What happened to the Adirondack Park Agency’s classification of the Boreas Ponds Tract? Months have passed with no sign of it on the APA’s monthly agenda. Information does seep out here and there, and it’s not encouraging. By now it’s no secret that plans are afoot for the Boreas classification that have nothing to do with the intended, legal process: namely development of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS), public hearings and public written comments and analysis, all leading to a recommended alternative.
Instead, the State is scrambling to find a way to accommodate the wishes of Governor Cuomo, who fancies a “hut-to-hut” system in the Adirondacks that includes facilities at Boreas, a development not contemplated in any of the four currently proposed alternatives. This is not how it is supposed to work and it raises questions of who is accountable for a classification process gone wrong.
Some point the finger at Governor Cuomo, who has made no secret of his plans. Some focus on the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which has told some stakeholders in the Boreas debate that they are looking at ways to satisfy the Governor’s wishes despite the fact that the lawful process so far has made no accommodation for “huts” or related infrastructure. Most of the scrutiny, however, is falling on the APA itself. That’s appropriate, as it is their job to recommend classification of the Boreas Tract. But “the APA” is a simple label that glosses over an important distinction. The APA has two parts: the professional staff, headed by an Executive Director, and a Board of Commissioners with a Chair. Everything I’ve seen and heard tells me the staff has been doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, and I would imagine they have been doing so under intense pressure. But it’s the Board that holds the power to make policy and submit formal recommendations to the Governor. Ultimately only the Board can choose to follow the process the right way or not. We need to hold them accountable.
The APA Act empowers a Board of eleven Commissioners, three of whom come from State agencies, and eight members, including the Chair, who are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Governor. But while these Commissioners serve under the Governor and make recommendations to him, they do not answer to him alone. Under the APA Act they answer to the law, namely the Act itself, the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (APSLMP), and the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan (APLUDP). Most important, the Board answers to the people of New York, through open meetings, public hearings and written comments, all of which are specifically provided for under the Act.
I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of five decades and I understand the pressure attendant to being a political appointee. But the Adirondack Park has always been bigger and more important than the term of any Governor, and the vision that sustained more than a century of protection for this internationally significant jewel is bigger than any single policy initiative. We can look at lots of players in the Boreas classification and we can legitimately hold differing views on its best use and protection, but only the APA Board can ensure that the legal process is followed. If it takes a measure of conviction and independence to do that, so be it.
At least the Commissioners have plenty of support in fulfilling the duties to which they were sworn. First, they have a great deal of power. Section § 804.9 of the APA Act says that the Board has the power:
“To adopt, amend and repeal, after public hearing (except in the case of rules and regulations that relate to the organization or internal management of the agency), such rules and regulations, consistent with this article, as it deems necessary to ad-minister this article, and to do any and all things necessary or convenient to carry out the purposes and policies of this article and exercise powers granted by law;”
These broad powers explicitly include things like the right to sue or issue subpoenas. They also grant the right to create and empower any kind of executive structure necessary to discharge their duties.
Next, the Commissioners can turn to a couple of important constituencies that have their back in following a proper Boreas process. One is their own APA staff, which produced a detailed, sound, scientific analysis of the Boreas Ponds Tract that unambiguously supports a holistic, wilderness-centered classification, not an approach with spot-zoning and infrastructure. The other constituency is the people of New York, who through both public hearings and written comments overwhelmingly supported a classification that protects wilderness over intensive use areas and “glamping.”
Finally, they have precedent. Not only is Adirondack Park history replete with examples of courageous decision makers who ignored political pressure to execute the people’s will, so is American history. It is a quintessentially American tradition to question power instead of following it.
The Governor has the final decision on the Boreas classification. The Board can only make a recommendation which the Governor is free to accept, reject or remand. But the process to get there is under the Board’s control. So I call upon the Commissioners to exercise their powers and follow the letter and spirit of the APA Act. One need not question the Governor’s motives in order to question the legality of his plans, or even question his judgment in this matter. The people of New York deserve a fair, legal, process. Let us hope the Board will act on that basis.
Photo by Phil Brown 2016. View of Gothics from Boreas Ponds.