Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: Praise For ‘Adirondack Futures’

IMG_6715Regular Dispatch readers know that I have been short on patience with the usual reflexive side-taking that seems to be a permanent feature of any discussion over the Adirondacks.  On one side you get cartoonish renditions of radical environmentalists and/or government regulators.  On the other side you get caricatures of rapacious developers and selfish residents.  In the middle?  A militarized zone of nasty vitriol, propaganda, lawsuits and a dismaying lack of reason.

Based on some recent posts and associated comments over the last few weeks this automatic side-taking is alive and well even at the Almanack.  For a good example read this recent column on demographics by Peter Bauer, then read the comments and you’ll get a pretty good idea.

But scroll to near the end of the comments and you’ll see the following contribution from regular reader Big Burly, who is neither an extremist nor a pansy (and who once took me to task for an overly divisive comment I wrote).  He said, in part:

The APRAP report when it was published was also thought provoking and a clarion call for thoughtful conversations… …Peter’s analysis is a helpful addition to the conversation. I don’t agree with all of it, but it does move the objectives we are all seeking closer to accomplishment.

‘Either- or’ is not a viable process. A new path is needed. Let’s keep seeking common ground. The world economy is changing rapidly. What we have in the ADKs is what a lot of folks on the planet are seeking.  Most resident ADKers have more than the usual dose of common sense; let’s stop throwing epithets and verbal insults and get on with creating solutions that work for all of us who cherish this place.

Aha!  Here we have a voice of reason.  Hope springs eternal.

Seeking a better dialogue on the problems and future of the Adirondacks I have been promoting what I have come to call “third-way thinking,” which I featured in a Dispatch some weeks ago.  In framing the idea I wrote this:

Suppose we could actually demand a new standard in our discourse by adopting a simple rule.  Suppose that every time there was an issue where people lined up on two opposing sides, all parties mutually agreed by protocol to commit to finding a third way?  Each polar position would be clearly defined in detail, then put off limits.  A third way, not permitted to embrace either pole as a whole, would therefore be the only option. 

Now of course this is an artifice that would never realistically be imposed.   In the real world no position can or should be put off limits.  But what if I dropped the mandatory rules, the dictatorial bent?   What if I had written this instead?

Suppose we agreed to commit to a new standard in our discourse by participating in consensus-building process that dictated that whenever there was an issue where people lined up on two opposing sides, all parties mutually agreed by protocol to commit to finding a third way?  Various possible positions would be clearly defined in detail, then calmly discussed and ranked both for their desirability and their feasibility.  The resulting combination of positions that ranked the highest would emerge and be accepted by the whole.  This consensus, a third way through, would therefore be adopted.

This is more reasonable in tone at least.  Yet I can hear the judgments.  Unrealistic or impossible, many would say.  Pie in the sky.  Wishful thinking.  Touchy-feely.

Is it?

What if I told you that just such a process has been going on in the Adirondack Park for more than two years?  It was conceived as a strategic planning initiative to develop a rich conversation about the future of the park, about how we want to see it in twenty-five years.   Suppose I told you that all the key stakeholders in the park participated in this process, representing he different sides of the contentious issues we hear about every day.  Suppose that to the surprise of all, including the people running the project, the result has converged upon a concrete consensus; furthermore this consensus is specific enough to drive policy and is broadly supported by those to whom it is presented?

In other words, what if it turns out that greedy developers, wacko anti-government libertarians, petty state bureaucrats and lunatic tree-hugging environmentalists actually agree on the best future for the Adirondacks?

Guess what?  According to the results of this project, by and large they do.

The project in question is called Adirondack Futures, “A pro bono project for the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance, developing a vision, strategy and implementation plan for the Adirondack Park,” to use the official description.  I’m sure most of you are aware of it but you may not know how deeply and richly it has proceeded, how ambitious and relevant it is.

It is not my job to tell you all about this project; you can read about it to whatever level of detail you desire on their web site.  But what I want to do is advocate for the remarkable opportunity this surprising consensus represents.

The two people who launched this initiative, Dave Mason and Jim Herman, have first-class credentials in strategic planning in the corporate world.  They brought that expertise to the seemingly intractable problems in the park by using a scenario-based approach and engaging the public through dozens of workshops and presentations.  The general idea of this approach was to present six possible “end states,” scenarios for the condition of the Adirondack region in twenty five years, then have everyone rank them on two potentially-conflicting bases: desirability and attainability.

The expectation of many was that there would be a fractured and contentious landscape of possibilities and the basis for a lot of conversation.  That’s not what happened.  I’ll quote from a draft of their official report:

We only sought to begin a richer conversation about the future of the Park, but what we found was a clear consensus. The desirability rankings done by every group were very similar.  In addition, what the groups found desirable matched what they thought was attainable.   If the scenario that is broadly deemed most desirable is also deemed most attainable, that is a basis for forward movement and it quite a remarkable find in a place so known for conflict.  Now the consensus vision that has been derived from the results of the workshops is being used to align the myriad implementation efforts going on throughout the Park.  It has been input to the North Country Regional Economic Development Council strategy as well as the North Country Sustainability Plan. 

That is the basis for real, concrete progress on a region we all love deeply.  Indeed, the precedents for such a consensus-based plan are all but nonexistent; therefore it represents an opportunity we dare not waste.    If we get behind this effort we stand to increase the possibilities for substantial progress on everything from land use to economic development to climate change.  So get on board, I say.

There are naysayers, of course.  Some are skeptical that the project was as inclusive as it should be.  Some think it was conceived by people with a specific agenda.  Let me briefly address these concerns.

First of all, the outreach and participation was broad.  The project team produced and facilitated 14 workshops involving over five hundred participants as well as numerous other speeches and events involving a thousand more people.  The workshops and presentations were held in disparate locations throughout and even beyond the park.

Second the participation was diverse, ranging from self-employed business people to downstate corporate executives, from the APA to the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages.  Different interest groups were well-represented.   Environmental advocacy groups constituted about 10% of the participants.  Business and tourism represented about 20%, as did government.  Non-environmental private advocacy groups, retirees, health care professionals and people in education were represented as well .  Two thirds of the participants were full-time residents of the park.

Third, the consensus was widely supported.  Let me quote again from the report (boldface emphasis mine):

When we presented this as the strategy at the Common Ground Alliance Forum on July 18, 2012, 64% of the attendees polled said they strongly agreed with the strategy and vision and 29% said they agreed.  Only 7% said they somewhat agreed and no one disagreed.   Again, this is an unusual result for a region characterized by conflict and lack of agreement.

Given these facts is it is obvious that this was a significantly broad project.  But it is deep as well.  The descriptions of the scenarios and the hundreds of events that feed into the scenarios and thus will shape the future of the park (all of which you can see in whatever detail you desire at their web site) constitute the basis for a detailed plan.  They are also quite telling.  For example, here is the list of events ranked most positively, with the greatest consensus – in other broad agreement that people want to see them happen:

  • Main Street Revitalization Grants Improve Hamlet and Village Attractiveness
  • Biomass Energy Is a Major Source of New Jobs in the Park
  • Counties Set Up Shared “Back Office” Operations for Towns
  • New Stricter Water Quality Regulations Implemented
  • Major Promotion Campaign for Jobs, Entrepreneurs and Net-Workers
  • Constitutional Amendment Enables Land Swaps to Consolidate the Forest Preserve
  • More Citizen-Sponsored Initiatives in the Park
  • Towns Merge Highway Departments
  • Governor Issues an Exec Order for State Agencies to Treat the Park as a Single Region
  • Boomers Retire to Their Vacation Homes
  • Broadband Brings More Mid-Career Families into the Park
  • Ecotourism and Agritourism are Fast Growing Sectors
  • Assessed Value of State Land Increased by Addition of Value for Ecosystem Service
  • Smaller School Districts Sharing Admin Functions
  • State Economic Policies Better Support Smaller Scale Business and Agriculture
  • More Community-Based Retirement Facilities Open
  • Amendment Creates Community Land Bank to Facilitate Small Projects
  • Global Foundries Project Brings Large Numbers of New Visitors and Residents
  • Park-Wide Recreation Plan Published and Adopted
  • Broadband Operational in Most of Hamilton County

In perusing this list one finds nothing that could be considered extreme.  Sure, there are ideas that are contentious in one form or another, such as land banks or state agencies treating the park as one region, but there’s nothing that is likely to get anyone’s blood boiling.  Yet suppose a plan was implemented that brought these events to pass.  How much better would that be for everyone in the park?

The events characterized by consensus as most negative or undesirable were these:

  • Private Sector Shrinkage in the Park’s Interior is Leading to a Decline in Visitors
  • Number of Poor in the Park Grow as Government and Private Jobs Disappear
  • Key Invasive Species Become Pervasive in the Park
  • Rampant Disregard for APA and DEC Rules
  • Regular Severe Weather Events Stress The Park
  • Many ADK Towns Implement Paid EMTs for Daytime Shifts
  • Largely Empty Interior Zones Declared ADK State Park
  • Feral Swine Go Hog Wild in the Adirondacks
  • Three Consecutive “No Snow” Winters Close Many Winter Recreation Businesses
  • Many Native Species Begin to Disappear from Park

Once again, there is plenty of substance but little over which to violently disagree.  As a side note, I mark that this list proves that a broad swath of Adirondack stakeholders is worried about climate change and is taking it as a serious, immediate problem.

You may have noticed that I have not described the six scenarios upon which this exercise was based, nor have I revealed what combination of those scenarios produced the clear consensus.  That was quite on purpose; I don’t want you to know if you have not already read up or weighed in on the Adirondack Futures Project, because I have two challenges for you.

The first challenge is to go through the process yourself: rank the scenarios and see how you align with the consensus afterward.  The current issue of Adirondack Life has an article written by Mason and Herman that describes the process and the six scenarios.  After reading these, the reader is invited to go on-line at www.adirondacklife.com and do their own ranking.  Go ahead and give it a try. After you do you can easily go the the ADK Futures web site and see what the existing consensus is: are you an outlier or do you fall in the realm of the consensus holders?  Adirondack Life will have a follow-up article in the future that has the compiled results of their web survey.

The second challenge is to get involved.  There are three inviolable truths about strategic planning (a profession in which I also worked for some years):

  1. it is worthless if it does not lead to a vision and implementation strategy with three critical attributes: leadership, authority and money.
  2. It is worthless unless the vision and implementation strategy is married to a comprehensive, detailed action plan with measurable results.
  3. It is a dead end if the implementation is led by the same people who led the strategic planning effort.  It has to be owned and led by the stakeholders.

We cannot look to the strategic planners for leadership, authority, money or details.  These are going to be hard things to get and clarify.  True, there is already an implementation plan which is providing input into existing agencies and decision makers in the park.  Ongoing projects and grants are starting to show real alignment.  For example, recent broadband, water quality and tourism initiatives fit perfectly with the consensus and critical events.  But Mason and Herman have a limited shelf life; they know better than anyone that others must lead from here.

The strategic planning effort is real; it has been tremendous and it has put in place a framework that is unprecedented in the history of the park.  But it can only go so far unless it is owned by all of us.  Making the future we seem to agree upon is going to have to be up to those who live in and love the Adirondacks.

Check out the scenarios, rank them and discover the remarkable and heartening consensus.  Then let’s get on with it.

[Editor’s Note: On Monday morning the Almanack will publish an opposing view of the Adirondack Futures project.]

Photo: Adirondack Nature in Harmony

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




6 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    If only our government in Washington could function by consensus. We are all so sick of their polarizing posturing. But, I’ve always wondered, how do you reach a consensus on something like abortion?

  2. Tom Vawter says:

    As one who participated in one of the Adirondack Futures workshops, I commend Pete Nelson’s accurate description and positive review. We workshop participants–coming from a broad range of Adirondack interests–were all surprised to see such a strong consensus emerge from the 2-day meeting.

    I’m a retired academic who usually has little patience for the newsprint flip charts, break-out groups and comments taped to the walls. But Mason and Herman’s masterful handling of these elements in this massive visioning project won me over. Their workshop, indeed the entire project, was one of the most inspiring public efforts I’ve participated in.

    Now, let us stakeholders work TOGETHER to implement the shared vision Herman and Mason helped us achieve.

  3. Big Burly says:

    Good morning Pete,
    Accurate description of the vitality that Dave and Jim brought to the scenarios process. As exciting as participating in that was for me, it is equally inspiring to observe and contribute to the many implementation efforts underway.
    Thanks for highlighting my comment … having been a visitor or resident in this special place almost my entire life (it’s a surprise to realize how long that is) there is a coming together that is happening. Hard to find in some places, but it is happening.
    Thanks as always for YOUR thoughtful writings.

  4. dave says:

    I admire and respect the efforts of the Adirondack Futures – and I strongly think that this approach to consensus building is desperately needed in a lot of our politics and public disagreements.

    However, I think it is also true that there are issues we face where public consensus building is an inappropriate tool. Problems where there may be only one really good solution, and meeting in the middle of two opposing approaches, or agreeing to a completely different approach will water that really good solution down, or miss it entirely.

    This would be true of issues that revolve around scientific facts, for example. Or issues that involve universal values.

    The Adirondacks, especially when talking about protecting the principle of Forever Wild, may be an example of something that public consensus is ill-equipped to address.

    I’m very interested in reading the counter point on Monday.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dave:

      This is an excellent comment. Indeed this idea you raise is worth another column. I am going to wait to see what the Monday counterpoint brings as well, but almost certainly I will be writing a second Dispatch to respond.

      With that said, to hint where I am likely to go, I agree with you to a great extent. However I am troubled by what I see as a repeated failure by many to distinguish between a dialogue that seeks consensus and a specific consensus that is a bad outcome. Concern about the latter seems to frequently muddy the waters and deflect from the benefits of the former.

      For example, I support no initiative that in my mind would weaken Article XIV. Nor would I support a proposal to close parts of Route 28N for ecological benefit. I would stand fast on either, for excellent reasons. Having those as non-negotiable positions on my part not only has nothing to do with my capacity and responsibility to participate in a working effort to find common ground, it in no way interferes with that pursuit.

      (and this goes much deeper – is there such a thing as a non-negotiable position on Article XIV? Is there agreement on what “weakening means?)

      We can always talk and if we talk with reason and consideration it will always have the potential to deliver substantive benefits. That is the nature of things in the kind of political systems we have in this country.

      I think it would pay well to remember that the Adirondack Park is entirely a political creation. There is not one thing about it either in its history or in its future that did not or will not involve consensus.

  5. Fascinating. It would appear that many diverse issues may be discussed and hopefully followed by strategic planning and implementation by a wide range of players. For many participants of the Futures process, I would think that certain issues are untouchable, such as Article XIV.

    An exercise could be to have participants list or classify certain topics according to the extent they feel they are or are not negotiable, such as Forever Wild and land development.

    The 3 C’s: Consensus, compromise, concession. I am sure it’s a lot more fruitful if discussions begin with those topics that most easily lend themselves to consensus and save the “stickiest” ones that can only be settled by concession for later.