Tuesday, August 9, 2011

John Warren: An Open Letter to Brian Mann

Dear Brian,

I just finished reading your latest editorial piece, “The Other Endangered Species,” in the September/October issue of Adirondack Life magazine. I’m writing to say that your premise is all wrong.

You wrote that it’s time to end the discussion of whether or not the Adirondack Park “as a conservation model” is a success or a failure. You say “the various factions in the Adirondacks need to accept that the human community is in peril.”

Brian, the Adirondack human community is not in peril, human communities in the Adirondacks are not endangered, and there is no chance, despite your claims, that the Adirondacks “will be reduced to a patchwork of ghost towns and hollow vacation resorts.”

Before I go on to explain why I think you’re wrong, I first need to make it clear that I am also concerned about the economic state we find ourselves in. I’m forced to make this obvious statement about our economic woes because you’ve framed the question in a way that makes critics of your ideas – mostly local people as well – appear to be unconcerned with the economic situation of our neighbors and ourselves. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, but it nonetheless lies at the heart of your argument.

Like our counterparts in most of the rest of the country, working people in the Adirondacks suffer from historic disparity in the distribution of wealth. The rich – those making over $200,000 per year – enjoy historically low tax rates. Our wages remain stagnant at the levels of the late 1960s. Our health care system sucks away a large percentage of our low wages during our working years and requires our poverty and reliance on Medicaid at the end of life. Our health care system not only leaves us in poverty it also strips the generational gains Americans previously enjoyed. Young people no longer inherit land or homes built by their parents and grandparents and upon which they previously “got a leg up”; they are sold off in the spend-down to Medicaid. Free trade, a system designed by and for international corporations, has allowed our jobs (including logging and forest-products manufacturing) to be shipped abroad. The cost of public education, which was virtually free until the late 1970s, now saps the ability of young people to return home. In a perverse modern peonage system, student loan debts derail job creation and investment in favor of wage slavery required to repay the costs associated with getting a job.

These are the problems Adirondack residents face. Our economic problems won’t be solved, as you argue, by reinventing the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) into another economic development corporation.

The foremost reason why is that the APA has almost no impact on economics in the Adirondacks. The APA has an impact on just 20 percent of all development activities in the Adirondack Park. The rest, 80 percent, fall under the purview of the towns. Of the 20 percent, the APA has declined just .8% of the projects that have been brought before it since 1973. That is just .16 percent of all legal development activities since 1973.

Furthermore, the legislative mandate of the APA, described in the APA Act itself as its “basic purpose,” is “to insure 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.” It is not now, nor has it ever been, intended to foster economic development of the Park. In fact, every law passed by the people’s representatives (including enshrinement in our own state constitution) has been designed to do exactly the opposite – to set aside this “unique” area of the state from the pressures of development faced elsewhere. Transforming the only organization in the Adirondack Park with a mission to protect its unique character into another cookie-cutter economic development corporation is in direct opposition to the will of New Yorkers as expressed in the Park’s long history. Like it or not, that is the will of the people.

And there is good reason to like it. Despite your continued assertions that the Park’s population is shrinking, since 1970 (the last census before the creation of the APA) the population of towns solely inside the Park has increased by almost 15%, whereas the population of New York State as a whole has increased by just over 5% over the same period. Like other rural areas our population is aging, but development of the Adirondacks remains unabated.

What’s more, your hand-wringing over recent census numbers fails to account for the fact that the number of summer residents is increasing constantly and substantially. From 1990 to 2004, an average of 1,000 new homes were built annually in the Park (the rate has accelerated and then slowed since then). No doubt, most of these are seasonal. Fulton County planner Scott Henze has carefully considered the rates of seasonal housing. What he found was remarkable and suggests what might be happening in the rest of the Adirondacks.

The Town of Caroga (entirely within the Adirondack Park in Fulton County) had a 69.2 percent vacancy rate in 2010 (up two percent from 2000). Five hundred and twenty-six homes were occupied year-round, but more than twice that number exist as seasonal residences. Every other northern Fulton County town entirely within the Adirondack Park (also bordering Hamilton County) also saw increases in the number of seasonal homes: Stratford (.4 percent), Northampton (2.5 percent), and Bleecker (an astounding 5.1 percent). These numbers far exceed the number for southern Fulton County areas that lie outside the Park. These towns are barely recognized as Adirondack destinations, and the numbers for Essex, Northern Warren, Southern Franklin, Northern Saratoga, and Hamilton counties are likely much higher. What’s more, the overall historical trend is that these seasonal homes will be transformed into year-round residences – just look around. Assertions that Adirondack communities are in danger of becoming ghost towns is nothing more than hyperbole. Far from the Park’s human communities being “in peril,” they continue to grow, if not (for reasons I’ve already explained) prosper.

And let’s lay to rest this notion of the Adirondack Park as some “experiment.” It’s not an experiment, except in the minds of those who would like to tinker with the people’s will in managing their Park. The Adirondack Park is a fact of life and it’s time we stopped trying to weaken its basic premise: that this unique place should be set aside from the rest of the heavily developed Northeast. We are not testing various hypotheses here.

You said we are “pioneers, colonists of a new conceptual frontier.” We’re not. We are stewards of a legacy left to us, one which generations of Adirondackers have benefited from through unprecedented access to public lands, an annual influx of more than a million people who come to visit these wild lands and spend their money, and the simple knowledge that we live in one of the most special places in America. Your suggestion that “the time has come to focus on the people” misses the point entirely. The people have always been the primary focus of the Park, inasmuch as the people set this place aside for themselves. This is the people’s park.

You call for a new APA “team of three or four rural-development experts” to “convene an emergency working group that includes local government and business leaders, key nonprofits, environmental groups, and state agencies.” I’m here to tell you that has already happened, although not by corrupting the APA’s mission. One hundred and thirty private citizens; business, education, government and nonprofit leaders; environmentalists; state and local economic development professionals, and anti-APA property-rights advocates met in late July (as they have for many years now) to set aside their differences and work toward common goals. The Common Ground Alliance is doing the hard work of finding ways to help Adirondackers solve the problems we face. Your call for the APA to take over that role presupposes the very top-down approach you seem to also decry.

There was overwhelming support at the Common Ground meeting for promoting sustainable life in the Adirondacks. Rather than bemoaning low school enrollments, participants found small personal schools a positive. Instead of rehashing the list of budget cuts, public employee and prison layoffs, and economic woes we share with the rest of country, participants found opportunities in a national rural-living revival, and rebuilding infrastructure around local food, local energy, and local transportation. Instead of continuing to complain about the size and management of open space, participants talked about ways to encourage our ecologically responsible recreation and agro-tourism industries.

I can’t help but mention that not a single major local media outlet was there to report what was happening. Instead, it’s increasingly clear that some were at home, grinding axes for another battle that no serious Adirondacker contributing to their community’s future wants.

Brian, I have no doubt that your primary interest is in seeing all of us who live here prosper. I’m asking that instead of restating the old Park arguments – too much open space, not enough economic development, too much regulation – you begin writing about the problems we actually face – economic disparity, health care, education costs.

I long for the day when I open Adirondack Life and find a story by you about an Adirondack family about to lose their ancestral home in order to pay for grandma’s health care, or comparing the working lives of (and taxes paid by) economically disparate neighbors, or young Adirondackers too overwhelmed by student loan debt to return home and start their lives.

No matter how awful you make the state of our communities sound to support your call for more economic development planning, it should be obvious by now that the billions of dollars we’ve spent in this country on economic development schemes have been nothing but a boon to corporations and the rich, while leaving regular working people behind.

In short, the only thing endangered in our communities is common sense about what our problems really are. I hope you’ll work harder to correct that.


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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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