On Tuesday, November 7th, New Yorkers have an opportunity to vote on Ballot Proposition 1: whether the State will hold a constitutional convention in 2019. Many of my colleagues in the Adirondack environmental world are urging a “No” vote. Anticipating that such a convention would be heavily influenced by moneyed special interests, they are concerned with possible threats to the legendary “Forever Wild” constitutional amendment that protects the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves. They reason correctly that Forever Wild, being the gold standard in wilderness protection, cannot be improved, only weakened, and they don’t want to see State take that risk.
I share my friends’ concern about Forever Wild and I agree with their basic argument, but I do not join them in urging a “No” vote. My political DNA is too deeply imbued with grassroots, democratic activism for me to oppose this opportunity for the people of New York to directly act on the condition of their government. I also recognize that simply convening a constitutional convention does not expose the welfare to the Adirondack Park to unfettered abuse by special interests who would exploit it. No matter the goings on among the delegates to the convention, the people of New York will have the final say in the process, by virtue of their vote on any amendments in November of 2019.
But count me as wary.
If a constitutional convention is authorized, we need to watch very carefully what transpires and be ready to vote down any attempt to weaken the protections that safeguard the Adirondacks. Reading the tea leaves, I’m not anticipating such an eventuality. But I recognize the primary threat to the Park during a convention: indiscriminate corporate power backed by money. In fact, one of the reasons I will vote “Yes” for a constitutional convention is because I know that threat is already upon us: corporate power is already damaging the integrity of Forever Wild. As a long-time activist, I know that the will of the people, expressed as directly as possible, is the best antidote to this kind of power. That’s what can happen in a constitutional convention process.
By way of explanation, here’s a scenario. Suppose a corporate interest promoted some deleterious amendment that would, say, open the Forest preserve to mining. Imagine the forces that would array against such a proposal. The opportunity to focus on that action as part of a larger convention process, to educate and engage the citizens of New York in fully embracing and protecting a jewel and asset that almost all appreciate but not all fully understand, would almost certainly outweigh the risks. It would have benefits that would persist long after the ballot smack-down that would almost surely transpire. I’m up for that risk-benefit ratio.
So what do I mean when I say that indiscriminate corporate power is already damaging the Park? I’m sure that just sounds like rhetoric to some. You be the judge. Let’s take two of the biggest controversies in the last few years, for starters. I support a recreational trail on the rail corridor between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. But not for a moment do I think the supporters and volunteers who have operated and maintained the Adirondack Scenic Railroad know and love the Adirondacks less than I do. One of the principal developers and many of the key supporters of the Adirondack Club and Resort live in Tupper Lake. I’m not a fan of that project, but there’s not a chance I think that those folks care less about the importance and beauty of this place, and the people who live here, than I do.
Iowa Pacific, on the other hand, doesn’t give one damn.
Neither does Imerys, the massive multinational corporation of which NYCO is a subsidiary. Remember that no constitutional convention was required for interests allied with NYCO to subvert Forever Wild three years ago with a Faustian amendment that authorized the damaging and potential subtraction of two hundred acres of Forever Wild land in the name of corporate profits. The supposed rationale was a beneficial land swap, nonsense on its face, but a way to sell the amendment to an uninformed public. The real rationale was preserving local jobs – that’s what got this thing through the legislature. But this presupposed that NYCO’s parent cared one whit about local jobs. Of course they didn’t. They don’t now: Imerys is massive, and the fate of local workers in a relatively insignificant mine is of little importance. Having lots of experience with major-league corporate power and its single-minded pursuit of return on investment, I wrote at the time about the fiction that the NYCO amendment was about local jobs. I urged us to maintain a regional memory about it, and I had in mind things like the dangers of a constitutional convention. We’re three years out from that amendment, with virtually no activity: how’s it looking now?
Meanwhile Iowa Pacific is loading up its tracks up towards Tahawus with unused rail cars, in defiance not only of the spirit of Forever Wild, but local and State Government and the communities through which the rail line passes. This massive corporation even had the audacity to demand seven figures from these communities in exchange for not besmirching the region with miles of tank cars.
If these aren’t examples of indiscriminate corporate power damaging the integrity of Forever Wild then I’m the Pope. This kind of power practically begs for a direct dialogue between these interests and the people of the State, who can exercise ultimate authority.
That brings up another good reason to support a “Yes” vote on the constitutional convention. I fear that a negative association with Proposition 1 will bleed over to a “No” vote on Proposition 3, the Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment. That amendment, which has universal support in the Park, needs to pass. I would hate to see it imperiled.
In my ideal world, a constitutional convention would lead to passage of the instrument of citizen action that New York State really needs, which is the right of citizens to create their own ballot initiatives through petition. I agree that a constitutional convention opens too big a box; a citizen’s ballot initiative process would be far better. Sadly, such a development is a political non-starter at this time. But if there is a convention perhaps we can achieve reforms to curb government corruption, and address the many byzantine governmental processes that are in dire need of modernization.
If, during these activities, Forever Wild is directly threatened, I have great faith in the outcome. So long, at least, as we are wary and vigilant of corporate powers that would seize the opportunity for gain in their interests, and not the interests of New Yorkers.
Photo: Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clause.