The 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.