Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Cuomo Searches for New Chair of the Adirondack Park Agency

APA Building in Ray Brook NYThe Cuomo Administration is searching for a new Chair for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). The Governor appointed Karen Feldman, an attorney from Columbia County, who also has a home on Schroon Lake, as a Temporary Chair in July at the time the APA Chair Sherman Craig (Wanakena) resigned. Feldman is campaigning for her temporary status to be made permanent and she is currently Team Cuomo’s top candidate for the job.

The APA Chair is one of eight appointed Board seats where an individual is nominated by the Governor and approved by the State Senate. Under state law, five APA Board members must be full-time Park residents and three must reside in counties outside the Adirondack Park Blue Line. There can only be a maximum of five Board members from one political party and Board members serve 4 year terms, two of which expire each year and run in a continuous cycle. Under NYS law Board members can continue to serve in “expired” terms. New Board members are often appointed to partial terms.

There are 11 Board members in total. Three other Board members represent state agencies of the Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of State, and Empire State Development (the former Department of Economic Development). Under Andrew Cuomo these three agencies vote as a block, taking their marching orders from the Governor. Under Cuomo, the APA Chair also votes automatically with the state votes.

At this point in APA history, there are two holdovers on the APA Board from a prior administration. Art Lussi, the developer and hotelier from Lake Placid, and Bill Thomas, former Supervisor of Johnsburg, were appointed initially by Governor Pataki in 2006 and both have been reappointed by Cuomo. Lussi sees himself as a representative of the business community in the Adirondacks and sees his role each month to constrain the regulatory impact of the APA. There are two other Board members from within the Adirondack Park – Bill Thomas from North Creek and Dan Wilt from Lake Pleasant. Wilt is the Supervisor of Lake Pleasant in Hamilton County (his brother Dick is Supervisor of neighboring Arietta). Thomas has stated that he would like to be replaced. Wilt is the only one of five in-Park Board members who has a current term. Both Thomas and Wilt zealously advocate for motorized access to the Forest Preserve and their local government interests dovetail with the business interests of Lussi. These three Board members enthusiastically vote the Cuomo line and give the Cuomo Administration a solid working majority.

There are two vacancies on the APA Board for in-Park seats. The vacancies are a result of Barbara Rice’s decision to leave Saranac Lake (including her position as a Franklin County Legislator; she was the first woman Chair of the Legislature), to join the Cuomo Administration in Albany as part of its economic development apparatus. Her seat on the APA Board is now vacant. Sherm Craig’s seat is also vacant. There can be no appointments to fill vacancies without action by the State Senate. For much of the last legislative session in 2018, the State Senate was divided 31-31 (with one vacancy), which had the effect of sharply limiting to a trickle any appointments to state government posts. For his first seven years, Governor Cuomo negotiated appointments with State Senators in the Republican majority whose districts or committees or areas of influence were impacted. For the APA this meant that Senator Betty Little enjoyed a veto over APA appointments. All Board seats needed her seal of approval. The APA Chair serves at the pleasure of the Governor, with no Senate role, yet Cuomo runs these appointments through Little as well.

The APA clearly needs some green and independent voices from among Adirondack residents on its Board.

Right now, the three out-of-Park seats are full, two with expired terms and one with a current term. Chad Dawson, a professor emeritus from SUNY ESF is an expert on wildlands management in the U.S. He literally wrote the book on the subject Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values. Dawson resides in Onondaga County and enjoys a current term. John Ernst, owner of the Elk Lake Reserve, and long-time conservationist in the Adirondacks, joined the APA Board in 2016. His term is now expired. Both Dawson and Ernst are seen as “green” votes though Ernst has recused himself from a number of recent major votes dealing with all things Boreas Ponds given his relationship with The Nature Conservancy, where he has long served as a Board member.

The third out-of-Park Board member is Feldman. She is a Democratic Party operative who specializes in election law among other things and is wired-in with the Cuomo Administration. She’s very close with the Adirondack Landowners Association, which has tacked sharply right in recent years and is strongly aligned with Senator Little, the Republican State Senate, and local government. Feldman sees herself as an active agent of Team Cuomo and she votes in lockstep with the Governor and in-Park Board members.

In his final months serving as an APA Board member, Richard Booth, a professor of local and regional planning at Cornell University, who served ten years on the APA Board, provided an insightful critique of the APA under the Cuomo Administration. Booth wrote that all major decisions were pre-ordained. The Governor called all the shots and all major decisions were vetted in Albany. APA staff was told what issues they could investigate, what issues to disregard, how to draft memos and what conclusions to reach. Rather than functioning in an equal checks-and-balances relationship with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the APA now defers all major decisions on Forest Preserve management to the DEC.

Under Andrew Cuomo, the Adirondack Park is open for business and land use permit review has been streamlined accordingly. Clearcutting permits are routinely granted. Hardly a permit is turned down. During Cuomo’s first two terms in office there was not a single APA formal adjudicatory public hearing. Public input and participation, once a hallmark of APA practice, is now a form of performance art or Kabuki Theater, a box to be checked with the substance of comments ignored. In essence, the APA has become a secretarial agency that does that paperwork for decisions made in Albany by Cuomo or DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

Booth was appointed by Governor Eliot Spitzer. At the time of his appointment, Team Spitzer floated Booth as a possible APA Chair. This was met with howls of protest that the Chair, as was tradition, should reside full-time in the Adirondack Park. The reality is that Feldman is likely to be appointed as a permanent Chair, breaking with past tradition where the Chair was a full-time Park resident. While she’s not a Park resident, local government interests, the Landowners Association, and Senator Little see her as a kindred spirit and will forgo tradition in order to maintain a tight grip on the APA. Neither Lussi nor Wilt want the Chair job and Thomas has one foot out the door. Dawson and Ernst are far too green for Cuomo to tap them. Those that howled against Booth will be muted against Feldman.

For Cuomo that leaves a decision of either selecting Feldman or deferring action and searching for a new APA Chair who would be appointed in 2019. The problem with searching for a new APA Chair is that there is not a lot of interest in the job. Under Cuomo the APA Chair job description is one of a political functionary happy to enjoy the status of the job and dutifully take orders from Albany. The agenda is to subvert environmental laws, regulations and policies, and rollback longstanding environmental protections. Other requirements include strong support for motorized access to the Forest Preserve, hostility to Wilderness, a disposition to ignore public comments, lavish praise on its sister agency the DEC, and, perhaps most important, to act as a cheerleader for the Governor’s economic development agenda for the Adirondacks.

Independence of thought or action is a disqualifying trait for any potential APA Chair.

Cuomo’s initial search among Park residents for a new APA chair has turned up few candidates. Who would want the job? There are a few local government leaders that are eager, but there is little interest among the broad swath of Adirondack Park leaders. This is unfortunate. The sad reality is that after nearly eight years of the Andrew Cuomo Administration the APA has hit rock bottom. There are two vacancies on the APA Board. The APA Counsel position is vacant. Senior staff leadership is weak. There is no leadership coming from in-Park Board members. Because the APA has lost its independence, it is moored helplessly to Cuomo’s ship of state, careful to keep its lines taut.

The Adirondack Park Agency Act states that it is to be the lead agency for planning in the Adirondack Park. Under Andrew Cuomo, the DEC has usurped this role, with decisions ranging from Forest Preserve management to economic development initiatives, such as the Frontier Town development, spearheaded by the Albany DEC headquarters. The magnificent landscape of the Adirondacks deserves thoughtful and effective management. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Politicized, weak, and ineffective, the APA limps towards its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Photo of APA building in Ray Brook.

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Peter Bauer

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century and Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fie department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.


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20 Responses

  1. Tim-Brunswick says:

    I almost agree with Mr. Bauer’s analysis of the APA’s structure, etc. I differ on the APA needing more “Green” though. There’s plenty enough Greenies on the Board and influencing the APA’s decisions as it is.

    It would be nice if the Board started paying attention to the Seniors, disabled folks, etc. regarding more access!

  2. Keith says:

    Sounds like under Cuomo’s direction, the Agency is far less conflicted than it was at the beginning of the century under the distorted leadership of Lefebvre, Stiles, Curran, Rottier, Banta & Dan Fitts.

  3. Cristine Meixner says:

    An excellent analysis, although I can’t agree with Mr. Bauer that “The APA clearly needs some green and independent voices…” The APA Board of Commissioners was stacked with environmentalists for almost 40 years, many with close ties to environmental groups who used their position to advocate for these groups’ goals. In my view the board is now more reasonable. The pendulum has simply swung the other way for a while; it will eventually swing back. Either way, the forest preserve is protected from development. Isn’t that the bottom line?

    • Boreas says:

      “Either way, the forest preserve is protected from development. Isn’t that the bottom line?”

      Christine,

      The Forest Preserve is only protected from development if the APA protects it. What we have now in the Park is the result of previous APA commisioners’ decisions. What will “swinging the other way” do to continue protecting the Park?

      • Cristine Meixner says:

        Boreas, the Adirondack Park is enshrined in the NYS Constitution as “forever wild.” In my view it is the degree of “wild” that people fight over, not if state forest lands can be developed. They can’t be.

        • John Warren John Warren says:

          They can be developed and are fairly often in the history of the Forest Preserve. The last time was just recently when Forest Preserve, classified Wilderness no less, was handed over to a multinational mining company. There are lots of other carve outs from winter sports facilities to prisons.

        • Boreas says:

          Christine,

          In addition to what John mentions, APA also must classify any newly acquired lands in the Park. APA has the ability to classify these new lands in many ways, and one of them is to allow new development. This is where much of the “fighting” comes from – where, and to what degree, should newly acquired lands be developed. Thus, the ideological and political makeup of the commission is very important.

          • Cristine Meixner says:

            John Warren you are correct; I did not take into consideration Intensive Use, Historic, and State Administrative areas (1.1% of the Adirondack Forest Preserve) where development such as campgrounds and NYS’s two ski areas may take place. I was thinking only of Wilderness / Canoe / Primitive and Wild Forest lands that cannot be developed absent a constitutional amendment. Regarding the 2014 NYCO Minerals land swap, the Forest Preserve got 1,507 acres in exchange for NYCO being allowed to mine up to 200 acres of forest preserve that abuts its property (which according to Adirondack Almanack has not happened). When and if the land is mined NYCO will be required to restore it to its original condition (don’t know how that can be done!) and return it to the state. Pretty sweet deal for the people of NYS.

            • John Warren John Warren says:

              Cristine, you have several misconceptions I’d like to help you clear up.

              1) Your estimate of 1.1 percent is incorrect, as it only takes into account Forest Preserve lands that have been classified since 1972 – the Forest Preserve is nearly 100 years older. So you’re missing a lot, for example, there were about 1700 camps on Forest Preserve land leased and permitted before 1972 and those more recent that are excluded from your classification count, because their classifications do not reflect their actual use, plus other roads and railroads, power lines, and really most of what happened before 1972, that was not put into the classification system (controlled flow reservoirs for example). In 1985 DEC controlled 1.2 million acres in what should be according to law the ‘Forever Wild’ Forest Preserve which were for “other than Forest Preserve purposes”. There are also millions of acres of Conservation Easements, much of which, if not most, are property rights acquired by the state in order to avoid outright purchase and inclusion in the Forest Preserve. There is a three part piece about buildings on the Forest Preserve which gets into some of this here at the Almanack: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2018/04/bauer-buildings-on-the-forest-preserve-part-2.html Also, Adirondack Explorer recently took an in-depth look at conservation easement lands here: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/an-in-depth-look-at-conservation-easements .

              2) It does not always take a Constitutional Amendment to remove lands from the Forest Preserve. The Sanford Line into Tahawus for example, or more recently the taking of Camp Gabriels, and seizing of Forest Preserve by a power company, which was only submitted to voters after it was complete, and those projects falling under the Federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act. Some of these are also left out of your estimate. You can read more about Camp Gabriels and some other Forest Preserve exceptions here at the Adirondack Almanack https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2010/11/commentarycamp-gabriels-deal-requires-constitutional-amendment.html#more-16306

              3) NYCO has already begun mining operations on Forest Preserve classified Wilderness – they have installed roads and test areas. They did not go through with the land swap. Opponents pointed out that there was no language requiring the swap, which is still the case. NYCO has now sold to another multi-national, leased their mines, and laid off their local workers. There will be no land coming to the Forest Preserve. So, no, not a “pretty sweet deal for the people of NYS.” Adirondack Explorer reported this https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/nyco-land-swap-has-failed-to-save-jobs

              Readers interested in a more comprehensive understanding of the history of the Forest Preserve should consult The Forest Preserve of New York State: A Handbook for Conservation by Eleanor Brown (1985) as a start.

              • Cristine Meixner says:

                Thank you John for the additional information. My figures came from Feb. 27, 2018 Adirondack Almanack column by Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer:
                “… it seems safe to say that the [Adirondack] Forest Preserve has grown by around 350,000 acres in the last 50 years, to 2,595,689 acres. After the [early] February classifications, Wilderness/Canoe/Primitive lands now stand at around 1,242,000 acres and Wild Forest stands at 1,324,000 acres. The remaining balance [of 29,689 acres] is made up of Intensive Use, Historic and State Administrative areas.”
                so………..
                Wilderness/Canoe/Primitive 47.8%
                Wild Forest 51.0%
                Intensive Use, Historic and State Administrative 01.1%

              • Paul says:

                According to the APA’s most recent statistics:

                Intensive use: 0.39%

                Historic: 0.01%

                State Administrative: 0.03%

                Industrial use: 0.21%

                Private land in the park, is at about 50%.

                42.97% of that 50% is rural use, or resource management land (lots of that one under the conservation easement that John mentions above)

                Hamlet zoning where the vast majority of full time Adirondack residents live represents 0.92% of the park.

                https://apa.ny.gov/gis/stats/colc201405.htm

          • Cristine Meixner says:

            You make a good point Boreas.

          • Paul says:

            With probably hundreds of camps being removed from these newer acquisitions no matter what they add as “new development” would be tiny in comparison to the development on the way out. That’s not even including the many many miles of roads being closed (even with a few miles spared into some areas).

            Politics and ideology, not what I think should guide their decisions. What we should want is adherence to the law (the APA act). Any decision is open for court scrutiny if someone thinks a decision does not comport to the law.

  4. Keith Gorgas says:

    An informative and helpful analysis. I don’t follow every issue that comes before the APA, but in those I have, I would agree that the APA simply rubber stamps whatever the Governor wants, without regard for the long term effects on the environment, culture, or economic well being of the Adirondacks.

    • Peter Bauer says:

      Keith — I’m pleased to say that I agree with you.

    • Paul says:

      It’s funny this is a strange time in Adirondack history where environmental groups are more critical of the APA (and the DEC) than the usual suspects.

      There must be some real evidence (a letter, an email, something, anything) that proves that the governor is calling all the shots and the APA and DEC are simply his puppets as described by many here.

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