Saturday, November 8, 2014

Commentary: Summon The Will To Address Land Issues

APSLMP - LogoNearly a year ago I posted an informal poll here at the Almanack in order to measure which issues facing the Adirondack Park were considered most important to readers. At the time my purpose was to prove my suspicion that human diversity, the issue I considered most critical to the future of the region, was not on the collective radar. The poll results supported my contention and started a conversation that has grown into multiple initiatives. I couldn’t be happier about that. But now I want to return to the poll for a different purpose.

The poll has remained active and a few more people have taken it, breaking a couple of ties. Here are the current results:

 

RankIssueWeighted  Score /10
1Land Use Law, Policy and Practice4.16
2State Agencies, Polices and Regulations4.71
3Invasive Species4.91
4The Regional Education System4.94
5Watershed Protection4.96
6Climate Change5.26
7Tourism5.64
8Scientific and Technological Advancement6.47
9The Regional Health Care System6.57
10Socioeconomic/Racial Population Diversity7.37

 

As stark as the divide is between the other issues and diversity at the bottom of the rankings, the divide between the other issues and land use and policy at the top of the rankings is nearly as great – both are more than half a point. To anyone who knows the Adirondacks the fact that land use was number one by a wide margin is no surprise.

Why then aren’t we talking about it more?

We are in a time of great changes in land use and policy in the Adirondacks. The State is in the middle of the largest acquisition of land in more than a century. Just one part of that acquisition, the Essex Chain, has spurred a contentious dispute as old as the Forest Preserve itself: how to balance protection with recreational use. Now, motivated in part by planning for the Essex Chain, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) has elected to open the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) to review for the first time in nearly two decades. The New York State Open Space Conservation Plan is under public review at the same time. Meanwhile major private developments, most notably the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake and the expansion of NYCO’s mining operations, have led to a deeper examination of the APA, how it functions and how to strengthen it. The NYCO development even led to a controversial amendment to Article XIV of the New York State Constitution, the legendary Forever Wild Article. If ever there was a time to pay attention to land use law, policy and practice – the very issue Almanack readers voted number one in importance – now is it.

Yet consider some other rankings. In the last two months the Almanack has published thirty articles directly related to land use policy in the park (and many more indirectly related). There have been nine articles specifically about the opening of the SLMP, which is a huge matter for the future of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. But a single post on the Adirondack railroad corridor (about which there have been four articles) had more reader comments than all of the SLMP articles combined. All told readers have been commenting on the railroad corridor at four times the rate that they have been commenting on the SLMP.

You may consider any measurement of Almanack reader comments to be poor evidence of a trend (and to an extent you’d be right). But the trend is common across the domain of public discourse. The same kind of interest or lack thereof is evident at all the major media sites in the region. Public hearings on the rail corridor have been packed. By contrast the recent public hearing on the Open Space Plan had five people in attendance.

I don’t mean to pick on the railroad dispute. I myself have devoted a lot of ink to it and I believe it is very important to the economy of the communities through which it passes. But quite frankly it does not have the importance of the SLMP or the APA’s Land Use and Development Plan, which have at their base the very form of the entire park. So where is the passion?

I have my own ideas about the lack of engagement and they trouble me. I fear for the staying power our culture has over issues that are deeper and more difficult, that are not as sexy or dramatic, that play out over the long haul more than the short haul.

The Forest Preserve and the wilderness it contains is the raison d’etre for all matters Adirondack and a long-haul issue if ever there was one. At this crucial time in the story of the Park’s land preservation we need to summon the will power to give it our fullest attention even if its direct impact, in a region this size, is not as visceral as some other issues. We need to be involved.

 

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




17 Responses

  1. Matthew Rogers says:

    From my perspective, the general public rarely gets directly involved in policy discussions surrounding land use issues. The well known exemption is when there is a controversial proposal or project that gets people all fired up. Working in the field of community planning, I have seen this occur quite often.

    Regarding the State’s Open Space Plan, I imagine most people have no idea such a plan exists and likely could care less. That is where professionals and dedicated citizens need to conduct sufficient outreach and education in an effort to increase input and raise awareness.

    The Land Use and Development Plan is a very tough issue to discuss. Anytime I have seen the issue brought up online – instead of a healthy and productive debate, the discussion quickly descends into negative comments. Most people then throw up their hands and move on. I believe the discourse regarding the APA has been improving over the last decade or so.

    To facilitate a productive and healthy debate, it will need to be cast in the light of improving the Park for residents, visitors and business owners and less on regulations. An possible starting point could be “How can changes be made to facilitate economic growth and enhance our local communities” I will end by saying local communities will need to take the lead.

  2. Barbara Franklin says:

    Oh they’re talking about land use.
    In my opinion the rail/trail debate is just an aspect of land use policy and more concrete. It’s something people can grasp. So maybe the lesson is to make “Land Use” more personal, more concrete by using specific examples of the changes a new designation brings. In all honesty every one of your choices ultimately is Land Use, from invasives to water quality. It all comes down to marketing and personalizing it to get the passion and commitment of effort and discourse

    • mike says:

      Education, health care and diversity are not about land use. These are 3 of Pete’s list of 10 items.

      As important as land use is, it is far from the only item of importance in the region. The Forest Preserve, wonderful for sure, is only half the land.

      Maybe what Pete is seeing is that the SLMP is not an everyday issue for most people. The advocates fight constantly about land use – it is their raison d’etre. But key things like education, health care and diversity are starving for attention.

      All the noise about the rail trail, woods roads, etc. These are all land use issues. They get way too much attention.

      “All matters Adirondack” are not, and cannot be simply about the forest preserve. That is a really narrow assertion to make. Anyone who lives here for a while knows that. On this site, things like health care and education are not written about. But that reflects this readership, not the real world of everyday life here.

  3. Ed Zahniser says:

    Pete’s last paragraph should be required to be printed on the stationery and email and all other official communications of the APA and DENCON. To wit:

    “The Forest Preserve and the wilderness it contains is the raison d’etre for all matters Adirondack and a long-haul issue if ever there was one. At this crucial time in the story of the Park’s land preservation we need to summon the will power to give it our fullest attention even if its direct impact, in a region this size, is not as visceral as some other issues. We need to be involved.”

    Failing that, they should be required to use the first sentence: “The Forest Preserve and the wilderness it contains is the raison d’etre for all matters Adirondack and a long-haul issue if ever there was one.”

    Great job, Pete!

  4. Lorraine Duvall says:

    At APA headquarters last week I asked about obtaining the most recent edition of the SLMP and was told to download the PDF file from the website and print it myself – that there were no funds for the APA to provide printed copies of the SLMP to us taxpayers.

    This situation got me thinking about priorities. Understanding we are talking about different pots of money, I still cannot reconcile the readily available 2011 update to the questionable Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP) report (saw a stack of them at DEC Headquarters in Ray Brook last year) to the difficulties in obtaining a printed copy of the most important document that governs our Park.

    Accessibility comes in many forms.

    • mike says:

      Saves trees, don’t print anything unless you have to sign it. Read it on a screen.

      Most government docs should not be printed.

      Just this past election we amended our constitution so legislators could get electronic docs instead of paper,a defeat for the paper lobby and saving some $50 million. If needed, every library has a connection where you can sit and read it.

      Only print what you must. Save the trees and the energy and pollution involved in making paper. Lower your carbon footprint. Read a screen.

      APRAP was printed with private money, what a waste. Taxpayer money should not be spent on printing anything. Go green.

      • Lorraine Duvall says:

        Green is good.

        To study I need to have a document that I can see, mark up, show others, without taking a computer everywhere. And it may be hard to believe, but not all people are tied to their electronic devices.

        There are many ways to be green.

        • mike says:

          You can read it on a feather weight pad, they are cheap. You can mark it up, show it to friends or share it world wide without spending a dime or using fossil fuel to ship paper around. No need to drive to the APA get a copy….save your gas money and the climate too.

          It is not about being tethered to any device. It is about wasteful use of wood, energy and water resources involved in paper, printing and shipping. Sorry but being green has every day dimensions now. I hope you get it. The APA did exactly the right thing not printing this anymore and should be congratulated, not chided, for it.

          If you must have paper then print it yourself instead of using taxpayer funds. But I speak for the trees when I ask you to stop. Think about it…..before you print something next time. This is not some joke. It is what we all must do and it needs leaders like you.

  5. Paul says:

    It didn’t take this thread long to veer off topic!

    “To print or not to print”. That is the true question!

    On the topic:

    I think that most folks don’t see major land use changes in tweaking these type of plans. If you are a real stickler than sure but for most people I don’t think so.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Aha! That there is the issue, alright. The extent to which one agrees with your claim versus my claim that this “tweaking” is a much bigger deal, that’s the question.

  6. Hawthorn says:

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least. It is hard to rally people around huge, diverse issues. Look at what any politician worth his stripes does in every election. They use sound bites, they try to seize on some tiny issue that people can get passionate about, and then they keep repeating themselves over and over again. Something like “planning” is too big, too vague to capture the attention of many. Instead of worrying that the masses don’t get it, with something like this it is more important to pull the strings and levers of power behind the scenes. This is where we need strong and well-connected environmental organizations like ADK, Protect, the Sierra Club, etc. to play an important part.

    • Paul says:

      I agree. look at the democratic primary. Teachout was a master. no matter the question the answer was “stop fracking (I agree) and more money for education (I also agree)”. but never a real answer. It is all about sound bites on all sides. This issue is way too complicated.

  7. Greg says:

    Another thoughtful article Pete. I have have enjoyed reading your work, usually twice. Perhaps it’s because our minds are wired alike (I’m a former math professor now in industry).

    I have another take on the ‘lack of passion’ you describe for the SLMP, and that is the vast majority of the public is in support of the current plan and/or identified changes. While a rail trail would be a sweeping change to the existence of a corridor, and deserves much attention, the proposed amendments at face value are incremental at best, and trivial at the scale of ~2.6 million state-owned acres. There is little to talk about by the general public.

    Now, to a minority of people on both extremes of the access vs wilderness debate, any movement in the opposite direction is bad and worth shouting from mountain tops , but I would bet if you asked most someone unfamiliar with the SLMP who have visited the Essex Chain roads if mountain biking should be allowed, they would wonder why it is not already. After-all, trucks still drive on some (all?) of the roads. Heated discussion only comes with conflict.

    I disagree that “The Forest Preserve and the wilderness it contains is the raison d’etre for ***all*** matters Adirondack…” That depends on your definition of “Adirondack”. The Adirondack Mountains are far more than just state owned lands, and they were never intended to be completely wild. Unlike the national parks, they are an entangled ecosystem of people, an economy, forests, history, and more. To sensationalize the SLMP as holy and ignore the other components will not work.

    My personal take: I’m overall happy with the SLMP as written and most of the proposed amendments. That said, I’m indifferent if most are passed. Biking on logging roads? Fine. Grooming selective ski trails in wild forest, sure. Float planes to selective back country lakes…still thinking about, but not outright opposed. Update the snowmobile trail definition to not equal foot-trail, yes, but will need to read that closely as Tug-hill style snowmobile trails (30+ feet wide) is not appropriate either.

  8. Pete Nelson says:

    Greg:

    Thanks for reading and for your well-thought comments. So far as I can tell the considered ground you occupy in your thinking about potential impacts on the Forest Preserve is not necessarily all that different than mine. The difference between us is in how big a deal we think opening the SLMP to amendment is.

    Whether this review is a little deal or a big deal is not a simple matter and can benefit from some perspective. Let’s explore your example. Essex Chain roads may or may not be appropriate for mountain bikes. I agree with you that on the scale of the entire park the matter seems small.

    But how in fact do we decide if these roads are appropriate for mountain bikes? Surely not because a casual visitor unfamiliar with the SLMP wondered why not. What if an important wildlife corridor is disturbed by a road? What if runoff and erosion is disrupting an aquifer? (my previous column on the importance of ecological integrity was all about these kinds of questions)

    But the issue is bigger than that. Are we making a decision only for the Essex Chain? Or are we making a decision for all Primitive Areas? How is that decided? And if it is decided that all Primitive Areas areas are to be opened to mountain biking then what happened to the stated intent in the SLMP that Primitive Areas be so designated temporarily, with a goal to reclassify them to Wilderness Areas as soon as non-conforming structures and uses can be eliminated? Is that distinction still important and if so, what would be the impact of such a major policy change? If the distinction between Primitive and Wilderness Areas gets blurred, what then about mountain bikes in Wilderness Areas?

    I don’t think for one second that examining how deep these changes might reverberate requires a person to be situated at one “extreme” or the other, to use the word you used. I have seen proposed changes from a few interest groups and clearly these groups are looking at much broader changes than just the fate of Essex Chain roads.

    Perhaps our difference fundamentally stems from our disagreement over whether the Forest Preserve is the reason for all matters Adirondack. No one argues the relevance – and entanglement – of the the public/private balance of land in the Park. The SLMP gains greater importance specifically for that entanglement and I put the importance of the Private Land Use and Development plan on equal footing. But we take these measures and have these debates precisely because the Adirondack region has ecologically intact wilderness and open space on a grand scale. These are ever more rare and precious things. Without protected wilderness the Adirondacks would just be another rural area with its requisite problems: gentrification, flight, poverty, unemployment and the rest. The whole point is that the Adirondack Park is different because it has sublime protected wild places. That’s what makes it worth the attention.

    • Greg says:

      Pete:

      I agree that we’re on the same page, but differing on magnitude. Perhaps it is the difference of one word. You wrote “The difference between us is in how big a deal we think opening the SLMP to amendment is.” I would change that to “…opening the SLMP to amendment *could* be”. Perhaps I’m missing an opportunity.

      As I mentioned, I have not heard of any off-the-wall proposals gain any traction. If ATV’s were to be genuinely considered allowed in the wilderness, that is an all hands on deck for most all of us. As mentioned, I’m overall happy with the current SLMP and largely indifferent few proposals that have gained traction, particularly this early in the process. Even thinking though the 2nd- and 3rd-level implications, there is nothing that makes me jump out of my seat for discussions that your original article was pushing for.

      Continuing with the mountain bike example, I agreed that there needs to be science behind decisions, but also common sense. No one that I know of is discussing keeping all the Essex Chain roads open for automobiles or even at full-width for bikes. Converting existing roads to biking trails similar to found in the Black River Wild Forest (McKeever) is probably an appropriate use of the roads in their current form. That may not be the case in 30 years, but it is my understanding that we are discussing the ability for bikes to exist, not entitle their indefinite use.

      Regarding primitive areas turning to wilderness, that is undoubtedly an issue, but also what this amendment process is for. I see no problem with allowing the *ability* for mountain bikes to be permitted in all primitive areas, defined on a case-by-case basis when appropriate with a UMP. After all, primitive areas are for when the region is not a wilderness. If a primitive region were to turn to wilderness in the future, that would mean no bikes at that time. I am open to hearing more about this, but worry less about the slippery slope as I would imagine the SLMP would only permit, not entitle usage.

      While others may focus on increasing the number of activities which should be excluded from each classification, I personally would like to see more activities selectively allowed via a UMP when they make sense. As more lands are acquired, perhaps the binary wilderness/wild forest is not enough. We’ve already seen that with the St. Regis Canoe Area and fire tower historic areas. Perhaps primitive becomes a third option in the future? While many may initially balk at this thought, it may be better to morph what is essentially wilderness back a bit, than dial the wild forest concept forward.

      This is all somewhat based in my personal fear that in 30-50 years if more and more lands are acquired and set to wilderness and/or general public access is removed (eg. close roads, no mechanical transportation, etc), there may be backlash from the general public. While Article 14 says “forever kept as wild forest lands”, my understanding is that nearly all other protections are at the whim of the APA/Legislature — including the concept of the wilderness designation.

      To the original point though, I also agree that one must not be situated at one “extremes” to examine the opportunity at hand. As I proposed, I believe the lack of public discussion on the current amendment opportunity is that many have read, thought, are happy with the current situation, and moving along unless something controversial comes along. To me, the lack of response is a sign of balanced stewardship. The exact opposite is happening with the rails trail debate. An opportunity has arisen, with significant proposed changes, differing from the current, which has created significant debate.

      • Pete Nelson says:

        Greg:

        I am largely in agreement. Your comment on the “binary” choice between Wilderness and Wild Forest leads me to wonder if you have seen Bill Ingersoll’s proposal (which he explicated here on the Almanack) to add a new “Back Country” classification. If not, look it up. It speaks directly to your questions. I thought it was a good idea, though I never decided if I’d support it for sure.

        Pete

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