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A politically divided rural area of New York has united to preserve its wilderness

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

These days, America's civic fabric is fraying. From local school board meetings to Congress, shouting often overwhelms real conversations. But there is a place in upstate New York where people are actively resisting that trend. NPR's Brian Mann takes us there.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: To understand the civic experiment underway in New York's massive Adirondack Park, we have to go back to a time when things were really ugly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You son of a [expletive]. Go.

MANN: In the 1990s, a CBS cameraman captured a violent confrontation. An environmental activist was attacked by a local government leader named Maynard Baker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYNARD BAKER: Go back wherever you come from, but get out of here, out of our lives and out of our business.

MANN: The Adirondack Park is 6 million acres. Small towns here are surrounded by big chunks of heavily regulated land. Historian Phil Terry says the fight over environmental rules turned dangerous.

PHIL TERRY: There was an attempt to set the Park Agency headquarters on fire. One of the Park Agency staff members had bullets flying around his car one day.

MANN: In a lot of ways, the Adirondacks then resembled America today. Conspiracy theories and threats of violence were commonplace.

GEORGE PATAKI: I had protesters and pickets all over the Adirondacks.

MANN: Former New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican, lives now in the park. He says the stakes were high. When he took office, huge tracts of privately owned land in the park were being eyed by developers. They wanted to build resorts and waterfront vacation homes. Pataki unveiled an ambitious environmental plan to keep that from happening. Here he is speaking in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATAKI: This brings our total open space conserved to over 900,000 acres, an area bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

MANN: Pataki says the battle lines then were pretty much like what we see now across the U.S. - pro-business versus pro-environment, urban versus rural, people looking for agreement versus those who wanted to fight. He says his message to furious locals was simple. Let's start talking.

PATAKI: Give me a chance, and I think we can make this work both for the environment and for the economy.

MANN: People here say that moment started a gradual shift in the park's culture that took root over the next 20 years, creating an opening for a new generation of activists.

ZOE SMITH: Our agenda is simply to have civil discourse.

MANN: Zoe Smith is an environmental activist who sits on the board of the Adirondack Park Agency. That's the state governing body locals once tried to burn down.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

MANN: She lives here in Saranac Lake, one of the towns inside the park, and volunteers for a group called the Common Ground Alliance that formed to do the slow, hard work of building bridges.

SMITH: There's a lot of long conversations that happen, phone calls after hours. And I've been there as well, you know, sort of on the ledge. This is too difficult. This relationship is broken. This issue is too hard to face.

MANN: People here say this local work has been complicated by forces now tearing at America's civil society. The park's small towns backed Donald Trump twice, and voters here have given landslide victories to Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Trump ally who frequently amplifies conspiracy theories. In other parts of the U.S., bitter national divisions have shattered communities. But here, local government leaders like Gerry Delaney have chosen to keep talking.

GERRY DELANEY: I feel I'm a moderate, but oftentimes I'm told I'm very right of moderate.

MANN: Delaney is a town official, a former logger and corrections officer who describes himself as a Trump voter. He's also emerged as one of the leading pro-development voices working with the Common Ground Group.

DELANEY: There's no good to tear our communities apart. We're not going to win by fighting. As long as people are listening to us, we still have a chance.

MANN: Local leaders like Delaney wound up supporting those big land conservation deals. In exchange, small towns got big pots of economic development money and funding for infrastructure. Historian Phil Terry says while America grew more fractious, the Adirondacks found ways to compromise.

TERRY: I think there's been a lot of good faith effort on the part of people on both sides to try to talk things out. Don't yell at each other. Talk to each other.

MANN: Everyone interviewed for this story said the Adirondack experiment has been successful so far but also messy. They say the peace here often feels fragile, shaken by occasional lawsuits and by angry flare-ups on social media. But Zoe Smith with the Common Ground Alliance says people here keep talking, in part because they know how bad things can be when neighbors turn against neighbors.

SMITH: I think people don't want to go back there. They remember it. When you hear people talk about the Adirondack wars and the Adirondack battles, there are very few people who want to engage in that again.

MANN: So far, nearly a million acres of wild forest and lakes have been protected here with local buy-in and local input - makes you wonder what could be done in other parts of the U.S. if people started talking again rather than making threats and shouting each other down. Brian Mann, NPR News, in New York's Adirondack Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.