Boundaries of the Adirondack Park

By Justin Levine - Adirondack Council Communications Associate
Monday, Jan. 8, 2023

The Adirondack Park is unlike any other place on Earth for a number of reasons, including the importance of its clean water and wilderness areas, the habitat it provides for wildlife, and the fact that well over 100,000 people live within its borders.

The Adirondack Park is not like national or even other New York state parks. There is no gate, there is no fee to get in - anyone is welcome at any time. But the uniqueness of the Park also can make it a confusing place. Covering just about one-fifth of New York’s landmass, the Adirondack Park boundaries cross waterways, county and town lines, run through the middle of an international waterway, and have towns, hamlets, and villages with about 130,000 year-round residents. So, what exactly are the political boundaries that impact the Adirondack Park, and why is it so convoluted?

The boundaries will be explained below, but the convolution actually has a fairly simple answer: The Adirondack Park was created without regard to existing political boundaries because it was created to protect watersheds and forests, which don't abide by lines on a map. And since the Adirondack Park belongs to all New Yorkers, the state has a legal and moral responsibility to make sure the Park functions without putting too much of a burden on the few people who live here. A community of 3,000 shouldn't have to bear the weight of managing one-fifth of New York state.

Entering Adirondack Park sign on state route 30

Public and Private

Within the roughly 6-million acres of the Adirondack Park, about 2.7-million acres are owned by the State of New York and largely managed as Forest Preserve by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That means the rest of the land - 3.3-million acres or so - is privately owned or part of one of the smaller jurisdictions such as a hamlet or village.

While the state-owned land is protected by the state constitution, private land - which can have an impact on adjacent or nearby state land - is regulated by a number of local and state agencies. For instance, a homeowner in the Adirondacks could need a building permit from the town in which they live, but they may also be required to get a permit from the state Adirondack Park Agency, which was established 50 years ago to regulate development with the Park. When the APA was created, towns and villages were given the option of developing their own zoning codes or allow the APA to take on that duty. Only 28 towns within the Park opted to have their own zoning and development codes.

A sign indicating a conservation easement

On top of all of this, there are also conservation easements, that give the state certain rights over private land. A conservation easement is an agreement between a large landowner and the state, in which the landowner sells development rights to the state in exchange for a reduced tax rate. This means the property cannot be split up and subdivided, but can continue to be a working forest and/or offer recreational opportunities to the public. The Loon Lake Mountain fire tower is accessible due to a conservation easement, where the public can cross private forestry land to reach the state-owned fire tower. There are about 750,000 acres in the Adirondacks that are protected in this manner.

Privately held easements also exist in the Park, with tens of thousands of acres protected this way. Groups like the Adirondack Land Trust and The Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy have robust easement programs and often end up selling tracts of land they've protected to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve.

However, the state does not manage all its lands within the Park as Forest Preserve. The state also owns and operates several prisons and other facilities within the Adirondacks, and there are even a few small state forests within the Adirondacks, including Terry Mountain State Forest and Chazy Highlands State Forest, each near Dannemora. These state forests are managed for timber production, unlike the rest of the Forest Preserve, which is protected from forestry by Article XIV of the state constitution.

International and State

The Adirondack Park lies completely within New York state, but part of the boundary is in Lake Champlain, which creates the first jurisdictional intrigue of the Blue Line (the boundary of the Adirondack Park is sometimes referred to as the “Blue Line” because on the original maps denoting the new park in the 1890s cartographers drew the boundary in blue ink).

Lake Champlain is an international waterway, nestled between the states of New York and Vermont and the Canadian province of Quebec to the north. It is connected to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, which creates part of the border between the United States and Canada. Lake Champlain is managed by a coalition, including the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, along with agencies from Vermont, Quebec, and the federal United States Government.

While the lake itself is overseen by numerous entities working together, the part of the lake that is technically inside the border of New York is also part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve (yes, even water bodies can be considered part of the Forest Preserve). From the northern tip of Valcour Island down to near Lake George, part of the bed and shoreline of Lake Champlain is inside the Adirondack Park.

Federal prison in Ray Brook

In addition to Lake Champlain, a few federally-owned properties are inside the Adirondack Park. The Interstate 87 corridor has partial federal jurisdiction with the state doing routine maintenance, there is some land on the western part of the Park that belongs to the US Air Force, and the Federal Correctional Institute in Ray Brook is owned and operated by the federal government. I highly recommend reading A Prison in the Woods by Clarence Jefferson Hall for some fascinating history about the federal prison and several others inside the Blue Line.

For anyone who lives in or visits the Adirondacks regularly, it is obvious from the regular sonic booms that the federal government also utilizes the air space above the Park. Military use of the skies over the Adirondacks has become an almost daily reality.


New York State is made up of 62 total counties, and 12 of those are either wholly or partially within the Adirondack Blue Line.

Essex County sign

Hamilton County is roughly the size of the state of Delaware and is one of just two counties completely inside the Blue Line (Essex County is the other). Hamilton is the least populous county in New York, and there is not a single permanent traffic light in the entire jurisdiction.

Additionally, 10 other counties, Fulton, Saratoga, Washington, Warren, Clinton, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Lewis, Herkimer, and Oneida, have lands both within the Adirondacks and outside of the Park.

Towns and Villages and Hamlets

Much like the words “stream” and “creek,” the words “town” and “village” may be used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Each county in New York is made up of numerous towns, but they are not the same as villages. A village is an incorporated entity, while a hamlet is not. Villages and hamlets may look a lot alike, but a village is incorporated and has a government and a charter.

Village of Long Lake seen from the air

Essentially, New York State is divided up into counties, with each county divided up by towns. Within the towns, there may be villages and hamlets, or a town may lack any urbanized area.

(Do not get me started on the village of Saranac Lake; Essex and Franklin Counties bisect the village border, AND the village is partially within the towns of St. Armand and North Elba in Essex County and Harrietstown in Franklin County.)

While towns, like counties, have remained relatively unchanged for quite some time, the many villages and hamlets of the Adirondack Park can change with some regularity or even disappear.

The communities of the Adirondack Park, like much of the rest of rural New York, have seen a decline in population over the past several decades. There are many reasons for this decline, but the result is the same regardless of which community we are talking about - fewer people living, working, and paying taxes, fewer kids in school, and fewer people to do the jobs necessary for a community to function.

Since the 1980s, numerous villages have been dissolved and absorbed by the town the village was in. For example, the town of Ticonderoga in Essex County used to be home to the village of Ticonderoga as well. Voters elected to dissolve the village in 1993, and the legal entity overseeing the area is now the town of Ticonderoga. This may seem unimportant to anyone that does not live within the changing area, but as school districts, towns, and villages combine services, it can have an impact on the adjacent Forest Preserve as well as the people who call these places home.

And this is far from over. In 2017, voters decided to dissolve the village of Port Henry. Conversely, the village of Lake George rejected a resolution to dissolve last year. The dissolution of a village may make combining services for residents easier, but part of the unique appeal of the Adirondack Park is that people can live inside its boundaries. We need to ensure there are good paying, year-round employment opportunities in Adirondack communities to not only stop the slide, but also help manage the Park. The combining of services may save taxpayers money, but it also reduces the number of jobs available for locals. It’s a vicious cycle as fewer employed people means less money to be spent in the community.  

No Borders

Of course, waterways, wildlife, and the wind don’t follow political boundaries drawn on a map. What happens both around the nation and inside the Park can have a huge impact on people, whether they live inside or many miles away from the Blue Line. For example, air pollution from the Midwest creats acid rain that harms the Adirondacks which affects major watersheds such as the Hudson River, the St. Lawrence River, and the Lake Champlain Basin, all of which play a role in the daily lives of millions of people.

Boreas Pond

Because of this, the Adirondack Park will continue to play an integral role in mitigating climate change, not just for New York, but for the world. The protected forests will sequester carbon and keep streams cool for native species. Those cool waters will continue to provide sustenance to millions of people and countless animals.

As New York State continues to lead the way in fighting and mitigating climate change, the Adirondack Park will provide almost incalculable benefits to the world. You can help us preserve the Adirondacks by becoming a member of the Adirondack Council today.


Justin Levine

Justin Levine joined the Council staff in 2021 as the Communications and Outreach Assistant. He previously worked as a regional marketing manager for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and was an award-winning journalist and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News. Since graduating from Paul Smith’s College in 2004, Justin has worked in the environmental field in various roles in both the Adirondacks and Florida. When not working, Justin loves spending time with his family, running, and doing all the outdoor things the Park has to offer.

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