Dave Mason and Jim Herman have received a lot of commendations for their Adirondack Futures project. It’s high time, the Adirondack Futures project tells us, for a grassroots, bottom-up, inclusive planning process that is professionally facilitated to shape a plan for a new and positive direction for the Adirondack Park.
Mason and Herman have met with several hundred people about the future of the Adirondacks and created a handful of scenarios for what the future may hold 25 years down the road in 2038. They have presented these plans to government at all levels and many groups throughout the Adirondacks. They are now actively implementing this work through a half dozen work teams.
Here’s a good assessment of the Adirondack Futures project posted on the website of Protect the Adirondacks last fall. Pete Nelson also reviewed this effort recently here on the Almanack.
To further promote their work, Mason and Herman have published an article in Adirondack Life that details six scenarios for the future of the Adirondack Park. It’s accompanied by a web survey hosted by Adirondack Life where people can vote on their choice for the future. The magazine is running the survey until September 1st.
This post is mainly a reaction to the article in Adirondack Life, which differs significantly in tone and content from the main body of the Futures project. The Adirondack Life piece is a major disappointment and I think a poor representation of Mason and Herman’s overall effort. I know it’s an abridged version of their longer report posted here, but in the Adirondack Life article hyperbole has replaced substance and insults have replaced inclusiveness.
For two proponents who decry the lack of a safe zone for unheated discussion in the Adirondack Park and talk about the need to build common ground, they sure spend an awful lot of time taking cheap shots at environmentalists.
For its part Adirondack Life says it was looking to be provocative and that the over-the-top rhetoric used in the article was designed to stimulate feedback. So, Adirondack Life took leave of its lofty journalistic perch and tried out some of the tricks of Sean Hannity.
Mason and Herman tell us that they’re highly successful management consultants who worked with such prestigious companies as Merck and Intel. They helped draft plans that unified these big companies and brought together combative and competing factions or divisions. They tell us they’re using these same skills and tactics now in the Adirondack Futures Project.
I wonder if the plans they developed for Merck and Intel were laced with as much ridicule of a single faction or division as their piece in Adirondack Life?
Consider these gems from their article: “Fighting had turned into a small industry with full-time employees. Winning or losing had job implications, but continuing to ﬁght meant job security.”
Or this one: “While the hired warriors tangled, hurling insults and lawsuits that supplied fodder for news stories, regular people just watched from the sidelines, shut out of the discussion.”
As Mason and Herman dismiss environmental advocacy to protect the Adirondack Park as the money grubbing work of con artists, they pat themselves on the back: “So we launched this pro bono project for the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance to stimulate new, creative, integrated thinking and to craft a real strategy for the whole park.”
For Mason and Herman environmentalists are really just confidence men and women. Environmental disputes are not real, but cooked up solely to ensnare gullible donors.
For Mason and Herman there is really no value to the work of the environmental camp. We have had no positive impact on the Adirondack Park lo these many decades. I don’t think even Dick Cheney would be as mean-spirited in his assessment of environmentalists as what’s written in Adirondack Life.
With a basic framework that is hardly balanced and is openly hostile to green-shaded Park constituencies, I fear this article will turn many people off.
While that’s all bad enough, the article masquerades tired anecdotes as fact. In their setup, Mason and Herman regurgitate the same discredited and misinformed shibboleths about demographics from the APRAP report. That the APA has issued tens of thousands of land use permits or that local governments have issued hundreds of thousands of building permits doesn’t compute with their narrative.
Nor do larger national trends. We live in a country that has shifted for decades from a rural society to a suburban-urban society. Over 80% of Americans live in metropolitan areas and over 85% of jobs are found in metropolitan areas. New jobs since the Great Recession are overwhelmingly in metro areas. This trend is intensifying. Demographers have charted what they call the Decimation of America’s Heartland. And yet in the last 50 years, though a minor turndown occurred 2000-2010, the Park’s population grew moderately, even as most of the rest of the rural US crumbled.
Forget deep trends like the complete mechanization of farms and the woods, consistently better economic and personal opportunities in cities and suburbs, agribusiness and investment funds squeezing out all non-corporate competitors on farms and in the woods, laws and regulations stacked in favor of the corporations, and much, much, more. Forget that over 75% of New York school districts have lost population since 2006. None of this stuff matters.
Mason and Herman’s work, as posted on their website refrains from cheap shots. They’ve basically said the Park is an important asset to build upon. But, in Adirondack Life, they sing different hymns. No space for the idea that the Adirondack Park and the Forest Preserve may have made this area more resilient than other rural landscapes in the US. Things are so dire, they say, it’s time to put the main infrastructure of the Adirondack Park on the butcher’s block.
That Mason and Herman pivoted to hyperbole in their most visible report to the public to date – publication in Adirondack Life – is unfortunate. That Adirondack Life played the same game is inexcusable.
Now to the article’s main content.
Mason and Herman give us six “endstates” to vote on. These are six scenarios for how the Park could be in 2038, 25 years hence. These are Wild Park, Usable Park, Sustainable Life, Adirondack County, Post-Big Government Solutions, and The Adirondack State Forest.
As we’ll see, they stack the deck in favor of two endstates and present the other four really as caricature, meant more for shock value or to say they covered an option. And, two common themes dominate these six scenarios: 1) vastly reduce the size and scale of local government; and 2) start logging the Forest Preserve.
They render each scenario with selective details and include good and bad outcomes. Some scenarios are drawn to be mostly all good, some mostly all bad. In doing this they clearly tip their hand and will likely drive the majority of respondents to support one of two scenarios.
Option 1 is “Wild Park.” Here, the authors present a scenario based on a caricature of the supposed environmentalist’s fantasy. “Article XIV of the state constitution—the ‘Forever Wild’ philosophy—remains its foundation, and the courts have continued to provide protection against shifting public attitudes and opportunistic politicians. 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.”
Right, environmental laws so strong they actually harm what they seek to protect. That’s what we want. Examples? None. Data? Nothing. Substance? Nada.
The authors don’t even seem to have this scenario straight in their own minds. They state that Forever Wild orthodoxy makes “even ecosystem health secondary.” But, then they contradict themselves by stating that because of the Wild Park “The park’s diverse ecosystem turns out to be a resilient one, better able to fight off invasives and adapt to climate change than other parts of the state.”
The garbled thinking and contradictions of Wild Park don’t really matter because it’s really a throwaway scenario, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s sort of a scare tactic, or token strategy of, hey, lets give one to the greenies, even if it makes no sense.
Option 2 is “Usable Park,” the idea of which is “to put PARK back in this place” or, actually, to put the Park back in its place. This scenario paints a bright future where “wild areas have become wilder” and “developed areas, like hamlets, more developed.” In Usable Park all land use development conflicts have been harmoniously resolved and so have all recreational conflicts on public lands. Local industry flourishes, non-profits are strong, and government payrolls have been painlessly chopped in half.
Harmony is everywhere. Everybody in the Usable Park of 2038 sings an Oklahoma!-style version of the jetskier and the canoeist will be friends; see “the jetskier dances with the canoeist’s gal.”
And there’s nary a word about how all this harmony was achieved, but that’s a minor detail. The important thing here is that in Usable Park everybody is happy. So who could be against Usable Park? We all want to be happy.
The third option is “The Sustainable Life.” This was the most popular scenario in Mason and Herman’s report on its website. If Usable Park had everybody happy because, well, we actually don’t know why everybody is happy, they’re just happy, The Sustainable Life has everybody happy because Park communities have cut free of fossil fuels and made the Park an ecologically sustainable Shangri la. “The park is a model of the sustainable, low-carbon footprint rural lifestyle. The region is more self-sufficient with strong local energy and food industries. These provide local jobs by replacing imports such as fuel oil and limit the money that flows out. Eco-friendly recreation and agritourism bring visitors and income.” How could anybody oppose this? Besides Exxon-Mobil that is.
Devoid of all details, they mention that the Forest Preserve is also somehow managed for sustainable purposes. Forever Wild is junked, but this is a small matter because in this scenario: “The park is a model of sustainable community and draws in green businesses and a new generation of young people who find the vision attractive.” How the Adirondack Park has advanced beyond genuinely progressive communities in other parts of the US in its sustainability quest is not described.
I could quibble about managing the Forest Preserve, but, really, like the Usable Park, the Sustainable Park evokes an Emerald City kind of the future, so why quibble about the fact that there’s no roadmap showing us how to get there or the value of Forever Wild as a carbon sink.
In my experience whenever people start talking about what sustainable actually means and requires, then agreement breaks down. A sustainable future is clearly where we have to go in the Adirondacks, the US and the world, but there will be tremendous upheaval and profound winners and losers in the transition to a sustainable life. One recent report on sustainability said it’s all based on “balance.” No, sustainability is based on limits. Real limits.
Fourth is “Adirondack County.” I’m not sure where this came from. In 25 years of working in the Adirondack Park I have heard, and advocated, that the State of New York manage the Park as a single administrative unit, rather than piecemeal through the variously organized regions of its different agencies, but I’ve never heard anybody call for the Park to be managed as one county. California has counties even larger than the Adirondacks, but there the populations are concentrated. I’m not sure how this works, but again, that’s an unnecessary detail.
The big thing with Adirondack County is that “The Blue Line becomes a county line, and state agencies align services to it, enabling more efficient government. This perspective is driven by taxpayer outrage at the overlaps, fragmentation and duplication of layers of government. There is just too much government for only 130,000 residents.”
And, the Adirondack County scenario envisions “For the first time the people of the park think of themselves as a group and have stopped fighting town versus town. Instead of playing the victim of rules imposed by an elite population elsewhere, residents have a sense of ‘us’ and take responsibility for sorting out their affairs.”
One small matter is “The Forest Preserve has been unified and rationalized through numerous land swaps.” I’m not sure what this means, but count me dubious of a Forest Preserve “unified and rationalized.”
One of the things that makes working in the Adirondack Park fun is the level of involvement and concern I see across the Park. While one county is certainly outside-the-box thinking, it seems like it was cooked up as something jarring, but not really to be taken seriously.
Fifth, is “Post-Big Government Solutions.” This too is meant to jar us into thinking of a world where many government services have been privatized, and the Forest Preserve, of course, logged. This is basically another throwaway scenario that points towards the future when, as Bill Clinton told us in 1996, the era of big government is over. But this time, it’s really over. Gone. Done. By 2038 major downsizing has occurred. You betcha!
Mason and Herman really have it in for government, almost as much as they do for Forever Wild (with zero data or analysis provided for either target). I know that everybody wants smaller government just as long as it doesn’t diminish any services. I know that the “smaller government” slogan is an easy thing to put out to build consensus on a superficial level. I mean, really, who doesn’t want smaller government?
But at least this scenario tries to grapple with realities of edge towns prospering while interior towns stagnate due to commuting opportunities for employment in more metropolitan areas outside the Park. The scenario is also based on a variety of privatization schemes for campgrounds and ski areas. And, they envision “Landowners and towns voluntarily spend on combating invasives and cleaning up septic systems to protect land values and preserve recreation.” If this is how to get New York’s septic system laws modernized, then count me in.
The last scenario is “The Adirondack State Forest.” Here, the 1.2 million acres of Forest Preserve lands classified as Wild Forest are removed from Forever Wild constitutional protections and opened for logging. That’s the new state forest. What becomes of the conservation easement land base they don’t say (it’s only 750,000 acres, a small matter?). In exchange, the state no longer pays local taxes on this land base, but revenues from forest management are somehow provided to various local governments and they like it.
Take away tens of millions of dollars in state property taxes and give me stumpage. That’s a trade I don’t think a lot of communities will go for. Log the Forest Preserve around Upper Saranac Lake or the islands on Lake Placid – not sure that will fly either. Open for logging the Lake George Wild Forest and even some of the islands on the lake? The authors see the forestry value of Tongue Mountain as providing more for the Lake George area than the scenic and recreational and real estate support values of the Forest Preserve? (And, other values like wildlife habitat, biological diversity, open space protection, among many others, don’t even rank.)
The authors liken Adirondack State Forest to the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, but I don’t think they know very much about the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. Resource management is not the principal policy there, but providing a range of public recreational opportunities is. And, local payments in lieu of taxes there by the Feds are some of the highest in the country.
Mason and Herman more fully evoke this scenario by ridiculing “a desperate campaign by aging environmentalists” to save Forever Wild (ouch). The authors end by writing the people of New York looked at the “loosely organized ‘park’ to the north and wondered how it ever got so big and cost so much for the benefit of so few.”
Let me go on record as quite comfortable with the public support of New Yorkers to maintain Forever Wild. Were it to be threatened in a major way, I’m confident that New Yorkers will resist efforts to open it for logging.
Benefited so few? Sure, we have a small year-round population with a low population density, but the value of the Park goes beyond year-round residents. How many millions come to the Park each year? How many second home owners are there? How many use the Forest Preserve? How many come to Lake Placid each year? To Old Forge? To Lake George? To say the Park benefits “so few” is a silly statement.
Even sillier is the comment about cost. Mason and Herman have zero data on this point. Sure, the Forest Preserve and easements cost the state about $60 million in school and local property taxes each year. The APA has a budget of $6 million. ORDA has a budget of $40 million. DEC Region 5 runs a budget of $15 million. That’s $121 million. For argument’s sake, lets throw in land acquisition and various other state agency costs and double this figure and say that total state expenditures for the Adirondack Park runs $250 million each year. In a state with a $130 billion budget the Park costs .0019% of state spending. That’s less than 1%. And we’re 20% of the state’s geography.
The Adirondack National Forest is pretty much a throwaway too. It’s not well thought out, but it’s not meant to be.
Voting for a scenario in Adirondack Life is an effort to further build consensus around a vision for the future of the Adirondacks that the Adirondack Futures Project will use in its work. The consensus that will gel will likely be around Usable Park and the Sustainable Life, based largely on happy talk artfully devoid of specifics.
Presumably, after consensus is reached, partly through the Adirondack Life digital survey, a community of the willing can begin the arduous work of building a roadmap towards this deliberate and positive future in an implementation stage (though some of this work has already begun, which raises questions about the value and timing of the survey).
Implementation is where the real work begins. That’s where the happy talk ends.
The Adirondack Futures project, overall, I think is very positive. I think Mason and Herman freed up the Park’s economic and community development discussion in a new and exciting way. I don’t know when they adopted the new tone as exhibited in Adirondack Life. Maybe all along they’ve been gratuitously bashing environmentalists and had it in for the Forest Preserve and I’ve missed it. I can see that they’d pick up brownie points by bashing greenies and the Forest Preserve with the APA, AATV or Local Government Review Board, but I’m not sure it plays with the readers of Adirondack Life.
Respondents to the Adirondack Life website only get to rank the six scenarios offered. There’s no comment box. There’s no box to add a new scenario. There’s no choice for None of the Above. Adirondack Life would be well served by making such adjustments.
If I’m limited to voting on the six scenarios as offered, I’ll have to rank the Sustainable Life as my first choice, though I’m troubled about logging the Forest Preserve. I think we can show the values to fighting climate change are greater with a Forever Wild Forest Preserve than a logged one. I’d like to be able to include that comment in my vote.
(In the interest of full disclosure I’m a fan of Adirondack Life, to which I’ll always be grateful for hiring me as an assistant editor in the mid-1980s, and to which I’ve been a faithful subscriber.)