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Exploring the Adirondacks

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For hundreds of years, the Adirondacks have drawn writers, painters, doctors and researchers—and the place made explorers of them all. This remote landscape has few straight lines, and each bend in the path beckoned Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rockwell Kent, Edward Livingston Trudeau and others to go a little further. What they found here led to the environmental movement, influential art, a way to treat tuberculosis and a commitment to return with friends, colleagues and patients.

Now, students in Clarkson University’s Adirondack Semester follow these earlier paths and explore how they intersect with current thinking on conservation, economic development and the public policies seeking balance between them.

Program coordinator Mike Dinan says this is a perfect place to conduct the kind of research that yields far-reaching results.

“The Adirondacks are like a giant laboratory,” he says. “You can see how wildlife, business, recreation, small towns and their local governments interact and affect each other. Sometimes these interests are at odds, but mostly they’re trying to come up with long-term plans that work for everyone—and everything. And those are important lessons no matter where you live.”

Clarkson built the Adirondack Semester as an exchange program, allowing undergraduates across the country to enroll and live for three months in the picturesque village of Saranac Lake. Here, the students become resident explorers of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest protected area in the contiguous United States.

Environmental engineering major Elizabeth Hartz ’13 calls her studies in the Adirondacks “eye-opening.”

Talking about the discoveries she made in the Park, she says, “I got hands-on experience finding those wetlands that could be affected [by future development], picking sites to study water quality and taking samples. It was more like real life, not just a lab tech saying, ‘here’s another water sample to look at.’”

Each student outing is more than a simple field trip. From the newly remodeled residence halls, students launch their canoes and paddle across three lakes and a stretch of the Saranac River to get oriented to their surroundings. It quickly becomes clear that the push to preserve the natural landscape helped define the region. The birch and red pine crowding the shores stand in sharp contrast to the urban and suburban hometowns of most students. And they want to know how and why the Adirondacks remain a string of small towns amid the wilds.

Clarkson Biology Professor Tom Langen says, “These questions can only be answered with a thorough understanding of a wide range of topics.” He helped establish the Adirondack Semester and its curriculum that includes ecosystem biology, the histories of subsistence farming, logging and mining, environmental degradation, watershed protections, the conservation ethic, tourism, economics and politics.

“Adirondack Semester students see how all these factors are connected,” he says.

These topics are covered in intensive two-week modules by Clarkson biology, economics, political science and other faculty members. These professors all have lengthy histories of research in their fields. And this is a key reason why Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester is recognized as a 15-credit program meeting most universities’ requirements in environmental science, policy, economics, human history and contemporary issues.

Each professor spends time in Saranac Lake, giving the students more opportunities to talk with their teachers and get answers to their questions.

Adirondack Semester student Tiyi Brewster ’13 said, “I got to know my professors a little better. And they talk with you, not at you.”

The environmental science and policy major says her professors also had more time to introduce students to their surroundings, elected officials and other local leaders.

In the inaugural term of fall 2012, students interviewed land preservationists at the Nature Conservancy, hiked Algonquin and Wright (two of the highest peaks in New York), talked with historians at the Adirondack Museum and rafted white water on the Hudson River. They also spoke with entrepreneurs and elected officials trying to run broadband Internet cable through protected wilderness. And they went on a wolf walk to learn about keystone (top-tier) predators, their effect on the Adirondack ecosystem and the controversies around proposals to re-introduce wolves and mountain lions in northern New York.  

Each semester, students collaborate on a final project integrating this wide range of perspectives and needs within the Park. Then they combine the knowledge and experience they’ve gained to craft sustainable solutions to some of the region’s most difficult challenges.

One of these projects required students to evaluate a proposed ski resort and housing development—and the way public agencies weighed benefits and risks before approving construction.

Michelle Crimi is an associate professor in Clarkson’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment and teaches Adirondack Semester students. She says they often begin looking at issues by focusing solely on environmental sustainability.

“Their time in Saranac Lake helps them think more holistically,” she says. “They become less sure about environmental impacts and work harder to develop solutions that consider social, economic and environmental factors.”

She says she saw this change take shape as students presented their findings, which included a call for public agencies to update and more clearly define legal terms and even the scientific guidelines that determine which projects will be approved.

Local media took notice. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported the students’ key findings, including:

“…it's a problem that the Adirondack Park Agency has to make decisions based on guidelines drawn up in the 1970s. Science has progressed since then, and there are now ways to define and measure things that were more difficult to measure then.”

The students’ assessment led to renewed focus on the way developments are evaluated and approved across the six-million acres of the Adirondack Park.

It’s just one example of the scientific explorations that shape Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester — and how our students shape the social, political and natural environment in which they’re immersed.

And each semester, the exploration continues.

Adk Mountains

The High Peaks are just a small part of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park in New York

wolf walk

Adirondack Semester students walk with a gray wolf and his caretaker, Steve Hall of the Adirondack Refuge and Wildlife Rehabilitation Center