When I started as the Council’s executive director on May 1, friends in the Park said “welcome home.” I had worked here for the Adirondack Mountain Club for close to 10 years after graduating from St. Lawrence University with a degree in Economics and Environmental studies back in 1985.
That led to work with The Nature Conservancy, the Hudson River Greenway Council and – for the past six years – as a Regional Director for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region. I continued to visit the park when time allowed and kept myself current on park issues, hoping that someday I would get a chance to return to this special place.
I know the park is a unique and priceless asset – a vast, natural landscape much larger than any four of the most famous national parks out west. The Adirondack Park guards the watersheds of five major river systems, providing drinking water, irrigation, transportation and recreation to millions of people in the Northeast. Its thousands of lakes and ponds and its constitutionally protected, “forever wild” Forest Preserve draw millions of visitors each year, safeguarding and sustaining rare and sensitive plants and wildlife species, and human communities that have no other home.
The park is also home to 130,000 year-round residents and another 200,000 seasonal residents, who live in and around more than 100 small communities. Those communities are vital to the region’s history and future. Many predate the creation of the Park in 1892. They provide the goods and services needed to make the park a major tourism engine for the state’s economy. They are where people live and work.
They are the cultural and historic centers and the landmarks that help to define the park’s identity. They provide a sense of history and a direct connection to the surrounding public lands and waters. They make it possible for people of all persuasions to enjoy the park’s wild landscape, whether they plan to spend a few hours sightseeing or several weeks exploring.
Without its communities, the park would contain only sterile government buildings. Uniformed state officials would be the only residents. There would be no local timber industry, no Olympic sports venues, no ski areas, and no homegrown businesses like Oscar’s Smokehouse, Old Forge Hardware or Hornbeck Boats.
The Adirondack Park encompasses six million acres, or 9,300 square miles. It always has, and always should, honor the principle that it takes a combination of public and private lands and waters, state and individual stewardship and management, and multiple stakeholders working in collaboration to protect, manage and realize benefits from a landscape as large, unique and challenging as the Adirondacks.
The Adirondack Park is unique. With 70 million Americans and Canadians living within a few hours’ drive, it receives nearly 10 million annual visitors. Yet, there are few populated places left on earth as wild and unspoiled as the Adirondack Park. It is one of the few places on earth where modern society is attempting to live in harmony with a wild landscape. That is important, because the rest of the world needs the Adirondack Park’s example to follow. This is true nearly everywhere, from rural New York to the far reaches of the globe.
Just before I arrived at my new job, I traveled to Nepal with my family to visit my daughter. She was teaching English in Katmandu before starting as a student at St. Lawrence University. I was thrilled to get a chance to visit the Far East. The scenery was amazing. However, the crushing poverty, the lack of basic services and sanitary facilities and the pressure of rising population were shocking, especially in populated areas. I returned to the Adirondacks wiser, but with a nasty cough and a jarring memory of horrendous living conditions and poor environmental stewardship. That is not what we want here, or anywhere.
While my cough went away after a few weeks of breathing Adirondack air again, the memory and lessons of the trip are still fresh in my mind.
Upon return to the Adirondacks the most dramatic change I noticed was in the passion, intensity and civility of the debate over the future of the park. Unlike the early 1990s, when the Governor’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century was being debated, people who disagree aren’t shouting at each other or calling one another names, or vandalizing homes and offices.
There was a stark contrast between those days and this June, for example, at the recent public hearings on the state’s classification and management plans for thousands of acres of new public lands. At the recent hearings, people with very different views and desires listened patiently as the others spoke. They politely applauded and waited their turn to calmly deliver their own remarks. This new spirit of tolerance and respect is very encouraging.
The Adirondack Council helped to bring about that change. My predecessor Brian Houseal was involved in the founding of the Common Ground Alliance, which just held its seventh annual meeting in Newcomb in July. One of that group’s first aims was to fend off a threat to the state’s annual property tax payments on the Forest Preserve, upon which many Adirondacks towns rely. Losing that revenue would have negatively impacted many local communities.
Together, environmental groups, community development leaders and local government officials worked to halt the threat, as well as a similar one that emerged a couple of years later, when severe state budget cuts were enacted. We learned that working together was not just possible, but felt good, and increased everyone’s chance of success.
This July, more than 200 members of the alliance gathered in Newcomb to discuss how similar our visions for the park future had grown to be, and how small our disagreements had become. That kind of willingness to work for a common goal made it easier for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to embrace the Adirondacks wholeheartedly.
If the two sides were still arguing, he would be stuck answering questions about the disagreement, rather than promoting ideas everyone can embrace. He comes here to take his family on vacation. He traveled to Keene five times to help Essex County cope with, and recover from, Tropical Storm Irene. And he brought national media attention to Indian Lake by holding whitewater races with other state government officials, the Park’s environmental leaders, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Governor Cuomo gets what the Adirondack Park is all about. He understands both wilderness and communities are part of its basic fabric. He wants to spend his time here. His Regional Economic Development Councils have twice provided more than $100 million dollars to the North Country region in incentives and grants to promote new ideas and to support those efforts that are already working in and around the Adirondack Park.
At the same time, local leaders have made a sincere effort to understand what environmental organizations such as the Adirondack Council have been saying about the need to protect wild landscapes, conserve wildlife habitat on public and private land and preserve pure water.
The Adirondack Council and partners such as the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack North County Association, The Nature Conservancy, The Wildlife Conservation Society and Adirondack Community Trust (just to name a few) have at the same time more aggressively and publically embraced support for a vision of an Adirondack Park with vibrant, economically strong, sustainable communities.
The debate today isn’t so much about whether wilderness should exist, as it was 20 years ago. Today, the assumption is that wilderness is desirable. The debate is over how we can best manage, promote and get communities to benefit from being so close to it.
The Council’s collaborative efforts and leadership led to important and exciting results and activities during my first few months.
On Lake George, we helped secure an additional $200,000 from state government for invasive species controls, which local government desired. In addition, we encouraged state officials to embrace a request from local governments who wanted the Lake George Park Commission to approve an invasive species management plan that includes mandatory boat inspections. That plan was approved late in July and is expected to go into effect in the spring of 2014.
We enjoyed bringing more than 150 of our members and supporters to the tiny hamlet of Wanakena this summer to celebrate our annual Forever Wild Day and cheer for Conservationists of the Year John and Margot Ernst.
On the state level, we helped secure second Legislative passage of two important Constitutional Amendments that would help park communities and the Forest Preserve if voters approve in November. Our support came after the Governor Cuomo embraced our criteria for judging the merits of proposed Constitutional Amendments involving land swaps for Adirondack Forest Preserve.
We also worked to improve outdoor recreation that supports local businesses, while enhancing the park’s wilderness character, by advising the Governor to approve a “Wilderness with Access” alternative for the management of the Essex Chain of Lakes, Hudson Gorge and OK Slip Falls. This reflects many elements of The Adirondack Council’s original (1990) proposal for a Wild Rivers Wilderness here.
On the regional and federal levels, The Adirondack Council has successfully encouraged officials from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce the carbon emissions cap for electric power plants from nine Northeast states, including New York. Climate change threatens the park’s ecology, as well as its ski and winter sports industries and its timber industry.
In cooperation with the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, the Council persuaded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to appeal an August 2012 U.S. District Court decision nullifying the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in June to hear the appeal.
Earlier this year, the Council worked with a coalition of advocacy and scientific research organizations to ensure that state agencies conducted proper nesting studies before proceeding with construction of new emergency towers on Little Whiteface Mountain, in an effort to protect the Adirondack habitat of the rare Bicknell’s Thrush. This not only helped protect a sensitive bird species that does nearly all of its breeding here, it also helps nurture a growing tourism trade. Bird lovers who want to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest species have begun flocking to the Adirondacks themselves in early spring – a time when tourism is otherwise very slow.
To encourage the local farming economy and associated land conservation, the Council helped secure passage this spring of legislation that will encourage the procurement of local foods at state facilities. And, to promote the idea of purchasing local products to support the economies of our rural towns, the Council offered a selection of locally made crafts and gift items for sale through our website.
In an effort to protect farms and orchards from the destructive behaviors of wild boars in the Champlain Valley, the Council helped pass new legislation to ban imports of invasive Eurasian boars in New York.
In the months ahead, there are opportunities to keep this momentum going.
We believe there is a chance to make real, lasting changes in the way the Adirondack Park Agency operates by updating the Park Agency Act. This will help to better protect water, wildlife and private stewardship, while making the rules easier to understand and follow.
We need to work together on solutions to halt the spread of invasive species, especially in the park’s waters.
The state’s newest land acquisitions from The Nature Conservancy, including the former Finch, Pruyn and Company lands, must be properly managed and protected and the APA’s classification recommendation and the Governor’s decision can ensure that this happens. By finding new ways to promote wilderness and gateway communities together, we will strengthen the link between the two.
The next state budget represents an opportunity to act on our shared commitment to the Adirondack Park’s wild lands and communities, clean water, clean air and private forestland and farmland. The Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) turned 20 years old this August. It provides only a fraction of the state resources needed in the Adirondacks, and from Long Island to Buffalo, to meet pressing clean water, open space, local community needs.
During my first 100 days, I’ve been humbled and thrilled at the passion, commitment and dedication of those who are stakeholders concerned with the future of the Adirondack Park. I am grateful for the doors that have been opened, and for the advice and support offered. Visiting communities across this incredible landscape I realize what a special opportunity we have. Together, we can and will build a better Adirondack Park. Our future depends on it.