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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 22, 2012

Take the plunge with a plan for the future’s sake

The imperative to preserve pieces of wilderness grows as humans continue to ravage the Earth.

Last weekend, our New Scotland reporter, Tyler Murphy, walked along the sheer cliffs of the Helderberg escarpment. The fossils in the escarpment have been called the key to North American geology.

The cross section of cliff exposes rocks from the Devonian Period 400 million years ago when New York State was covered in a warm, shallow ocean, rich with sea life. When the organisms died, they sank to the bottom where they were preserved. Since the 1700s and continuing today, geologists have studied the escarpment to learn about the Earth’s ancient history.

More modern history, human history, is represented in the Indian Ladder Trail, used by the Iroquois in the 1600s to reach Henry Hudson’s trading post. Later, in the midst of the American Revolution, Jacob Salisbury found refuge during the Burgoyne invasion in what is now known as Tory Cave.

Murphy paused at the cliff’s edge to gaze at the cultivated land below, dotted with houses, with schools, with factories. Overhead, against the clear blue sky, three turkey vultures circled. They rose and fell with the thermals as they looked for carrion far below.

Murphy paused again to take a picture of a Mourning Cloak, resting in the sun, spreading its worn wings.

“Unconscious came a beauty to my wrist and stopped my pencil”: When we saw the picture, we thought of May Swenson’s poem, shaped like a butterfly, wings spread out on the page, as she described her encounter with a Mourning Cloak. “I sat arrested, for its soot-haired body’s worm shone in the sun,” she wrote. “It bent its tongue long as a leg black on my skin and clung without my feeling, while its tomb-stained duplicate parts of a window opened. And then I moved.”

This sense of connection to nature, to history, to the essence of Earth is not accidental. Last weekend’s encounters occurred because nearly a century ago, in 1914, Emma Treadwell Thacher donated 350 acres to be a public park in her late husband’s name — John Boyd Thacher.

“It has long been noted as one of the beauty spots of the state,” said Governor Martin Glynn in announcing the “voluntary gift to the people of the state” on March 4, 1914. “Naturalists have agreed that there is found some of the grandest scenery in the state,” the governor went on. “We find numerous caves, great precipitous cliffs, waterfalls, and pine forests. The region is rich historically and around it cluster many legends of the original owners of the soil.”

In all those decades, the park has run without a plan. Now, the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is about to create a master plan for Thacher Park. “A master plan is really the vision and goals for a park,” said Alane Ball-Chinian, regional director at Saratoga. She also said, “This is really an exciting opportunity — the next life of Thacher Park.”

Establishing clear goals is essential, but equally important is the way in which these goals are arrived at. Two years ago, as the state faced an $8 billion deficit, then-Governor David Paterson proposed closing more than 50 parks and historic sites across the state.

This was shortsighted, as, in times of economic recession, citizens most need recreation. The state would have saved about $225,000 by closing Thacher, a pittance compared to the income that is generated for area businesses by visitors to the park.

Grassroots protests prevailed and Thacher stayed open. At the time, our paper, like state legislators, was swamped with letters from people from across the region and from the towns — New Scotland, Guilderland, Berne, and Knox — where the park lies; they had fond memories of visits to the park and strong feelings about its worth.

The Office of Parks is planning many sessions, outlined in Murphy’s groundbreaking front-page story, that will allow the public to participate in the planning process. We urge our readers to avail themselves of the opportunity.

“It really is a new day — I sense nothing but good,” said Ball-Chinian. “It signals the agency is willing to invest significant resources in the park.”

In its heyday, in the 1950s,when the Olympic-size swimming pool was built, Thacher Park drew a half-million visitors annually. Now, without a pool and with a change in lifestyle away from family picnics, the park draws fewer than half that number.

We were appalled in 2007 when the pool was torn up. The original plan, under Governor George Pataki, had been to create a $3 million waterslide park at Thacher, the first in a New York State park. That plan tanked with the economy, and nothing replaced it.

Lessons at the pool had taught generations of Hilltown residents to swim, and supplied employment as well — as ticket-takers, in the concession stands, in the locker rooms, or as lifeguards.

Beyond that, the pool served as a draw for city folks; black kids and white kids played together, daring to go off the high dive, or splashing in the kiddy pools to beat the summer heat.

As the current governor, Andrew Cuomo, pushes tourism based on history, and as local leaders are gearing up to re-ignite tourism in the Helderberg Hilltowns, now is a good time to examine how Thacher Park could best fit in with those initiatives.

Verplanck Colvin, whose writing about the environment helped establish the Adirondack Park, wrote about the Helderbergs for Harper’s in 1869, “It is its romantic wooded rock scenery, dark caverns, and sprayey waterfalls, its varied landscape and accessible mountain grandeur, that render the Helderberg interesting to artist, author, poet, tourist, or rusticator. To those who desire escape for a day from the oven-like city in summer…to view spots sacred to legends of wild Revolutionary days …the ‘Indian Ladder’ region of the Helderbergs offers superior inducements.”

As much as the Industrial Revolution to which Colvin responded, our technological revolution has increased human need to take stock of and reconnect with the natural world. It can be as simple as finding poetry in the way a Mourning Cloak spreads its wings or as complex as understanding our Earth’s evolution by reading the fossils that survive in our midst.

In 1914, when Governor Glynn was announcing the creation of John Boyd Thacher State Park, he spoke of the park’s namesake. Thacher was a businessman, author, and politician, serving as a mayor of Albany, a New York State legislator, and a United States congressman.

“From his entrance into public life,” said Glynn, “he was closely identified with the political history of his country; was a public speaker of wide repute and an ardent advocate and supporter of all measures proposed for the benefit of workingmen and women.”

Workingmen and women now, more than a century ago, need a place to recreate, to connect with nature and natural history. Let’s plan to make that happen.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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