The Adirondack Park Agency is weaker today than at any time in its 48-year history. That the fault rests with the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo is both unfortunate and surprising: unfortunate because the APA was created to protect the Adirondack Park from damaging use and development but is now falling down on the job; surprising because, at the national level, the Governor has become a leader in combating climate change, the greatest environmental threat to our planet in human history. Yet in a critically important way the Governor has neglected the world-class park in his own backyard.
At six-million acres, the Adirondack Park occupies one-fifth of the state. It is the largest park by far in the contiguous U.S. — nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, as big as Vermont, and a lot bigger than Massachusetts. The Adirondack Park is unique in its ownership pattern: Almost half of it consists of public Forest Preserve, protected by the state constitution as “forever wild” and owned by all the people of New York State. Which means that all New Yorkers have a vested interest in preserving this natural treasure.
Before the APA was established by the NYS legislature, the private lands of the Adirondacks were wide open to any and all kinds of development, posing a threat to the adjacent public lands and to the integrity of the park as a whole. Thanks to the APA’s regional development controls, enacted in 1973, and to the forever wild Forest Preserve, which has enjoyed ironclad protection since 1895, the Adirondack Park serves as a model for how people and nature can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way. By protecting these woods, waters, mountains and wetlands, New York State is also nurturing the Adirondack economy, which depends largely on tourism and second-home ownership.
Sadly, however, the APA has fallen into disrepair. This tiny but essential agency (some 50 staff members overseen by an 11-member board) has been crippled by a combination of interference and neglect by the Governor’s office. Indicative of this failure was the agency’s approval of a 6,000-acre subdivision near Tupper Lake that included dozens of “Great Camp lots,” ranging from 25 to 118 acres, with access roads and buildings that would be scattered across a forested landscape.
This was the largest subdivision proposal ever reviewed by the APA, and it represented a classic example of the wrong way to treat Adirondack land. The agency could have — but failed to — require the developer to avoid “rural sprawl” and preserve wildlife habitat by concentrating development so that most the vast tract would remain in continuous open space.
The APA claimed it had no authority to do an ecological survey and require the necessary environmental protections, though it had previously, under a different governor (our current governor’s father), done just that with another potentially destructive development proposal. Yet when a “conservation design bill” was subsequently introduced in the NYS legislature, which would explicitly allow the APA to exercise such control over large subdivision proposals, the agency refused to back the legislation. Nor did the Governor’s office support this crucial step in strengthening and motivating the APA. As a consequence, the legislation, which was opposed by two influential Adirondack legislators, went nowhere.
The extent of mismanagement is also reflected in the plight of the APA’s governing board, which supposedly consists of three state-agency commissioners and eight citizen members appointed by the governor and subject to confirmation by the state senate. The current number of citizen members has now dwindled to five, four of whom are serving expired terms. Adding insult to injury, only two of them have any background in land-use planning and environmental protection.
In May, the acting APA chairwoman resigned, having served eight months without being paid for the full time work she was doing. In June, the state senate rejected a slate of four candidates that Governor Cuomo proposed for the APA board because they were clearly unqualified. These same candidates were, however, embraced by local governments and development interests, though they lacked any expertise in environmental science, law, regional planning or open-space protection — qualities essential to fulfilling the protective mission of the agency.
So please, Governor Cuomo, get the APA back on track. Appoint people to the agency’s board who represent the state interest in safeguarding this special place, and then give them the freedom to do the job.
Development will no doubt accelerate in the Adirondacks during the course of the 21st century, but it must be done with respect for the park’s natural attributes. The number of annual visitors to the Adirondacks has reached 12 million and will surely increase. Seasonal residents now exceed 200,000, another number that is likely to grow, along with the park’s permanent population, which is currently at 130,000. The increasing popularity of the Adirondacks seems inevitable in the decades ahead as global warming makes life south of the Adirondack Park increasingly hot and uncomfortable.
Properly protected, the Adirondack Park can accommodate this growth and avoid the perils of being loved to death. But we need Governor Cuomo’s leadership, and a strong, resolute Adirondack Park Agency, for this to happen.
Photo of APA Building in Ray Brook.