Current IssuesGovernor Nelson Rockefeller signing the APA Act, 1973,

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

APA Act at 50 – Interdependence, not Balance

Well, it’s happened again. Another state budget is proposed by the Executive wherein the Adirondack Park Agency’s job is mischaracterized by this Governor’s (and former governors’) budget divisions as working “to achieve a balance between strong environmental protection and sustainable economic development opportunities for the residents of the Adirondack Park” (2023 Executive Budget Briefing Book).

Balance is important to strive for in our individual lives. However, nothing in the Adirondack Park Agency law, now reaching 50 years in May, calls for “a balance between strong environmental protection and sustainable economic development.” That is a construct and interpretation that has been superimposed upon the law, most especially since Governor Andrew Cuomo began his first term in 2011, as in this example from that year: “The APA Act is a balance of the adverse resource impacts of the project with its potential benefits” (APA staff during the Adirondack Club and Resort public hearing). Many have stated similar “balancing” objectives since then.

The unstated assumption behind such a statement seems to be that natural resource protection and economic development are on a seesaw, oppositional in purpose and competing in nature, and therefore requiring a state referee to provide necessary balance. That is not what the APA Act is about.

It’s been fifty years since the APA Act, the nationally groundbreaking Private Land Use and Development Plan, was enacted in the spring of 1973 and still those in charge of the Agency, from the governor’s office to the APA use words which suggest that natural communities and human communities here in the Park and by extension anywhere else in our world have independent, unlinked, competing trajectories and trend lines requiring some wise ones to balance them on a scale, and make sure that one does not overtop the other.

Even during these times of dramatic climate alteration, we still have difficulty expressing the basic truth that humans are inextricably part of the natural world and that we are “dependent members of an interdependent community which gains its energy from the sun” (to quote Howard Zahniser, author and chief lobbyist, the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964).

The assumption of competing environmental and economic goals is deeply flawed here and around the globe. Our groundbreaking Climate Act of 2019 and the ice-in, ice-out schedules from Lake Champlain to Moose Pond tell us that the very foundation of economic health and our life support systems in Adirondack Park and beyond the Park are tied to our environmental health. The APA knows this and should be teachers of this truth to the rest of the state – and the rest of the United States. Stop talking oppositional balance , Governors, APA, and start talking again about our interdependence with and upon the natural world.

One would wish that those writing the APA Act in 1973 were again around the table to say this explicitly, but they were definitely not thinking that the environment was in opposition to the economy of the Park. Far from it. An original APA member serving from 1971-1977, Lake Placid’s Mary Prime, wrote this to then Governor Hugh Carey: “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.” Courts have upheld Mary Prime and the Act, one of which stated that “the APA…is not charged with such a balancing of goals and concerns but, rather, is required to ensure that certain projects…would not have an undue adverse impact” upon the resources of the Park (Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks et. al. v. Town of Tupper Lake, AD 3d, 2009).

There are three references in the Act’s first Section, 801, about the legislation’s purpose of preserving natural resources or open space character. There is only one use of the word “balanced” in the statement of legislative findings and purposes, and that refers to the “sensible apportionment” of land in the Land Use map given over to human community needs and to the Park’s open space character. In contrast to “balanced,” the word “interdependence” is used. “Complementarity” is also used. Both words, interdependence and complementarity between and among human and natural communities, are entirely the right way to view APA’s 50 year mission and purpose. Moreover, in contrast with the Governor’s budget briefing book, the Act is not solely and exclusively “for the residents” of the Park but also intended to serve the interests of everybody in the state.

Here is Section 801 of the Act, unchanged since 1973. Read it again.

“The basic purpose of this article is to ensure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park.”

“ A further purpose is to focus the responsibility for developing long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide concern This policy shall recognize the major state interest in the conservation, use and development of the park’s resources and the preservation of its open space character, and at the same time, provide a continuing role for local government.”

The Act goes on this way:

“The Adirondack park land use and development plan recognizes the complementary needs of all the people of the state for the preservation of the park’s resources and open space character and of the park’s permanent , seasonal and transient populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong economic base, as well. In support of the essential interdependence of these needs, the plan represents a sensibly balanced apportionment of land to each. Adoption of the land use and development plan and authorization for its administration and enforcement will complement and assist in the administration of the Adirondack park master plan for the management of state land. Together, they are essential to the achievement of the policies and purposes of this article and will benefit all of the people of the state.”

On this 50th anniversary of the APA Act, I would add these bullet points to the current list of what the APA is not (see “what the APA is not” in the APA’s Citizen Guide at the agency website):

  • “The APA does not balance the environmental and economic health of the Park. Instead, it strives to strengthen the foundation of economically healthy communities tied closely to mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, wetlands and their wildlife habitats. These are all interdependent here in the Adirondack Park where the health of the natural environment plays such a crucial, inextricably linked role in the region’s economies.”
  • “The APA Act is not solely to benefit the residents of the Park or its visitors but is designed and written to also serve all of the people of the state.”

Gov Nelson Rockefeller signing the APA Act, 1973, photo by Paul Schaefer