- Battles of the North Country: Wilderness Politics and Recreational Development in the Adirondack State Park, 1920–1980 by Johnathan D. Anzalone
In Battles of the North Country: Wilderness Politics and Recreational Development in the Adirondack State Park, 1920–1980, Johnathan Anzalone argues the Adirondack Park should be recognized as a “modern wilderness playground” shaped by expectations for outdoor recreation. Anzalone traces the park’s development by examining New York newspapers, state reports and documents, and several archives. The result is a thorough analysis of great interest to sport historians.
In 1894, New York defined half the Adirondack State Park as “forever wild.” However, as Anzalone shows, competing views toward outdoor sport and recreation consistently underlie how state administrators, private developers and businesses, year-round and part-time residents, out-of-town recreation seekers, and environmentalists understood and negotiated the meaning of wilderness. The story begins in the 1920s, when urbanization, declines in lumber and mining, a local emphasis on economic growth, and new standards for outdoor leisure led state-level administers, as well as year-round residents, to support building mountain roads, modernized campsites, and other sport facilities to attract New York City tourists.
Anzalone features the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics prominently here. Local boosters, backed by the state’s political leadership, aimed to use the games to draw tourists to the region. Although the state court judged a bobsled facility slated for protected land as being in opposition to wilderness, Olympic organizers built the run at a secondary location, and the winter Olympics achieved its mission. Anzalone argues this set the tone for decades to come. [End Page 76]
In following sections, Anzalone explores the construction of large campgrounds and the development of White Face Mountain. Roads (and even an elevator) to mountain summits, ski runs, ready-made shelters, (sometimes faulty) sanitation and waste infrastructure, fishing docks and swing sets, as well as cleared, graded and electrically lit campgrounds aligned with New York’s conception of wilderness recreation. With support from local businesses, state leaders, and New York City voters, state administrators enabled middle- and working-class urbanites to consume nature in the Adirondack comfortably.
Many upper-class vacationers and second-home owners continually opposed these trends, but, after World War II, efforts to attract tourists only accelerated. With completion of interstate I-87, administrators opened the Adirondacks to millions. However, things often failed to play out as intended. Overzealous state planners constructed the Marble and then Whiteface ski complexes on ill-suited terrain with unpredictable conditions. Marble failed, while Whiteface survived only through artificial snowmaking. At this point, pro-growth allies in the region, dependent on a busy ski season, became frustrated and began to call for private rather than public leadership. The forces of conservation also now argued such facilities not only scarred the mountains but wasted taxpayer dollars.
Furthermore, as technology, highway construction, and overall commercialization ramped up, wilderness areas began to look more like suburbs and cities, with lines of cars, crowds of people, litter, and insufficient infrastructure for food and housing. At first, the state responded by doubling down, working relentlessly to build infrastructure suitable for growing demands.
This ultimately led more people to turn against state-sanctioned recreational investments. Middle-class vacationers and environmentalists saw recreation facilities as ruining the wilderness. Soon New York reversed course and moved to slow construction on public and private property. Many working-class Adirondack residents resented the government intrusion. They depended on tourism and hoped large-scale second-home developments being planned by private interests would finally lift them from economic drudgery. Several local communities (but not all) aligned with corporate developers and against current second-home owners, recreationalists, environmentalists, and the state.
Then came the return of the Olympics in 1980, in which locals and environmentalists could agree neither with each other nor often among themselves about the economic and environmental merits of hosting the sport spectacle. New York eventually halted the development of...