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In Memoriam | Gary Alvin Randorf (1937-2019)

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/staff-headshots/Gary cropped.jpgRenowned Adirondack conservationist and nature photographer Gary Alvin Randorf, 82, passed away on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.  Randorf was a pioneer in the conservation of the Adirondack Park, both as a state official and as a private advocate.

He passed peacefully at The Laurels in Pittsboro, NC under the daily, loving care of his ex-wife Pat Randorf.

Born on March 27, 1937, Randorf grew up on a farm in Orchard Park near Buffalo, NY. He was one of the first staff members of New York’s Adirondack Park Agency, beginning work as a naturalist in 1972, the same year the agency was created by the Legislature. 

The park agency was the first regional land-use planning and zoning board in the United States.  It oversees both public and private land-use plans for the park, which is a 9,300-square-mile mix of public forests that covers all or part of 12 counties in upstate New York.  It protects the largest intact deciduous forest ecosystem on earth and is the largest park in the contiguous United States. 

Randorf was also the first staff member and first executive director of the Adirondack Council, a privately funded, not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park.  The organization keeps a watchful eye on state agencies that manage the park and advises them on conservation policy.  Under his supervision, the organization grew into a powerful force for environmental protection and a national leader on the fight to curb acid rain.  Today, the organization has 16 full-time staff, a multi-million-dollar budget and members in all 50 United States.

Randorf may be best known as a talented nature and landscape photographer, whose work in black-and-white and color film photography carried forward the traditions of Seneca Ray Stoddard and Ansel Adams.  His work helped inspire governors and legislators to pass major bond acts for the acquisition of new public lands and waters in the park. 

His work inspired the adoption of the Environmental Protection Fund in 1993, which has delivered more than two billion dollars in capital projects for environmental protection.  The EPF has facilitated the purchase of tens of thousands of acres of new “forever wild” Forest Preserve and more than 700,000 acres of conservation easements on private forests in the Adirondack Park.

One of Randorf’s signature battles for the Adirondack Council was to stop the widespread practice of using crop-dusting airplanes to spray neuro-toxic pesticides (Scourge, Dibrom, etc.) on public and private lands to kill black flies.  Randorf showed that the practice was an ineffective black fly control method since adults live only two to three weeks, but very effective at killing bees, birds, fish, and other non-target species.  Black flies bites itch, but Adirondack species carry no known human disease.  His testimony at public hearings drew death threats from opponents but encouraged local residents whose health had been affected to speak out about the spraying.  He informed local officials that toxins that kill black flies can kill people too.  It was just a matter of dosage and exposure time.  His work paid off in 1992 when the last town in the Adirondacks still spraying pesticides dropped the program for a less toxic pest-control method. 

Ironically, Randorf blamed his exposure to pesticides as a young man in Western New York for his eventual battle with Parkinson’s disease. 

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Randorf worked with colleagues in the United States and Canada to urge new controls on air pollution from coal-fired power plants that were wiping out aquatic life in many of the Adirondack Park’s 11,000 lakes and ponds, while devastating high-elevation forest and causing widespread mercury contamination in fish and wildlife.  His work lobbying the state Legislature helped bring about New York’s first-in-the-nation acid rain control law in 1984, and later, the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that created the national Acid Rain Program operated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

He began his career in 1972 as an ecologist with the NYS Adirondack Park Agency and conducted, along with the legendary Adirondack naturalists Clarence Petty and Greenleaf Chase, a comprehensive review of the Park’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System.  Along with Petty, Randorf mapped some 30,000 miles of Adirondack rivers, brooks, and streams for the agency.

He started with the Adirondack Council in 1977 and led the organization as its sole staff member for years.  He later helped to bring on board George Davis, whose blueprint for completion of the Adirondack Park (2020 VISION: Fulfilling the Promise of the Adirondack Park) won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and propelled Davis to new challenges at Lake Baikal in Russia and several of the former Soviet republics.  Randorf briefly resumed the helm of the Council after Davis’s departure. 

Randorf returned to the Adirondack Park Agency in the late 1980s to oversee the creation of the state’s new Park Visitor Interpretive Centers in Newcomb and Paul Smiths.  He later returned to the Council as a photographer and senior counselor to former Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Timothy Burke, who led the Council starting in 1992. 

His award-winning Adirondack and wildland photography continues to capture interest from around the world in the beauty and global significance of the Adirondack Park.  In his book The Adirondacks, Wild Island of Hope (2002; Johns Hopkins Press), Randorf wrote about the Adirondacks: “We are and will continue to set an example of how to do it – that is saving a wilderness that includes people. If we fail, we fail not only our state, our country and ourselves but also the world.”

In 1992, Kodak sponsored a large-format touring exhibit of Randorf’s Adirondack landscapes as part of the Adirondack Park’s Centennial Celebration.

Timothy Barnett of Saratoga Springs, founding executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter, has helped New York acquire and conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of new public lands and easements in the Adirondack Park since the 1970s -- one of the most successful wilderness protection programs on earth.  Barnett remembered sharing his first office with Gary in Elizabethtown, which had been the former law office of federal judge Learned Hand.  The two organizations would share office space in Elizabethtown for 20 years until the Conservancy built its new headquarters in Keene.  Barnett, formerly a television advertising salesman, credited Randorf’s support for the fact that he knew anything at all about wilderness and land conservation. 

“Gary was very much a part of my life and my education when I took on the job with the Nature Conservancy,” Barnett said.  “I knew nothing.  The only way I ever succeeded was by learning from other people, especially Gary.  We certainly had a lot of fun when Gary was the director of the Council.  Between Gary, Greenie, and George we had some pretty wonderful times together. Gary was a superb naturalist, photographer, and a wonderfully gentle person.” 

“Gary recruited me to work for the Adirondack Council in 1989, back when I was editing a little daily newspaper on the Canadian border in Malone, New York,” said Adirondack Council Communications Director John Sheehan. “The organization was going through a tough period.

There were serious disagreements over new proposals for the management of the park.  The so-called property rights movement that emerged after the election of Bill Clinton as president had led to a wave of anti-environmental protests in the Adirondacks.  Some of them got violent. Gary was an island of calm and confidence during the worst of it. 

“One day, a handful of local soreheads were protesting outside the office carrying picket signs calling Gary names and hanging him in effigy,” Sheehan said.  “I have to admit I was a little rattled.  I was looking around for a baseball bat and getting ready to dial 911.  Gary walked out and asked them to come in for coffee.  Gary wasn’t much taller than 5-foot-two, but he was always a giant to me.”

Peter Paine of Willsboro is the author of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, administered by the park agency since 1972, and a member of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s temporary commission that created the agency.  He also served as chairman of the park agency under Gov. Mario Cuomo.  “The wild rivers of the Park are weeping for the loss of this pioneer and servant of Wilderness,” Paine said.  “Go gently into the dark night old friend, and may flocks of angels wing thee to thy rest.”

David Gibson, executive director of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve said: “The song comes to mind, ‘Where did he go, nobody knows, he just took off, walking for miles. And he ended up with more than what he had before, a child at heart, forever wild.’ (Song of the Wilderness, by Adirondack folk artist Dan Berggren.)”

“As an @adk_council intern in 2009, I was so privileged to spend time and make friends with you.” Tweeted Adirondack Council Government Relations Director Kevin Chlad. “You revealed to me unknown depths at which a human can love another life, be it fellow man, tree or black fly. You left your mark on our Park and on me and I am grateful.”

Julie Ball of Crested Butte, Colo., worked with Randorf for a decade when she was a member of the Adirondack Council’s fund development team.

“Gary taught me: work hard, play harder, love your people, marvel at -- and fearlessly speak for -- the world around you, in the Adirondacks and beyond.  The faster you go, the less you see.  Enjoy a good beer, and skinny dip whenever possible!”

In addition to his ex-wife, the other great love of Gary’s life was the Adirondack painter and illustrator Anne E. Lacey (Trevor), who passed away in 2002. 

Randorf was a graduate of Cornell University, where he first earned a degree in Agricultural Science, later returning to earn a masters in Environmental Studies. He was the son of Albert and Alice Randorf of Rochester, both deceased. He was the brother of Jack Randorf of Aurora, also deceased.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Gary’s name can be made to the Adirondack Council by phone at 518.873.2240, by mail at Adirondack Council, PO Box D-2, Elizabethtown, NY 12932 or online at

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