Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dave Gibson: The APA Says Science Can Wait

Adirondack_Park_Agency_in_Ray_Brook_NYIt’s happened again. The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has eliminated a permit condition for advance studies to assure no harm comes to sensitive wildlife from new development on four mountain summits.

The entire project – a new Emergency Communication system for Essex County – could have still gone forward and been completed by next winter according to New York State Police – even with the permit condition in place. It’s remarkable how little pressure is required to cause APA to abandon its statutory purpose to protect delicate biological and physical resources of the Adirondack Park.

Readers will recall how the Adirondack Park Agency re-drafted its permit order for the Adirondack Club and Resort to cover up its failure to require the applicant to undertake and complete a comprehensive biological inventory. In its October, 2011 draft order APA staff wrote that “a comprehensive biological inventory of the site was not conducted.” Therefore, staff concluded, it was impossible to reach findings concerning possible undue adverse impacts to wildlife and wildlife habitats. That statement and conclusion was completely faithful to the actual hearing testimony and hearing record upon which the Agency must make its determination. By January, 2012, Agency executive staff expunged that paragraph, replacing it with: “site investigations to evaluate wildlife and habitat followed standard guidelines and procedures.”

Further, in spite of plenty of expert testimony presented by Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve during the ACR hearing that after-the-fact biological studies of amphibian populations would fail to substantially alter the permit and the location of subdivision housing, and would not be subject to the same level of scrutiny and public vetting as pre-permit studies, APA went ahead and issued ACR a permit conditioned upon after-the-fact biological surveys of amphibian populations. Regardless of what those surveys turned up, the permit stated that only immaterial changes to the ACR subdivision design could be authorized.

By way of more background, APA had repeatedly asked the ACR applicants to perform comprehensive biological surveys in 2005-2006, but gave up in frustration and declared the permit application complete in Dec. 2006. No pre-hearing and pre-permit biological surveys were ever conducted.

This month APA staff, under pressure from local government and without any public discussion among Agency members, eliminated a permit condition for studies of Bicknell’s thrush before construction was permitted on top of four mountain summits during the bird’s nesting season of mid-May through July.

In granting a permit for the Essex County emergency radio communications system at the end of 2012, APA authorized a permit condition that might postpone mountaintop activity to install the new whip antennae and other equipment for a few months. Unless the county could demonstrate through biological studies that such construction activity would not disturb nesting Bicknell’s thrush – a species that may well end up on the federal endangered species list by year’s end – the APA limited the start of construction on Little Whiteface, Blue Mountain, Gore Mountain and Mt. Morris, where the species is known or suspected to occur, until August 1. APA wrote in the permit that use of heavy machinery, pneumatic tools, air compressors and gas-powered generators during those months might further endanger a shrinking number of Bicknell’s thrush. That precaution was seconded by ornithologists intensively studying the bird. The condition would still permit construction on these summits to go on throughout August and September and, if the weather cooperated, well into the fall season.

These four summits all have pre-existing communication equipment to which new microwave dishes, or antennae would be placed, and non-essential equipment removed. The permit was issued in December, 2012 and neither Essex County nor the general public commented in the negative. While all parties supported the goal of modernizing the emergency communication system, APA staff took care to ensure that the location of the new antennas and other equipment complied with APA’s Towers Policy. That policy states that any new towers should be substantially invisible from travel corridors and other viewing points, and should be located near roads and power lines, preferably co-located on existing equipment.

The APA’s staff concern for Bicknell’s thrush was limited to the four summits with thrush habitat. Seven of the mountains or hills involved in the construction of the new emergency communications system lack this habitat and would not be affected at all by the May-August limitations. So, the Emergency Communications System permits were issued in December with the support of the Essex County Emergency Services staff and the New York State Police, the two applicants. In the meeting minutes, there is no record of objections to the permit condition calling for the precautionary measures to protect Bicknell’s thrush.

Months later, the grumbling began in Essex County that APA cared more about birds and insects than human safety, and local leaders went to Governor Cuomo.

Without even waiting for the next public meeting of the Agency, executive staff has now eliminated the permit requirement for advance studies of the bird. Now, the permit states that all construction can go forward on all the mountains beginning May 1 while the bird and its habitats are being studied. Staff is quoted in the media to say that if evidence shows that the thrush is being disturbed by the new construction, the agency might shut down the project at those sites. No criteria or thresholds for reaching such a decision are given. Such statements sound about as consequential as those after-the-fact salamander studies in Tupper Lake.

The Agency’s staff actions this month should disturb every New Yorker and should be questioned and reversed by Agency members because, once again, the APA has made its primary, statutory mission to protect the Park’s natural resources a secondary consideration to pleasing political leaders – and done so in between public meetings of the Agency. A new emergency communication system for Essex County could have been installed by next winter knowing that Bicknell’s thrush had not been unnecessarily harmed by the activity. Talk about win: win scenarios. Yet, the Agency caved in to the cheap, easy insult from local government. When it comes to the ecological sciences to guide when and where new development should be sited, and where adverse impacts should be avoided, in other words when it comes to its legislative mandate to protect natural resources this APA talks a good game. But when the right pressure point is pushed to accuse the agency of not being “open for business,” it seems the talk is all you get. So much for “letting science guide the decision,” a popular but all too often meaningless phrase in Ray Brook and in Albany.

The permit reversal is even more objectionable because APA knows how much effort is being expended to study and protect the Bicknell’s thrush in its limited North American breeding range in the Adirondacks, Green Mountains and Catskills, and in its highly limited and degraded Caribbean overwintering range on the Dominican Republic. Just last fall, an alliance of North American scientists and conservationists took the unusual step of funding a team of Dominican biologists to work in the migratory songbird’s Caribbean wintering habitat. That work was announced in Lake Placid and was awarded a grant from the Adirondack Community Trust.

 

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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13 Responses

  1. dave says:

    Thanks for this info.

    Disappointing…

    And another example that the real fight here is not about changing the standards and regulations that govern the APA and the Adirondacks… the real fight is about getting people, including the APA, to abide by the ones already in place.

    I feel like this also speaks to the dangers of “compromise” when it comes to issues involving science, a problem I first raised in relation to the Adirondack Futures project. I’m sure that to a group of administrators and politicians sitting in a room… absent an understanding of the scientific issues… the compromise of allowing construction simultaneously with the scientific study seemed like a reasonable win-win compromise to them.

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    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Well said Dave.

      JW

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      • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

        Really, John?

        If you are trumpeting the overriding correctness of science I can do you one better. Speaking as a mathematician and a professional educator in math and science I can state unequivocally that science has nothing to do with compromise. It has to do with hypotheses and evidence, these leading to facts about the world and theories that are true. In our society there are all sorts of endeavors that claim to be science but are not. Whether the search for truth, the quest for predictive theories of great explanatory power, is relentlessly uncompromising or not is often the give-away in distinguishing between science and garbage. Science must be entirely uncompromising by definition, or it is lost.

        Great. What in the world does accepting that fact have to do with negotiation and compromise in the larger world or in a search for political consensus? Is the above fact about science in and of itself some sort of repudiation of how we talk about things in a project like Adirondack Futures? It seems as if you and Dave are considering the correctness of science as some sort of righteous calling to fight and stand fast, to reject this wishy-washy “doublespeak” in the name of consensus, as you wrote in another comment today. That’s unfortunate.

        You may not agree with me about Adirondack Futures but that kind of thinking completely misses the point of everything I have been writing. Seeking consensus or compromise is a political matter. Regardless of any scientific facts or theories that apply to the park, EVERY decision about the Adirondacks has been political and has involved compromise. And it forever shall.

        Should scientists stand fast with their facts? Of course! Does that mean there is no compromise? Never. But how we proceed makes a difference. I made the point in my last column that when reflexive bickering and side-taking prevails the environmental movement loses. Here’s a corollary: when reflexive bickering and side taking prevails science loses too, precisely because then facts don’t matter.

        Do you or Dave think that result of this stupid argument over Bicknell’s Thrush came down against the thrush because those with the science didn’t stand and scream “we have the science on our side and we’re not budging?” Would you suppose that they didn’t defend the science?

        The problem with the thrush argument and so many others where science loses out to ignorant politics is exactly that: ignorance. It isn’t because of a touchy-feely desire to compromise. Your objection here should be to ignorance, not compromise. There will be compromise regardless of the science. Those towers will be built. The middle ground is the whole ball game.

        You know what best combats ignorance? Education. That in turn involves talking and listening, respect from all sides, discussion, reason. It surely involves a search for consensus about values, about what is valuable. That’s my job every day, to embrace multiple points of view and multiple styles and get students to work together on the values of mathematics. Getting that going has everything to do with a disposition in the room to learn and – oh yes – to concede. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with me saying “well, you have the opinion that pi is 3.0, I say it is 3.14 so we’ll compromise and call it 3.1.” Because that would be a mathematical and aesthetic crime and buck naked stupid to boot.

        That’s the difference you and Dave are ignoring.

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        • John Warren John Warren says:

          Pete,

          I’ll bite. Common sense should tell you I’m not opposed to rightful compromises from balanced positions of power, but the devil is in the details isn’t it? One person’s compromise is another’s failure to take a principled stand simply becuase the odds are against them.

          I see this constant call to compromise as newspeak for the same old arguments essentially trashing already agreed upon environmental protections as failing to compromise. What a sin! To have ethics and integrity and stand by them! Instead all parties should give up half their positions so people can feel good about how the debates are going. Compromise is being used as a battering ram by people who disagree with positions that are designed to protect the legacy of the Forest Preserve. It’s only recently been picked up by considerate people such as yourself. Of course it sounds right. Who doesn’t want compromise?

          But here’s the thing: I would hate to have seen what the additional “compromises” the last 100 years had wrought had Protect and those who support them met today’s definition of compromise. Pick up a copy of Ellen Brown’s The Forest Preserve of New York State and see the lists of compromises of the Forest Preserve there, and the lists of principled positions taken by Protect and others to defend the Adirondacks you love so much.

          Compromise has two meanings, one of which you seem to be ignoring: “To reduce the quality, value, or degree of something; To impair by disease or injury” I’m pretty sure that would be the one a Bicknell’s thrush would use.

          I’ll paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham jail in asking that you be more devoted to justice, than to order.

          JW

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          • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

            John:

            Well of course you are right about the details. You are also right about principled stands, something I hope I previously made clear in my point of view. I’m thinking now about the contrast in strategy between the Adirondack Council and PROTECT. We need them both, surely not just the former.

            You are also right to be on guard against appeasement-as-compromise.

            But let’s not prejudge on the basis of how science intersects with politics. Because for every environmental victory won by PROTECT and others that you can give me I can give you an environmental loss wrought by the failure to have a rational discussion or to seek sensible compromise… or to overcome ignorance. And most environmental victories were won by the success of the same.

            I share your suspicions on matters like this about as much as you think I do, which is more than others might think I do. However I do think it is a mistake to assume – almost as though the assumption is tautological – that a discussion to seek consensus entails bad compromise, abdication of principle and doublespeak (though that last is ever harder to vanquish from our discourse).

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  2. Dick Carlson says:

    Excellent piece. The Bicknell’s Thrush is a signature high altitude songbird that is severely threatened by climate change. This incursion into it’s habitat without study is foolhardy and disappointing. Add this to the list of threats – including this news from the Dominican Republic (the wintering habitat of the Bicknell’s). http://vtecostudies.blogspot.com/2013/04/key-bicknells-thrush-habitat-in.html

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  3. Paul says:

    It is complicated. For ACR, or any project, why stop with the amphibian study? There are billions and billions (sound a little like Carl Sagan) of microbial communities that are destroyed and disrupted with any project. Should we be looking at those as well? What you have to do is the best you can.

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  4. Alan Senbaugh says:

    This is a colossal failure of the APA. I really enjoyed the ADE article covering the supervisors meeting discussion of the issue. I was amazed at their ignorance about Bicknells not only ecologically but economically in terms of the revenue they bring to their town by birders. The APA is a Joke! What a waste of taxpayers money.

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    • joe says:

      I know! Let’s get rid of the APA and all the loca and state government orgs. We can put Alan Senbaugh, Peter Bauer and John Warren in charge of everything. That will work out really well. And they can just ignore any ideas other than theirs.

      Fun!

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      • John Warren John Warren says:

        Hey Joe,

        For all intents and purposes. I AM IN CHARGE HERE at the Almanack, since I’m the editor and founder.

        So yeah! Fun!

        Glad you’re enjoying it.

        John Warren
        Editor

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        • Paul says:

          Dear leader,

          I know that I am enjoying it, or I wouldn’t spend so much time checking in on this blog.

          Thanks, John.

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    • Paul says:

      Alan, enlighten them. What is the economic impact of birding based on the Bicknell’s Thrush? It is best to make your point with numbers. Like Pete said above education is key so educate us!

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  5. WrenHawk says:

    So, it’s May 2. It’s likely not too late to hold construction on the four habitat mountains, right? Why doesn’t the Almanack or Adirondack Wild team up and write a letter and get some web petition signatures over this weekend? That is pollyanna, it likely won’t stop it, but it would at least show the governor, APA, and DEC that people are watching, do care and that the supervisors, in their ignorance of biology, ecology and the valuation and protection of wilderness and wild species in the park are not representatives of the people. You’d get several hundred signatures from the Northern NY bird list alone…surely other resources could be used: newspapers could publish press releases Friday with the petition site address, the other groups could send out email with the petition link to their members, local email boards in Jay, Keene Valley, Lake Placid could pick it up. A small but worthy way to focus people?

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