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.