In the just-approved 2021-22 state budget is a $3 billion-dollar environmental bond act, subject to voter approval in November 2022. If approved, it may make a small dent in the $60+ billion needed statewide to upgrade our state’s old water and sewage treatment systems. If approved, it may help to do even more than we are doing today to prepare and make more resilient New Yorkers and their villages, towns, counties and cities for the more frequent and more severe weather events that will continue during a warming climate. And it may help to create more incentives to protect intact forests in private ownership to offset our carbon emissions.
If approved, maybe a tiny amount, relatively speaking, perhaps as little as a few hundreds of thousands of dollars from the $3 billion could go towards an independent evaluation of how well the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation are fulfilling their respective, but also overlapping missions.
This also being the 50th anniversary of the Adirondack Park Agency, the question should be asked: has there ever been an evaluation of the agency’s current and past performance visa vi its legislated responsibilities and jurisdiction? The answer is a qualified no.
Perhaps Gov. Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century performed something akin to a 20-year evaluation in 1989-90. Unfortunately, I can count on the fingers of my hands those who remember the Commission’s recommendations, or who can quickly access them and the technical reports which informed them. None of these documents are digitized. A few years ago, I posted in the Almanack about how many of the Commission’s recommendations have come to or close to reality. It is an impressive list of achievements, although most are not overtly linked to the Commission report. As valuable as they are, few policymakers these days have easy access to those reports.
As for the DEC, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, has there ever been an independent evaluation of its performance since 1970 and how well it has carried out its far more numerous legislated responsibilities, either in the Park or statewide? In the final year of Governor Mario Cuomo, 1994, at the invitation of the Governor and the Department the respected former DEC commissioner Henry Diamond agreed to chair an independent task force to re-examine DEC as that agency neared its 25th anniversary. Diamond’s task force held meetings open to the public. I attended them on behalf of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Diamond’s meetings were stimulating and raised a number of important issues for a future Governor and State Legislature to examine. Then, George Pataki was elected governor. At the start of 1995, the DEC task force and evaluation were abandoned. Whatever reports were in the pipeline never appeared. To my knowledge, nothing like it has ever been attempted again.
During the 2020-2021 pandemic we are being told to reimagine government and to “build back better.” A small portion of the $3 billion bond act, if approved by the voters, can help us do just that at APA and DEC. During intense discussion about better climate resilience, now seems to be a good time to evaluate both agencies and their Park performance.
Let me return to the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century 1990 report. In one of its more important insights, the Commission observed how, except for the APA, state agencies divide the Adirondack Park into several administrative regions, thus “assuring that the special needs of the Park will never be viewed as a whole and will be subordinated to the needs of more populous areas adjoining the Park.”
With respect to the DEC, it noted the two headquarters in Ray Brook and in Watertown and stated that “the best coordination imaginable cannot produce consistent management in such circumstances. Nor does the arrangement foster the principle that the natural resources of the Adirondacks are to be managed in a different way from those of the rest of the state.”
With respect to the DOT, the Commission noted that some highway design standards were specific to the Adirondack Park but that DOT “cannot effectively pursue” Park-specific design “from three different regional headquarters that also serve areas outside the Park.”
With respect to APA, the Commission summarized that:
“The Adirondack Park Agency was superimposed on this bewildering government structure in 1971 to manage, with local government help, the issue of land use, both public and private. As the expected mutual cooperation between state agencies and local governments did not materialize to any great degree, the members of the agency have had to play the role of local zoning board as well as set broader Park policy. This task has consumed a disproportionate amount of the understaffed agency’s time and they can give little attention to enforcing permit conditions or to planning for the future…. the Commission discovered that only about one-fifth of observed development activities had come before the APA for permits, so broad are the exemptions for pre-1973 subdivision and unexercised local review. Indeed, the rules about what development is subject to review are so arcane that the agency’s staff spends as much time in determining that question as in evaluating the applications.”
Considering a fractured Adirondack Park state administration, one of the Commission’s most important recommendations was to reorganize the agencies. It recommended that DEC abandon Regions 5 and 6 and reorganize into one “Adirondack Park Service led by a park superintendent and with a cadre of forest rangers and park naturalists.” The DEC Park Superintendent should be “selected by the DEC commissioner subject to gubernatorial confirmation.” The Park Service “should be created within DEC for the management of the public lands,” aka, the Forest Preserve. The Adirondack Park Service “should consist of all DEC employees who serve in the Park. Its jurisdictional boundary should conform to the Blue Line boundary of the Park. In addition, the Adirondack Park Service would be responsible for Park-wide enforcement of environmental laws and environmental quality programs.”
Meanwhile, the Commission recommended that APA be reorganized as the Adirondack Park Administration “to assume overall responsibility for planning the uses of both private and public land, land use regulation, and certain environmental permitting currently carried out by APA, DEC and the Department of Health.” The new Adirondack Park Administration “should include a planning and technical assistance unit, a regulatory unit, an administrative law judge unit and an enforcement unit.” All public and private subdivision, construction and changes in use would be subject to the Administration’s jurisdiction, said the Commission.
For smaller development projects, the Commission recommended that counties become far more empowered and funded to help towns and villages develop local land use and zoning plans. Local and County technical assistance and planning training would be robustly funded by New York State.
There was and still is plenty to criticize in the 1990 Commission report and in its recommendations. As I have written before, its advisory panel of local and regional experts was underutilized. Its one-year of existence was far too limiting to really think through and gain meaningful input necessary to amend some of its less practical and more cumbersome proposals. The report’s marketing and public relations during a time of property right protests appeared as mere afterthoughts. Governor Mario Cuomo’s overall support for the Commission was tepid, at best.
That all being said, the Commission’s vision for Park reorganization remains as important today, maybe more so than in 1990 as we all seek to become more resilient to climate change and “to build back better.” Not that the Park reorganization plan recommended in 1990 is perfect as written. It is not. Updating and a lot of practical considerations would come into play in the era we currently live in. It is the Commission’s larger vision and point to keep in mind: that the Adirondack Park should not endure and cannot thrive with a permanently fractured state administration, constantly changing set of priorities, wholly inadequate budgets (APA has planning responsibilities for one-fifth of the acreage of New York State and remains the smallest agency in state government) and ever changing, often acting state directors in Ray Brook and Watertown who wait for direction from Albany and who have no incentive to stick their necks out.
One result of this fractured administration in the Park is the failure to plan, to detect Park-wide trends and accumulating impacts and to robustly evaluate alternative courses of action. These deficiencies are evident, for example, in the recent 34-lot Woodward Lake subdivision permit, the variance issued for expanding the Lower Saranac Lake marina, the proposed Debar Lodge Intensive Use Area, and the persistent, inherent planning conflicts within the so-called Comprehensive Parkwide Snowmobile Plan. They are also evident in the inconsistent and uncoordinated ways the two agencies address and plan for the altered climate and precipitation within the Park.
Emerging from the pandemic with a modest level of funding and fresh perspective gained during the ongoing planning for Climate Leadership and Community Protection, now seems a good time to launch a fresh evaluation of the APA’s and DEC’s effectiveness in fulfilling their missions within the Adirondack Park.
Adirondack Wild conducted its own evaluations and issued Adirondack Park at a Crossroad: A Road Map for Action. Those are our recommendations and our viewpoints as a nonprofit Park advocate. There is need for an independent, public examination. There are probably many former commissioners or members of both agencies, as well as outside experts and regional players eager to volunteer their time. If Governor Andrew Cuomo will not permit an independent or quasi-independent evaluation, the State Legislature ought to demand it and should hold public hearings to examine the question and allow the public to weigh in.
By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild