Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Did the Governor Appoint APA Members on the Basis of their Qualifications?

The protection and planning for the Adirondack Park’s six million acres, one-fifth of the state, rests in large measure on the motivation and independence of the Adirondack Park Agency’s staff and board members in Ray Brook.  Seven members were just nominated by Governor Cuomo and confirmed to sit at the APA’s table by the State Senate.  How should we think about them? How should we think about them in light of Governor Cuomo’s challenge to reimagine and improve public policies and practices – to “build back better”?

The APA’s legislated charter is to protect the Park’s natural resources considering economic and local government concerns.  APA’s board is comprised of eight citizens and three State agencies, “ex-officio” designees, all nominated or appointed by the Governor. At one time, a majority of its members were mindful of their statewide responsibilities, committed to carrying out the letter and spirit of the APA Act and independently overseeing DEC’s compliance with the Adirondack State Land Master Plan. That does not imply I always agreed with their votes, but no one could question their commitments.

Many APA members have had interests and backgrounds well suited to this mission. Past members have had backgrounds fighting acid rain, caring for biological diversity, as well as wilderness advocates and managers, forestry practitioners, Forest Preserve authors, outdoor (and indoor) teachers, land use lawyers, regional planners, sportsmen and sportswomen, town supervisors, businessmen and businesswomen.

That many APA members have had diverse backgrounds and life experiences is very important – so long as environmental and regional planning concerns were prominently represented. However, that began to change even in the late 1970s. An original APA member from Lake Placid, Mary Prime wrote to then-Governor Hugh Carey upon her retirement from the APA in 1977 that she was gravely concerned about the person that would replace her:

“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.”

During Governor Andrew Cuomo’s terms, Mary Prime’s warning has become reality at APA.  Governor Cuomo is content with a symbolic environmental vote – one, maybe two APA members who remind their colleagues and staff why they are there, regularly display a keen environmental planning interest, and demonstrate the will to confront major policy issues and cast difficult votes that may run counter to the majority.  More than two critical voices around the APA table may make the Governor and his DEC uncomfortable because these added voices might slow things down. For those that work under him, the Governor has a famously transactional rather than deliberative temperament and preference. While all APA members are fine people devoting much time to the agency, most are nominated to conform to team Cuomo’s economic and recreational development priorities and time deadlines at the expense of natural resource protection. Since 2012 the result has been weakening of the State Land Master Plan and management standards for all state lands, including those classified Wilderness, issuance of hundreds of variances, and approval of large and smaller residential subdivisions without conservation design principles or standards.

The latest example of a lonely vote in search of high standards of review came in the case of the Remsen to Lake Placid Transportation Corridor Unit Management Plan. At the May virtual meeting of the agency, member Chad Dawson appealed to his colleagues not to rush approval of this corridor plan running through the heart of the Park. While the final plan was an improvement over earlier drafts, another few months of effort could further improve the plan’s vision and anticipation of actual and projected future uses and regional effects, both positive and negative, on the eleven adjacent units of Forest Preserve and on the human communities through which it runs. Dawson asked for specific improvements in the planning to better envision future conditions. His appeal was, no more and no less, for the APA to honor the requirements of the State Land Master Plan.

Other members applauded his critique and then voted to approve the plan as presented. The DEC representative’s reaction was typical. He stated that while he appreciated member Dawson’s comments, “we have a narrow job to do, and that is to determine compliance with the State Land Master Plan.” The job of evaluating whether unit plans comply with the guidelines of the master plan is hardly a narrow one. It requires background, training and understanding of the master plan and critical judgement in applying it. It also requires time. That the DEC representative views compliance with the master plan as a “narrow job” is a rather good demonstration of a problem.

Over the course of the past year, the Governor rejected many names of people ready and willing to serve on the APA, including independent environmental attorneys familiar with the APA Act and Park residents with experience in regional land use planning and ecological analysis of impacts.

Instead, this month’s nominations and confirmations to the APA follow a pattern. Joining the APA are two active town supervisors, one retired town supervisor and active economic development advocate, a hotel resort owner, and a former DEC executive. Also confirmed are one conservation-minded landowner and one respected environmental leader, the distinct minority. While all are fine, hard-working individuals, the majority background is in local government and economic development, not natural resources, environmental law, or planning.

Though I am not counting on it, I could be pleasantly surprised by any of these new members. One or more may possess and display independence from the Governor and the DEC as well as questioning minds, readiness for training in the laws and policies they are expected to implement, and courage to demand high standards in permit and plan drafts and policy debates in advance of important votes.

All of that critical thinking can be carried out in a collegial way – as member Chad Dawson has shown these past four years. Up ahead, who will actually vote with member Dawson? Come to think of it, why wasn’t member Dawson re-nominated for four more years by the Governor (his term ends June 30)? Is member Dawson asking too many critical questions and casting too many principled votes against the team to receive another term?

And, who will now chair the APA? After not receiving the support she felt she needed and deserved from the executive and after standing up to the DEC on several policy matters, Karen Feldman left her post as chair in 2019. Since then, the Governor has relied upon an acting chair from the state’s economic development department, Brad Austin.  He runs a good meeting, but should someone working for state economic development chair the Adirondack Park Agency?

Starting in July we will find out if more than two votes can be mustered to uphold the integrity and independence of the APA. Up ahead for the new members of the APA are decisions on matters Adirondack Wild is closely following, including a proposed 37-lot subdivision of Woodward Lake and more than 1000 acres of upland forest near Northville, a requested reclassification of 105 acres from Rural Use to Moderate Intensity Use near Lake Luzerne, and DEC’s insistence to amend a unit management plan to authorize construction of a 4-mile long snowmobile community connector route 500 feet inside the Blue Ridge Wilderness.

Then, there are dozens of smaller permits, subdivision and variance requests, and DEC plans to be reviewed. Stay tuned.




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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 PreserveDuring 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.


18 Responses

  1. Donald S. Corp says:

    Mr. Gibson’s comments are well conveyed and are germane to whether many agencies within New York State are honest, fair and directed by people who are
    concerned with good public policy and administration, rather than politics. The
    political aspects of sound judgments and honest applicable viewing of planning
    to do the correct thing regarding the State Master Plan are troubling. It often
    taints the correct objective. Just the fact that the Governor is leader of the State,
    does not make him an administrator. An administrator has to be primarily honest
    and dedicated to his or her position. Unfortunately, administration often involves
    political favoritism and does not find acceptable solutions to problems. As many
    in the public feel, it is the same old position which keeps the status quo.
    Great writing Mr. Gibson!

  2. Big Burly says:

    It is often said by folks who have had interactions with officials of the DEC, “they present themselves as sitting at the right hand of God” The 2010 (?) MOU twixt the APA and DEC on which agency did what with regard to the SLMP is more often applied in the breach of the contents. Thx Mr. Gibson for this analysis.

  3. Balian the Cat says:

    Far be it from me to defend a government agency where Natural Resource protection is concerned, but I think it mildly naive to assume that the DEC operates in a vacuum. Surely there is a direct line from the Governors office to the Commissioner and therefore down through the ranks. I have no doubt that there are good folks at the DEC holding their noses while they push projects that give them indigestion.

  4. Naj Wikoff says:

    Thanks Dave. We need at least a balance of voices of the board as that encourages people to listen to each other and seek consensus. We have not had that in quite awhile. The governor should elect such a balance, and then get out of the way. He’s point of view isn’t the right one in all cases as he seems to think from time to time. I get he likes action and to get things done quickly, but at times a more thoughtful approach, especially when considering matters that will impact future generations, is the best approach.

  5. Boreas says:

    “Come to think of it, why wasn’t member Dawson re-nominated for four more years by the Governor (his term ends June 30)? Is member Dawson asking too many critical questions and casting too many principled votes against the team to receive another term?”

    I think these questions sum up this administration. In a chronically understaffed agency, what sense does it make to get rid of anyone? This exclusion speaks volumes for the direction the administration wants to take. Too many questions indeed!

  6. Charles Carnes says:

    Balanced opinions are needed for these positions. For too long it was no to everything. This is everyone’s land to enjoy. Some give and take from both sides is good.

  7. The agency board should represent the dual purpose of the Adirondack park, environmental conservation and built on that, a thriving economy. The APA has delivered on the first and woefully neglected the second. It is long past due to deliver on the promise state land acquisitions would result in economic rewards and strong communities. The governor, the APA and the DEC need to focus on improving the economy and strengthening Adirondack communities. Not eliminating them both.

    • Boreas says:

      “It is long past due to deliver on the promise state land acquisitions would result in economic rewards and strong communities.”

      Boy that is becoming an old saw – how long has it been used? Seen the recent activity in Newcomb?

      The APA doesn’t make decisions only on new lands. If the board isn’t balanced, there really is no need for one. Land and resource conservation can always be reversed by later administrations, but development cannot. This just sets the stage for even more lawsuits.

      • And more conservation isn’t an old saw? Communities are shrinking and lands owned by the state are increasing. The imbalance is clear regardless of who has been appointed to the APA Board. Time to change this. Both can be accomplished.

        • Boreas says:

          Yes, more conservation is an old saw. In this administration it has often been ignored. A huge Tupper Lake development was approved, then went belly-up. Boreas Ponds was purchased, cut in half to provide motor vehicle and snowmobile access. A large waterfront hotel was approved in SL. Large snowmobile connector trails were approved. Frontier Town development was approved. Conservationists found significant problems with all of the above, but they went through. The APA has certainly done all it can do for development. It is up to the local COMMUNITIES to make them profitable. The APA is not a Golden Goose.

          I think it is time to stop blaming conservationists for all the financial woes within the Park. What we are actually waiting for is the development that HAS been approved to show the revenue THEY have promised. Do we really need to be stacking the APA nominees in favor of development when said development in the Park has yet to make much of an impact? If the conservation aspect of the APA is removed, why is there a need for the APA?

          Indeed, the APA must be balanced, but it isn’t now and won’t be with the new members. The APA nomination process needs to be reconfigured to ensure this balance. Perhaps politically motivated nominations from Albany isn’t the best way to staff this organization. Perhaps members should be voted in or approved by residents within the Park. Perhaps each county could send 2 members – one for conservation, one for development. The current process is not producing economic results.

          10 or 20 year swings between conservation and development is fraught with problems Rather, every single decision should be evaluated by a balanced body of members. A consistent path forward is the only way entrepreneurs and financiers are going to invest in the area. Proper long-term planning requires a vision of the final product. The vision cannot change every few years by changes in administration.

          • Donald Corp says:

            Mr. Boreas,
            I completely agree with your words.
            Don Corp

          • Balian the Cat says:


            This might be your magnum opus! Really well played.

            • nothing you mentioned has increased jobs, enrollment at schools or improved the economy as promised by the APA act and conservation groups when they advocated for the Boreas Acquisitions. Great avoidance of the issue but nothing in your opus has improved the economy as promised.

          • Cat King says:

            Boreas says: June 19, 2020 at 9:30 am “Yes, more conservation is an old saw. In this administration it has often been ignored. A huge Tupper Lake development was approved, then went belly-up”.
            It went belly up because the APA kept it in limbo for MANY years!

  8. Shawn Typhair says:

    It’s time to stop blaming the conservatiionalist for the economic woes in the Adirondack Park. Really? Just ask the town of Clare about the law suit they have to spend money on because of allowing atvs on public roads. Mind you that these are blacktop roads that have been driven on for years they are not pristine forever wild lands this is the problem with the conservationist.

  9. This isn’t a blame game. Conservationists promised all the public land purchases would bring economic prosperity in order to get the public funding for acquisitions. It long past time for them to live up to promises made.

    • Boreas says:

      “It long past time for them to live up to promises made.” Who is “them”?

      Various administrations approved of each acquisition. Various administrations justified the expenditures typically by promoting economic growth through BOTH development AND conservation. If your argument is that NYS should not have purchased the lands, that is another discussion entirely. But as I said before, the APA (the topic here) is not only about buying land. The APA gives direction to all land use and potential use within the Park. This should be balanced and consistent over time.

      • Boreas, will you ever do anything to strengthen communities in the Adirondacks. Increase jobs, increase the declining community populations? The promise of the Park Agency Act and every advocacy group which advocated for more public land acquisition is “them”. They made the promise public ownership would improve the economy in the Park. Time to be accountable for those promises. No nit picking language. No excuses. Just improve the economic indicators. And use your real name too.

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