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April : The Legacy of Clifford R. Pettis in the Adirondacks

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11 April, 2017

The Legacy of Clifford R. Pettis in the Adirondacks

The Legacy of Clifford R. Pettis in the Adirondacks

 

Clifford Robert Pettis is widely known as the "Father of Reforestation" in New York State and served as the Superintendent of State Forests from 1910 until his death in 1927. The Adirondack Forest Preserve we know and love today is much a result of Pettis' hard work and innovative forestry techniques. 

The Adirondack Forest Preserve includes more than 2.6 million acres of state land within the larger 6 million acre Adirondack Park. In the late 19th-century, the New York State Legislature designated the public lands as "forever wild" thereby protecting the forests from over development. However, prior to this protection, many areas had already been stripped of trees for timber. Fortunately, in the last decade of Pettis' career, more than 3 million seedlings were planted, giving us today's lush forests.

In a Feb. 3, 1927 Adirondack Record - Elizabethtown Post article, Pettis is remembered for pioneering modern forest nursery practices and authoring the "Bulletin of Forest Nursery Practice." This publication was later adopted as the handbook of the United States Forest Service. 

Pettis earned his title as "Father of Reforestation" primarily due to his involvement with a state law that facilitated the distribution of low cost tree seedlings. These seedlings helped to replace trees cut down for logging and return the Adirondacks to their natural glory. Additionally, Pettis also worked to establish New York State's forest fire control system, which was crucial in the fight to protect upstate timberlands.

Pettis was born on Aug. 10, 1877 in Delancy, New York to Homer and Margaret (Davidson) Pettis. He graduated from Ithaca High School in 1896 and went on to study under Dr. Bernard E. Fernow at the nation's first School of Forestry at Cornell University. In 1904, Pettis wed Maude Eunice Otis and they had one daughter together, Elizabeth. After a lifetime of working to preserve and expand forests in upstate New York, Pettis passed away at his home in Albany on Jan. 29, 1927. He is buried in St. John's in the Wilderness Cemetery, which lies within his beloved Adirondack Forest Preserve. In 1929, the area formerly known as Chubb Hill Nursery was renamed Clifford R. Pettis Memorial Forest to honor the famed forester.

This 3,000-acre forest, located between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, features towering spruce and pine trees now over a century old. 

Shortly after graduating from Cornell's School of Forestry, Pettis began working for New York State. 

First, he served as the assistant to Colonel William F. Fox, who served as the head of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission. A June 15, 2009 Saratogian article recounts that Pettis' employer, Colonel Fox, was born into a lumbering business family and later studied forestry techniques in Germany. Upon returning to the United States, Fox was appointed assistant secretary to the nation's first Forest Commission in 1885. He later served as assistant Forest Warden and ultimately became Superintendent of Forests upon the creation of the Adirondack Park. In 1910, a year after Fox's death, Pettis succeeded him and was named Superintendent of Forests.

During his tenure with the State Forest, Fish and Game Commission, Pettis worked tirelessly on legislation that would become the hallmark of his legacy. Pettis urged legislators to pass a law that would distribute tree nursery stock to private landowners at a very low price. According to the aforementioned Adirondack Record - Elizabethtown Post article, "This law has been the stimulus for the planting of millions of trees, and has given immense impetus to the forestry movement. At the beginning of this work less than 25,000 trees were planted annually. In eighteen years the number has increased to more than 20,000,000." 

This reforestation work was vital because according to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website, "by the 1880s, less than 25 percent of New York State remained forested." This rapid deforestation was a result of clearing land for new settlements as well as unsavory logging practices. 

At the turn of the 20th-century, the New York Forest, Fish and Game Conservation Commission (predecessor to the DEC) predicted that the state would run out of timber within 50 years. This warning prompted many foresters, including Pettis, to make a long term plan for forest management, one that focused on productivity and preservation rather than profits. This new model was based upon European forestry principles where trees were considered a renewable, but not unlimited resource.

Pettis also helped to establish the first state tree nurseries in the nation. The nurseries served as a source of seedlings for planting in the Catskills and Adirondacks. 

The DEC website recounts, "Hundreds of millions of seedlings of Norway spruce, white pine, red pine, and Scotch pine were planted on State Forests as windbreaks and forest plantations." 

Later on, at least nine state tree nurseries were in operation. However, since 1972 all nursery operations have been consolidated at the Saratoga Springs location. According to the Saratogian, "The 250-acre Saratoga Tree Nursery has produced 1.6 billion seedlings since it opened in 1911." And the nursery currently grows more than a million seedlings each year for state projects and private sales.

If you'd like to pay homage to the famed forester, follow scenic New York State Route 86 from Saranac Lake toward Lake Placid. Shortly after you leave the hamlet of Ray Brook, you'll pass the forest named in honor of Pettis. Admire the towering pines and spruce and give a silent thanks to the man who helped them grow.

Source: The Sun


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