Monday, February 14, 2011

A Land Purchase Guest Essay:Paradox, Irony and Hypocrisy in Adirondack Politics

What follows is a guest essay from Minerva carpenter Duane Ricketson, an original appointee to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Region 5 Open Space Advisory Committee in 1990 and one of the longest serving state appointees. He’s an Adirondack native whose family arrived in the region in the 1790s and who enjoys fishing, hunting, hiking and camping. Ricketson supported and worked with local leaders on the Region 5 Open Space Advisory Committee to get local governments and Adirondackers enfranchised in the process of open space protection, especially the local government veto, which he now sees as being usurped by the Local Government Review Board.

On the surface, the recent drive by Adirondack politicians and local media to stop the State from purchasing the former Finch-Pruyn lands from the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy is simply a continuation of the storied battle between Adirondackers and the State of New York over buying land in the Adirondack Park. This time it opens a brand new chapter, however, because the actions of local governments are now being called into question by The Local Government Review Board.

Some background: In 1990 the Legislature required that the State develop an open space plan that included input by local political representatives and interested citizens. Committees were formed and started to meet based on DEC Regions. Each county legislature in the DEC Region appointed a member and DEC and the NYS Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) appointed a like number plus one.

Justly upset about the historical disenfranchisement of Adirondack citizens from the process of State land acquisition for the Forest Preserve, the local government representatives on the Region 5 Open Space Advisory Committee made good use of this opportunity to have their concerns heard. After a very contentious beginning the environmentalists and local government representatives got down to the work at hand and authored many of the important policies and guidelines that were incorporated into the original State Open Space Conservation Plan. The two sides even agreed to do committee work by consensus.

Time and time again local government representatives stressed the importance of local governments having a say about the addition of land to the Forest Preserve in their township. “The locals know best about the land in question and the impact on the town if bought by the State” was a common theme at the meetings. Local citizens needed to have a say in the matter.

The committee invited all Region 5 local governments to form their own open space committees and report back to the committee. Many did and most of those came back with open space projects their communities would like to accomplish. A small number said they were fine just the way they were, including the conclusion that the State already owned enough land in their town. All were good faith efforts at the grassroots level.

In 1993 the State Legislature was putting together the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) that included a dedicated funding source for environmental projects including land acquisition. Adirondack politicians strongly supported a clause that gave local governments a 90 day window to veto the sale of land within their township to the State using EPF money. Without that provision Senator Ronald Stafford had enough political capital to kill the legislation. Faced with this reality, though some feared Adirondackers would veto many or most projects, many environmentalists reluctantly supported the bill as is.

The EPF passed in 1993 and along with the new State Open Space Conservation Plan that was influenced by the work of the Region 5 Open Space Advisory Committee, a process was in place for open space protection. DEC and OPRHP have rating systems that use various criteria to measure the benefits of a project for environmental reasons and for the public good, especially public access and recreation. If it scores high enough the project goes to the local government for their 90 day veto assessment. As envisioned by local government officials, this is a key part of the process. Transparency and public input on the pros and cons of the project would guide the decision by the local government on whether to veto it or let it go forward. The forum was left up to the local officials. The seller and buyer can present the project and be questioned. All aspects of the proposed project can be addressed and debated.

The bottom line is, since 1993 every fee acquisition or conservation easement acquired by the State in DEC Region 5 (except one discussed later) has been given consent by the local government. Yet paradoxically among Adirondackers the perception that DEC buys whatever it wants against our wishes is still widely held. In fact DEC turns down numerous offers of sale because the lands do not meet their rating criteria. They even turn down many offers of gifts of land for the same reason. Also the vast majority of land protected since 1993 has been by conservation easement, thereby preserving timber production and most
of the hunting camps involved.

So why have Adirondackers approved additions to the Forest Preserve and many conservation easements? The answer lies at the local grassroots level.

All the pros and cons of a project were analyzed, including public access and recreation, impact on town expansion and effect on taxes, important ecological features, gravel mining, hunting camps, aesthetics, fee title versus conservation easements, preserving timber production, jobs, relationships with the seller and many other valid criteria were in the mix. In the end the local governments were satisfied and they approved. Maybe a part of it is that our culture is largely defined by open space and when we have a chance to preserve this part of our culture we lean towards doing it. Especially when we are then able to hunt, fish, snowmobile, hike, boat and camp on it. Look at our support for our fire towers. I think matters of the heart and our love of the land and our landscape are part of it, as it should be. So you would think this grassroots process, as envisioned and championed by Adirondack leaders in the early 90’s has been a success. But then again…

It turns out the Adirondack leaders in The Local Government Review Board have decided that the process has not been successful and have authored a Resolution to kill the Finch Paper lands deal. Ironically by some of the same officials who fought for local open space control and whose own towns approved the deal. It also turns out the present deal will see some Review Board members eventually lose their hunting clubs because the clubs refused an offer to move to new locations on conservation easement lands. The private hunting clubs are fighting to change the deal so they can continue to exist. They want the deal changed from fee purchase to conservation easements which would allow them to stay. Lo and behold the Review Board’s resolution would also allow for this and their officials have signaled this would be OK with them.

Their main stated argument is that the State cannot afford the project at this time. I understand and agree with the concerns over the dire economic problems the State is having. But if it really was about budget concerns then the logical resolution to Albany would be that the State cannot afford to spend money for any open space protection at this time and call for a Statewide spending moratorium until there are better economic times and then let the deal go forward.

But it is only a request to stop the fee title purchase of this specific project from the Nature Conservancy that was approved by 26 local governments Their resolution would not stop the State from spending the budgeted money in the EPF on other open space projects around the State. Besides the EPF is funded from a non tax source. In fact in recent years so much money from this non tax dedicated funding source has been cut from and then redirected from the EPF to the States general fund that one could easily argue that in reality funds from the EPF are being used to pay for the property taxes that the State owes to local governments in the Adirondacks. Lets face it their Resolution does not and will not save tax payers money and they know it.

As mentioned above they are leaving open the option for conservation easements which could allow for the hunting clubs survival. Did I mention that easements can cost up to around 70% of a fee title and the taxes owed. Maybe not much of a bargain for the public when you consider that what is being proposed by these clubs would restrict or even outright ban a lot of public access and types of recreation like hunting and fishing. Especially because we are talking about areas that offer the best recreational value for the public. In essence they are looking for public money to save and then exclude the public from private hunting club lands. This type of thing used to upset Adirondackers years ago. Yet today it looks like Adirondack officials are involved in an opportunistic and cynical use of the economic crisis to try and game the system to benefit the few at the expense of the many. To tweek an old adage, if it looks like a skunk it probably smells like a skunk.

What I find most astonishing is that while we are debating the pitifully weak or non-existent case that this land deal will have dire consequences for New York taxpayers or the obvious conflicts of interest, we are missing the proverbial elephant in the room.

When you get past all of that you get to the most problematic and radical assertion by The Local Government Review Board. They are telling 26 local governments that they all got it wrong when they supported this land deal and they are out to negate your decision. The Review Board can no longer trust local governments to assess and decide on open space projects by themselves. One would have to be totally naïve to think that this is not implied.

Their resolution opposing the fee purchase of the Finch lands was written so broadly that if taken as gospel and used as open space project criteria it would be just about impossible for any community in the whole State to justify any fee acquisition, let alone if it was for the Forest Preserve. Why all the “whereas” if they just wanted to say the State couldn’t afford to purchase the lands at this time?

So we seem to have come to a kind of full circle in 20 years of open space protection. We started with a top down approach where the State bought what they thought was best. Through the State Open Space Conservation Plan and the EPF we went to a bottom up grassroots approach where the local communities got to have a say on how a project moves forward or if at all. It looks like we are now witnessing the emergence of another attempt for a top down approach.

With The Local Government Review Board’s effort to squash an open space project that was approved by 26 local communities one has to wonder about their coercive effect on the independence of communities in the future when it comes to open space projects? Already the Board has persuaded other officials to follow lockstep and support their quest. The Review Board Resolution can be seen as an attempt to lay down a set of criteria to be followed by local governments when deciding the fate of future open space projects. Maybe they should be re-named The Adirondack Local Government Preview Board. Local governments would let the Preview Board vet their decision first because if they got it wrong according to the Boards particular open space ideology then the Board would throw it’s weight around in Albany and try to have your decision reversed. There is a more perverse prospect. All open space projects are brought before the Region 5 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee. There is a presentation and questions. The most important question always asked is whether or not it has the support of the local government. In the future will we be asking if it has the support of The Local Government Review Board?

I guess maybe the days are gone when local government officials talked about the individuality of their communities. Their different needs, economies, perspectives and outlooks. How some have a lot of State land and others have very little and a lot are somewhere in between. How locals know their communities best and how the best decision is at that grassroots level and others should butt out. Home rule was the principal. Today the message from The Adirondack Local Government Review Board is, especially to the Adirondackers who supported the Finch Paper Land deal with the Nature Conservancy, that you don’t know what is best for you and they had to step in to cancel your decision for your own good.

Is this hyperbole? It’s to early to tell but this is indeed a new attempt at gaining influential political power and I hope Adirondackers will seriously consider what is at stake. What saddens me is that I know and like and respect some of the officials involved. I supported and worked with them on the Region 5 Open Space Advisory Committee to get local governments and Adirondackers enfranchised in the process of open space protection, especially the local government veto. I just feel the way this whole situation has unfolded and as more information comes out and is analyzed it just looks and smells bad. I don’t believe this type of intervention is what was envisioned or desired when the open space process was formed. Could this be the beginning of the demise of local government’s independence in deciding open space projects?

As I mentioned above there was one instance when the State bought an open space project in early 2007 over the veto by local government in Region 5. Up until then the State had honored the vetoes they received and ended those proposed projects. This one involved the International Paper lands and like the Finch Paper lands involved multiple parcels over a number of towns and counties. A couple of towns vetoed their sections of this larger project. All the other towns let the project move forward. Albany got around the veto by purchasing those sections with funds from another source, not from the EPF which has the veto clause.

Of course this was viewed as a betrayal by the State. Local government officials were right to be upset and strongly condemned the move. I also believed it was the wrong thing to do and said so. The trust that had built up since 1993 was broken. Isn’t it ironic then that today Adirondack officials are now trying to break a deal entered into voluntary and transparently by 26 towns with the DEC and the Nature Conservancy? I had hoped we as Adirondackers would be better than that. Trust is after all a two way street.

Finally some thoughts on the hunting club issue. As a hunter I understand and appreciate the potential loss of one’s club. I don’t belong to one but when get together with my friends to hunt we always have a good time and they are more often than not very memorable. The camaraderie, the strategizing and getting to know and understand your hunting grounds are great and valued experiences. The fresh tenderloins, heart and liver of the venison nature is also great. But hunting club leases, as far as I know, are all written with a clause that allows the landowner to terminate the lease at any time and without an explanation. Leased hunting camps exist at the whim of the owner and all lessee’s know this. This doesn’t make the loss of a hunting camp any easier but the potential of that happening is always lurking. Lets face it, lessee’s should be mindful about pissing off the landlord.

As we all know corporations are always looking out for their bottom line. That was the case when Champion, Domtar, International Paper (IP) and Finch Paper decided the best thing economically for them was to divest most if not all of their landholdings in the Adirondack region one way or another. Fee or easement or both. To make a long story short, these corporations turned to the State and went through the process required for open space conservation. The vast majority of land ended up with conservation easements that allowed forestry to continue and most hunting clubs to survive along with all types of new access and recreational opportunities for the public. But not all hunting clubs survived as some of these lands went into the Forest Preserve.

When the local government veto was bypassed in the above IP land project it was assumed it was done because Gov. Pataki wanted to reach his goal of protecting one million acres statewide. But there is another possibility. Because negotiations are rightly private between DEC and the seller it is hard to know for sure, but some people believe that IP simply wanted the deal to include all the properties. They didn’t want to cut out the sections vetoed by the local overnments. This hypothesis may or may not be true. But what if a large landowner did decide to back out of the whole deal because of a local veto or two?. What then? What happens to the hunting clubs if the lands are then sold to new owners who do not want any hunting clubs or fewer clubs? What if some or all the land is eventually subdivided and developed? What about the hunting clubs then?

A way of life may be lost to a few regarding the demise of some hunting clubs when open space land deals are done and this is regrettable. But it is more likely than not that if it wasn’t for the State and the Nature Conservancy stepping in to buy conservation easements when these large landowners wanted to divest we surely would have lost a lot more hunting clubs over a period of time than we are going to lose now. And what do we make of hunting clubs who are losing their leases yet refuse the offer to move to new lands so they can continue? A way of life also includes human bonding and camaraderie. That also makes a hunting club special. So one can assume that the specific lands these clubs occupy are so special that they are willing to risk the dissolution of their clubs and their camaraderie instead of moving. That alone makes the case that The Nature Conservancy, DEC and the local governments got it right.

When the opportunity comes along to protect and provide public access and recreational use of outstanding natural resources and we step up to the challenge and do it , I thank you and our future generations will thank you. As a sportsman and Adirondacker, I don’t agree with everything the State does or organizations like the Nature Conservancy do, but I can at least acknowledge and applaud the good they have done. At the same time I acknowledge and feel the pain of those who may be losing a cherished way of life. I understand the impulse to fight against those changes. But the means should justify the ends.


Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.




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