Much is already being made about the great victory in passing Proposition 5 – the controversial Constitutional Amendment known as Proposition 5 that was approved by New Yorkers on November 5, 2013 to sell 200 acres of forever wild Forest Preserve in the Jay Mountain Wilderness to NYCO Minerals, Inc., a mining company that plans to incorporate it into its adjacent open pit mine.
I believe that some who are jubilant now will come to rue this day. If Forever Wild can’t be saved from the jaws of a mining company to be clearcut, blasted and mined, then when can it be saved?
The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and the Adirondack Council are crowing loudly about their victories on Proposition 4, the Township 40 land title dispute resolution, and Proposition 5, even touting a new alignment in Adirondack politics. The Adirondack Council sent a missive to its members about a new “Adirondack Council way” after the November 5th votes. This seems like a real stretch given their narrow victory on Prop 5. The gloating is also troubling given the lack of accolades for the enormous work by the Township 40 landowners to tell their story and promote Prop 4. Given that there was nary a peep of opposition to Prop 4, it’s remarkable that ADK and the Council are blowing their horns so loudly, and most uncharitably to those who worked the hardest to win Prop 4.
Prop 4 passed by a big margin (72% – 27%) and by over 1 million votes (1,651,043 – 622,600 according to the numbers reported late November 6th on the NYS Board of Elections website). Supporters of Proposition 4 won in a landslide.
If one was to crow about the effectiveness of unity across the political spectrum and among Adirondack conservation groups, then there is certainly a case to be made around the success of Prop 4. Unity wins in a landslide.
A 72% victory is a big deal. The lasting lesson about Prop 4 could be that it is an example, perhaps the best in recent years, of total unity across the political spectrum and that this unity delivered a resounding victory.
Prop 5 tells a different story.
The crowing by the ADK and the Adirondack Council around Prop 5 is funny given the narrow scope of their victory. The Council and ADK won 53% of the vote, but the victory of Prop 5 was built on a temporary coalition with the unions (with a big assist from the pro-casino efforts) and lots of mining company money. ADK and the Council don’t mention those facts as they celebrate.
Prop 5 passed by a narrow margin 53% – 47% (1,204,966 – 1,066,742). Yes, NYCO will get to buy 200 acres of Forest Preserve and the winners get to boast, but in the larger context of a vision for the Adirondack Park this is clearly a split decision. Any talk by ADK or the Adirondack Council of an endorsement of their vision for the Adirondacks by New Yorkers should be qualified that only 53% of New Yorkers endorse that vision.
Before we look at the long-term impacts of selling a piece of the Forest Preserve, it’s instructive to take a look at the actual numbers of the November 5th vote. They tell a very different story from the immediate spin of the Council and ADK about what pushed Proposition 5 over the top.
One important question is: Why did Proposition 5 pass by such a smaller margin than Proposition 4?
Over 620,000 New Yorkers voted no on Prop 4 and over 1,066,000 voted no on Prop 5. What moved 440,000 New Yorkers to switch their votes and vote no on Prop 5?
Note that 2,271,708 voted on Prop 5 and 2,273,643 voted on Prop 4; very close. It’s reasonable to conclude that people who cared on some level about the Forest Preserve voted on both propositions. Yet, 440,000 voters shifted from voting yes on Prop 4 to voting no on Prop 5.
What was it about Prop 5 that moved 440,000 New Yorkers to the “no” column from the “yes” column? It seems there were 620,000 no voters on Prop 4 who had openly rejected the advice and advocacy of all the Adirondack green groups and others to vote yes to resolve the Township 40 land disputes. This block likely voted no on Prop 5 too. Yet some 440,000 New Yorkers were moved to vote no on Prop 5 after, likely, voting yes on Prop 4. Why did these voters, in essence, split their tickets between Props 4 and 5?
I think the story of these 440,000 voters is found in who supported or opposed the different propositions. There are some key factors that I believe minimized the shift from Prop 4 yes to Prop 5 no.
Local government, state leaders, state government, Adirondack green groups, and most state green groups solidly backed Proposition 4. There was zero opposition. Every public official and group that supported Proposition 4 also supported Proposition 5 with some notable exceptions.
The difference with Proposition 5 was that NYCO/Behan Communication and the unions were actively engaged in supporting it, while Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild, and the Sierra Club, among others (NRDC, Atlantic States Legal Foundation, John Davis, Bill Ingersoll, Catskill Mountainkeeper), were actively engaged in opposing Prop 5.
By all rights, Prop 5 should have cruised to approval by the same margins as Prop 4. The difference, of course, is that Prop 5 was actively opposed.
Two factors more than any others seemed to have been decisive for pushing Prop 5 over the top. The first was the union voter turnout efforts. Upstate and Long Island counties where unions are strong (Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk) all saw big yes vote wins for Prop 5, much larger than most other counties in the state outside of the Adirondacks. I expected to lose most of Upstate counties narrowly outside of Tompkins and Ulster counties and a few others. With the union efforts we got royally stomped in the big union counties. In the days leading up to November 5th, I saw a path to victory where we’d win New York City by a large enough margin to beat losses Upstate and on Long Island. In the end, the New York City edge was minimal, largely due to the union voter outreach.
In New York City, Kings and New York counties saw more no votes on Prop 5, but the margins were not enormous. Queens and Richmond counties were nearly 50-50, while Bronx County saw more yes votes. Yet, in all these counties Prop 4 won really big. In New York County, Prop 4 was lopsidedly approved 132,000 – 41,000, while Prop 5 was voted down 94,000 – 77,000.
Friends and PROTECT members who live in New York City called me in the last days before the election and on Election Day about union voter outreach efforts that paired Prop 1 (the casino amendment) and Prop 5. This seems to have had the impact of suppressing the New York City Prop 5 no votes and stabilizing the yes vote. The union voter outreach efforts clearly worked. (One could also make an argument that spin-off casino voters helped pass Prop 5.)
In addition to the union voters, Behan Communications was very effective. They organized lots of favorable press (see an example here where the reporter never even stated he was part of an official NYCO tour), amplified endorsements and built an active web presence. NYCO invested a lot of money to make its case. Initial reports showed $400,000 in expenditures by NYCO and additional reports will come out in the weeks ahead that add to this figure. The work of Behan Communications was certainly well paid, but it was also formidable, and when combined with the union voter outreach efforts, proved decisive.
While the Adirondack Council and ADK are trumpeting a big victory on Prop 5, they benefited enormously from NYCO’s enormous financial investments and union voter outreach. Given that these factors were decisive in the election at suppressing no votes on Prop 5, I see claims by the Adirondack Council and ADK that Prop 5 shows an endorsement of their visions as flimsy.
ADK and the Adirondack Council benefited enormously from NYCO’s money and union voter outreach. These are hardly staple factors in Adirondack Park politics that will create a fundamental new alignment. Prop 5 was won by an effective, yet temporary coalition.
No matter how you spin it, this is a split decision. Any claim to leadership for a vision for the Adirondacks based on the Prop 5 vote is simply not credible. 53% is hardly a mandate for an overriding vision.
Protect the Adirondacks and the other groups who worked against Prop 5, were on the short end of the Prop 5 vote. This loss hurts, no doubt about it. But given the David-and-Goliath nature of this contest (and believe me I thought our slingshots had a chance to win it), we won a split decision.
On a much bigger issue the Adirondack Park lost in a really big way on November 5th. And this hurts even more. Passage of Prop 5 inflicts deep injury to Forever Wild and our vaunted Constitutional protections for the Forest Preserve.
When I look down the road at what the passage of Prop 5 means in the short- and long-terms, two things strike me.
In the short-run the big winner is NYCO Minerals, Inc. It stands to make lots of money from buying 200 acres of Forest Preserve.
In the long-run the big loser is the Forever Wild Forest Preserve. It will now face sustained troubled waters. Pandora’s Box has been opened.
The threats to Forever Wild are many and they are serious. The success of Prop 5 will embolden those who want a piece of the Forest Preserve or those who want to change it. The Common Ground Alliance’s signature success is the Adirondack Futures project. The majority of “futures” envisioned by this project involve ending or limiting Forever Wild. Adirondack Futures is managing a working group on a new land swap proposal that will streamline constitutional amendments. Undoubtedly, they are overjoyed by the passage of Prop 5.
In the months ahead, the Adirondack Park Agency will seek to expand clearcutting opportunities and streamline its rules and regs to make big clearcuts easier on private forestlands. A Wilderness classification for the former Finch lands around the Essex Chain Lakes is off the table at the APA and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as they map-out different options for a baby-Canoe area, Primitive area or a Wild Forest area all crisscrossed with road-sized snowmobile trails. If you think that the Boreas Lodge on Boreas Ponds will ever be torn down, keep dreaming.
The success of Prop 5 will embolden the Cuomo Administration and the APA and DEC to push even harder to rollback environmental protections for the Adirondack Park.
During the past 40 years, the Adirondack Park has experienced a number of profound environmental successes, from regional planning laws to the purchase and protection of nearly 1.4 million acres of Forest Preserve and conservation easements. Moose wandered back in and established a resident population. Turkeys and ravens, once scarce, now flourish. Bucking dominant national population trends for rural areas, the Park population has been mostly up through these decades. While over 36,000 new buildings were constructed since 1973 under APA zoning, there still remains in the Adirondacks a significant extensive core of intact forests unlike anywhere else east of the Mississippi River.
In the years ahead, many will come to rue this close vote on November 5, 2013. We’ll look back and see that the NYCO amendment marked the end of a period of sustained environmental protection and ushered in a new era of sustained environmental loss.
November 5, 2013 is hardly a day to celebrate.