The title of this Dispatch has the question. My answer? Unequivocally no. In fact from my point of view it is and ought to be the opposite. As I write this we have just celebrated Earth Day. What in the name of Gaylord Nelson is going on here?
One week ago I wrote a Dispatch supporting the Adirondack Futures Project. Two days later, out came Peter Bauer’s column taking the project and its founders, Dave Mason and Jim Herman, to task for “taking cheap shots at environmentalists” and “ridicule of a single faction” in an article about the project for Adirondack Life.
Then later that morning John Warren, esteemed founder of the Almanack, chimed in with a long comment that included this statement (italics are mine): “The evidence shows that nothing is more wrong here where we live than anywhere else. In fact we seem to be doing better than other rural areas, arguably because of the protections that this so called ‘debate we must have’ is seemingly geared to eliminate.”
In other words, the argument seems to be that the Adirondack Futures Project stands in opposition to the environmental movement and environmental protections.
Let me be perfectly clear. I think there are actually two arguments going on here and I’d like to separate them right from the start.
The first argument by Bauer, Warren and others is that the Adirondack Life article denigrated environmentalists and the work of environmental organizations, especially in its introductory section. Bauer went through the introduction in detail so I won’t repeat his work here.
To this argument I have little comment. I wouldn’t defend some of the language in the introduction. I will say only this: the personal nature of this discussion in all directions is unfortunate. On the one hand it has the potential effect of putting Mason and Herman’s motives into question, which I think is disappointing. On the other hand it continues a nauseating trend of vilifying Peter Bauer, who deserves exactly none of it regardless of whether you like his positions or not. Is there anyone who has had to endure more vitriol than this guy? I’m going to state as strongly as I can that it is my belief that Dave Mason, Jim Herman and Peter Bauer all have the best interests of the Adirondacks at heart. If you can’t get past that idea then you can stop reading now because I’m not writing for you.
But a number of objections I have seen or heard go beyond the issue of tone and cheap shots, making the argument that the Adirondack Futures Project has an agenda that is anti-environment and anti-Forest Preserve. Additionally, some suggest that the project is nothing new, that it reopens “old and largely settled debates” and is “not a new and innovative discussion” thus suggesting it is a waste of time. This argument, notwithstanding the tone of the Adirondack Life piece, deserves a rebuttal.
So that I can effectively get to the main part of my argument let me disabuse you of a couple of false notions that might otherwise dilute my position.
First, I could be written off as a shill or apologist for Adirondack Futures. In fact, I have had nothing to do with this project whatsoever. I just know a good idea when I see it. I also know a first-class strategic planning effort when I see it. That’s saying something because I used to do it. Speaking from some level of expertise I can tell you that most strategic planning exercises are crap. The great majority of them are no better than manipulative, pseudo-scientific posturing larded with impressive sounding acronyms and terminology that is self-congratulatory and largely devoid of meaning. They usually fail to lead to any sort of substantive change. The institution at which I teach has a number of initiatives like that and for the most part they offend me. Trust me, no one has a more acute radar for this kind of thing than I do.
I received a private comment from someone that maintained that the Adirondack Futures Project was “too corporate.” That’s what I thought too the first time I heard about it. Then I delved into the details and discovered that this is a different animal. Go look at the information on the Adirondack Futures web site yourself if you want to make your own judgment. Here I am not talking about the Adirondack Life introduction or the scenarios. I’m talking about the body of work, the hundreds of possible events or proposed initiatives developed at the various workshops. They have real meat. Whether they are new or innovative (in my opinion a few are, the majority are not) is beside the point. What matters is that people are talking about them in a good-faith effort to find some agreement. And this is happening with a wide scope. Remember this is not a committee of thirty; this process has involved or informed more than a thousand people. In all of it there is hardly an acronym to be found, just a lot of ideas worth getting into.
Next, I suppose I could be dismissed as a consensus-loving occupier of safe, peaceful middle ground who likes to talk about things and write about things and dream of harmony while singing “Kumbaya” and sprinkling fairy dust on my way down the trail (in fact that assumption could be made about anyone championing this project). That thinking would be errant.
I believe that meaningful consensus – as opposed to feel-good agreement that looks good but does nothing – is a hard-won artifact in politics. It requires factions (Bauer’s word, spot on). It needs people to hold to strong positions, to stand firm on principles. It needs debate, disagreement. It even needs lawsuits, an integral part of our democratic process. I for one am glad that PROTECT and other groups will file a lawsuit as a matter of both utility and principle in order to fight for what is best to protect the integrity of the park, or Article XIV, or the APA Act and its mission. People who decry such lawsuits as “divisive,” implying they are needless and obstructionist, are simply wrong. I suggest they might benefit from a review of both American history and Adirondack history.
But politics – good politics at least – also needs a common purpose, rational dialogue and inclusion. It needs some understanding of the reasoning and motivations of opposing parties. To think that to pursue these laudable qualities negates principled opposition, or factionalism, or passion – heck even an insult tossed here or there – is disappointingly naïve.
Here we come to one of the big problems I have with criticisms I have seen of Adirondack Futures: they blur the differences between the substance of the positions we hold and HOW we talk about them, how we debate them and how that debate proceeds along the qualities of common purpose and rational dialogue. In this respect, perception can be as important as reality because of how it builds and buttresses walls between us, how it enables the reflexive side-taking I have repeatedly decried in numerous Dispatches.
Some don’t think this matters, but I do. Why? Is it because I don’t like it when we can’t get along? No. It is because when we have the same old contentious bickering it is the environmental movement that loses. I’m an environmentalist. I don’t like that.
Sure, I too thought that some of the language in the first part of the Adirondack Life article was a little snarky and unfair because it seemed to me to cut one way: towards environmentalists filing lawsuits. Still, from the standpoint of many the depiction of rancor was on the mark. Whether anyone likes it or not, the perception of the majority of people I talk to in the park is that the kind of irrational and contentious bickering, side taking and whining that goes on in and about the Adirondack region is legendary. Is anyone seriously going to say it isn’t? Look at the angry rhetoric over Bicknell’s Thrush and communication towers that flooded the local news just this week. Who stands to lose from it? The thrush.
How many pages of examples would you like?
One objection I have heard is that the Futures Project lacks historical perspective, that there has been talk of consensus before but that the reality is contention is part of the game and overall we’re doing just fine.
Here’s a little history, then. Just over twenty years ago the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century created a report containing well over two hundred recommendations that would have addressed many of the exact same environmental and economic issues that we argue over now, issues that do nothing less than challenge the integrity of the park. It was a remarkable piece of work, in my opinion better and far more comprehensive than the report produced by Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission twenty years prior. It reflected a greatly increased understanding of ecology and it evinced a holistic understanding of the park as a unique biosphere.
The report was completed in 1990. What happened next? Part of the report was leaked, some of the most controversial parts were excerpted and all hell broke loose. The report died on the table. Who lost? The environmental movement and with it the Adirondack Park. That kind of history I can do without.
In hindsight would it have been wise to proceed with a more inclusive strategy? Obviously so. Could the goodwill, dialogue and momentum created by the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance and an active Adirondack Futures Project have made a difference? Could much of that report have been adopted if HOW we talked about it all along had been different? That is a good question.
Some will say it isn’t a good question. They will say that I don’t understand the politics of the situation on the ground as it was in 1990. That’s not true: I followed that whole debacle closely (including having the private and repeated perspective of someone deep inside it). When I look at the range of players involved in the Adirondack Futures Project I have real questions about the difference something like it could have made.
Like many people I think the status quo is not great and I think we are not all just fine. These are, as they always have been, perilous times for the Adirondacks. A broad initiative that sets a default disposition amongst disparate parties towards discussion and inclusion seems like a good idea to me. That’s why I think the the environmental movement has a lot to gain from a project like Adirondack Futures.
Finally, I am an environmental advocate so I’ll agree that striving for consensus means little if in its setup the Adirondack Futures Project is hostile to the environmental movement. A claim has been made that the scenarios are biased by an agenda, that in particular their Wild Park scenario is contradictory and not meant to be taken seriously. This is a serious claim, because environmental protection must be at the forefront of any discussion about the future of the Adirondacks. Part of the problem comes from this sentence in the scenario (italics mine):
“The APA and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are clear that preserving this wild experience is their mission, with economic and even ecosystem health secondary.”
At first blush that does seem to be a confusing or even contradictory idea, that cloaking the Forest Preserve with the most stringent wilderness protections in the world could somehow put ecosystem health secondary somehow. What could someone possibly have been thinking? Well, let’s see, because this illustrates how complicated things get and once again why a broad and inclusive discussion is so important .
Here’s Bill Ingersoll, publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks Series, advocate for the park and expert on the development of the concept of Wilderness in the State Land Master Plan, from a previous discussion on the Almanack:
“Remember that the State Land Master Plan’s definition of wilderness is directly derived from the 1964 Wilderness Act, which was written largely by Howard Zahniser (who owned a camp in Bakers Mills, near Gore Mountain), who was in turn inspired by people like Bob Marshall… …Basically, the real intent was less about preserving pristine landscapes than it was about maintaining opportunities for primitive (or “traditional”) recreation… …For Bob Marshall specifically, the best book to read about his concept of wilderness is a book he published in the 1930s called The People’s Forest, in which he covers a broad range of ideas about public land management. Wilderness is just one passage out of many, but it’s absolutely clear his focus was on recreation.”
He goes on to talk about how these values were codified in policy. Hmmm… could it be that the ecological well-being of the park was not the primary motive for current land policy? Is it worth mentioning that “ecosystem health” was a non-existent concept when Forever Wild was instituted in 1894?
Lest you think that these are dusty arguments I will give you contemporary examples. The challenge of combating and mitigating the effects of invasive species is extremely complex. Is current State land policy for Wilderness adequate to the task? Is a hands-off approach best? This is a serious debate. A similar debate is heating up over climate change and which species to protect, promote and/or replace. How about the recently-raised question of junk forests and how best to repair the damage to the diversity of the Adirondack forest’s genetic pool?
Could it be that the codification of policies to leave land “untouched and untrammeled” is not necessarily ecologically the best policy? Yes it could. At the very least, is it contradictory to suggest that possibility? Not to my thinking.
Here’s how the Wild Park scenario begins and ends:
“This is the Adirondack Park envisioned by its founders: open, green, wet, deeply silent, with incredible vistas. It is an island of wild, a haven of tranquility located within a day’s drive of 100 million people. New Yorkers are notoriously proud people and, as New York City is the greatest city in the world, this is the world’s greatest achievement in wilderness preservation.
The citizens of New York State and those in its government entrusted with this treasure take the long view and won’t exploit it for short-term gain. The people who live here want to live here and love the wild nature of the park. Communities suffer from the same problems as those faced by other northern forest regions: poor infrastructure, difficult transportation, abandonment by extractive industries and an aging population. But the park is not the problem.”
I will only speak for myself here. Not only is this text a passionate and even eloquent representation of what I believe – and I speak as an ardent preservationist whose involvement in the environmental movement dates back to 1971 – but it also correctly acknowledges the challenges of the park’s communities in a way that is entirely antithetical to the claim the project is biased against the environment. Read the last sentence again: “But the park is not the problem.” How much more clear could that be?
Here’s my bottom line: who is most likely to lose when accusations are leveled at a project that, while undoubtedly not perfect, has fostered a detailed and ongoing discussion among hundreds of people who live in or visit the park about seeking common dialogue and common ground in the best interests of the Adirondacks? The environmental movement is, of course.
As an unabashed supporter of Forever Wild and cheerleader for more and stricter wilderness protection in the Adirondacks I’m very glad for the advocacy and hard work of environmental groups. I’d rather not see any of it be for naught because people can’t talk about hard things without automatically lining up on opposite sides and firing broadsides that in our culture are becoming ever less reasoned. The Adirondack Futures Project is an ambitious, thorough and hopeful effort to build common, rational dialogue. Let’s try not to fire salvos at each other with ill-considered words.
That goes for all sides.
Photo: Overlooking virgin forest at Lost Brook Tract