– The Golden Age of Grassroots Wilderness Political Organizing: The Black River Dam Wars

The first grassroots campaign to preserve roadless wilderness pioneered innovative tactics, methods and strategies, now abandoned, that must be relearned if future such campaigns are to succeed.

The unsurpassed exemplar of effective grassroots organizing is the 1940s campaign that blocked the building of a dam in the Adirondacks of New York. The campaign created a model that guided the activists who stopped the Grand Canyon dam and others in the Southwest in the 1950s. Buoyed and informed by success in New York and the Southwest, in the 1960s the same team that blocked the dam, led the campaign that created America’s federal wilderness system.

The sad part of the Adirondack story was that the wilderness was not protected until it had been widely despoiled. Yes, the forests are recovering (though different), and tourism is one of the leading revenue sources for today’s Adirondack communities, but in the 1800s the region was almost entirely dependent on extractive industries:

  • About 7,000 sawmills made New York the nation’s leading source of timber but the mills denuded the steep terrain, washing topsoil into formerly pristine lakes and rivers. Clear-cutting was followed by flooding, drought and hellish forest fires. Fueled by the drying slash (debris from logging), the fires devastated hundreds of thousands of acres.
  • Adirondack mines, which supplied much of the iron needed in the East, required charcoal to process ore, taking an additional toll on the forests. [Railroads were huge consumers of forests, first for fuel and for cross-ties and elaborate valley-spanning trestles.]
  • The waste from 1,500 tanneries, which consumed endless amounts of hemlock tree bark, polluted streams and rivers, and encouraged the unlimited slaughter of wildlife for fur and hides.

Rather than pay real estate taxes on remote land after they cleared it, timber companies would abandon it. Huge tracts of majestic trees 100 to 500 years old vanished, leaving landscape that looked like it had been repeatedly scoured by tornadoes. Public outrage began to develop with the emergence of photojournalism, which exposed the devastation. Also, the extension of railroad lines into the Adirondacks, initially to facilitate mining and timbering, brought tourists who could not help but become concerned about the region’s future. Other New Yorkers feared that upstate watersheds – the source of New York City’s drinking water – would be despoiled.

In 1892 the New York State Legislature created the Adirondack Park and in 1894 placed “Forever Wild” forest protection into the state constitution. Thus, began a process of strict wilderness protection for thousands of lakes and six million acres of forest. During the next 60 years, however, developers, local governments, and subsequent legislatures doggedly tried to weaken that protection to promote logging, hydroelectric power, roads, commercial recreation and off-road access by jeeps, snowmobiles, floatplanes and motorboats. Up until 1930, forest protection was thought by most people to be a simple fight to stop excessive logging that was considered not only out of control, but also essentially uncontrollable without strict anti-logging language in the state constitution itself. That anti-logging language was sustained from 1894 to 1930 mainly because preservationists had the support of downstate business interests who needed healthy upstate watersheds to maintain flows in the feeder streams of transportation canals and to protect drinking water.

After 1931, due in part to the influence of Adirondack conservationist Bob Marshall and the growth of a wilderness ethic, preservationists began making spiritual, ethical and ecological arguments for the protection of upstate wilderness. Their message to the public in every form of media was framed in direct, dramatic, personal and emotional terms. Wilderness was magnificent and irreplaceable; solitude was a human right; citizens had a personal title and an “undivided deed” to Adirondack wilderness; and always there was the cry that it was in imminent danger of being despoiled and destroyed. The Adirondack preservationists believed literally in Thoreau’s words, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” They understood these words not as a metaphor but as a literal fact to be communicated to average citizens from Buffalo to Brooklyn. Wilderness was as important to each person as his or her own blood or muscles. Preservationists believed, and they persuaded the public to believe and thus the legislators and bureaucrats to believe, that pure roadless wilderness was a human rights and civil rights issue and that access to peace and tranquility hung in the balance.

Since wilderness protection in New York is embedded in the state constitution itself, building a road, cutting trees or building a dam in a state forest preserve requires a bill to pass both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions, and approval by the citizens in a statewide referendum. During more than a dozen legislative fights and three statewide referendums over the next 40 years, citizens and legislators were asked to vote repeatedly on whether Adirondack wilderness should be preserved or developed. Since New York wilderness is upstate but the population is downstate, protecting wilderness became a matter of educating voters in urban areas about the value of wild forests and wilderness. To do this, preservationists developed the technical capacity to make the first silent black-and-white conservation movies and, later, color movies with sound. Also, they created a speakers’ bureau to show the films across the state.

Preservationists created and maintained an essentially continuous political campaign to educate everyone in the state about why wilderness values were far more important than mere economic development or hydropower. There were countless legislative and other hearings during this era; preservationists eventually developed the ability to turn out cadres of speakers representing a thousand groups at public hearings anywhere. As a result of continuous barnstorming tours into every corner of the state, average citizens and bureaucrats acquired and absorbed Thoreau’s and Bob Marshall’s spiritual values about forests, wilderness, and solitude, and preservationists acquired the organizing and communication tools of a modern political party.

Adirondack activist Paul Schaefer was one of those leaders who understood the need to integrate public education about wilderness with political organizing and lobbying. He taught grassroots organizing and lobbying skills to Howard Zahniser (Zahnie) who, in turn, later taught them to David Brower (three-time director of the Sierra Club) when they co-led the Echo Park Dam fight in Utah in the early 1950s. Zahnie also led the 1964 federal wilderness act campaign on behalf of The Wilderness Society. His salary to do that was paid from money left by Bob Marshall’s father Louis, who was involved in both the floor fight to put “Forever Wild” in the New York Constitution in 1894 and the fight to keep it from being removed in 1915.


In 1945, Schaefer’s leadership skills were put to the test when he discovered that Governor Thomas Dewey was going to build the Higley Mountain dam across the Moose River in the southwest quarter of the Adirondack Park. It would flood ponds, rivers, streams and the largest winter deer-yarding ground in the Adirondacks. Worse, it was only the first of a proposed series of 38 dams. By the time Schaefer realized what was going on, the cause appeared lost. But he launched what would be known as the Black River Dam Wars, named after the local dam regulating district. When the campaign began, the dam was funded, the governor fervently supported it, permits were in place, and the bulldozers were ready to move.

What follows is how Schaefer won that fight. Remember, this campaign took place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, long before email, fax, internet or the photocopier. Long distance trips took longer; phone calls were expensive. If you needed copies, you used carbon paper or cut stencils, and when you made a mistake composing your article, you typed the whole page over. Paul Schneider writes:

“Schaefer and company went to work, making movies, printing pamphlets, lining up allies. In addition to the various national environmental groups, they enlisted hunting clubs, fishing clubs, garden clubs, churches, labor unions, bird-watchers, and so on until eventually Schaefer’s Moose River Committee claimed a membership of a thousand local and national organizations. Within two years, Governor Thomas Dewey changed his mind and packed the board of the Black River Regulating District with opponents of the Higley Mountain dam”.

Eventually the Committee persuaded nearly 1,000 clubs and organizations to oppose the Panther dam, along with most of the East’s major newspapers. When the state Supreme Court rejected their case against Panther, Schaefer persuaded legislators to hold public hearings around the state and packed the hearings with anti-dam forces.

The fight over dams took 11 years and was waged in administrative forums, the courts, the legislature, and in statewide referendums. Initially the preservationists gathered a thousand groups, applied pressure, and forced the governor to cancel the dam. However, immediately afterwards the governor announced that a larger dam would be built downstream from the one he had just canceled. Schaefer then got the legislature to pass a law to forbid dams in the park and then to make sure no future legislature reversed it, went on to initiate a statewide ballot measure to put a prohibition against Park dams in the New York constitution itself. It passed with a 60-percent majority. The governor came right back with his own constitutional amendment that would reverse Schaefer’s and a second statewide campaign ensued. However, Schaefer again won (this time with a margin of three to one) and the dam wars were over.

The intensity of these campaigns was described in a history of the Black River region.

“Any citizen of the state who could read and who was at all interested [in the amendment] could not have gone to the election booth poorly informed. For advocates of the opposing positions bombarded the electorate with pamphlets, and newspapers gave much space to the controversy, often taking editorial stands one way or the other. The Amendment carried only in Lewis and Jefferson counties, the areas to be benefited by the construction of the reservoir. The “Forever Wild” adherents won a smashing victory”.

What Schaefer was really doing in this campaign was operating the kind of well-run, well-financed political campaign you see for governor or U.S. senator today. In the second statewide referendum, preservationists were victorious in ten (out of 14) of the North Country counties with land inside the park. They had mobilized voters in every county through hundreds of public community meetings statewide in which they explained the value of wilderness to the public. And they backed up these meetings with organizing strategies and media campaigns, which have never been surpassed in any New York campaign. For example, to reach isolated people in rural areas on dirt roads, they had a mounted youth corps travel on horseback distributing pamphlets. On voting day, they had “…sportsmen in outdoor wear at hundreds of voting booths, at legal distances, urging the negative vote.”

Thirty years later, Schaefer recollected an incident from that campaign that reveals the thoroughness with which the state was organized. He had been asked to give an Earth Day talk but couldn’t make it and asked a friend to go in his place. When only one person showed up, his friend thought the meeting a waste, so Paul consoled him with a story about how the same thing once happened to him.

“Bill, you’ve got to remember that in 1946 I went out to Broome County, Binghamton, and we went all that way to talk about the [dams] and only 15 people turned out. Oh, it was sure discouraging to have brought ourselves and our information so far for only 15, but remember Bill, among the 15 that night, we needed thousands of brochures to be distributed and a man stood up and said, ‘You give me 50,000 of those brochures and I could use another 50,000 and I will distribute every one of them.’ It turned out that Broome County turned out the most votes to defeat the [Dams]. Never underestimate that one person in 15…”

By 1962 New York’s attitude towards wilderness was demonstrated in testimony by R. Watson Pomeroy, the Republican chair of New York’s Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources, to a U.S. House hearing about the creation of a federal wilderness system. He said in part:

“Motorized transportation is incompatible with wilderness. Easy means of access reduces or obliterates the awe and reverence for wilderness. Jeeps and other motorized ground vehicles churn footpaths into quagmires, motorboats spoil canoeing, and the landing of airplanes and helicopters in a wilderness pond can ruin the solitude and beauty of a fisherman’s paradise. [The wilderness bill being considered would] guard the irreplaceable wilderness resource of our nation against needless commercial exploitation”.

Adirondack wilderness campaigns always attacked threats at the root and tried to place wilderness protection far out of the hands of elected and appointed officials and firmly in the hands of the public. They saw the two “sides” in every fight to preserve wilderness: all rural legislators on one side, and the voters—particularly downstate urban voters—on the other.

For 70 years, Adirondack campaigns were conceived of and managed as professional operations where every campaign product—from message development to the editing of articles— reflected care, thoroughness and professionalism. In the campaigns after 1930, Schaefer was the equivalent of the modern political campaign manager. As such, his first job was to find motivated organizers in every county to do what today is called Get Out the Vote (GOTV) to deliver downstate votes. Eventually preservationists created what was essentially an upstate political machine whose power is suggested by an incident in 1969: during another controversy, for a key vote in the Senate, Schaefer asked Laurence Rockefeller for all the Republican votes, and got them. By then, everyone understood the political power of Adirondack preservationists, and threats to the forest could be removed without the necessity of time-consuming and expensive political campaigns.

In 2007, an issue in the Park demonstrated the durability of these old political victories, showing that they were intended to last forever—just as long as the wilderness itself. Long Lake, a town inside the park, had its drinking water source compromised and needed an acre of protected Adirondack parkland to drill a new village well. To obtain that single acre, the town had to donate 12 acres of land to the park, get a law passed by both houses of the state legislature in two consecutive years, and only then could they go to the voters, statewide, to amend the New York State Constitution to authorize Long Lake to take one acre of protected land. Such is the enduring legacy of effective grassroots organizing where the authority that protects wilderness is in the hearts and will of a majority of voters, and not merely some law.

This essay is adapted from Organize to Win Vol 3 chapter 10 available on Amazon. Volumes 1 and 2 can be downloaded for free.

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