Monday, June 10, 2019

Did Her Independence Sink APA Acting Chair Feldman?

Having been nominated and confirmed to the NYS Adirondack Park Agency five years earlier, Karen Feldman was named by Governor Cuomo as APA’s acting chair following the resignation of Sherman Craig in summer 2018. In Ms. Feldman the Governor had an experienced board member chairing APA and one interested in continuing on as permanent chair of the eleven-member board. Ms. Feldman appeared energetic, communicative with board, staff and the public, engaged in APA matters, politically astute and well connected.

She seemed prepared and ready to lead. One would think she would be a shoe-in to be named APA chair at any time. Instead, she resigned last month and the consequences of that decision are serious ones for the APA and for the Adirondack Park.

Adirondack Explorer correspondent Jim Odato reported on the mid-May resignation of Ms. Feldman, and he got some quotes from her which helped somewhat to clear up part of the mystery behind her sudden resignation. One quote from Ms. Feldman in Odato’s article particularly caught my attention. “Principle means a lot to me,” she said. “It’s important to be respected.”

The issue of back pay got the initial headlines. The appointed chair of the APA is provided $30,000 in compensation. Ms. Feldman was acting chair, not permanent, but the Governor had appointed her to that acting role and she had had all the responsibility that went with the job.  According to Mr. Odato’s article, Ms. Feldman’s readiness to be appointed permanent chair by the Governor was colored by an apparent refusal from someone in the Governor’s office to provide her back pay.

APA chairs and members are voluntary state officers. Thirty thousand may be meaningful compensation in the Adirondacks, but loose change within the state’s spending plan.  If Ms. Feldman asked for monthly stipend back to last July when she assumed APA board leadership responsibilities and if she apparently got nowhere with that request, such unwillingness to meet her halfway is a lack of respect.

But is there more to the story? Being treated respectfully may involve, but is not limited to, compensation.

Some controversy may have contributed to delays in her permanent appointment as APA Chair. For instance, although an Adirondack property owner her permanent address is outside the Blue Line. APA chairs have usually resided inside the Park. Yet no law or rule prevents a Governor from appointing an out of Park chair.

Environmentalists, including me, want the Governor to present an entire slate of qualified APA nominees this year. Before Ms. Feldman’s resignation, there were already two vacancies and four members serving expired terms.  Who would join Karen Feldman around the APA’s table, we asked?  Would she be joined by people who put the statewide concern for the Adirondack environment and protective statutes first, or would the Governor nominate a token environmentalist along with a slate of political favorites? We don’t know yet.  To my knowledge, the State Senate has not yet received gubernatorial nominees for APA.

From my perspective within Adirondack Wild, the loss of Ms. Feldman is a blow to APA’s independence and to the integrity of the environmental laws APA must uphold, and to the Park’s wild lands. While I did not always agree with her votes, in recent months I found Ms. Feldman ready to stand up for the independence of the APA vis-à-vis the larger NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. DEC, while it has just one APA vote, has always had, or felt it had out-sized influence in Ray Brook. DEC, born out of the old Conservation Department, resisted and resented the upstart newcomer APA and its role in State Land planning from the APA’s beginning in 1971. It’s a matter of history that in 1970 many within the new DEC inherited the Conservation Department’s fifty years of frustration with the limits imposed on it by “forever wild,” or Article XIV of the State Constitution, and that APA came into existence in 1971 with no such attitude. The order in which people as well as agencies are born has very long-lasting consequences.  That pattern of push and pull between the two agencies has played out hundreds of times since 1971.

Speaking of APA independence, this winter I was pleased to hear Ms. Feldman question why DEC’s apparent preference for twelve-foot wide backcountry Nordic ski trails, even within Wilderness and Primitive areas, would be consistent with DEC policy, Park policy and the State Land Master Plan. Why would the DEC propose Nordic ski trails of the same width as snowmobile connectors?

There is the ongoing matter of DEC’s proposed amendment to the Blue Ridge Wilderness Unit Management Plan unveiled last fall which, provocatively, would authorize a 4-mile long, 12-ft. wide snowmobile connector to be built at the edge of that Wilderness. Did Ms. Feldman question this highly controversial UMP amendment?

Then, there was the matter of who would take the lead in organizing inter-agency planning about the scope and methodology of wild land monitoring protocols which are pending for the High Peaks Wilderness (and Boreas Ponds), and many other units in both Wilderness and Wild Forest. With its mission for state land planning, Ms. Feldman felt it was important for APA to convene these interagency meetings. I don’t know if DEC had any problem with that or not, but perhaps when taken together these and other potential, enduring points of friction may have played a role in convincing Ms. Feldman that it was time to leave the APA.

One should also keep in mind that following last year’s election there has been considerable turn-over in the Governor’s office. Those serving as deputy and assistant secretaries are fairly new to their jobs. Considered, coordinated oversight of the APA and other agencies can fall through the cracks during a period of adjustment like that.

I may have missed other and better explanations for her resignation, or her leaving may be due largely to the issue of back pay. What isn’t speculative is that Ms. Feldman felt disrespected, sufficiently so to cause her to resign. What isn’t speculative is that the Governor has now lost a motivated and energetic agency chair, perhaps needlessly. In early June we seem left with a rudderless, caretaker APA board with three vacant seats and, come June 30, four members serving expired terms, and with potentially even less independence from the DEC than it had under Ms. Feldman’s watch. Much depends on the quality and qualifications of any APA nominees Governor Cuomo submits to the State Senate this month, and on the Senate’s scrutiny of those nominees.

Photo of APA Building in Ray Brook.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




5 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Maybe this is a good opportunity to get the local towns to step up and manage all the zoning. In some cases we see the towns (Lake Placid as an example on some boat house issues) more strict than the APA when it comes to development. It is not the same “get rid of the APA” environment than we used to have. Many people living in the Adirondacks now are much more environmentally conscious than they were when this agency was formed. Let’s take the governor out of the picture? Nobody seems to happy with him on all sides. Maybe if we keep doing it this way you are just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

    • Wren Hawk says:

      Too many local towns can barely afford their road crews, building inspectors and code enforcement officers. A survey of local town capacity in terms of work force would likely be an eye opener. As well, many local laws are badly out of date. Many town boards want to do better but don’t seem to be able to tap the skill sets needed to make changes and upgrades.

      A strong, independent, communicative APA could be a boon to communities.

      • Paul says:

        Like I said some of the towns are doing a better job than the APA as far as code enforcement. Look at the facts, the APA usually just lets things slide. We see info here on this all the time. There isn’t really anyone that supports this agency or how the governor is managing it. That is the clear consensus. Time to try something else. Give the 5 million dollars budgeted to the agency for 2019 to the towns that you say are strapped for cash.

        • Boreasfisher says:

          Nonsense. The APA exists to protect the entire Park, a task the towns simply are not capable of doing. It isn’t just about resources. It is also about training, experience, and mandate.

          The APA needs to be staffed properly by the governor and supported in their mission.

        • Boreas says:

          Paul,

          The APA is broken, but I believe it can be fixed. Perhaps your suggestion would be a step, but the towns certainly can’t classify state land within their jurisdiction and keep the Park management reasonably cohesive throughout. DEC would likely end up performing that function which would probably open another can of worms. Ideally, Albany should take another look at the APA structure and responsibility and come up with a less political and better-balanced APA 2.0.

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