Geopin­ion: Cur­rent Af­fairs

Pad­dle in the Adiron­dacks, but don’t end up in court.


THE NOSE OF MY ca­noe splits the wa­ter, send­ing a slow-mov­ing wake through the re­flec­tion of the red-and-yel­low fo­liage. I pad­dle through the mo­saic of color, around lazy horse­shoe bends, and past in­tri­cate beaver dams as loons dive be­neath my boat. I feel charmed to get to ex­pe­ri­ence the Adiron­dacks in their peak beauty this Oc­to­ber, but then, a brightor­ange sign slung across the river on a rusty chain sucks the magic right out. NO TRESPASSING. VI­O­LA­TORS WILL BE PROS­E­CUTED.

The ’ Daks are a big place, a 6-mil­lionacre patch­work of state-pro­tected pub­lic land and pri­vate prop­erty that en­com­passes 3,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers. If it was a bowl of ce­real, the pub­lic ar­eas would be the milk and the pri­vate the Chee­rios: Even if you start and end a pad­dle on pub­lic land, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to stay within those bounds. But that shouldn’t re­ally mat­ter be­cause a piece of state com­mon law from the 1800s tech­ni­cally gives boaters the right to move freely on any wa­ter­way, pub­lic or pri­vate.

The edict isn’t unique: Laws grant­ing pub­lic right to rivers date as far back as 1250 in Eng­land. In one of its first of­fi­cial acts, the U. S. Congress passed such a law that stated that “the nav­i­ga­ble wa­ters lead­ing into the Mis­sis­sippi and St. Lawrence . . . shall be com­mon high­ways, and for­ever free to the cit­i­zens of the United States.”

But some landown­ers— of­ten the de­scen­dants of 19th- cen­tury ty­coons— are test­ing those rights, and in at least one case in the Adiron­dacks, they’ve proven that they’re more than will­ing to take trespassing pad­dlers to court. The ar­gu­ment? The law was writ­ten to keep the wa­ter­ways open to re­gional com­merce, which at the time meant mov­ing lum­ber and pelts to mar­ket. As if they would in­stead wel­come pad­dlers push­ing hun­dreds of tree trunks down the river, landown­ers ar­gue that recre­ation­ists silently coast­ing through wa­ters in the far cor­ners of their es­tates don’t ful­fill the pur­pose of the law. Ex­cept, maybe they do.

These landown­ers seem to be over­look­ing the fact that tim­ber and fur are no longer the main eco­nomic pil­lars in the Em­pire State—tourism and re­cre­ation are. In fact, that tan­dem ac­counts for a larger per­cent­age of to­tal jobs than any other part of New York’s econ­omy. In the midst of a cam­paign to high­light the re­gion, Gov­er­nor An­drew Cuomo re­cently touted the 12 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors to the Adiron­dacks, and the $1.3 bil­lion in­dus­try that they sup­port.

Un­for­tu­nately, New York’s high­est court doesn’t see it that way. When a seven-year-long law­suit filed by the owner of a 40-square-mile slice of pris­tine Adiron­dack for­est fi­nally went be­fore the Court of Ap­peals in 2016, the judges con­cluded there wasn’t enough ev­i­dence to rule. Sure, they didn’t rule against the pad­dler, but their de­ci­sion ef­fec­tively freed up landown­ers to try again.

A lot has changed in the Em­pire State in the past 200 years, but wa­ter’s im­por­tance as a re­gional high­way hasn’t— even if the goods be­ing trans­ported look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Boaters to­day con­tinue to keep the Adiron­dacks afloat, and that’s ex­actly what the law was in­tended to pro­tect.

But if the landown­ers don’t agree, maybe we should all tie a log to the backs of our ca­noes and call it even.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.