Adirondack Almanack readers may recall that in 2018 Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget office introduced legislation which would have changed the way the state pays taxes on the public’s Forest Preserve. It was proposed to change the ad valorem system, in place since 1886, to a payment in lieu of taxes.
Local school districts and supervisors were alarmed by the negative consequences of the proposed change, as were Forest Preserve advocates. In response, legislative staff sought background information about how the Real Property Tax Law applied to the Adirondack Park, historically speaking.
I was able to point them to a hard copy source I’ve long relied upon – the technical reports of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. Fortunately, the State Legislature did not approve the proposed change. Adirondack and Catskill localities hosting the forest preserve continue to receive full, ad valorem taxes.
It was just over thirty years ago that Governor Mario Cuomo inserted this significant statement about the Adirondacks in his second State of the State message (on January 4, 1989):
“New Yorkers have always demonstrated a special affection for and commitment to the protection of the Adirondacks, one of America’s great treasures. Recent developments, however, suggest that we may be entering a new period in the history of the Adirondacks, an era of unbridled land speculation and unwarranted development that threatens the unique open space and wilderness character of the region.
It is vital that we preserve this magnificent legacy for future generations. Toward this end, I am establishing a Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century, composed of experts from throughout New York State, to examine issues affecting the Adirondacks and to recommend appropriate actions necessary to preserve this legacy. It will be the first such effort in 20 years. The last one led to the formation of the Adirondack Park Agency. The Commission’s purview will be comprehensive with the highest caliber membership and staff. I have asked it to report to me no later than April 1, 1990.”
I recall that moment 30 years ago as an exciting time, full of threat from “unbridled land speculation” then ongoing in real estate, but also full of opportunity to propose new solutions to this and other ongoing problems.
I was glad to have played a part of the intensive discussion, fierce debate and advocacy surrounding many portions of the Commission’s 1990 report. I was among those chastened by the understandable negative reaction to a few of the commission’s more controversial recommendations, such as the one year moratorium proposed for new development in Resource Management and Rural Use areas of the Park’s private land “to provide time for the State legislature to consider and enact public policy options to protect the Park’s working landscape.”
The commission’s staff and membership were an impressive group, brilliant at researching and writing about many aspects of Adirondack Park policy, history and life. However, public relations and marketing were not their strong suits.
Much effort was expended in tying together recommendations across the broad spectrum of Adirondack policy, but several were full of complexities (such as Transfer of Development Rights on park-wide basis) requiring more time to study and analyze than Mario Cuomo’s one-year deadline permitted. To ask the commission to report by April 1990 made it impossible to float an idea as draft and rigorously test it for firmness, practicability and public perception before rolling it out.
The commission badly needed another year to conduct testing, consultation and redrafting of specifics. Without the additional year, the commission could not fully utilize the experience and expertise it had within its list of advisors. 1990 was a gubernatorial re-election year for then Governor Mario Cuomo, and undoubtedly he was impatient to have the report concluded. That impatience to get on with new implementing legislation was shared by the Commission’s leadership.
Impatience and lack of time proved major liabilities for the Commission’s final report. Property rights organizations had sprung up across the country by 1989 and had learned the same type of organizing and publicity seeking that environmental groups had come to practice. Many of the Commission’s best ideas and recommendations lost out in a glare of loud, angry opposition to the high profile “moratorium.”
It was a scary time for proponents of the commission, or even for people keeping an open mind. APA member Anne LaBastille’s barn was burned down. Tires were slashed at a Commission meeting. Occasional fists were thrown. Meetings were disrupted. Commission staff struggled to find safe public spaces to discuss and shed light on the recommendations.
The Commission wisely focused on studying, detecting and responding to trends, including land ownership. More acres held by fewer owners contrasted strongly with data from the late 1960.
By 1989, 564 large owners owned over 2 million acres of the Adirondack Park, with the ten largest owners controlling 26 percent of the private land. The commission noted that Resource Management (RM) and Rural Use (RU) lands comprised 87 percent of the Park’s private land, were mostly forest, and made up the bulk of open space essential to the Park’s character.
Would the existing APA Act and Land Use plan protect these big open spaces? No, answered the commission. Overall Intensity Guidelines would, mathematically at least, permit 156,000 new homes in RM and RU, forever fragmenting the Park’s private forests. Subdivision trends well underway by 1989 lent credence to the commission’s apprehensions.
This information led to the commission’s three-part strategy for private land use: purchase of conservation easements, zoning changes, and transfer of development rights.
In the area of conservation easements, which restrict development while retaining private ownership (with taxes shared with the State) the commission’s vision has been significantly realized today. More than 800,000 privately owned acres under easement have been added to the Adirondack Park since 1989. Fair tax apportionment between the State and private owners for all types of easements also became law thirty years ago.
The commission’s work began while significant changes in the global economy were roiling land ownership. Those trends led to the sale of all lands owned by paper companies Champion International in 1990, followed by International Paper, Domtar, and then Finch, Pruyn in 2007. Hundreds of thousands of acres of timber land were thrown on the market. Fortunately, the state’s conservation easement law had been enacted to protect much of that land from development.
In 1989, the commission issued a map of desirable land acquisitions for the Forest Preserve which greatly alarmed larger landowners. While the commission envisioned these acquisitions on a willing seller-willing buyer basis, a picture (or a map) is worth a thousand words. The map’s publication led to fears of the use of eminent domain to publicly take the most desirable lands. During a conference at the Hotel Saranac in fall, 1990 commission executive director George Davis admitted his tactical mistake in issuing the map and not making it crystal clear that future land negotiations were intended to be with willing sellers.
As an incentive to protect private forests zoned Resource Management and Rural Use, the commission recommended a forest use tax program that would allow some forest owners, down to 50 acres, have their land taxed at a reduced level, not on its value for subdivision and development, with the state reimbursing local taxing jurisdictions for revenues lost or shifted as a result.
The commission recognized that reforming the current Forest Tax Law 480a was a key component of open space protection in the Park. Those tax reforms remain unrealized today. The Department of Environmental Conservation’s important 2018 Empire Forests for the Future budget proposal, which could have greatly expanded the number of participating small forest landowners, has yet to pass.
Over the course of 30 years, some commission recommendations have gained a significant foothold in the Park:
- The commission’s proposed open space protection plan for the Adirondack Park (commission recommendation #87) motivated the state legislature and the DEC to create a statewide open space protection plan (updated seven times since 1990) with regional (DEC regions 1-9) open space advisory councils to meet regularly to study and recommend specific parcels and policies for open space protection;
- A permanent fund for land protection in fee and in easement called the Environmental Protection Fund was established in law in 1993 (recommendation #105);
- As previously stated, the state and private conservation easement program has significantly advanced in the Park (recommendation #97);
- Governor Andrew Cuomo’s regional economic development councils have funded some sustainable, smart growth projects for the region (recommendation #34);
- Primary health care networks have been established in the Park (recommendation #57);
- Tourism promotion in the region has become far more focused on the Adirondack Park as a whole entity, promoting its natural, scenic and quality of life advantages (recommendation #39);
- Media to promote consciousness of Adirondack Park environments have developed, Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer magazine, among others, (recommendation #39);
- Student Conservation Association/Americorps/DEC programs are employing many young adults to help steward the Park’s wild and recreational lands (recommendation #154).
On the other hand:
- Reorganization of state agencies to create an Adirondack Park Administration, Adirondack Park Service and to require consistent management of all state agencies operating here (recommendations #1-22) never materialized, nor did a transition zone for localities bordering the Park;
- Resource management and Rural use zoned private lands were not reserved strictly for forestry, agriculture and open space recreation;
- A comprehensive Park-wide interpretive and educational plan is not yet operational (recommendation #152), although many uncoordinated local programs exist;
- The state has failed to heed the Commission’s recommendations to ensure that reliable baseline of information is updated annually about the Park’s forests, wildlife, hydrologic cycles, human communities and economies, and processes of ecological change in the face of a rapidly changing Adirondack climate (recommendation #204);
- While scientific understanding of measurements of ecological integrity have advanced significantly since 1989, the state has, so far, failed to formally incorporate that understanding (recommendations #193-203) into policies and project review in the Park (although the APA in 2018 incorporated some needed new standards in their review of the largest subdivision proposals)
Some important baseline information work has been picked up as private-public partnerships and by some area colleges. The work of the Wild Center, ANCA, NYSERDA and many school districts with respect to responding to energy conservation, renewability, and climate change come immediately to mind.
I’ve barely touched on much of the commission’s work, and not mentioned dozens of other important Commission recommendations covering all facets of Park life. There were a total of 245 recommendations.
Thirty years ago, Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century did not anticipate and adjust to a political and socio-economic environment that had changed dramatically from Nelson Rockefeller’s Adirondack commission of 1968-1970.
Cuomo’s commission lacked the time to adjust and it made mistakes, as did the Governor. That said, the Cuomo commission certainly was talented, productive and forward thinking. The Commission articulated a comprehensive vision and strategic direction for integrating the open space character, community economies, quality of life and ecological integrity of the entire Adirondack Park. It proved a worthy successor to other park and forest commissions for the Adirondacks dating to the 1870s.
Thirty years on, its work remains highly relevant today.
Photo: Governor Mario Cuomo greets school children at an Adirondack conference at the Silver Bay Conference Center in 1994. Photo by Ken Rimany (Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks).