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GIVING BACK: Curran reflects on time as Adirondack ecologist

Will receive 2017 Elizabeth Thorndike Adirondack Achievement Award

May 11, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Ray Curran wasn't born in the Adirondacks. Technically speaking, though, his roots are here in Essex County.

Way back in 1813 and 1814 his great-great-great-grandfather Major Troop was the Essex county sheriff. Troop was buried in Willsboro, and Curran has traced his family's nineteenth century American migration through the Champlain Valley's pre-Erie Canal travel corridor, down the St. Lawrence River, to Ogdensburg and ultimately much farther westward.

Illinois and Michigan was where his mother's side of the family inhabited before they moved down to North Carolina and then Maryland, where Curran grew up.

Article Photos

Ray Curran
(Photo provided)

As a college freshman at the State of New York's College of Forestry in Syracuse, Curran would complete the circle back to the Adirondacks

He was first truly introduced to the Adirondacks in 1967, camping at Fish Creek with college freshman friends amid the autumn Adirondack colors. Back then, much of what he'd work on as an ecologist over the span of the next half-century was nascent.

There was no New York State Adirondack Park Agency. The effects of man-made climate change were not on most anyone's minds. Neither was the issue of invasive plant species here in the Adirondack Park.

But nearly a half century ago when the college-aged Curran travelled for the first time to the State of New York College of Forestry's Cranberry Lake biology station, he knew two things: He wanted to make the most out of his passion for field biology. And he was smitten with this new vast wilderness he was getting to know one drive from Syracuse at a time.

So he started down a path back to where his family was originally from. It's a path that has included five decades of ecology and volunteer work here at the heart of the park.

Yet the path wasn't very clear.

"You pick a direction," Curran said Tuesday, May 9. "One picks a career they are interested in sometimes without really understanding. There was not that clear path like, say, a doctor. But I knew I wanted to be in the outdoors and studying science, with other professors and scientists doing that kind of work. So I followed that path.

"The Adirondacks offered a very special environment to do that," he continued, "because I really appreciated the independence of the people who lived here and that culture - the wildness of the Adirondacks, the environmental impact."

New to the North Country after having grown up in North Carolina and Maryland, Curran stuck around the College of Forestry for graduate studies as the 1960s became the 1970s. It enabled him to forge relationships with his professors and ecological mentors while also living at the college's satellite location in the Adirondacks. He chose a master's degree thesis topic that involved studying special plant communities - barrens - at the Plains of Oswegatchie.

And in the early days of the APA in 1973, timing was perfect for Curran to be hired by the infant state agency and ultimately settle here.

He was an APA impact analyst at the start, and over his 31-year career with the APA Curran worked myriad roles including, for a time, as APA acting director. He worked with town governments, private land developers, other state agencies and private not-for-profits.

Since leaving the APA in 2004, Curran's volunteered with groups such as the Northern Forest Atlas Project and the Common Ground Alliance in a continued attempt to do what he worked toward all those years with the APA: strike a balance through ecology and economy.

"The biggest thing is setting up a fact-based rationale process for analyzing projects," Curran said. "... (Finding) an effective way to protect the park environment and balance economic forces."

Thanks to his years of work with the APA and various other groups, the Adirondack Research Consortium has awarded Curran with the 2017 Elizabeth Thorndike Adirondack Achievement Award. It'll be presented to him at the 24th Annual Conference on the Adirondacks on May 24 and 25 at the Lake Placid Conference Center.

"We are pleased to recognize Ray's work in natural resource protection and community revitalization in the Adirondacks, which embodies the spirit of this award," Dan Spada, ARC President, said in a statement announcing Curran's selection.

Curran's multitude of achievements while working with the APA included the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, a cooperative effort that has grown into a statewide program to try to mitigate the impact of invasives. It was just one of many ways Curran helped to shape the future of ecology in the park.

Then, in 2004, he "graduated" from the APA, as he put it. After many years of regulating, Curran was interested in something a little bit different.

"When I left the APA, I really wanted to do something not always telling people 'no,' he said with a laugh.

Along with his wife Kathy Daggett, Curran set up a volunteer committee in the town of Wilmington, where he lives. It helped to harvest and build the Hardy Road Bike Trails on state forest preserve land.

Curran has also worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society, as a scientist for Cycle Adirondacks and with the Lake Placid-North Elba Community Development Commission.

In his recent volunteer work, Curran has been interested in using a European model of connecting communities through trails to build local economies.

"One interesting thing about this area, there is a big role for public participation," Curran said, "and people take advantage of participating."

One of Curran's more recent volunteer efforts harkens back to his days studying the Plains of Oswegatchie, as he has helped with a survey for the Adirondack Botanical Society. Curran is particularly interested in studying orchids, as they may be barometers of climate change.

"We know there is a big impact of climate change on the Adirondacks," he said, "and trying to actually quantify that and figure out what's happening and filtering out the noise - there's always this role for science and information. And that's the other thing I found: Most people really care about the environment here, so there is a common support for that."

If he has one message for the people steering the future of the park, Curran believes that people of good faith should continue to work together and not get discouraged. He said he truly thinks the Adirondacks has wonderful people, people who care and work to move issues ahead.

He loves this place because, as he puts it, ordinary people gave an impact. And he's one of them.

"I look forward to continuing to learn," he said.



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