On Monday, I traveled to Lake George to attend a press conference that the state Department of Environmental Conservation was hosting atop Prospect Mountain. At the gathering, DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis was joined by a group of regional environmental leaders in a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.
“Forty years ago, the Adirondacks were environmentally threatened because of acid rain, poorly located and outdated landfills, substandard wastewater treatment facilities and potential fragmentation of large timber tracts,” Grannis explained to the assembly. “Since then, we’ve made some impressive gains. It’s too soon to hoist the mission accomplished banner, but this anniversary gives New Yorkers a chance to take stock of how far we’ve come.”
For most of the week, the commissioner has been barnstorming the state in an electric vehicle, touting the accomplishments of the agency and telling a story of how, while working as a young tax lawyer in 1970, he helped to organize the inaugural Earth Day celebration in New York City.
“The firm allowed me to do my tax work in the evenings so that I could work on the (Earth Day) event during the day,” he explained.
His efforts on the inaugural Earth Day event attracted the attention of Harry Diamond, who headed up the department at the time. Grannis was offered a position as a compliance counsel with the newly minted DEC, which prior to 1970 was known as the Conservation Department.
After the event, I joined him for a short hike to the actual summit. It was refreshing to see the commissioner outdoors, wearing hiking boots and without a suit and tie. Mr. Grannis appeared at ease as we walked away from the assembled crowd. As we talked, it became obvious that he is truly proud of the accomplishments his agency has achieved.
Earlier, with the brilliant sunshine on his face, a stiff breeze at his back and a swarm of blackflies in the air, the commissioner explained to the crowd, “New York’s air is cleaner, the water purer, the fish and wildlife more prolific and the land has recovered. We’ve come a long way in 40 years.”
He rattled off the statistics.
“In 1970, there was only a single occupied eagle nest in the entire state. Today there are 173 occupied nests. There were no moose. Now we have nearly 500. In 1970, we had about 25,000 wild turkeys. Today there are over 275,000 throughout the state. And in that time, we’ve added over 1.3 million acres of protected state lands.”
Later, when I asked about the budgetary cuts the agency faces, I saw the look of concern in his face.
“It’s bleak,” he admitted, “but we’ve still got a job to do.”
When first nominated to head up the agency by then Gov. Eliot Spitzer, many in the sporting community voiced their concerns. Grannis was viewed as a New York City lawyer and a career politician, factors that may play well in Albany circles but not so well farther north.
To date, the commissioner has defied the dire predictions of the many doomsayers, including my own. He has also proven that a career politician can be more effective at the helm of the department than a former wildlife manager.
Obviously, in times of budgetary crisis, we need a commissioner who’s more familiar with purse strings than with the ring necks. It’s now apparent, that the right guy got the job.
The Prospect Mountain State Parkway in Lake George is similar to the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. Both are toll roads that offer a winding drive to a mountain summit that provides an incomparable view of the nearby lakes, mountains and communities. Despite Prospect’s relatively small stature (by 46er standards), the diminutive peak still looms large over the sprawling village at its base.
Unlike the Whiteface toll road, the Prospect Mountain Parkway is accessible directly off the main drag of Lake George Village, a Main Street that attracts an average of 10,000 pedestrians daily during the peak of the season. With a wealth of tourist attractions, the village once earned a label as the “Coney Island of the North.”
I was struck when contrasting the view from Prospect, in comparison with the scene from the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Both mountains afford fine perspectives of their respective communities and the surrounding landscape, but Prospect provides a more intimate glimpse.
The Whiteface view, due to elevation difference, is comparable to looking down from the heavens rather than the Prospect picture which is almost like peering over a neighbor’s fence.
Despite the easy access afforded by it’s main street location, the Prospect Parkway attracted only 80,000 visitors last season according to DEC records, which is still nearly 20,000 more than Whiteface.
The number of visitors does not seem so significant when considering that there is a daily audience of nearly 10,000 people to draw from, just down the road. With over a half a million visitors on Main Street every month, I would have expected a few more would have made their way up the mountain.
However, I believe the lack of additional motorized mountaineers may actually be an honest reflection of the region’s core group of travelers. There is no denying the fact that the primary draw of Lake George has long been the attractions of the action and nightlife available on the main drag, rather than the natural attractions of the surrounding woods and waters. The Queen of American Lakes has always been crystal clear and beautiful, but the old beauty pales in comparison with the numerous bars and the babes.
While it’s true that Lake Placid also draws a fair share of sidewalk sightseers, many come to participate in active mountain recreation. Nestled in the heart of the High Peaks, Lake Placid still provides an authentic Adirondack experience for those seeking it. And despite the disparaging “Lake Plastic” moniker, the little village has yet to be reduced, or seduced, into a simple corridor lined with nightclubs, strip malls and outlet stores.
The Lake George experience can be had from Kennebunkport to Cape Cod to North Conway and beyond. Change the names and the towns remain the same, and so do the stores. Although some believe that the other tourist towns have what we need, it’s refreshing to be different, especially for tourists seeking a new experience.
In recent years, the tourism market has experienced some interesting changes. Many travelers have lost interest in chain restaurants, cookie cutter lodging and the same old attractions.
Instead, travelers are seeking local food and unique attractions that foster a connection to the lifestyles of local people. At the same time, vacation patterns have changed as people return to driving vacations instead of flying. Some of the new trends include the slow food movement, authentic tourism, ecotourism, agritourism, heritage tourism and more.
Most revealing in this regard was a call I received last summer. The gentleman claimed to be working on a project for a national giant involved in the outdoor industry. He wanted to know if I could provide photos of authentic Adirondack Great Camps or similarly designed lodges.
He was particularly interested in large properties, like the Whiteface Lodge. When asked the purpose of the photos, he explained that he was researching designs for a hotel proposed for Kennebunkport, Maine. It will be called the LL Bean Lodge.
If imitation is indeed considered the greatest form of flattery, we would be wise to leave well enough alone and remain the authentic Adirondacks.
DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis stands alone on the summit of Prospect Mountain, with the village of Lake George in the distance.
(Photo by Joe Hackett)