museum said he could? and added that they had been looking for a way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the APA. The director told Edmondson they wanted to fundraise to make a movie using the footage from the interviews, as well as organize a conference and put together an exhibit.
“I said, ‘wow you’re gonna do all that? I better write a book,’” he laughed.
The museum offered to pay his expenses to write the book, so beginning in 2018 Edmondson hit the road to go speak to people. By the time the pandemic hit, Edmondson said he had gotten to the point in his research where the law that zoned the Adirondack Park had been signed.
“But I hadn’t gotten past that point and a lot of good stuff happened after that,” he said. “It’s a story about many things, but it’s about the imposition of state power onto a rural area and how the rural people protested. That’s all for the book I’m working on now.”
As for “A Wild Idea,” Edmondson said the story of the creation of the APA proved to be a “really deep pool with a lot of interesting things in it.”
“This is a book about land use planning, and that’s a really boring topic,” he said. “And I guess unconsciously that my career has been spent writing long pieces about topics people think are dull, but they’re extremely important. You keep people interested by focusing on the human relationships and conflicts and breakthroughs and drama of these quests to pass this law.”
So while the story may be about land use planning, at its core it’s a story about people.
“The story is driven by personalities,” he said. “It’s about relationships between people and how those relationships moved this really radical law to passage, kind of against all odds. So it’s a really great story.”
Prior to beginning his research, Edmondson said he knew vaguely of the law that had passed and that it had been a big deal and people had protested vigorously after the fact. But the more he dove in, the more he learned.
“One of the things I was really interested in investigating was the Adirondacks were, because of this law, extremely polarized politically,” he said. “Environmental people were angry because the law wasn’t strict enough […] And the [rural] people there who hadn’t dealt with this before said ‘this is communism.’ And they organized pretty effectively to protest the law.”
Edmondson said as he spoke to people, he saw how people on opposite sides of the fence “hated each others’ guts” in public, but were friends in private.
“They all knew each other,” he said. “These were small towns in a really isolated area. It’s really expensive to hate someone in a small town.”
In addition to the book, Edmondson also wrote the script for the documentary, which is being put together by the public TV station for the North Country. It’s expected to air in mid-October, and Edmondson said he hopes after that it will be offered for syndication.
And in the meantime, he continues to work on his follow-up book, which focuses on the intense resistance to the passage of the law.
“People were shot at, there was arson, buildings were vandalized, there were many death threats,” he said. “Things were bad.”
Edmonson will be at Cornell University Press’ table at Buffalo Street Books on Aug. 14 6-8 p.m. during the store’s upcoming book festival. “A Wild Idea” is available directly through Cornell University Press for 30% off retail price, at Buffalo Street Books, or on Amazon. For more information, visit www.awildidea.com.