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Without attempting to gloss over the economic problems that face the Adirondacks, it would appear that some are self-inflicted. A certain percentage of the work force has apparently become culturally conditioned to taking the winter off. These people work just enough, 20 weeks, to go on unemployment. Living off taxpayers isn't confined to urban areas; it's a way of life in the boondocks, too. Cottage industries might offer the solution, or at least a partial solution, to unemployment, but not in the experience of Francis Betters, proprietor of the Adirondack Sport Shop in Wilmington and an authority on Adirondack trout fishing. Betters, who ties some 20,000 flies a year himself, says, "I could sell as many flies as I could get up to my quality. But you just can't get people to hang in there and work, and I don't want the hassles."
Lake Placid itself is a federally designated depressed area, and local boosters sought the Winter Games to rev up business, not just during the Olympics but afterward as well. When Lake Placid had the Winter Games back in 1932, they were a bust economically. Now the town is trying again, only this time the Winter Games have become a world spectacle, and there is no doubt that the glut of athletes, officials, media and visitors (up to 50,000 a day) will put Lake Placid and the Adirondacks on center stage.
"Inevitably, at some point in the Olympic coverage, the camera's eye will lift from the competition to the surroundings," Bernard R. Carman, editor of the magazine Adirondack Life, wrote last summer. "Perhaps it will sweep from a vantage point atop the 90-meter ski jump down the Ausable Valley to craggy, cloud-topped Whiteface, brooding above the wild landscape like some miniature Kanchenjunga. Or perhaps it will turn from the speed-skating oval to catch Algonquin's wrinkled bulk lit by the winter sun, with Marcy's matchless cone glistening on the far horizon. At that moment millions of people, aware of the Adirondacks only dimly or not at all, will discover that here in the midst of the crowded Northeast lies an area of stupendous, stupefying beauty. In that discovery may lie Lake Placid's most important opportunity."
After taking note of the "visual slum of singular ugliness" and the "jungle of motel and restaurant signs" that lead into Lake Placid from east and west, Carman continued, "To make the most of that opportunity, the community would have to take an objective look at itself—at the way it has dealt with its environment and at the way in which it treats visitors, as well as its current press image as a bunch of greedy entrepreneurs making out like bandits.
"There is, alas, little sign that Lake Placid will do any of that. The inquiring reporter of the Lake Placid News, posing the question to a random sample of residents, was unable to find anyone who would oppose casino gambling in Lake Placid if the state should legalize it. After years of trying to be Atlantic City without saltwater taffy, Lake Placid has a chance to acquire a new and more valuable glamour through the Olympics. But the available evidence suggests that a good many local residents are already prepared to settle for being Atlantic City with scenery."
In this age of global pollution, a forever wild clause in a state constitution does not protect a region from contaminants in the atmosphere. In the last decade, acid precipitation has affected, for the worse, most of the northeastern U.S., and the Adirondack Mountains have suffered alarmingly. Acid precipitation in the Adirondacks comes from as far away as the Midwest and Canada, and it has its origins in sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted by the combustion of petroleum products and coal in power plants, smelters, steel mills, factories and automobiles. These highly acid gases combine with water molecules in the atmosphere, where they remain until returned to earth as constituents of rain, snow or sleet.
The degree of acidity is measured by readings on the pH scale, which runs from zero to 14. Seven is neutral, the numbers above increasingly alkaline, the numbers below increasingly acidic. The pH scale is logarithmic, so that pH 5 is 10 times more acidic than six, and pH four is 100 times more acidic than six. The Adirondacks have received rain and snow with a pH of 3.5. Because of the kinds of rocks and vegetation in the region, the soils are naturally slightly acidic, and thus when it rains near vinegar, the potential for corrosive disaster is very real.
A top Whiteface, Ray Falconer can see the acid-laden clouds move in from the west. His observatory is one of the major field stations in the country measuring acid precipitation, and tests show that rain that originates high in the atmosphere over the mountains increases in acidity as it falls through the layers of other acid clouds below.
Last July the Adirondack Park Agency expressed its concern to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about proposals to allow exceptions to air-quality standards for utilities and industries in Ohio, the source of much of the pollutants causing acid precipitation in the Adirondacks. The APA also forwarded a report on acid precipitation prepared by one of its own commissioners, Dr. Anne LaBastille, an ecologist who lives in the park. In her report Dr. LaBastille noted that almost 200 lakes at higher elevations in the western Adirondacks had lost their fish life because of acid precipitation and that the park had suffered a $1.5 million decline in tourist revenues as a result. "Most fish, especially eggs and fingerlings, succumb to acid precipitation in the early spring when the thaw carries accumulated acids from winter snows into water bodies," Dr. LaBastille reported. "These affect the fishes' gill membranes and respiration. Adult females may experience lowered calcium serum levels during reproduction, which decreases fertility and alters spawning behavior."
Acid precipitation has also caused a decline in frog, salamander, loon and otter populations. Furthermore, acid precipitation may be lowering the resistance of trees to disease and blight, and browsing animals could be affected. Acid precipitation could also alter soil chemistry by inhibiting the functions of microorganisms in the first few centimeters of topsoil, resulting in slow rates of decomposition and a reduction in nitrogen fixation. Acid precipitation could cause the leaching of lead and copper in water supply pipes. In fact, one study showed unexpectedly high levels of copper and lead in Adirondack springwater unexposed to metal pipes. Finally, acid precipitation could adversely affect buildings and monuments. Among those already affected elsewhere in the world, Dr. LaBastille reported, were the Parthenon, the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal.