Adirondack Park local government officials and conservation organizations both spent a nervous few hours after the polls closed on Election Day this year, worrying that Proposal Three – the community health and safety land bank – would be defeated. It passed by a slim 52 percent to 47 percent margin (about 100,000 votes out of 3.1 million cast).
As Adirondackers from across the political spectrum look towards working together in 2018 and beyond, there are important lessons to learn from this close vote. The park’s continued success depends on our understanding the state’s voters.
And while closeness of the vote was uncomfortable for supporters of the Constitutional amendment, it was also a reminder of the public’s overwhelming support for the “Forever Wild” clause of the Constitution. Those who educated themselves on the merits of the amendment overwhelmingly supported it. They understood that the amendment would strengthen support for Forever Wild by eliminating many of the minor conflicts over roadside services and road safety that frustrate local officials.
Meanwhile, voters who were uncertain about the merits of the land bank voted against the amendment in an effort to keep “Forever Wild” intact. Polling done prior to Election Day also showed that supporters of the amendment were interested in helping communities in the park, but were much more concerned with the integrity of Forever Wild. They said fairness was a good goal, but Forever Wild protections for the Forest Preserve were far more essential.
Support grew steadily as people learned what Proposal Three was about. The first polls conducted by labor unions early in 2017 showed a large number of undecided voters and insufficient support to win a majority in November.
Early October polling sponsored by The Nature Conservancy showed support had grown, but was still weaker than desired. Voters said they perceived it as a gift to Adirondack and Catskill communities, while they instead were seeking an environmental benefit from any change to Forever Wild or the composition of the Forest Preserve. They language of the ballot proposal didn’t express one. We had a month to tell them about the benefits.
A month later, the Nov. 1 Siena College Poll showed support had grown, with 46 percent in favor and only 35 percent opposed. But that still left 19 percent undecided and unpredictable, just a week from Election Day.
There were reasons to worry that a lack of explicit environmental benefit would hurt the Proposal’s chances. One of Siena’s poll questions asked voters if they would support revising “current state policies that limit development in the Adirondacks” to “allow for increased economic development.” An impressive 55 percent said no, while only 37 percent supported the idea. Only 8 percent were undecided.
Still, it was clear that both opponents and supporters of the amendment were motivated by support for Forever Wild. That support was something to celebrate. But if the amendment didn’t pass, we wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.
The Adirondack Council and all other Adirondack conservation organizations supported Proposal Three. We understood that a modest land bank could create the flexibility communities need to complete simple projects involving very small pieces of land. It would also relieve political pressure placed on state officials, who were frequently urged to authorize or ignore “minor” encroachments. Over time, that would undermine protection for the entire Forest Preserve.
Proposal Three authorized a modest land bank that could be used for roadside community projects such as road-straightening, new drainage, bridges and utilities including broadband and electric lines. In the Adirondack Park, Public and private lands sit side-by- side, often in a patchwork pattern. A little less than half of the park is Forever Wild public Forest Preserve, while the remainder is private land and communities.
When Adirondack communities attempt to install new water, sewer or electric lines, they sometimes encounter town or county roadsides where a small patch of Forest Preserve beneath the road prevents them from completing the project. No one is allowed to build on Forest Preserve, so the only way to build something on the land in question is to remove it from the Forest Preserve. Only the voters can authorize that, by amending the Constitution.
At this point, the community must decide whether to spend time and money on seeking statewide approval for a Constitutional Amendment. The process takes about three years and requires a statewide voter education campaign to be successful.
Most Adirondack towns and counties would find it hard to afford a statewide political campaign. Instead, officials often added the impediment to the list of complaints they expressed to state government about the Forest Preserve and Forever Wild.
In the past, communities have succeeded in overcoming financial impediments by partnering with the Adirondack Council, which carried out the education campaign in consultation with town officials, at the Council’s expense. This year, the Council again provided these services to park communities, working with a coalition that included the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the Adirondack Landowners Association and the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.
In fact, the Council took the unprecedented step of creating a Ballot Issues Committee with the NYS Board of Elections, known as the Committee to Defend Forever Wild. In past Constitutional Amendment approval efforts, the Council simply educated voters about the features of the proposed amendments. The new committee allowed us to endorse and promote the amendment, by giving us a way to report our spending and comply with election law requirements. We also used the new committee to oppose a Constitutional Convention (Proposal 1), where wholesale changes to Forever Wild could have been proposed.
In September and October, the Adirondack Council teamed up with local officials and visited editorial writers as a team. For example, I had the pleasure of visiting the editorial board of the Watertown Daily Times alongside Mark Hall, Supervisor of the Town of Fine. Matt Simpson, Supervisor of Horicon, worked with me to explain how the amendment would affect his town to reporters from an Albany television station, both before and after the vote. Together, we gained media support from every area of the state we visited, from Long Island to Buffalo.
But we didn’t do as well in places where we didn’t get an appointment to see the local newspaper or TV station. We lost in Jamestown, for example, the city farthest from the Adirondacks. We also lost in Sullivan County, but for a different reason. There, a group of Forest Preserve supporters mistakenly reached the conclusion that the amendment would encourage gas pipelines and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This false rumor spread too far before we could counteract it with the truth.
Proposal Three also fared poorly in the outer boroughs of New York City, where the editorial support of the New York Times seemed to have less influence than it had in Manhattan, where the majority supported the amendment. NYC radio and television stations virtually ignored the proposal, incorrectly assuming their viewers and listeners didn’t care.
Some confusion over Proposal Three was inevitable as well. There was a considerable effort mounted to oppose Proposal One, which would have authorized a Constitutional Convention. Opposition to Proposal One included those – like us at the Adirondack Council – who worried that Forever Wild could be weakened or repealed at a convention. Since Proposal Three also dealt with the Forever Wild clause, some folks got confused and voted “no” on both. Again, when they were unsure what the amendment would do, the voters chose to preserve Forever Wild and the Forest Preserve it protects.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Proposal Three was weaker than it needed to be in one important way. It was the only proposed land swap presented to the voters in the past 30 years that didn’t include an overwhelming benefit to the Forest Preserve in terms of a new lands acquired. Conversely, the 1995 Keene cemetery amendment and the 2009 Tupper Lake power line amendments gave significant new lands to the preserve. Voters gave up 6 acres in the Tupper Lake swap and received more than 20 in return. In Keene, voters gave up 12 acres and received 144 acres in compensation. Proposal Three called only for replacing the 250 acres needed for the land bank right away, and some additional purchases as the bank is used. Offering greater compensation to the voters could have helped boost the approval rate.
Finally, we should not discount the impact of current tension over the fate of the park’s most famous recent Forest Preserve additions. Voter anxiety has been heightened recently due to the uncertain fate of yet-to-be classified lands such as Boreas Ponds, MacIntyre East, MacIntyre West, the OSI parcel, Casey Brook and
others. Another Siena College poll in 2017 showed three-quarters of the state’s voters support a motor-free wilderness classification for Boreas Ponds (an article on that topic appeared on the Adirondack Almanack). We all continue to await the Adirondack Park Agency’s final recommendation to the Governor.
It’s encouraging that so many New York voters are determined to protect the integrity of Forever Wild. Voters support a larger and wilder Adirondack Forest Preserve to protect our shared legacy of wilderness and pure waters for future generations.
Photos: Above, the forever wild clause; and below, a 2007 letter from Long Lake Supervisor Gregg Wallace sent the Adirondack Council as thanks for promoting of the Constitutional Amendment that made the Raquette Lake water project land swap possible.