Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dave Gibson: Remembering Harold Jerry

A columnist from the Old Forge area, Mart Allen, recently wrote for the Adirondack Express about the late Harold A. Jerry, Jr., and he inspired me to do the same. Judging from his experiences with Harold along a trap line during the winter in Herkimer County, Mart Allen concluded that Harold Jerry displayed a depth and integrity of character that should be the measure we take of all our fellow human beings, but often isn’t. That observation about Harold rang very true for me.
Harold Jerry (1920-2001) was born and raised in Plattsburgh, New York. From 1959-1962, he served as a member of the New York State Senate. At that time, he also worked with a law firm in Elmira, NY. Then, under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller he became the director of the Office for Regional Development, and then the first director of the Office of Planning Coordination, the original state planning office. In 1968, he became executive secretary for the Temporary Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks. In 1989, he was tapped by Gov. Mario Cuomo to be a member of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century. At various other times, Harold served voluntarily as President of The Wilderness Society, Director and Chair of The Adirondack Council, Vice President of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Director of The Adirondack Nature Conservancy and Land Trust, Director of the Environmental Planning lobby, and Chair of Ecologically Sustainable Development.

I have not even mentioned yet that Harold remains the longest serving Commission member of the New York State Public Service Commission, the utility planner and regulator. He was nominated to that position by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and 24 years later continued to serve under Gov. George Pataki.

In short, Harold Jerry devoted his life to the Adirondack Park, wilderness and related organizations, but brought to those missions a wide range and great depth of life experience in the law, politics and in public policy. He was a civic-minded man if there ever was one.

His voice continues to ring in my ear, and I’m quite certain in the ears of my contemporaries: “Dave, this is Harold. How quickly can you get over here?” Something concerning the Adirondacks was on the boil when Harold Jerry called a meeting. More often than not, the meetings were called on the spur of the moment. Regarding the content of those meetings, you could sometimes cut the tension with a knife, and at other times bend over in laughter. These were moments I will never forget. The meetings were sometimes convened at his offices at the NYS Public Service Commission, although the meetings Harold called rarely concerned public utilities. They were more likely to concern the Adirondack Park Agency, Department of Environmental Conservation, wilderness, wildlife, conservation easements, taxation of forest land, and related legislation.

Harold had a great capacity for work, and also gave the PSC one hundred percent of his efforts, often late into the evening. I know this because in 1995 Harold and Lyn invited a group of us to begin a cross country tramp from their Adirondack camp near Speculator. We arrived on the weekend after dusk, and guided by flashlights found their cabin. Inside, we found Harold stretched out on his bunk reading piles of PSC papers by kerosene lamp. On that visit and several others, I also learned that Harold and Lyn somehow found the time to be outdoor managers of a large and historically interesting Adirondack landscape involving foresters, hunters, lease camps, deer, beavers, bear, brook trout, and much more.

Harold strategized with us about many Adirondack matters, and had the facts to back up his point of view, or he would get hold of them in a matter of minutes. His membership on Gov. Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks, preceded 20 years earlier by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, revealed for him the practical weaknesses of the APA’s Private Land Use Plan.

This was particularly true, he felt, for the 1.6 million acres of private land classified Resource Management. He deeply wanted to protect these lands, colored green on the APA map, from paved roads, driveways and housing development, but not from the practices of forestry, logging, hunting, fishing, and wildlife management which he believed – and which the law contemplated – were completely compatible with neighboring “forever wild” Forest Preserve. Regarding the Forever Wild clause of the Constitution which protects the Forest Preserve, Harold was a fervent advocate. How to prohibit or induce much less development on neighboring Resource Management land, and still be fair to landowners, towns, and taxing districts? Harold pursued these vexing policy questions with great intelligence and vigor.

In the Park’s centennial year, 1992, legislation which would implement key recommendations of the Cuomo Commission passed the State Assembly, and had widespread support among environmental groups. One section of the bill which Harold favored would have, through a combination of regulation and incentives, eliminated most of the potential for developing second homes on Resource Management. The bill was held up in the Senate by Ronald Stafford of Plattsburgh, whom Harold knew well. The Senator made it known he might support the legislation if it were amended to eliminate the independent powers of the Adirondack Park Agency, and make the APA a division within the Department of Environmental Conservation. While others eager for the bill to pass were willing to consider this compromise, Harold was not. It was a matter of principle for him. He had spent too many years creating and then defending the Agency’s independence within the executive branch of government. Harold felt no bill was better than a hamstrung, diminished APA . Once Harold conveyed his views, the legislation died in the Senate. In the heat of a legislative session, Harold’s stand and his influence frustrated some of his natural constituents. Away from the heat of that session, I came to admire him for it.

I also knew Harold as a member of the Board of Trustees of the organization for whom I worked, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Harold rarely missed a meeting but given his work schedule often was forced to arrive just as the meeting was about to start. Typically, he would wait patiently until the end of a long afternoon’s discussion whose resolution remained illusive, and then have his say. He chose his words and arguments carefully, but delivered them with great impact. His knowledge and experience were held in such high regard by other board members that the matter was often concluded satisfactorily when he’d finished.

As to staff and board relations, Harold’s philosophy was clear and Lincoln-esque. “Give the staff enough financial resources and board support, and let them do their jobs. They will make mistakes, and we expect them to learn from those mistakes.” Staff appreciated this wise philosophy and the wide running room it gave us. Given the fiduciary and other pressures facing board members and employers, actual and self-imposed, it is rare to hear such views expressed any more, which is a pity since staff morale and performance tend to rise each time it is.

Often someone with a lot of important history passes from the scene and no one has conducted and taped an interview. Most frequently, those interviews never take place with our own parents and grandparents. Fortunately, videographers Linda Champagne and Carl Schaefer spent the good part of a day with Harold when he was about to retire from the PSC, and Harold seemed completely at ease and was most forthcoming. He recalled people, events and dates with great clarity.

One of his last phone calls to me in 2001 concerned the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area that he and the entire Jerry family loved so well. “Don’t let them diminish that trail-less area in the western sector; it should be expanded,” Harold exhorted. He knew the dimensions of that area precisely. We had traversed it starting from the Jerry’s cabin in 1995 and felt deeply renewed by that experience, as I am each time I think about Harold today.

Photo: Harold Jerry (provided).

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring 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 managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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