As this year’s legislative session winds down, more public attention is focused on November’s vote whether or not convene a state constitutional convention in Albany.
As Article XIV – the “forever wild” clause – is of particular relevance to both the Adirondack and Catskill Park regions, I offer the following resolution approved by Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve this spring.
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve hereby resolves to:
- oppose a constitutional convention in New York State, and;
- encourage voters to vote “NO” in November 2017 on the question of whether there shall be a convention to revise the State Constitution.
The Question: On November 7, 2017 New York voters will be asked the question: Shall there be a constitutional convention to revise the state constitution and amend the same? Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve will encourage a “No” vote.
Forever Wild: Our “forever wild” 3 million acre Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks rests upon the enduring strength of NYS Constitution’s Article XIV, Section 1. No other state in the country and no other government on earth mandates that so much of their public forests shall be “forever kept as wild forest lands.”
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve considers it imperative that each generation vigorously defend the forever wild mandate, without which the Adirondack and Catskill Parks would be severely cut over, developed and fragmented. The biotic integrity, watershed, recreational and other unique and irreplaceable values of these great forest regions must be retained and embraced and, wherever possible, strengthened.
Commercial Interests Still Oppose Forever Wild: There always have been and remain politically motivated and commercial interests in this State that would weaken or do away entirely with Article XIV Section 1 – if they could. Some of these interests are powerful. A key question before us is whether we can trust that 204 elected and appointed delegates would retain Article XIV Section 1 intact.
Deliberation is Essential: In considering this question, Adirondack Wild bears in mind the alternative method to amend the State Constitution achieved through the more deliberative, annual legislative process. Any amendment or exception to forever wild (or any other article) should receive careful deliberation and debate over a significant length of time and statewide in order to ensure that exceptions to forever wild are narrow in scope, small in size, serve a very clearly justified public purpose, and are not undertaken to benefit commercial, corporate or parochial interests.
Between 1895 and 2013, Article XIV Section 1 has been amended to authorize 19 exceptions – such as the building of I-87 Northway, the construction of Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre Ski Centers, the safety of state highways bordering on Forest Preserve, and for many relatively small land exchanges. Each and every amendment must be considered and approved by two separately elected State Legislatures, and then survive a vote of the People in referendum. This deliberative process gives the public several years at minimum to debate an amendment.
In 2016 the importance of extensive deliberation was underscored when, after months of discussion limited to the NYS Senate, the NYS Assembly introduced important amendments to a public health and safety land account authorizing limited but vitally important utility installations and highway and bridge safety improvements along local Adirondack and Catskill highways bordering on the NYS Forest Preserve.
Studies are Needed: Moreover, for each amendment sufficient time must be granted – over the course of several years in some cases – to study the lands in question and conduct natural resource, wilderness and other assessments to inform a statewide decision whether or not to amend Article XIV.
Haste must be avoided: Over 150 amendments have been proposed since 1895 and due to the deliberative nature of this process and great public concern for Article XIV the vast majority have been rejected by the State legislature or by the voters.
By contrast, delegates at a constitutional convention could take as little as one day to consider, debate and potentially approve one or more amendments to Article XIV before that amendment or package of amendments was sent to the people for a vote. Even a few months of convention deliberation is insufficient to ensure that amendments are sufficiently studied and debated.
Cost of a Constitutional Convention: The cost of campaigning, electing and convening 204 delegates at a Constitutional Convention over the course of two years (starting from a 2017 vote, concluding with a 2019 Convention and Referendum) would be significant – conservatively estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars when factoring in delegate campaigning, elections, advertising, promotion, a convention itself, and the subsequent ballot questions.
On balance, while there are many important societal reasons to amend the New York State Constitution, and while there may be in fact be ways to improve on Article XIV, Sections 1-5 without in any way weakening its mandate, the legislative process for achieving this is preferable to a convention process because of the time the State Legislature provides for public consideration, study, debate, deliberation and improvements of any proposed amendment.
Article XIV, the Conservation Article in our State Constitution, directs in Section 1 that the Forest Preserve shall be forever kept as wild forest land and cannot be leased, sold or exchanged, or taken by any corporation, public or private. Section 1 is the bulwark protection behind the “forever wild” Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. Its broad mandate – 54 words – has never been amended since first approved in 1894. However, 19 exceptions to that Section 1 mandate for site specific development activities or land exchanges have been approved by the voters since 1895, the latest in 2013.
Article XIV Section 2 contains what remains of a 1913 amendment to allow 3% of the Forest Preserve to be used for municipal water supplies and for the State canal system.
Article XIV Section 3 allows, among other things, parcels of Forest Preserve 100 acres or smaller outside of the Adirondack and Catskill park boundaries to be rededicated to other purposes, or in extreme cases sold.
Article XIV Section 4 creates a Nature and Historical Preserve outside of the two parks and directs that it shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty.
Article XIV Section 5 allows any citizen to sue in the courts to enforce Article XIV by permission of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve’s position regarding amendments to Article XIV (from: Adirondack Park at a Crossroad, A Road Map for Action, 2015)
►All future amendments of Article 14 including land exchanges should be narrowly defined, specific in purpose and limited in scope. They must serve a well-documented need for public facilities or public services that cannot be provided in ways other than through an amendment. They should not be for the purpose of benefiting a private or public corporation and should never take public land for corporate or commercial purposes;
►Prior to consideration of first passage in the Legislature (or at a Constitutional Convention), the purpose, scope and public benefits of any proposed amendment to Article 14 should be discussed in public and in advance with legislative sponsors, and within the DEC Forest Preserve Advisory Committee;
► Public hearings should be scheduled across the state to discuss and debate the merits of amendment proposals prior to a statewide referendum;
►Prior to consideration of second passage, all lands affected by the amendment through a land swap, for example, should be competently surveyed and assessed by a team of scientists whose reports should be made public and be provided in a timely manner prior to consideration by the Legislature or a Constitutional Convention;
►If the amendment takes the form of a land exchange, it should be determined that the lands to be received for the Forest Preserve are actually available for transfer into the Forest Preserve, and be greater in acreage and in ecological, recreational or stewardship value than the lands to be removed from the Forest Preserve;
►During consideration of second passage, the important details of implementing legislation should accompany a constitutional amendment joint resolution; these details should be carefully considered in any vote on second passage.
► The State should never again attempt to auction off State Land in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks to the highest bidder. If there is ever any doubt about Forest Preserve status or the constitutionality of any action, an opinion by the State Attorney General should be sought.
For Immediate Release
May 9, 2017
Contact: David Gibson or Dan Plumley
(518) 469-4081 or (518) 524-7771
Adirondack Wild to Oppose a Constitutional Convention
Will urge a “No” vote on the question of whether or not to hold a convention
At its spring board meeting, the nonprofit organization Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve resolved to urge voters to vote “no” on the question of whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. That question will appear on the November 7 ballot.
“We’ve concluded that New Yorkers should not entrust our unique, 125 year-old “forever wild” constitutional protection of the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve to 204 politically well-connected delegates meeting for a brief period of time in Albany,” said Adirondack Wild’s David Gibson.
“While we very much entrust Article XIV to the people, the rules governing election of delegates to a convention favor the well-connected and the well-funded who may not appreciate or be inclined to enthusiastically support the vital watershed and other non-commercial values of the Forest Preserve in both the Adirondacks and the Catskills,” he said.
“In reviewing such an important public policy as Article XIV, haste should be avoided,” said Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley. “Sufficient public deliberation and debate over several years is essential to analyze any amendment or exception to our ‘forever wild’ Forest Preserve. A convention does not allow nearly enough time for that to take place.”
“New Yorkers who honor and safeguard Forever Wild should vote ‘no’ on a convention and continue to work the legislative process whenever amendments may prove absolutely necessary,” he added.
“New York already has a process for amending Article XIV when deemed necessary and in the public interest,” said Adirondack Wild’s Vice Chair Chris Amato. “In stark contrast to a constitutional convention, the current amendment process requires passage by two successive legislatures followed by a public referendum. This type of transparent and considered process is far superior to the one-shot political wheeling and dealing that would characterize a constitutional convention.”
There are also concerns about the cost of a convention. Adirondack Wild estimates that the cost could be very high, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“That cost cannot be justified given that constitutional questions and amendments can be considered through the annual legislative process,” Amato added.
Roughly 150 amendments have been proposed since 1895, but due to the public’s strong support for Article XIV most have been rejected in the State Legislature or at the polls. There have been just 19 amendments to Article XIV, Section 1’s directive that the lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,” and “not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
For example, amendments have authorized the construction of the Adirondack Northway and of Gore, Whiteface and Belleayre ski centers. These and the many land exchanges have all been approved through the multi-year legislative amendments, not through a convention. There are approximately three million acres of Forest Preserve inside the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and a much smaller amount outside the Parks but within defined Forest Preserve counties. All Forest Preserve is fully taxable. Annual tax payments support small towns, villages and school districts in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
Adirondack Wild’s policy is that amendments or exceptions to “forever wild,” including land exchanges should be narrowly defined, specific in purpose, limited in scope and serve a documented need for public facilities or public services that cannot be provided in ways other than through an amendment. Amendments should never be for the purpose of benefiting a private or public corporation and should never take public land for corporate or commercial purposes.
Further, Adirondack Wild expects that scientific surveys be done on Forest Preserve affected by a proposed amendment to determine if the lands harbor valuable natural resources or wildlife habitats. Those scientific surveys require time to complete and the results considered, considerably more time than a constitutional convention would allow.
“On balance, the legislative process is much preferred to a convention because of the time two legislatures allow to consider, deliberate, study and decide if exceptions to our irreplaceable Forest Preserve are in the public’s interest,” Adirondack Wild’s Gibson concluded.
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve is a not for profit, membership organization which advances New York’s “Forever Wild” legacy and Forest Preserve policies in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and promotes public and private land stewardship consistent with wild land values through education, advocacy and research. For more information, click here.
[SR1]Be consistent in spelling out “Article” and also in using either XIV or 14 (Appendix 2)
Photo: Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clause.