I have no right, and certainly possess inadequate, incomplete knowledge and understanding to write anything comprehensive about the Commissioner. But throughout four challenging years as head of the DEC, working for a very controlling boss, the Commissioner seemed to remain true to himself. From my point of view, he listened, welcomed input, kept his good sense of humor, could disagree without being disagreeable, and at times privately welcomed criticism of DEC’s performance, capacity and budget. While others in his position might get prickly under similar circumstances, Joe remained approachable.
Joe loves being in the outdoors, and it regularly showed these past four years. After hiking up Sleeping Beauty Mountain last year for a Wilderness 50th Anniversary program, he responded on his arrival: “just another day in the office.” His DEC took the Wilderness anniversary seriously and his representatives actively participated in events throughout the year.
He also showed up at many indoor functions. Many fine DEC employees retired during his tenure. From what I could observe, the Commissioner attended and spoke warmly at many retirement ceremonies (and much else) despite his crazy schedule. I particularly noted Joe appearing for the retirement of DEC’s Director of Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, Craig Thompson, despite having several other events to attend that very night. Showing up is a big part of life, as is loyalty to your troops. Joe excelled here – and doubtless had a great secretary to help him. His announcement this week that the new Catskill Visitor Interpretive Center would be named for former Congressman (and NYS Assemblyman) Maurice Hinchey, is another example of the Commissioner’s grasp of important symbols as well as substance.
And the Commissioner was certainly loyal to his boss. The Governor’s decision not to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the State clearly had the Commissioner’s full support, leading to this week’s official “finding” that such development was not worth the great health and environmental risks. This truly “conservative” response running against the tide of a nation in thrall to maximum exploitation of gas and oil development will remain one of the Commissioner’s legacies. Inside the DEC as well as outside, the Commissioner no doubt had to carefully manage the HVHF review process and decision, as mineral and gas exploration has a strong DEC constituency. I am quick to say that these issues are by no means over. Gas pipelines and compressors delivering fracked gas from Pennsylvania through New York to the northeast coast pose serious environmental risks and those appear to be moving ahead. I am glad that the Commissioner changed course this spring and required an Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the proposed oil heating facilities at the Port of Albany that appear to place many Albany residents at risk.
The Environmental Protection Fund, its amount, use and integrity, was very important to the Commissioner, who was at Mario Cuomo’s side when that Governor signed the EPF bill 22 years ago this month. The EPF appropriation was reduced to $134 million when the Commissioner came in, and is now $177 million, a modest but significant increase after the Great Recession. The Commissioner and his staff had to work hard internally in the Cuomo Administration and in the Legislature to achieve this.
Another achievement under Commissioner Martens is the advancement of land protection in the State, including 61,000 acres of the Finch lands added (or soon to be) to the Adirondack Forest Preserve and other important lands for the Catskill Forest Preserve near Belleayre, and elsewhere in the State of course. The Commissioner was very committed to each project, large and small. During his tenure, many back-logged conservation projects like Cat and Thomas Mountains above Lake George were finally acquired by the State.
The management and stewardship of those landscapes in our time remains controversial. The Commissioner took the Governor’s direction and has expanded public access and recreation that can have great public benefit, but also can have negative environmental consequences for the Forest Preserve and therefore may conflict with State Land guidelines and other laws, including the Constitution. There have been and will continue to be sharp public objections to efforts by DEC to take short-cuts around its obligations under the State Land Master Plan.
Extreme weather events, the cost in lives, health and property and other damage and how to respond certainly marked the Commissioner’s time in office, as it will his successors. The Governor, Joe and the DEC were part of a first response team when Irene, and Lee and Sandy so changed us all. As the Governor stated, this the “new normal.” Commissioner Martens had to accelerate DEC’s climate awareness and leadership without over-reacting, as the Governor did by allowing Adirondack and Catskill rivers and streams to be channelized in 2011 under an emergency order.
Many commissioners have had at least one run-in with the meaning and integrity of Article XIV of our State Constitution, the forever wild clause pertaining to the Catskill and Adirondack Forest Preserve. Joe had his run-in with that Article at Lot 8 in the Jay Mountain Wilderness, Essex County, when the Governor insisted that DEC back a constitutional amendment for exploratory mining and a potential land exchange with NYCO Minerals – in the view of Adirondack Wild, purely for the convenience of that corporation. Another amendment that the Commissioner backed, to resolve century-old land title disputes along Raquette Lake, was far more in keeping with the limited scope and purposes of amendments and enjoyed far broader support. The Commissioner at least recognized that he could not allow NYCO to drill by administrative action. Nor did he appear to take the policy disagreement personally. I recall other Commissioners who, in a somewhat similar circumstance, did. A newly appointed DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata was very surprised twenty years ago this month that Article XIV prevented him from issuing an administrative decision to remove and salvage trees blown down in the Five Ponds Wilderness area.
Given his extensive State and nonprofit experiences, it is fair to say that Joe Martens has a much deeper awareness and appreciation of Article XIV (and much else) than some of his predecessors. And that leads to my concern that the Governor’s next nominee for the job may lack the same level of experience and appreciation. Article XIV is one of those frustrating but vital constraints on administrative discretion, as well as a beneficial, protective, legal standard to reach for, and obligation to care that makes our State unique on the planet.
I end where I began, on a personal note of appreciation for the hard work and great efforts of Commissioner Martens on behalf of our common environments. There is much more to say about him and his DEC legacy best left for the passage of time and for those with greater or different perspective and knowledge.
Photo: Commissioner Martens announcing the Cat and Thomas Mountain addition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve.