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Park loses two important leaders

June 22, 2017
Editorial , Lake Placid News

George Canon and John Collins, who died two days apart from each other this past weekend, were already linked in our memory as prominent leaders on Adirondack issues. They were very different in style and opinion, but both were genuine, authoritative, frank, knowledgeable and understanding.

Those impressions crystallized for us at a public hearing the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency co-hosted on May 15, 2000, in Newcomb. The topic was Camp Santanoni, a beautiful summer home complex the wealthy Pruyn banking family built in the late 1800s. Santanoni had a working farm and a main lodge modeled after a Japanese temple, in the shape of a bird flying toward Newcomb Lake, but those buildings had been empty for decades and had fallen into disrepair. The DEC had made some initial efforts to stabilize the main lodge, and now the agencies were recommending something unprecedented for the Adirondacks: The APA would reclassify the Santanoni complex as a historic area rather than wild forest, and the DEC had a unit management plan ready to go for that purpose. This hearing was on all of that.

Canon, the town supervisor, took the mic first, reading a prepared statement on how much Santanoni visitors would mean to the local economy. He praised the state plan but recommended expanding the historic area and rebuilding as many of the original buildings as possible.

"The fact that a good portion of the camp remains intact is a fact for which I offer no apologies," he said, making eye contact with the crowd for emphasis.

Collins, of Blue Mountain Lake, then expressed a completely different viewpoint. Even though he was raised at a great camp - his grandparents worked at Sagamore near Raquette Lake - he said he regretted that the state didn't tear down Santanoni's buildings in 1972, when it acquired them and added them to the Forest Preserve. He quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" as a lesson that human works are fleeting. He said Santanoni should go "back to the bears."

Both men were unafraid to say where they stood. That confidence came partly from knowing what they were talking about. They were smart and studious, they kept up on everything and everyone in their hometowns, and they were steeped in local history because they and their ancestors had lived it.

Collins stepped down as APA chairman in the mid 1990s, when Adirondack debates were still quite hostile, but Canon remained involved until recently. He represented many Adirondack residents by constantly resisting the creep of more state land and more regulation of private land. He represented them well, too, because he didn't waste time vilifying their enemies, as some other activists did. Rather, he stayed, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt's famous speech, "in the arena" of the Adirondack discussion and became one of the Adirondacks' great negotiators.

Canon was realistic and understood that Newcomb and the Adirondacks were changing. He had already lived through big changes, having been one of the last National Lead Industries employees to leave the mine when it closed in 1989. He still rued that closure, but he adapted and made the best of things for his community as town supervisor.

The post-APA Adirondack politics of the 1970s, '80s and '90s were toxic and angry, but now dialogue is the norm. We give George Canon a great deal of credit for that.

Canon and Collins were motivated by a love of their small hometowns, where they were deeply rooted and involved. Canon, even as he negotiated with governors, identified with his local Lions club and fire department. Collins, aside from his activism in founding one of the park's strictest environmental groups, was an elementary school teacher who served on numerous boards. When the Adirondack Museum asked him to be executive director in the early 2000s, he answered the call. The Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts director described his garage as Blue Mountain Lake's unofficial hardware store: When people needed something, they came to him.

These men were grounded in community service, yet willing and able to step into the wider arena. They treated people as people, not as allies or enemies. We could always use more of that kind of leadership.



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