Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Will Andrew Cuomo’s APA Picks Protect Natural Resources?

Gov Rockefeller signs the APA Private Land Use Plan legislation. Richard W. Lawrence, first APA Chair, looks on at left. Photo by Paul Schaefer.By the end of this month, I believe six of the eight citizen members of the Adirondack Park Agency (those gubernatorial nominees who by law cannot be officers or employees of a state agency) will be serving expired, four-year terms.

This situation is neither new nor surprising. Section 803 of the APA Act allows members to serve until replaced or until they resign. Many governors have allowed members with expired terms to simply continue on without gubernatorial re-nomination and re-confirmation by the State Senate.

That is what Governor Andrew Cuomo, elected in 2010, has largely done up to now – save for one new nomination he made in fall 2011, that of Sherman Craig of Wanakena in St. Lawrence Co, to fill a seat previously held by APA Chair Curt Stiles, who resigned before his term expired during the months leading up to the Adirondack Club and Resort decision. The Governor also re-nominated Leilani Ulrich of Webb to continue to chair the Agency. The Senate confirmed both nominations in 2012, so Craig’s and Ulrich’s terms run to 2016.

But for the rest, the Governor has some important decisions to make. Whether he leaves the current membership as is, serving expired terms, or nominates 1-6 new members this is his chance to populate an Agency charged under law 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;” and to “focus the responsibility of developing long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide concern” (Section 801, APA Act). So, his decisions are hardly parochial ones, since the Park has statewide, national and international significance.

Throughout the APA Act, starting right from its first sentence (“The Adirondack Park is abundant in natural resources and open space unique to New York and the eastern United States”) the emphasis is weighted towards the protection and preservation of natural resources and open space character.

The APA has never had a legal charter to balance environmental protection and economic development, though the fact that these goals are inter-related and dependent is acknowledged throughout the law. Section 809 of the Act states that the agency, in rendering a determination, must find that a given project would not have an undue adverse impact upon the natural, scenic, etc. resources of the park “taking into account the commercial, industrial, residential, recreational or other benefits that might be derived from the project.”

There is a vast difference between taking potential economic benefits into account, and a legal obligation to balance two different missions. Court decisions acknowledge this distinction, as in this 2009 ruling from the Appellate Division, Third Department: “the APA, on the other hand, is not charged with such a balancing of goals and concerns but, rather, is required to ensure that certain projects within its jurisdiction would not have an undue adverse impact upon the natural, scenic, aesthetic, ecological, wildlife, historic, recreational or open space resources.”

As readers are fully aware, in mandating protection, preservation and planning on behalf of our air, water, soils, land, wildlife and Forest Preserve under the APA Act and under the Constitution’s Article 14, there are tremendous market and non-market benefits and advantages for the communities of the Adirondack Park not available to other rural communities in the state (other than the Catskill Park communities which share in the New York State Forest Preserve).

Yet, despite the clear mandate under law, there appears to be only one member of the APA today who, month in and month out, consistently practices what the law mandates. Judging from votes taken on the Adirondack Club and Resort and other projects since, Richard Booth, always thoughtfully, taking local and regional economic health into account, is the only member who seems willing to challenge the APA staff to reach a higher standard in project review, and to make the occasional hard decision in favor of the Park’s natural resources and in recognition of the Park’s statewide constituencies.

In nominating what we hope will be aware, informed, motivated and talented individuals to the Adirondack Park Agency this month or later this year, will Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office inform them about their paramount responsibilities under law to pass on the natural resources and open space character of the Park in better condition than they find it? Will his future nominees, taking into account the vitally important health of the economies and communities of the Park, be prepared and feel free to make the occasional difficult decision to deny a subdivision or other new development likely to have significant adverse impacts upon those natural resources? Will his future nominees join member Booth in pushing the APA staff to prepare the best possible project review under law’s highest standards? In a time of rapidly changing climatology of the region, will future members push the agency to undertake a fresh analysis of future trends in the Park which can inform current policy decisions and directions?

An agency full of members highly aware of their fundamental mission and purpose does not in any way imply an agency lacking in diversity of viewpoint, perspective, or life experience. For instance, in my early years as a Park advocate (1987-88) I remember how much respect “environmental” members Peter Paine, Arthur Savage, Anne LaBastille, Woody Cole, and Elizabeth Thorndike – with their own tremendously varied and diverse backgrounds – had for Tupper Lake resident, forester and fellow APA member John Stock. John Stock taught these and other members a great deal about the practice of forestry and about the challenges of living in the Adirondack Park, and his influence within the agency was clear. John Collins, with his life-long residence and deep family roots in Hamilton County, while a strong “environmental” vote, was always highly thoughtful about the impact of his decisions on fellow residents. In fact, John Collins led the Agency during 1993-94 in its study of how to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, resulting in positive changes still evident today.

Years ago, a retiring member of the APA (in fact an original member from 1971), sent a copy of her letter to then Gov. High Carey, written on APA stationary, to conservationist Paul Schaefer. Schaefer was so impressed by it that he passed a copy on to me and to others monitoring the agency in the late 1980s. Thinking of Gov. Cuomo’s important nominations ahead, here is that letter from APA member and Lake Placid resident Mary Prime to Gov. Carey, written on June, 8 1977:

Dear Governor Carey:

My tenure as a member of the Adirondack Park Agency ends this month. I have been a member of the Agency since its inception in 1971, and I consider that my years of work in this capacity have been among the most rewarding of my life.

On the eve of my departure, I wish to thank you for the support you have given the Agency, for your determination not to allow the Adirondack Park Agency Act to be legislatively destroyed or diminished, and for the wise and sensitive appointments you have made to the Agency commission.

I would also like to express my concern over a possible new trend which could have grave consequences for the Park Agency and the region it was created to protect and benefit. Although I know nothing personally about the two individuals now being considered for Agency appointments, one of whom will be my successor, I do know that neither of these candidates has any evident qualifications for the task of guiding development in the Adirondack Park and insuring the protection and prudent use of the Park’s scenic and natural resources.

As you have done in the past, please continue to appoint members to the Agency on the basis of their qualifications. If such appointments have political value for you and your administration, so much the better. But the statewide interest in the protection of the Adirondack Park must come first. Otherwise the Agency commission will soon degenerate into a policy-making group of questionable competence and dubious commitment. The mission of the Agency will thus be undermined as surely, if not quite so suddenly, as it would by the passage of this year’s Harris-Stafford Bill.

There are many fine prospective candidates for the Agency within the Adirondack Park, people dedicated to both the environmental and economic well-being of the region. There are a great number of similarly qualified persons throughout the rest of the State. I sincerely hope and urge that you will choose your appointments from among these candidates.

Again, my thanks to you for all you have done and continue to do to keep the Adirondack Park Agency alive and healthy, and for your demonstrated concern for preserving the natural treasure we call the Adirondack Park for the wonder and enjoyment of all of our grandchildren, and theirs who will follow.


Mary F. Prime

Photo by Paul Schaefer: Gov Rockefeller signs the APA Private Land Use Plan legislation. Richard W. Lawrence, first APA Chair, looks on at left.

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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.

4 Responses

  1. Dave Gibson says:

    A correction to my essay: Curt Stiles did not resign before his term was up. His term expired 6/30/11. He gave the Governor notice the 12th of July and left following the August, 2011 Agency meeting. My apologies for not getting this right.

  2. Paul says:

    The agency’s duty to limit impacts to ones that are not unduly adverse is codified in the zoning regulations designed by the agency and approved by the legislature. It should not be a subjective exercise. If we feel that the regulations are not achieving this goal than the issue is to change them. It has less to do with the people providing oversight on the board and everything to do with what it is they are overseeing.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    There is something we who live here and care about the Adirondacks often forget.
    The Park does not have statewide, national and international significance for most people.
    Even in this state, most people are not aware the Park even exists.
    I doubt that more than 10% of New Yorkers have ever set foot in the Park and most who have never went beyond the confines of Lake George, Lake Placid or Old Forge.

    • Paul says:

      Pete, this is probably true. And it is something that has made the place so fun for those of us that know the secret. I had a good friend and co-worker of mine stay at my place near Saranac Lake last summer. They live 4 hours away (have been here for most of their lives very well educated people who have traveled and lived all around the world) and had no clue what was up there. They wanted to know if the roads were open all year? This dynamic put preservationists in a tough spot. They want to promote the place on a larger scale to help support their work but that leaves them in a position to potentially “help” the park in a way that could change it considerably. Always an interesting topic!

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