(Editor's note: This is Part Three of a five-part series on the current status of the Visitor Interpretive Centers, which were operated by the Adirondack Park Agency from 1989 to 2010.)
NEWCOMB - A couple dozen people crowded the R.W. Sage Jr. Memorial Trail sign on Sept. 24, 2006. Rays of sunshine penetrated the rustling fall foliage, and the wind howled through the forest while Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC) Director William Porter and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Chairman Ross Whaley welcomed the public to the newest trail at the APA Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC).
This was a shining example of the close bond between the APA and the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).
The VIC was built on 236 acres in the Huntington Wildlife Forest, managed by the college, which also owns and operates the AEC less than 2 miles away. Whaley is a past president of SUNY-ESF, based in Syracuse. And the man they were honoring on Sept. 24, 2006 - Richard "Dick" Sage - was the AEC's associate director until his death in August 2002. He was the person who picked the location for the APA's Newcomb VIC in 1985.
But has Dick Sage really left the building?
As Porter was finishing his comments at the 2006 ribbon-cutting ceremony, a small tree crashed to the ground in front of him. As they removed the tree, many nervously commented that Dick Sage was watching over them that day - the heart and soul of the Adirondack Ecological Center making his presence known at the interpretive center he helped build. The VIC opened in October 1990.
Vision for the AIC
The APA transferred the building to SUNY-ESF on July 1, 2010 and handed over programming on Jan. 1, 2011. With the transition now complete, it's the job of AEC Program Coordinator Paul Hai to lead the interpretive center through its new life as an ESF facility. That means a new mission and a new name.
What was once the APA Visitor Interpretive Center at Newcomb - with a focus on environmental education and visitor-information services - is now the SUNY-ESF Adirondack Interpretive Center (AIC), featuring a 6,000-square-foot main building and a 2,500-square-foot classroom/garage.
"This center is not just for visitors, it's for everybody, including residents of the Adirondack Park," Hai said, defending the name change. Hai wanted the name communicate new ownership of the facility, and he wanted people to know that ESF is still at the interpretive center and committed to serving the public with educational programs.
Under the auspices of the Northern Forest Institute - managed by SUNY-ESF and based at the Huntington Wildlife Forest - the AIC will focus less on visitor-information services and more on interpretation. Moreover, Hai and his crew will expand the interpretive mission beyond the natural resources of the Adirondack Park to include programs that will explore science, recreation, natural history and culture.
"We are able to consider a new suite of programs that the APA couldn't do," Hai said. "We have an opportunity to reach beyond nature ... There are many complex issues in the Adirondack Park, and we want to offer programs to address that complexity."
Through school field trips, workshops, conferences, programs and special events, the AIC will continue to offer public programming and serve upwards of 30,000 people a year. Yet the flavor of the programs will be more diversified. Regular programs such as bird walks, packbasket workshops and the summer Huntington Lecture Series will also be teamed with new programs such as a professional development series, gardening series, fly fishing workshops, a "Working Forests Working for You" series, a fall series on animal species that are harvested during hunting season, and a trapping program.
The Adirondack Park Institute - the friends group of the two VICs since 1989 - will continue to offer programs there as well. In addition, the 3.6-mile trail system has remained open throughout the transition from the APA to SUNY-ESF. The hiking trails are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter. People can borrow the AIC's snowshoes for free. And there is a connector trail from the Sage Trail to the Great Camp Santanoni trail.
The ownership transition was fairly seamless. Unlike the transfer of the APA's Paul Smiths VIC to Paul Smith's College, a private not-for-profit institution, the Newcomb VIC was transferred from state agency to a state college. There was no need to de-accession state-owned property and move out like the APA was required to do in Paul Smiths. In Newcomb, it was literally a turn-key exchange of the building on July 1, 2010, with all its assets intact, including exhibits and educational tools.
"We were really fortunate with our partnership with the APA," Hai said.
A welcome addition
Hai is also the program coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training (NFI) and now splits his time between the Adirondack Interpretive Center and the Adirondack Ecological Center. The AEC is the college's research component at the Huntington Wildlife Forest, and the NFI is the education and outreach component. The NFI - formed in 2008 - uses several buildings to serve its constituents: the Masten House, the Carriage House, the Arbutus Great Camp and the AIC. Having the AIC to serve as the Institute's public venue is just what the NFI needed, according to Hai.
"It is a great piece of the puzzle," Hai said.
The NFI is a working partnership between SUNY-ESF, Open Space Institute, state Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Park Agency, Northern Forest Center, Adirondack Wild, Purdue University's Department of Organizational Leadership and others. The program has three main components: 1. professional development; 2. public outreach; and 3. academic outreach (primary, secondary and collegiate).
The AIC is also expected to help the college's efforts to establish a work study program, which they plan to implement this year.
The biggest challenge for Hai during the ownership transition was the quick turnaround and the unfunded accession of new property.
"We were getting this jewel (in less than six months) but with no funding," Hai said, adding that the college is looking for ways to pay staff and keep the doors open "to make sure we can keep the ball moving forward."
Due to a "substantial grant" from a private foundation, SUNY-ESF will be able to hire a full-time position for two years to help Hai create and deliver programs at the AIC. In addition, Hai is trying to get funding for a one-year full-time naturalist at the AIC. He hopes to have both positions in place by summer.
Hai is no stranger to the interpretive center. He began working for SUNY-ESF in 2000, moved to Newcomb in 2003 to assume his current title, and took over program coordinating duties for the NFI in 2008. He has led educational programs at the center since 2003.
The AIC is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and the trails are open from dawn to dusk daily. Admission is free. For more information, call 582-2000 or visit online at www.esf.edu/aic.