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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.  Seven members were just nominated by Governor Cuomo and confirmed to sit at the APA’s table by the State Senate.  How should we think about them? How should we think about them in light of Governor Cuomo’s challenge to reimagine and improve public policies and practices – to “build back better”?

The APA’s legislated charter is to protect the Park’s natural resources considering economic and local government concerns.  APA’s board is comprised of eight citizens and three State agencies, “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 DEC’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 fighting acid rain, caring for biological diversity, as well as wilderness advocates and managers, forestry practitioners, Forest Preserve authors, outdoor (and indoor) teachers, land use lawyers, regional planners, sportsmen and sportswomen, 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 even in 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 that she was gravely concerned about the person that would replace her:

“Please continue to appoint members to the Agency on the basis of their qualifications.  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 Governor Andrew Cuomo’s terms, Mary Prime’s warning has become reality at APA.  Governor Cuomo is content with a symbolic environmental vote – one, maybe two APA members who remind their colleagues and staff why they are there, regularly display a keen environmental planning interest, and 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 things down. For those that work under him, 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 time deadlines 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 virtual meeting of the agency, member Chad Dawson appealed to his colleagues not to rush approval of this corridor plan running through the heart of the Park. While the final plan was an improvement over earlier drafts, another few months of effort could further improve the plan’s vision and anticipation of actual and projected future uses and regional effects, both positive and negative, on the eleven adjacent units of Forest Preserve and on the human communities through which it runs. Dawson asked for specific improvements in the planning to better envision future conditions. 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 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 master plan as a “narrow job” is a rather good demonstration of a problem.

Over the course of the past year, the Governor rejected many names of people ready and willing to serve on the APA, including independent environmental attorneys familiar with the APA Act and 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 in a collegial way – as member Chad Dawson has shown these past four years. Up ahead, who will actually vote with member Dawson? Come to think of it, why wasn’t member Dawson re-nominated for four more years by the Governor (his term ends June 30)? Is member Dawson asking too many critical questions and casting too many principled votes against the team to receive another term?

And, who will now chair the APA? After not receiving the support she felt she needed and deserved from the executive and after standing up to the DEC on several policy matters, Karen Feldman left her post as chair in 2019. 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 will find out if more than two votes can be mustered to uphold the integrity and independence of the APA. Up ahead for the new members of the APA are decisions on matters Adirondack Wild is closely following, including a proposed 37-lot subdivision of Woodward Lake and more than 1000 acres of upland forest near Northville, a requested reclassification of 105 acres from Rural Use to Moderate Intensity Use near Lake Luzerne, and DEC’s insistence to amend a unit management plan to authorize construction of a 4-mile long snowmobile community connector route 500 feet inside the Blue Ridge Wilderness.

Then, there are dozens of smaller permits, subdivision and variance requests, and DEC plans to be reviewed.

Stay tuned.

By Dave Gibson, Managing Partner Adirondack Wild