The protection and planning for the Adirondack Park’s six million acres, one-fifth of the state, rests in large measure on the motivation and independence of the Adirondack Park Agency’s staff and board members in Ray Brook (APA).
How should we think about them? How should we think about them in light of Governor Cuomo’s challenge to re-imagine and improve public policies and practices – to “build back better?”
The APA’s legislated charter is to protect the Adirondack Park’s natural resources considering economic and local government concerns. APA’s board is comprised of eight citizens and three State agency ex-officio designees, all nominated or appointed by the Governor. At one time, a majority of its members were mindful of their statewide responsibilities, committed to carrying out the letter and spirit of the APA Act and independently overseeing the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s compliance with the Adirondack State Land Master Plan. That does not imply I always agreed with their votes, but no one could question their commitments.
Many APA members have had interests and backgrounds well suited to this mission. Past members have had backgrounds such as fighting acid rain, or caring for biological diversity. They have been wilderness advocates and managers, forestry practitioners, Forest Preserve authors, outdoor (and indoor) teachers, land use lawyers, regional planners, sportsmen and sportswomen. And yes, town supervisors, businessmen and businesswomen.
That many APA members have had diverse backgrounds and life experiences is very important – so long as environmental and regional planning concerns were prominently represented. However, that began to change as early as the late 1970s. An original APA member from Lake Placid, Mary Prime, wrote to then-Governor Hugh Carey upon her retirement from the APA in 1977. She stated that she was gravely concerned about her replacement on the board:
“Please continue to appoint members to the Agency on the basis of their qualifications,” Mary Prime wrote. “If such appointments have political value for you and your administration, so much the better. But the statewide interest in the protection of the Adirondack Park must come first. Otherwise the Agency commission will degenerate into a policy making group of questionable competence and dubious commitment.”
During Andrew Cuomo’s terms as Governor, Mary Prime’s warning has become a reality at the APA.
Governor Cuomo is content with a symbolic environmental vote – one, maybe two, APA members who remind their colleagues why they are there, who display a keen environmental planning interest and who demonstrate the will to confront major policy issues, and cast difficult votes that may run counter to the majority. More than two critical voices around the APA table may make the Governor and his DEC uncomfortable, because these added voices might slow down the inevitable approvals.
Those that work under him say the Governor has a famously transactional, rather than deliberative, temperament and preference. While all APA members are fine people devoting much time to the agency, most are nominated to conform to Team Cuomo’s economic and recreational development priorities and urgency at the expense of natural resource protection. Since 2012 the result has been weakening of the State Land Master Plan and management standards for all state lands, including those classified Wilderness, issuance of hundreds of variances, and approval of large and smaller residential subdivisions without conservation design principles or standards.
The latest example of a lonely vote in search of high standards of review came in the case of the Remsen to Lake Placid Transportation Corridor Unit Management Plan. At the May meeting of the APA board, member Chad Dawson appealed to his colleagues not to rush approval of their plan for the historic railroad corridor running through the heart of the Adirondacks. While the final plan was an improvement over earlier drafts, a few more months of effort would have improved the plan’s vision. It could have better anticipated the actual and projected future uses of the route and its regional effects, good and bad, on the 11 adjacent units of ‘Forever Wild’ Forest Preserve, and on the human communities through which it runs. Dawson asked for specific improvements along these lines. His appeal was, no more and no less, for the APA to honor the requirements of the State Land Master Plan.
Other members applauded his critique and then voted to approve the plan as presented. The DEC representative’s reaction was typical. He stated that while he appreciated fellow board member Dawson’s comments, “we have a narrow job to do, and that is to determine compliance with the State Land Master Plan.” The job of evaluating whether unit plans comply with the guidelines of the Master Plan is hardly a narrow one. It requires background, training and understanding of the Master Plan and critical judgement in applying it. It also requires time. That the DEC representative views compliance with the State Land Master Plan as a “narrow job” is a rather good demonstration of a problem.
Over the course of the past year, Governor Cuomo rejected many names of people ready and willing to serve on the APA, including independent environmental attorneys familiar with the APA Act and Adirondack Park residents with experience in regional land use planning and ecological analysis of impacts.
Instead, this month’s nominations and confirmations to the APA follow a pattern. Joining the APA are two active town supervisors, one retired town supervisor and active economic development advocate, a hotel resort owner, and a former DEC executive. Also confirmed are one conservation-minded landowner and one respected environmental leader, the distinct minority. While all are fine, hard-working individuals, the majority background is in local government and economic development, not natural resources, environmental law, or planning.
Though I am not counting on it, I could be pleasantly surprised by any of these new members. One or more may possess and display independence from the Governor and the DEC as well as questioning minds, readiness for training in the laws and policies they are expected to implement, and courage to demand high standards in permit and plan drafts and policy debates in advance of important votes.
All of that critical thinking can be carried out collegially – as member Chad Dawson has shown these past four years. Looking ahead, who will vote with member Dawson? Come to think of it, why wasn’t Dawson re-nominated? His term ends in two weeks on June 30th. Is Dawson asking too many critical questions and casting too many principled votes against Team Cuomo to receive another term?
And who will chair the APA? After not receiving the support she felt she needed from Team Cuomo, and after standing up to the DEC on several policy matters, Karen Feldman left that post last year.
Since then, the Governor has relied upon an acting chair from the state’s economic development department, Brad Austin. He runs a good meeting, but should someone working for state economic development chair the Adirondack Park Agency?
Starting in July we’ll find out if more than two votes can be mustered to uphold the integrity and independence of the APA. Ahead are decisions I and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve are closely following: a proposed 37-lot subdivision at Woodward Lake near Northville; a requested reclassification of 105 acres from rural, to more intensive use near Lake Luzerne; and DEC’s insistence to amend a unit management plan to authorize construction of a modern four-mile long snowmobile community connector route in the Blue Ridge Wilderness.
There are also dozens of smaller permits, request for variances, and DEC plans to be reviewed.
Photo: APA’s building in the Adirondack Park at Ray Brook, Essex County, NY.