As membership of the Adirondack Park Agency board dwindles toward zero, I would like to toss my hat into the ring for consideration.
In the words of Sam Cooke, I don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took. But come on, all this talk about “qualifications” has gotten a bit out of hand, don’t you think?
In modern America you don’t need expertise, you just need to park tanks outside the meeting hall. That should work. Shows everybody you are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to straddle tall issues in a single straddle.
The recent hand-wringing over the composition of the APA board focuses primarily on the assertion that membership has drifted away from environmentalists and scientists in favor of local government and business interests.
But if you’re looking for reasons not to throw yourself off of Ausable Chasm at this development, here are a couple. One, everyone on the board and everyone nominated for the board loves the park. They are good, interesting and competent people. There is no Betsy Devos working to undermine the core mission and take money away from school children so her family members can buy bigger yachts.
Two, it usually matters less who’s on your board, then who’s on your staff. Board members float in once a month, the staff is in the office and in the field every day. I’ve been a member of boards local, state and national and I haven’t ruined an agency yet. I haven’t contributed much, it is true, but I have shown up and helped them achieve a quorum, and the staff treats me with a polite indifference that I am totally fine with.
This is why I do not fear for the country, even in these times of know-nothings in office: The great majority of federal workers have continued to do what they always do, and as much as those at the top bloviate they have no idea what’s going on beneath them and they never will, because to find out would take too much work and intellectual curiosity.
There is also something to be said for the relative softening of the APA from the days of the 1990s when you could not walk into a convenience store or gas station without seeing an anti-APA petition on the counter, demanding that all its members be taken out and skinned.
It is not the APA’s job to be liked; but it is the APA’s job not to completely alienate the native population to the point the agency and environmental cause are diminished by taking such a hard line that people start disrespecting rules they find to be outrageous.
So the APA is not in crisis or free-fall or anything like that. However, as my mom used to say when she sensed my behavior was about to go on an intolerable bender, “There comes a point…” In sticky matters such as this, I always let the film “Animal House” be my guide, and I am thinking specifically of the motto of Faber College: “Knowledge is Good.”
The APA at root is an environmental board, not an economic development board. So there comes a point where it is worth sitting back and looking at the accumulated environmental knowledge of the membership, and when you do that you see a board whose expertise is filtering away from nature. At its meetings, one, maybe two, members seem capable of asking difficult, probing questions about the unseen minutiae and data that really affect the underpinnings, not just of the park itself, but of the ethic that created the park.
Granted, there may not be a lot of these eco-philosophers out there for the appointing, but there are some, and even if they do not constitute the majority of the board, they need a good strong voice so they can raise an objection when a seemingly innocuous act has the potential for grave and irreparable harm.
That’s why the APA board is different from a board that governs a transit authority. If you get a road wrong you can tear it up and try again. The Adirondack Park might have begun as an experiment, but a century-and-a-quarter into it, we know what we have, we know why it’s special and we know what we need to do to protect it. Or should.
At its core, the APA board should be versed in science and preservation, while maintaining enough nuance and practicality to make these principles politically palatable. It also helps to, very occasionally, have the independence and gravitas to utter these four words: “No governor, you’re wrong.”
I know. It’s a lot to ask. Maybe if I tear up this essay and throw the scraps in the fireplace, down will float an APA Mary Poppins-equivalent. But they’re not making another Adirondack Park if we get this wrong. So it’s worth beating the weeds to find the right people to fill these choice positions.
Photo of APA Building in Ray Brook NY.