At the end of September I attended the “Strengthening the APA” conference organized by our sister publication the Adirondack Explorer and held at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center. The day’s events, the roles and reactions of the various players in attendance have spurred me to write a series on various aspects of the Adirondack Park Agency and its ongoing role in the Adirondacks.
I invite Almanack readers to read the series of articles on the APA which have been published in the Adirondack Explorer over the last year (this one, by Phil Terrie, is the last in that initial series). This is important work and part of a larger process – of which the conference was a part – that will culminate in a detailed proposal to revise the Agency and the Act which defines it. Nothing I have to say is part of that process, nor will it overlap it. For my purposes writing in the Almanack I consider myself an outside advocate.
And what am I advocating for? For the APA itself. From my point of view the rhetoric or even outright vitriol directed at the APA from all sides is trivial, needlessly politicized and mostly off the mark. This is not to say that all or even most criticism of APA policies is invalid or inappropriate. It is to target the rhetoric itself, to say that adversarial language that frames the APA in personal terms, literally as a person with intent – maybe a bad boy with evil purposes or a bumbler or an Eddie Haskell who can’t be trusted – is a needless and counter-productive tactic. It pushes past and through the APA – which of course is not a person – to the people who support the position(s) under attack and paints them with the same brush by association, making the debate nastier and trivializing the APA’s role to that of a conduit. More important it creates a sense of much greater political dysfunction and arch maneuvering than is actually the case. I’m convinced that this is counter-productive. It certainly does a disservice to the public servants who work there.
Does it have to be that way? No. Make no mistake: despite fears I heard expressed from multiple corners before the event and a few rumors after the event, this conference was positive, constructive and almost entirely absent the kind of divisive rhetoric people have come to expect in Adirondack politics. Kudos to the organizers, who were very thoughtful in how they positioned and ran the conference. Most of all kudos to the participants and their wealth of excellent ideas and viewpoints.
Of course we know that outside the confines of the VIC, the conference and the post-conference wine and cheese hour, reality can be a little more testy. Because the heart of APA’s role in the park is land use, that most sacred of American cows, the APA is – whether it wants to be or not – at the center of most controversies in the Adirondacks.
There are two pretty clearly defined sides in this game, as everyone knows, though to designate them so is gross over-simplification. On the one side are what one might call the economic advocates who want jobs in the park and the freedom to engage in what they see as reasonable development and recreation without a government agency dictating what those things are. On the other side are the environmental advocates who want the APA to fully embrace its role as defender of the environmental and ecological integrity of the park. Both sides have recently taken to describing the APA as a pendulum swinging back and forth, a metaphor I find vaguely amusing.
Some might privately favor the metaphor of a punching bag swinging back and forth. True, there seems to be general agreement that the really nasty divisiveness over the APA has cooled in recent years. After all, shots are not being fired and barns are not being burned. But in conversation after conversation I continue to hear skepticism, even cynicism over the prospects for a more cooperative mileau. One long-timer in APA affairs at the conference told me that in his experience there is a contingent in the Adirondacks that will always hate the APA with a passion and will never let it go. I’m sure he’s right.
But here is where I cannot help but bring an outsider’s point of view. As I have stated before on other issues I have written about in the park, I continue to experience a certain lack of perspective, a certain myopia. The fact is that the level of divisiveness in Adirondack politics, in the lingo of the political world I come from, ain’t nothing. My political teeth were cut in Chicago, a political arena that makes the stuff in the Adirondacks look like a tussle over decorations at the local prom.
This is no idle comparison – it matters because politics is ultimately about people and the power they wield, or seek to wield. Let me delve into it a little to make clear what I mean.
For a period of time I worked as an activist in landlord tenant relationships on the south side of Chicago. What began as a series of complaints about a broken elevator in one building went from a local action to the big time when a series of robberies and sexual assaults that were direct results of decrepit and unsafe buildings amped up the stakes. The powerful Southeast Chicago Commission got involved, the local alderman who at the time was very influential got behind us and before long we were at the table with as heavy a set of political hitters as you get in Chicago (it didn’t hurt either that the neighborhood in question was the home of then-Mayor Harold Washington).
This kind of politics is something else. You have people with tremendous power and the egos to go with it. There are certainly public servants at the table with good intentions but there are also power brokers whose true intentions are not clear, whose agendas go well beyond the stated issues. Often they are the same people and as a result you can literally feel integrity and ethics take a back seat to gain and leverage. Our white knight in the game was our alderman who had a squeaky clean reputation as a maverick and straight player. But to watch him wheel and deal was an object lesson in back room politics. A few years after I worked with him he went to prison on bribery and tax evasion charges, cementing my fall from innocence on matters political.
Since then I have rounded out my political resume with experiences at every level of government and have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the beginning, middle and end of politics is the nature of the people with whom you are dealing. Trust can be a rare commodity in big time politics.
When it comes to the constituencies on either side of the APA, trust is not a word I would employ to describe each side’s view of the other. Sadly, trust is not a word I’d employ to describe each side’s view of the APA either. The rhetoric surrounding the APA sounds little different than the rhetoric anywhere else in politics, from Chicago to the Federal budget showdown. But here’s the thing: it’s simply not the same kind of climate at all.
I count among my many Adirondack friends and associates people on both sides of APA issues. On neither side do I know a single person who does not proceed from a strong sense of integrity about the park. Agendas, points of view, are clear. Common ground is far more in evidence than rhetoric would have you believe. I may not agree with some of the people I’m talking about, but there is no one I would not trust, including people who get publicly vilified all the time. Call me naive if you will, but do so at your peril: I have far too much experience in politics to be stupid about these things.
Most important, this sense of the people involved in the politics extends to the APA itself. Three former Chairmen or Commissioners of the APA held forth near the end of the conference, giving their long-term perspectives. They were not necessarily in agreement about what the APA can do to be more effective. But when each of them spoke there was nothing less than a nobility in the air. These were true public servants, speaking from a deep sense of commitment to the Adirondacks. After the formal program was done I had the chance to visit with both APA Chairwoman Lani Ulrich and Executive Director Terri Martino. We talked about the park, about singing, about surveying, about a variety of things. I found them to be cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. I trust them reflexively as good people upon who one can rely from the get-go. That insight matters to me and it defies so much of the nonsense that is written about the APA.
Some may say that this is all sweet and has nothing to do with the tough political issues we debate in the Adirondacks. I think that point of view is tragic. The park is fortunate to have a disproportionate share of good people on all sides of these issues, starting with the APA itself. It is from that good fortune that we can begin to find consensus if we can rise above petty rhetoric. This isn’t Chicago politics in the early 1980’s; some just make it sound that way.
There is much more to write about down the road, particularly the opportunities to proceed on common ground and ways that might be done. But first and foremost, I write to champion the Adirondack Park Agency, the good people who lead it and work there and the tremendously challenging public service they give to the Adirondack Park. I don’t agree with all they do by any means. But I trust them. That’s where I start.