Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Adirondack-Abruzzo Park Exchange

Abruzzo-National-Park-ItalyThere is a fruitful global partnership for parks and protected areas among people all over the globe. I see this reflected, for example, in each issue of the international Journal of Wilderness (Chad P. Dawson, Editor).  For Americans who have given the world the gift of wilderness in law it sh

ould be inspiring to read about or witness. There is no reason to be cynical or hopeless. Look around the world to witness what our example (Yellowstone, 1872, Forever Wild, 1894, National Parks, 1916, National Wilderness Preservation, 1964, etc.) has wrought.  That is, in part, why we were motivated to  launch Adirondack Wild in 2010 – to take hope and inspiration from people who care deeply about their remaining wilderness, here or anywhere, and who are busy restoring it through every possible means.

One of those hopeful places is Europe, where restoring habitats and migratory linkages for wolf, bear, lynx and their prey base has taken a firm hold. I had a glimpse of that in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park over 15 years ago. There, an exchange to share information with the Adirondack Park was signed by our NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (John P. Cahill, Commissioner) in 1997 and a Park exchange was led by several visionaries, principally New York’s Paul Bray and Abruzzo Park’s Director Franco Tassi.  The two Parks share a long history of political and regional debate, long-established human population centers, a mixture of public and private land, a concentration of visitors and tourist amenities at the edge of large expanses of forests and mountain wilderness.

Abruzzo exchangeThanks to Bray and Tassi, for a few years there was a creative exchange of ideas and practical steps for strengthening “the Park effect” in Italy and in the Adirondacks – for all the Parks’ intrinsic values and to increase Park tourism and those forms of economic development resting upon the health of the ecosystem.  During this period, Adirondack Park Agency chair Dick Lefebvre, APA  executive director Dan Fitts, and Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Director Stu Buchanan were active promoters of “Park effect” in the Adirondacks. Joining them on several exchange trips to Italy’s Abruzzo were then North Elba Supervisor Shirley Seney, then Inlet Supervisor J.R. Risley, Lake Placid News columnist Naj Wikoff, then Adirondack Museum Director Jackie Day and Adirondack Discovery founder Joan Payne, former Tug Hill Commission director Bob Quinn,  then Paul Smith’s College president George Miller and many others.  I was fortunate to participate on behalf of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.

Zone-System-Abruzzo-National-ParkAbruzzo National Park is 110,000 acres in size, with a larger zone of influence around it southeast of Rome, situated in the heart of the central Apennine chain of mountains.  It takes in 3 Italian Provinces and, when I was there, 22 municipalities.  Adirondackers learned about Abruzzo thanks to Albany’s Paul Bray, a Park consultant, planner and columnist –  who befriended Franco Tassi while completing a Rome Fellowship. Together, they launched the Abruzzo-Adirondack Exchange.  Tassi’s many talents were on display throughout. He combined expertise in the law with wildlife biology, courage, charm and charisma.  His gift was to apply wildlife restoration and education in the Park’s communities, and promote it among his fellow Italians as a net economic benefit.

Over the course of thirty years as Park director, he hired a professional staff, conducted wildlife research, published Park discovery guides, created a corps of 1000 student Park volunteers,  and transformed the war-torn Abruzzo region from a culture of overhunting to one of wildlife nurturing. At its heart were his efforts to professionalize the Park and to restore the region’s charismatic wildlife to the mountains and valleys – the Apennine wolf, the Marsican brown bear, the lynx, the Abruzzo chamois, the roe and red deer. He then promoted wildlife tourism and related economic investment with his superiors in Rome and with municipalities inside the Park. By the 1990s, he was busy creating international linkages with parks in the USA and all over the world.

Image0001In all this, we sensed he was successful. In the week we spent in Abruzzo in fall, 1998, we went wolf howling with Park rangers, had phenomenal sightings of chamois and red deer in the high country, saw brown bear tracks, and learned about new efforts to restore lynx. And we had a glimpse into how Tassi managed his human constituents. Tassi knew the vast majority of his Park visitors never ventured far into the mountains with a backpack, but still deserved the full “Park effect” in the town centers.  He and his staff therefore opened the Park’s seven visitor centers featuring the wolf, the bear, even Park insects. At the time, these were attracting two million visitors annually and were viewed with pride by each host community as they competed for visitation.  Private businesses, including artisan shops, opened around them.

For lunch one day during our visit, Tassi hired a chef to prepare the most delicious “snack” amidst a grove of European beech trees. None of us will ever forget that snack.  In the evening, we would go to a ristorante and stay late, drink wine, maybe dance, while Tassi huddled with local influentials. We learned he was using economic incentives and promises of new infrastructure made possible through the European Union as bargaining chips to keep the Park wild and professionally managed – with wildlife conservation as job one.

Tassi and his staff also visited the Adirondack Park on quite a few occasions during the exchange agreement. He charmed us all out of our trees. “Parks are places where people meet easily and congenially, ”he’d say with a big smile. In one speech he gave at the Hotel Saranac, Tassi said “having five ancient villages within Abruzzo National Park makes the political problems of co-existence very complicated.” What a master of understatement. Political life in Italy (or America) is not for the faint of heart. Tassi had to be a master negotiator to keep his vision alive, and even to keep him safe. His life had been threatened in the past.  But, he told us, “we are showing that the Abruzzo National Park can be self-sustaining.”

After more than 30 years, Tassi’s job was not sustained. He lost political support. Two years after our trip, Paul Bray asked us to write to Prime Minister Berlusconi asking him to restore Tassi as director. We did write, but it was not to be. None of us will forget him. Nor will we forget that he and his staff challenged us by example: to sense our own Adirondack Park mission keenly and to embrace it strongly, and to lead with that mission in mind;  to encourage “park effect,” a mix of education, interpretation and hospitality, in Adirondack towns and villages; to open and fund visitor learning centers for the vast majority of visitors who do not use the backcountry;  and to know that without healthy, endemic Adirondack wildlife with interconnected habitats, the Adirondack Park is mere scenery. Tassi would be pleased by the Wild Center in Tupper Lake and the Adirondack Museum’s evolution, but he would urge the Park community to create more, smaller visitor centers scattered around the Park. He would also be pleased with the wealth of area colleges engaged in Park semesters and Park projects, and with students as backcountry stewards in our wilderness areas. He would applaud and encourage us to go further.

Photos from above, Abruzzo National Park in Italy; the exchange team visits the Abruzzo; the protected areas of Abruzzo are divided into zones; the exchange team with Franco Tassi (kneeling 1st row in center) after our snack at Abruzzo National Park.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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