Monday, July 8, 2019

David Gibson On APA Appointments, Role of Statewide Interests

APA Building in Ray Brook NYSome local government leaders in the Adirondack Park complain that Governor Cuomo’s 2019 picks for seats on the Adirondack Park Agency remain unconfirmed by the State Senate. They feel that these individuals have been unfairly blocked by environmentalists putting pressure on State Senators.

They can be forgiven for forgetting that this is not the first time that a Democratic Governor’s choices for the Adirondack Park Agency have been rejected by a Democratic State Senate.

Ten springs ago, Governor Paterson’s nomination for the APA, Peter Hornbeck of Minerva, Essex County, was held up by Senate Democrats at the request of Senator Betty Little. There was little high mindedness to the Senate’s long springtime hold on Mr. Hornbeck’s nomination. In 2009, Democrats held the Senate but at least six of those upstate Senators formed an Independent group (the so called Independent Democratic Caucus, or IDC), often siding with Republicans for various, usually expedient reasons. I and others encouraged these Senators to release Mr. Hornbeck for an up or down vote, but they refused based on Senator Little’s opposition. From my vantage point, Governor Paterson did not fight for him and Hornbeck was not confirmed.

Mr. Hornbeck, inventor of the Hornbeck lightweight canoe, business owner and employer of skilled boat builders, member of his local planning board, and outspoken advocate for paddling and its economic benefits to the Park, seemed an ideal choice for the APA, at least in my eyes (and many others). During public hearings, such as the one concerning the classification of Lows Lake, Mr. Hornbeck argued very persuasively that the Park’s wild, quiet waters under law should be expanded because they had become a magnet for recreational paddling and for boat building businesses and employment.

What raised alarms for Senator Little was, apparently, his guilt by association. Mr. Hornbeck had served on the board of the nonprofit organization Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. That he also served as steady employer, taxpayer, mentor and volunteer in her district for decades did not seem to matter. Hornbeck was a tainted member of a “green group.” Anybody who knows Mr. Hornbeck just a little bit knows he’s completely his own man and follows his own convictions.  Besides, why wouldn’t his participation in the nonprofit organization help to strengthen in him a broad, state-wide perspective and protective concern for the Adirondack Park’s natural and wild land resources? If so, would that not be a good perspective for any APA member to have? So we tried to argue to Senators, in vain compared with the views of one Senator whose district encompasses most of the Park and who was determined to keep Mr. Hornbeck off the APA.

The experience Peter Hornbeck had and the emotions he endured in 2009 are doubtless being felt now by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s picks for APA in 2019. The shoe is on the other foot perhaps.  All have been endorsed by the Association of Adirondack Towns and Villages ( AATV), the Local Government Review Board and probably Senator Little. Naturally, these individuals also feel left out to dry, just as Hornbeck did.

Am I guilty of my own litmus test? Perhaps I am. Some of the Governor’s picks, if ever confirmed, might surprise me in their readiness to represent statewide concern for the Adirondack Park. Some might be critical thinkers, of independent mind and with convictions that the APA Act and other laws are, first and foremost, enacted to be protective of natural resources. The APA Act was never enacted to balance environmental and economic interests, and state courts have so ruled.

One fundamental problem is that there is no accepted system of vetting APA nominations beyond the standard background check.  Governor Cuomo’s four nominees were given no opportunity to make statements and to answer questions showing that they have useful qualifications, levels of awareness, relevant backgrounds, and commitments to the legislated purposes of the APA. Their names were simply on a list with the assumption they would be confirmed.

The State Senate might have felt that this year the Adirondack Park is too important not to have some kind of vetting process in place. In fact, I recommend that the Senate and Assembly joint standing committees convene an annual public hearing about the Adirondack Park Agency, including reports about APA’s health and progress, Park trends and challenges, and how APA is addressing them, and incorporate in that hearing an opportunity to hear from and question any gubernatorial nominees for the APA.

I readily admit to being wrong before about some past APA nominees. For example, in 1984 the Adirondack Council sent me an action alert urging letters be sent to the State Senate opposing Governor Mario Cuomo’s nomination of Herman (Woody) Cole to be the chair of the APA. Adirondack Council opposed his nomination because he was perceived as a friend and campaigner for the Governor, and as a lackey of the development-inclined Olympic Regional Development Authority, ORDA.  I dutifully sent my letter in. Later, after seeing him monthly in Ray Brook I realized that the Rev. Woody Cole was no lackey. Over time, I saw that he grew into a well-informed spokesperson for the Park’s biological diversity and for APA’s moral as well as scientific responsibility for biodiversity conservation. He championed the Park in ways I couldn’t have imagined. He knew a lot about the Park’s statewide and, indeed, global significance, and he also closely considered the interests of Park residents, towns and economies.

I also was wrong about Dick Lefebvre of Canada Lake. When he was nominated by Governor Pataki and later became the APA’s chair, I was initially concerned about his lack of credentials and background for that job. I found out over time that Dick championed the Park as a Park, fought for recognition and funding for Park interpretive centers in towns and hamlets, and believed in the Park’s natural and wilderness assets as both ecological and economic drivers. He also fought for new Park policy, as in the tall towers policy still in place.

I also admit that my admiration for acting chair Karen Feldman grew this spring when I learned, a bit late in the game, what she was doing behind the scenes to stand up for APA’s independence vis-a-vis the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation.  Fault for her unfortunate resignation appears to lie squarely at the Governor’s doorstep.

Contrasting with the Senate’s motivations in 2009, this State Senate actually seems interested in whether or not the nominees’ backgrounds matches well with the APA’s mandates. Today, with the APA rudderless after the resignation of two of its Chairs within 11 months, I thank Senator Kaminsky and other Senators for honoring their consenting role and holding the Governor’s nominations of a current town supervisor, a former town supervisor, a local town councilman and outdoor recreation outfitter and guide, and a former DEC executive. Any of these individuals might be well suited to join the mix of an environmentally stronger APA, but that is not the situation at all. Among the citizens now serving are a town supervisor, a retired town supervisor, three business owners and only one member, Chad Dawson, with a background particularly well suited to a key part of APA’s legislated mission – State Land recreation planning and management.  Where are other members with a background, demonstrated commitment or even strong curiosity for the Park’s ecological health and trends, its long-range planning, and agency legal obligations under the APA Act?

Governor Andrew Cuomo had the chance to pick among quite a few natural resource professionals or retirees, several ecological scientists, and several environment-minded lawyers, all Park residents, all community minded and all willing to serve on the APA. He chose none of them, and instead opted for people who, it appears, had passed a local government litmus test. If Governor Cuomo is satisfied with just maintaining today’s APA, then the Senate – keeping the statute in mind – had the right and the responsibility to question whether staying the course addresses the deep concerns for the Adirondack Park held by people from Long Island to Buffalo, and far beyond the State.

This is not the first time that a Governor may have forgotten the broader concerns for the Park held by people beyond its borders. Governor Carey may also have forgotten. He was reminded of that fact by Lake Placid’s Mary Prime, an original APA member who upon retiring in 1977 wrote to Governor Hugh Carey a letter, a copy of which Paul Schaefer gave me and told me to keep for future reference. Mary Prime wrote, in part:

“Dear Governor Carey…. Please continue to appoint members to the Agency on the basis of their qualifications. If such appointments have political value for you and your administration, so much the better. But the statewide interest in the protection of the Adirondack Park must come first. Otherwise, the agency commission will degenerate into a policy making group of questionable competence and dubious commitment.”

What are the competences and commitments that all APA members should have or strive for? From Adirondack Wild’s report Adirondack Park at a Crossroad: A Road Map for Action, they are:

  • Grounding in the legislated purposes of the APA Act, including the State Land Master Plan, Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, etc.;
  • Passion for using these legal instruments for their intended purposes;
  • Awareness that they represent both local, regional and statewide constituencies for the Park;
  • Critical, independent mind during APA meetings and addressing APA staff presentations;
  • Courage of convictions in difficult votes on controversial issues.

I look forward to the Governor’s next group of nominations to consciously strengthen the APA, and to the Senate’s role to confirm and to allow the public to participate in hearing from and questioning nominees – a kind of vetting process. I think that could be informative and healthy.

I close with this. Would many or any APA members or executive staff today write to Governor Cuomo as Mary Prime wrote to Governor Carey, and remind him that the statewide interest in the protection of the Adirondack Park must come first? As unlikely as that appears,  I try to remain hopeful.

Photo: APA Building in Ray Brook, NY.

Related Stories

David Gibson

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.

6 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Thanks David!

    Interesting reading. A little history is always helpful to understand today’s problems. It seems the nomination process was often politically problematic. The process has been broken – or at least bent – from inception. Until a proper rudder is installed in the APA, it will continue to drift with the wind.

  2. Nicholas Rose says:

    great, balanced summary Dave, Thank You

  3. Boreasfisher says:

    Your thoughtful advocacy gives me hope…thank you. The Adirondacks are so fortunate to have your expert, non partisan intermediacy.

  4. ROBIN DE ARMAS says:

    Spot on both about Peter and the needs of the Park.

  5. Wally Elton Wally Elton says:

    Little also voted against the climate bill this year, despite the threat climate change poses to the Adirondacks.