Outdoorsman still trying to protect Adirondack wilderness at 101
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN The Associated Press | January 21,2007
Clarence Petty of Saranac Lake, N.Y., turns from his typewriter with the half-written letter to new Gov. Eliot Spitzer and says issues such as letting snowmobiles into state-owned forests should be decided by the people, not a handful of officials.
At 101, the conservationist has known his share of elected officials. They all claim to do what the people want, he says, but it's not always so. His concern is the same as it's always been — his beloved Adirondack wilderness.
From hunting, trapping and guiding to dousing wildfires by plane, Petty knows this backcountry. He worked for years as a ranger and did surveys leading to the designation of large wilderness areas in the preserve.
"I was born in the woods, and it stayed with me, I guess," Petty says. "We've pushed the plants and animals off the face of the Earth. It's awful what we've done to the natural environment."
He walks with a cane now, wears a hearing aid and this year moved full time into an assisted-living apartment in Saranac Lake. His blue eyes and stories are clear. He laughs easily. His car is in the parking lot.
A large Adirondack map hangs on Petty's wall, as well as a snapshot of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, with whom he corresponds and doesn't always agree. He praises former Gov. George Pataki for protecting large wilderness parcels.
He has outlived his contemporaries, including his wife, Ferne, and the oldest of his three sons. He explains his life and longevity as chance and luck.
"I've lived too long," he says.
In 1999, the Wilderness Society gave him its Robert Marshall Award, named for the society founder, another Adirondacker.
"He was pudgy looking," Petty recalls, noting Marshall once told him about hiking 70 miles in 24 hours in Alaska, while Petty never walked more than 36 miles in a day. "And yet he must have had legs like steel."
Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, calls Petty "the real deal" whose environmental impact goes on. "He's helped us conserve hundreds of thousands of acres by helping us to have ready funds when land becomes available," Carr says.
Born in 1905, Petty spent his first years in a tent on state land. Petty's father was an outdoor guide, and his sons followed suit until they went to college. Clarence and older brother Bill hiked on Sunday afternoons 16 miles from the hamlet of Coreys to Saranac Lake, where they boarded and attended school. They walked home on Fridays.
On Saturdays, each checked about 10 miles of trap lines designed to catch fox, raccoons and other fur-bearing animals, something Petty is not proud of now.
"Snares and leg-hold traps are torture devices," Petty says. "It was the only way you could get any money in the winter then. ... We lived off the land."
He graduated from the state College of Forestry at Syracuse University in 1930 and worked for Western Union in New York City, studying wood used for telegraph poles. He took lessons on Long Island for a pilot's license.
With the Depression under way, he moved back to the Adirondacks to supervise work camps for the Civilian Conservation Corps. He joined the Navy in World War II as a flight instructor, then flew cargo planes out of Honolulu, carrying plasma to islands taken by the Marines.
After working briefly for a federal entomologist to control the spruce budworm — and spraying DDT from the air — he returned to the Adirondacks in 1946 to be district ranger at Cranberry Lake for 11 years. He flew planes for the state Conservation Department, dumping water on forest fires and stocking fish, then took the higher-paying job as pilot for Gov. Averell Harriman for two years. He didn't like the work.
"He treated people very much like they were servants," Petty says.
As liaison officer to the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources, Petty spent three years, often on foot, surveying 10,000-acre Adirondack wilderness areas and documenting, among other things, "junkholes" that hunters left behind at campsites near remote lakes.
Petty later worked for a legislative commission that in 1970 recommended leaving unchanged the "forever wild" clause in the New York state constitution that protects the wilderness. The commission proposed a system of wild, scenic and recreational rivers, and a new Adirondack Park Agency to regulate private and public land use. Lawmakers approved both.
He still believes activities such as snowmobiling violate the "forever wild" protection afforded the state Forest Preserve.
Many Adirondack residents remain critical of such regulation, calling it government meddling and chafing at restrictions on what's permitted on state land, as well as their own.
Maynard Baker, a 76-year-old private pilot and former Warrensburg town supervisor, is one. He faults the state for closing 40 Adirondack lakes to float planes, excluding the disabled from the backcountry. He says most hunters carry out what they carried in.
"I'm not saying there isn't that 3 percent, but don't make that other 97 percent pay," he says.
Petty left retirement to join the nascent park agency and helped survey 1,300 miles of rivers to classify them as wild, scenic or recreational. In 1974 he retired again and opened a flight-training school in Potsdam.
He criticizes the agency now, saying most commissioners, including chairman Ross Whaley, his friend, are giving in to developers. "The APA, they were put in there to keep the area as wild as possible," he says.
Whaley agrees that's the APA's role, but says half the 6-million-acre park is privately owned.
"In the minds of some, too much development is going on," Whaley says. "In the view of others, the park agency is the problem because it stymies development of the private lands.
"He is strong of position and opinion, but it's a marvelous combination of philosophy backed by empirical knowledge," Whaley says of Petty. "Here's a guy who has walked a good share of the Adirondacks and knows enough biology to know where it's resilient and where it's sensitive."
Petty could be a lion in winter, but there's little snow. He steps outside into January rain. "We've got global warming, of course," he says. "People don't realize what effect this is going to have on Earth."
He says there are simply too many people, and adds cheerfully he'll soon lower that by one. First, though, he has a letter to finish.