Governor Andrew Cuomo visited the Adirondack Park on Thursday September 26th and devoted a full day to discussions with various parties about the looming decision by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) on the Forest Preserve classification of 21,000-acres of former Finch Paper lands along the Hudson River and around the Essex Chain Lakes.
I give the Governor high marks for making the trip and holding these meetings. (In the interest of full disclosure no one from Protect the Adirondacks was invited to these meetings. We are, after all, suing the Cuomo Administration with two pretty big lawsuits.) With Joe Martens, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in tow, the Governor met at Follensby Pond (his second trip there) with the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Council and ADK. Those most closely aligned with the Cuomo Administration, who supported for the Adirondack Club & Resort project and/or the NYCO land swap, get to go fishing with the Governor.
The Governor then went to Gore Mountain and met with seven local government officials as well as Senator Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec. At Gore, the Governor held a press conference.
The meeting with the environmental groups, as some who attended explained to me, was more fishing and guffaws than substantive discussions about a Wilderness classification. As one person said, the Governor knows that the environmental groups have all lined up behind Wilderness. The Governor was non-committal about his decision.
The meeting with local officials involved more direct conversation about why they want a Wild Forest classification. The Governor probed, but, again, was non-committal. Note that the final step in the APA Forest Preserve classification process is approval by the Governor based upon a recommendation from the APA. In the past, Governors have been slow to sign a classification recommendation, but no Governor has overridden an APA recommendation and made one of his own. (Such an action would be new legal ground. I’m not sure the Governor can make his own classification decision, I think he can just approve or reject, but I’m researching this.)
Some of the reporting and analysis about the Governor’s trip came up short. I disagree with how Brain Mann of North Country Public Radio (NCPR) reported the story as well as his analysis of the day’s events. Denton Publications provided the day’s best reporting.
On Brian Mann’s reporting about the Governor’s trip north, he was pretty selective in his use of quotes from the Governor to build his narrative and interpretation of events in his NCPR report. There’s a real disconnect between the short quote from the Governor used in the NCPR website text report and the longer quote used in the NCPR audio report. The abbreviated quote does not do the Governor justice.
Here’s Cuomo in the NCPR website text report: “I wanted to hear from the experts on the matter before I made any decision, and that’s why I came up today,” Cuomo said.
Here’s Cuomo in the NCPR audio report: “The APA will make a recommendation to me and I will make the decision and I wanted to hear from the experts on the matter before I made any decision and that’s why I came up today. We met with environmental groups this morning and we discussed their point of view and their perspective. And then I had the discussion with the local leaders and their state officials this afternoon to get their perspective. There will be more conversations, there will be more discussions, more analysis, but I want to make sure that I can be as prepared as I can be to make this decision because it’s an important one.” You can play the audio version on the link above.
Brian Mann uses these statements as a jumping off point for analysis that the Governor’s decision to hold these meetings was a huge departure in process for APA Forest Preserve classifications and also raised questions about APA Chair Lani Ulrich’s ability to see the classification process through to the end.
Brian Mann is no Will Doolittle. Brian Mann doesn’t make stuff up, but in his reporting on this event, the discrepancy between the written website article and the tape is pretty big and colors public interpretations of the event. More importantly, I think he gets it wrong about the APA Chair. The NCPR website text version was read by many that somehow the Governor had no faith in the APA and was seeking input from outside experts beyond the APA. The audio version shows that while the Governor is clearly doing his own fact finding, he is also keenly aware of the APA process and his role in it.
Here’s a series of more expansive quotes from Cuomo’s Gore Mountain press conference with local officials reported by Denton Publications, which gave space to the Governor’s more nuanced statements about his role in this process.
“The governor makes the decision,” Cuomo said. “The APA makes the recommendation to the governor. In a perfect world, the APA’s recommendation would coincide with the judgment of the executive. But, in any event, the governor is responsible legally for the decision and can override the recommendation of the APA if he or she sees fit.”
“Everybody understands the same principles,” Cuomo said. “The principle is ‘We need balance.’ We need to preserve the Park. We also need economic development. We need activity. We need revenues. And you have to balance the two.”
“The Adirondack Park is obviously a great asset and treasure for this state,” Cuomo said. “It’s very important to the entire state economy, and it’s something we’re very proud of on a personal level. It’s part of the heritage of this state. We’ve gone to great lengths over the past couple of years to preserve the Park and work with the communities within the Adirondack Park so they’re stronger and better than before.”
I can’t speak to the differences in NCPR reporting as to tape and text, but in situations like this it’s clear that a selective excerpt can change how one understands an action or event.
The bigger issue is Brian Mann’s overall interpretation of events. I think his analysis is wrong for two reasons. First, this is mainly style over substance. Governor Andrew Cuomo has shown a real difference in style than previous Governors when it comes to Upstate New York and the Adirondacks; have you ever seen any other New York Governor in shorts? He clearly likes to travel and get out of Albany. I can see how the trappings of an executive chamber road trip are intoxicating to him upstate – the private air force, security, motorcades, and awed local officials. Frankly, this is not what the Governor experiences in New York City where his prestige has been completely drowned out by the Mayoral election.
Also, Governor Cuomo likes to ruminate in public. He really likes to think out loud. Whereas other Governors made their views known clearly about classification decisions behind the scenes, this Governor is in the habit of talking publicly about his looming decisions for extended periods of time before he actually makes a decision (issues, such as fracking or prison closures, for example).
George Pataki was keenly interested in the Wilderness classifications of Little Tupper Lake and Round Lake as well as the classifications of the Champion lands, such as making Madawaska Bog Primitive as the basis of a future Wilderness, but he did it all behind the scenes. Remember, at the APA vote on Little Tupper Lake, then DEC Commissioner John Cahill spent two days at the APA meeting in Lake Placid whipping the votes, an unprecedented level of involvement by a DEC Commissioner up until then.
Governor Cuomo clearly likes to take charge of decisions he gets to make as shown by his enthusiasm to personally negotiate loans for hotels in Saranac Lake, for instance, or about what state grants are awarded. There’s a lot in New York that Governors can’t influence very much, so he grabs onto the things he can do. Frankly, it seems that there’s no decision in New York too small for Andrew Cuomo.
In the end, the Governor’s trip was more style than substance, if not just an excuse to fly north and spend several hours fishing on amazing Follensby Pond on one of the most beautiful days of the year in full fall peak colors, one of the perks of his office for sure. A history buff, Cuomo likely sees himself channeling the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson from Follensby Pond as he deliberates on his classification choice.
More importantly, I think that the Governor was pretty careful not to cross any lines in his public statements on Thursday to show any kind of a preference for how he wants the APA to vote or what he thinks the best classification should be. The Denton Publication quotes clearly show that the Governor respects the process and understands his role in it.
Second, I found Brian Mann’s conclusion that the trip somehow showed the Governor had lost confidence in APA Chair Lani Ulrich to be a reach. I think it would have been very improper, indeed, for Ulrich to attend any of these meetings with the Governor while various interests were pleading these cases for Wilderness or Wild Forest. I think her exclusion showed a respect by the Governor for the APA’s management of the classification process, and not a loss of confidence in the APA.
Even though I have previously written that this decision is a done deal (largely because of DEC’s hegemony over the APA on Forest Preserve issues and the APA’s inability to fulfill its lawful checks-and-balances role over DEC’s management), I think that the APA has been very scrupulous thus far in administering a good public process. Though, that may end soon because I’m very concerned that the APA will produce a trifling, unsubstantial legal analysis of the four main classification options (Wild Forest, Canoe, Primitive, Wilderness) and a weak SEQRA “Reponses” document.
Joe Martens attended these meetings on Thursday with the Governor and that’s fine because DEC is already on record in support of a Wild Forest classification. Official process for new Forest Preserve lands classification starts with a DEC recommendation to the APA. Alternative 4B, one of seven alternatives that the APA took to public hearing, is the DEC alternative. We all know that DEC wants a Wild Forest classification with some modest modifications through a Special Management Area. (What I’d like to know, though, is what the DEC took away from the APA public hearings where public comments ran 4-1 in support of Wilderness? From what I see, the DEC just yawned and shrugged.)
Had Lani Ulrich attended these meetings, either at Follensby or Gore Mountain with the Governor, this would have been a novel departure from established process and a red flag. I don’t know if Ulrich was invited or not, but I give her high marks for staying away and guarding the lines of good public process. Her absence from these meetings showed a healthy respect for established process. (While I’m at it, I also give the Chairwoman high marks for attending the Adirondack Explorer’s conference on the future of the APA and bringing her senior staff along in tow.)
Last, and perhaps the bigger issue in all this, is that’s it’s pretty cool that this Governor wants to come north and hang out at Follensby Pond rather than flying out early for a weekend in the Hamptons.
That said, Andrew Cuomo’s Adirondack Park scorecard on my bulletin board is far too heavy on the negative environmental side of things, with just one singular environmental protection accomplishment. The only meaningful “green” thing he’s done in the Adirondack Park in 2.75 years in office is buying the 65,000 acres of former Finch Paper lands from TNC. His historic investment in the Park’s tourism infrastructure is notable as is his assistance to expand broadband.
On the negative side, he’s made a number of troubling appointments to the APA and Lake George Park Commission of people who are openly hostile to the core environmental protection missions of these agencies, or even worse, clueless as to the core mission. His administration green lighted loosening of clearcutting regulations, expanded the bobcat hunting limits in the state, pushed the troubling NYCO Constitutional Amendment, green lighted massive stream and river habitat destruction after Tropical Storm Irene, forced the APA to modify a towers permits to the detriment of the Bicknell’s Thrush, supported the Adirondack Club & Resort mega-development and problematic final review and approval, whittled the DEC state lands management budget to the bone, green lighted major construction of road-like snowmobile trails throughout the Forest Preserve, and undermined ambitious actions for invasive species protections.
Hopefully with the Essex Chain Lakes and Hudson River classifications, the Governor will make a big investment in the Adirondack Park’s wilderness and environmental integrity.
Photo provided by Carl Hielman II.