Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The next APA executive director – a lot at stake for Kathy Hochul, John Ernst and the rest of us

terry martino

After a dozen years, Terry Martino is retiring as the executive director of the NYS Adirondack Park Agency. Terry is an admirable person who has had a difficult job of balancing the pressures from APA applicants, staff, members and the Cuomo administration – and much else.

But for more than a decade she – like many others – loyally saluted as a member of Team Cuomo, the Governor who:

  • put up those banners in Ray Brook that the Park was Open for Business;
  • weakened both the Private Land Use and State Land Plans;
  • weakened the APA and was satisfied with token environmentalism on its board;
  • steered APA further off course from its mission as a planning agency in an era when climate change accelerates the urgent need for better land use planning.

After eleven years open for business, the APA no longer knows why it’s here or what its vision is or where it is going. Therefore, any path will take it there. Professional agency staff deserve a new executive director who can motivate, inspire and model the highest standards of resource protection under the law, who can once again make New York State a leader in regional land use planning, who can with partners prepare the Adirondack North Country for climate change.

What the agency does not deserve is more palaver about  balancing economic development and environmental protection, and more waiting for direction from Albany. Given the pressures of todays and tomorrow’s climate change and population pressures on resources, more balancing means tilting in a downward direction for the Adirondack Park – and for the APA’s budget and staff.

At this crucial time APA deserves an executive director who knows that the APA Act is not a balancing seesaw – and never has been. Its basic purpose is unchanged in 50 years: to insure optimum conservation of “unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park,” and to develop “long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide concern,” recognizing “the major state interest in the conservation, use and development of the park’s resources and the preservation of its open space character and at the same time provide a continuing role for local government.”

During the Cuomo era staff were expected to shrink the scope of agency planning authority, lose sight of its statewide role and interest, wait for direction while processing the next private or the next state development applicant. And the next. And the next. Cumulative impacts? Conservation science? Trends? Carrying Capacity analysis? Public Hearings? No. The APA has been reduced to a politically reactive and compliant permitting agency. The people of White Lake (Red Rock Quarry permit 2021-0075) are just the latest park community to see this clearly.

“Our review is as or more stringent than what the State Environmental Quality Review Act requires.” So protested Adirondack Park Agency lead Counsel Chris Cooper during this month’s permitting of the new granite quarry at White Lake. He doth protest too much. Yes, the State Legislature exempted Class A regional projects from SEQRA because it felt the APA would perform a comparable environmental review to SEQRA. And for a time, it did.

No longer. Both require environmental assessments. If impacts are significant, SEQRA requires that a scope of impacts be subject to public review and hearing and an EIS. APA staff are, in contrast, left to determine the scope of their review without a formal scoping process or hearing. APA has not held an adjudicatory public hearing – the ones that require sworn expert witness testimony – since the ACR project in Tupper Lake in 2011. SEQRA requires alternative ways to develop with no or fewer impacts to be analyzed in writing and in public. Not so at the APA, where alternatives analysis seems to be optional for the developer.

At White Lake, the granite quarry proposal involves extraction, drilling, blasting, crushing and transportation of mineral resources in a heavily settled residential and recreational area of a spring-fed, crystal clear lake. It has drawn an unprecedented level of concern by local residents. Yet, in issuing the permit this month APA required no public hearing and no independent studies of many likely project impacts including the potential noise impacts of blasting. Without professional studies, one of the applicant’s many assertions that topography and trees would simply block the noise was accepted by the APA. APA member Art Lussi, though, had his doubts. He raised the likelihood that rock crushing operations would be disruptive, not the staff. So, APA reduced the rock crushing daily hours by two.

The White Lake community is just the latest in the park to absorb the devastating news that far from acting as a partner and sharing their protective values of the lake’s environmental resources and acting to ensure “optimum overall conservation and protection” of natural resources there, APA has devolved into a rubber stamp for applicants. White Lake is not an exception, but an extension of trends that have accelerated over the past decade.

Alternatives analysis is at the heart of SEQRA’s environmental review process. A state or local government agency cannot claim to have rationally chosen a preferred alternative if other alternative approaches to achieve the same project with fewer environmental impacts have not been evaluated with the same degree of rigor and detail. APA’s regulations authorize it to require alternatives analysis fully akin to that required by SEQR (See APA Regulations, Part 572.3(b)(2) and Part 573.4 (c)(1,7).

However, such analysis is all too frequently not performed.

No alternatives were required during review of the massive ACR project in Tupper Lake (2012), a fact that was conceded by the APA’s own staff.  APA’s Deputy Director at that time testified that the applicant had not been required to develop alternative plans and compare them to its preferred alternative.

No alternatives were analyzed as part of APA’s subdivision permit at Woodworth Lake (2015). Though APA staff asked that applicant to submit alternatives, they did not insist. The applicant declined to do so, and the permit was issued for the developer’s preferred layout.

Alternatives to the classification, planning and management of the Boreas Ponds (2018) were short circuited by the staff and board in deference to the DEC preferred alternative. At Woodward Lake (2021) APA again asked for alternative sketches, but these took several years to produce and were quickly dismissed, without analysis or reduction of intensity, as more damaging than the applicant’s preference and unable to meet anticipated market sales. APA accepted these assertions. While increasing the buffers from wetlands and streams APA largely adopted the applicant’s layout, stating during the issuance of the permit that “we are not a design agency. We can’t redesign what the applicant gives us” and “if you vote no, we run the risk of a lawsuit from the developer.”

Does this sound like an agency pushing its envelope and acting more stringently than the State Environmental Quality Review Act requires? To the contrary, it sounds like a timid agency lacking in its vision and direction, and unworthy of budgetary increases.

In recent years APA senior staff have substituted a Permit Writing Form in place of a substantive permit order which contains Findings of Fact. Findings of Fact were included in all major project permits issued from 2015-2019. For the last several years, including this month, they have disappeared.

Beginning in 2020, that permit writing form reduces the project history and background, site description, and all review of pertinent Development Considerations – from water resources, to wetlands, to wildlife habitats, to project impacts, etc. –  to a series of binary choices, meaning Yes/No check off boxes with occasional, highly abbreviated staff comments in small typeface.

When APA member, now chairman, John Ernst asked in March 2021 whether the agency’s review of the Woodward Lake 32-lot subdivision had narrowed into a “check-off of environmental quality boxes,” he was on target. Unfortunately, he then joined his colleagues in voting to approve.

Instead of reading in the permit itself how staff reached a conclusion of no undue adverse impacts, using plain English, complete sentences and analytical judgement, agency members and the public are given a separate list of checked off boxes. The intent of these check offs is to suggest that there is nothing substantive to see, no major impacts, and no cause for concern.

A permit condition must be linked to an identified impact. Since 2020 no impacts are ever identified in the major Permits APA issues. It is difficult in the extreme to tell, based upon the information in the permit, whether the draft conditions are sufficient and how the applicable development considerations have been applied in order to render a determination of no undue adverse impact. When project impacts and findings are kept hidden in a permit that is hardly an example of government transparency.

Compare the Barile Family subdivision permit in North Elba that APA issued in 2017 and the Woodward Lake subdivision permit issued in 2021.  The 2017 Barile permit contained substantive Findings of Fact devoted to site conditions, application of the development considerations, and project impact avoidance including design and layout of the new housing and the preserving of ecological connectivity on and off site. I did not fully agree with the Barile subdivision layout, but at least in the permit itself there was a reasoned elaboration of why it complied with the law and why the staff believed it was protective of natural resources.

In stark contrast, the 2021 Woodward Lake permit, devoid of Findings, is instead a series of permit conditions bearing no relationship to two years of agency field staff list of project impacts, such as wildlife movements, ecological connectivity and the parcelization of the upland forest, among others. Those staff concerns are lost in a sanitized, simplified yes/no permit writing form.

Governor Hochul is demanding transparency in state government. It’s time that the APA staff once again include Findings of Fact and Project Impacts within the Draft Permits so that agency decision makers can judge whether or not they can properly reach a conclusion of No Undue Adverse Impact to the resources of the Adirondack Park.

Governor Hochul and the Adirondack Park Agency members now bear the responsibility of appointing a new executive director.

Will that individual know what direction they wish to take the agency?

Will that individual have the skills and drive to want to be at the cutting edge of regional land use planning for a Park of state and global significance?

Will that leader actually care whether APA review is more stringent and protective than SEQRA?

Will he or she anticipate that this Park  badly needs new legislative resources to detect park wide trends during climate change? Know how to strengthen the agency’s scientific standards and regulations to match the climate challenge and apply those higher standards?

Will the next ED require that public hearings again be held for complex projects, and once again welcome public comments and participation?

Will she or he stretch the agency’s currently weak planning muscles, and inspire the staff to new heights by their own example?

Will that person have the strength of character to stand up to political pressure and numerous administrative stop signs? Will that person know that the entire state is rightly concerned about the Adirondack Park – and watching?

In the person named to be the next APA executive director we shall find out if Governor Kathy Hochul and APA Chair John Ernst are remnants of the Andrew Cuomo era, or ready to plan ahead and steward the Adirondack Park’s human and natural communities at the highest possible standard during climate change.

open for business banner

Photo at top: Terry Martino at a past APA board meeting. Photo by Gwendolyn Craig/Adirondack Explorer. Above photo provided by David Gibson.

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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.

29 Responses

  1. Keith says:

    Sounds like David would like to see a return of Dan Fitts and Bill Curran who were more than happy to send a year 2000 application for a 1500SF log home on an 8 acre Lens Lake lot, to a public hearing, and subsequent 3 year delay.
    All for the benefit of The Livingston Lake Club and their friend Bill Hutchens who needed to do everything possible to keep from exposing the 1 mile long, illegal, private driveway through the forest preserve to serve the 7 wealthy vacation home owners in Day, NY.
    When will DEC or the APA deal with all the violations that are in plain sight?

  2. JB says:

    Thank you, David Gibson, for your essential work. The importance of having advocates with an unbroken connection to the past becomes starkly obvious when the agency tasked with realizing the defining mission of the Adirondack Park becomes a revolving door serving short-term political interests. Hopefully someone in the governor’s office learns as much from your writing as I have.

    Thank you also for the photograph of the “Open for Business” banner, especially necessary considering how incredible it is that such a flagrant proclamation is hanging up at the headquarters of the all-important land-use planning agency. What a perfect emblem of the backwardness of current priorities. Compare that to the original wording of the APA Act: “This fruitful relationship [between public and private land] is now jeopardized by the threat of unregulated development on such private lands. Local governments in the Adirondack park find it increasingly difficult to cope with the unrelenting pressures for development being brought to bear on the area, and to exercise their discretionary powers to create an effective land use and development control framework.”

    The sycophantic empowerment of what have essentially become state and municipal oligarchies engenders cronyism, disenfranchises the entire citizenry of the State, and severely imperils the viability of the communities that call the Park home. Confoundingly, the worst thing that has ever happened for the long-term economic well-being of the region has been the state’s “palaver about balancing economic development and environmental protection”. Instead of meaningfully improving the prospects and quality of life of the disillusioned local body politic, such a caustic mixture of relativistic interventionism, subsidized profiteering and laissez-faire opportunism has invited and rewarded unscrupulous outside speculation. Case in point: we are seeing historical Adirondack landowners’ associations now at odds with both the APA *and* local town planning boards. Where are the Dick Booth’s of the world when you need them? (Oh yeah, they resigned.)

    • chris cohan says:


      Wow, the below lifted from your comment is so well written. I feel your pent up frustration and heart felt concern.

      The sycophantic empowerment of what have essentially become state and municipal oligarchies engenders cronyism, disenfranchises the entire citizenry of the State, and severely imperils the viability of the communities that call the Park home. Confoundingly, the worst thing that has ever happened for the long-term economic well-being of the region has been the state’s “palaver about balancing economic development and environmental protection”. Instead of meaningfully improving the prospects and quality of life of the disillusioned local body politic, such a caustic mixture of relativistic interventionism, subsidized profiteering and laissez-faire opportunism has invited and rewarded unscrupulous outside speculation. Case in point: we are seeing historical Adirondack landowners’ associations now at odds with both the APA *and* local town planning boards.

  3. Nathan says:

    Good riddance, we Need the APA overhauled, and brought into legal compliance and do the job right. stop with all the illegal corruption. public forums brought back, stop favoring big wigs and turning blind eye for profit of a few wealthy over the towns, tourism and local residents.

    • Boreas says:

      I would like to see voting board members elected by park residents for 2 year terms with a 3 term limit. I don’t know if it would be any better, but it can’t be worse than appointments from Albany.

      • JB says:

        What an interesting contention to debate…Would it be better if full-time Park residents elected the APA board?…If the system was done away with? I think that the beauty and power of the APA Act lies in its singular and forward-thinking vision. It is almost amazing to think that the same New York that we live in now has created such a groundbreaking piece of legislation. Currently, it is very hard to imagine popular “elections”, whatever form that might take, living up to that sort of long-term vision. And yet, the governor appointed boards have become possibly the worst instances of governance that the state has ever seen (e.g., ESDC, the Regents). Right now, I feel fatalistic about the whole thing: the best that we can realistically do is to improve implementation of the original groundwork, either through legislation or the courts (or maybe executively as per Gibson), and cling to hope that the political and economic philosophy sensu lato will be overhauled in the next several decades (e.g., to avoid a global crisis). I guess that is the real trouble with LUP–the forces that are being countered are ubiquitous, intractible, and incremental–they tend to get worse over time!

        • I like it Boreas ! Another stipulation should be you need to own at least 40 acres to vote

        • Boreas says:


          I have the same fatalism WRT the APA. It should be about a long-range vision as you say, with some give and take. But if every new administration appoints their own sycophants to the board, the long-range goal will likely never be a compass heading, but just an unlikely possibility. There needs to be a way to take red and blue politics out of it, but I really don’t see how. I believe it is just doomed to wander in the fog without a true bearing.

          • JB says:

            …Hence the hope that maybe, one day, the body politic will realize that there is no pot of gold at the end of the economic rainbow–only a Malthusian catastrophe. How to convince the “rational economic actor” that the most valuable resources are those which cannot be extracted nor exploited (e.g., the *absence* of atmospheric carbon, the *absence* of land development)? Shawn Typhair’s suggested property qualification unfortunately raises a good point: liberal democracies do not have a very good environmental track record when compared to feudalism (it is hard to protect the environment while protecting economic individualism). Some of the only intact forest ecosystems left in Europe are the ones that stayed in the hands of the nobility the longest (e.g., Bialowieza Forest). But to be proper feudalists we would have to raise the land ownership requirement to something like…6,400 acres. 😉

            • Lee Nellis says:

              At least 640,000 acres, JB! But feudalism did not operate on a basis of reciprocity with the natural world. What it preserved was privilege. Any gains for the environment were incidental to that.

              Ubiquitous, intractable, and incremental! You are waxing eloquent.

              As for electing the Commission?! Conventional elections would just result in really ugly local partisanship. The Red and Blue would be worse because they would be more personal. And people outside the region do have genuine interests here, including that they pay taxes to support the Park.

              Instead, how about sortition. Nine Commissioners, four from within the Park, five from without (that probably fails the one-person, one-vote test, but we are speculating here, not legislating). They are nominated by sortition, i.e. drawn from a pool of all eligible voters. Those selected can refuse nomination and another name is drawn. Let’s say there are seven nominees for each seat (one of the true dysfunctions of our politics is that it squeezes millions of perspectives into two categories). Oh, and draconian conflict of interest rules will apply to those who serve. The nominees each publish a written statement explaining their understanding of the situation, their perspective, and their desire to serve. That is basically the only campaigning allowed (maybe one speech or a debate that actually has rules?). The voters decide among the nominees. Run-offs are probably necessary. The terms are long enough (6 years, like the Senate?) that people can learn the system, but there is turnover every two years.

              One of us might get drawn?

              • JB says:

                Lee, as always, thanks for your input! (I also read and appreciated your contribution to the discourse below and am responding to that here.)

                First, you bring up a very prescient and interesting point here to debate. Namely, were the environmental benefits of feudalism incidental–that is, unintended? And, more importantly, does it matter? (A slightly different question than: “Do the ends justify the means?”) Indeed, in medieval Europe, the feudalist system was tightly integrated into a customary land-use regime that protected common pool resources perhaps better than anything we have seen since. Those traditions, as opposed to the colonial legacy of the Americas, arguably have translated, in specific instances at least, into highly successful land-use planning outcomes that we see in Europe to this day. It could even be argued that the type of non-reciprocal, catastrophic industrialism that we see now was only made possible by the humanistic dismantlement of feudalism (and transition from theology to rationality).

                Admittedly, these arguments are descending from the highly contentious, much abused and abstruse theories of Carl Schmitt (of Nazi fame). But his critique of classical liberalism (sensu economic individualism) is very interesting to revisit when talking about the Adirondack Park. What could be, on the face of it, more anti-individualist than the one-two punch of Article 14 in concert with the APA Act? Or, more precisely, what other examples do we have from modern liberal democracies that are remotely comparable to that decisive and imposing exercise of political sovereignty–a strong, and necessary, triumph of state power over the will of the individual?

                For me (although this opinion may be abhorrent), what we are really talking about here in the context of the decay of modern APA relative to historic norms is a lack of political decisiveness. For Schmitt, that lack of–or rejection of–decisive political authority is the crux of the classical liberal delusion (not the same ‘liberal’ that we use today in party politics). The liberal ideology seeks “to annihilate the political as a domain of conquering power and repression”–the term ‘political’ here roughly equivalent to the sovereign rule of the state over the individual as part of a cohesive state unit–and attempts to supplant decisive political action with unfettered economic individualism bolstered by a dangerous moral universalism whereby “ethical or moral pathos and materialist economic reality combine … and give every political concept a double face.” The only valid political fight becomes “a dynamic of perpetual competition and perpetual discussion” and political viewpoints are “deprived of every validity and subjugated to the norms and orders of morality, law, and economics.” Liberal ideology “makes of the state a compromise and of its institutions a ventilating system”; and thus, “the inevitable lack of objectivity in political decision manifests itself in the regrettable forms and aspects of the scramble for office and the politics of patronage.”

                The ‘political’ relationships between cohesive state societies become confounded with the internal antagonisms of party politics. The cohesive forces of national politics are supplanted by what is left in the wake of the illusion of a righteous nonpolitical neutrality (“[s]hould only neutrality prevail in the world, then not only war but also neutrality would come to an end”). Quietism only suppresses the inevitable conflict long enough to become all the more extreme when it boils over. Humanitarianism becomes “an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion and … a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.” Freedom becomes “domination of men based upon pure economics,” which, “by remaining nonpolitical … thereby evades political responsibility and visibility.” “The state turns into society”; and, “[a] politically united people becomes, on the one hand, a culturally interested public, and, on the other, partially an industrial concern and its employers, partially a mass of consumers.” Environmentalism becomes economic exploitation–in the words of Aldo Leopold, “all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough has been seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to preserve.”

                In this vein, we could argue that the power and success of the Adirondack Park lies in the unilateral political decisiveness that created it. Indeed, the strongest affirmation of that comes from the observation that within a procedural, “nonpolitical” state, an unwillingness to act decisively becomes an existential threat to wildness (and by extension the our eventual future descendants). In the words of David Schmidtz (no relation to Carl Schmitt): “Therein lies a justification for social structures enshrining a right to remove resources from the unregulated commons: when resources become scarce, we need to remove them if we want them to be there for our children. Or anyone else’s.” In the modern case, the resource that has become scarce is open and undeveloped landscapes. The Adirondack Park, in Schmittian terms, must be “justified by mere existence,” and to do so presupposes the political wherewithal for absolute and decisive infringements upon (perceived) individualist freedoms.

                Secondly, you bravely acknowledge the extreme Adirondack “cliquishness” that is, indeed, apparently matched by no other! This raises the question: From whence did this exceptional cliquishness come? Again returning to political philosophy, the naive Schmittian interpretation would be that we are observing an essential “friend-enemy” antagonism: the Adirondack body politic is serving as a “state” within a state–that is, within the “state” of Upstate NY, which is itself a state within the cosmopolitan State of New York, in turn a state within the larger Republic. Surely, so many layers of statehood and enmity, subjugation and sovereignty, must coalesce into a type of overdetermined antagonism. However, the phrase “state within a state” is a good example of a characterization that likely strains credibility under the Schmittian framework. What we are really seeing, it seems, is a reaction of a fragmentary part, abelit artificially delineated, of an economic individualist society screaming out against one of the rare modern examples of an exercise of political sovereignty over the liberties expected by modern individualism. Indeed, such truly Schmittian political acts are vanishingly rare in contemporary liberal societies, and this perhaps explains the exceptionality of the Adirondack antagonism. But such an interpretation does not completely account for the reality, e.g., the many-layered bureaucracies of the Adirondack Park–there must be something more at play.

                Going deeper, we might see the contemporary Adirondack antagonism as economic liberalism in extremis, contra mundi–as a powerful and unique lens that magnifies the cracks in the ideology itself. To Schmitt, all words carry with them a moral and historical weight. The word “repression”, he contends, “would have been nothing more than a powerless curse word of political debate if it had not been integrated into a large metaphysical and historical system.” The “pathos against politics and state” manifests itself as a longing for the bygone “golden age”–when in fact no such a period ever existed–because economics is now the perceived weapon in the power dynamic (“[i]n the past, the warring nations had subjugated the trading peoples; today it is the other way round.”). Whereas the state was once the “realm of morality and objective reason high above the appetitive domain of egoistic society”, again today this has been inverted. But no ideological construct can elevate antagonism above destructive “cliquishness” that serves no purpose, eo ipso. Without the leadership of a decisive state, the sentiment of repression becomes aimless, nonreciprocal and untenable. Under a regime of economic liberty, the struggle of the repressed against repression in actuality entrenches them deeper into their own repression, for economic repression cannot be countered “by economic means”. There is no decisive end–no light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a decisive and arbitrary state–to justify the means, only perpetuation to extremity: “A war waged to protect or expand economic power must, with the aid of propaganda, turn into a crusade and into the last war of humanity”—a war in turn, we must add, that “can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.” Stewardship non-incidentally becomes victim–but what can be more human than stewardship? What can possibly offer us more freedom and independence than the preservation of that which sustains us? “No matter how large the financial bribe may be, there is no money equivalent for political freedom and political independence.” …And the Adirondack community has taken a very large bribe.

                Lastly, it is relevant to talk about Schmitt’s concept of the shifting “central domains”. Obviously, there has been a progression–or at least what is often viewed as “progress”–from theological and feudalistic to rational and humanitarian (a changing “willingness of the great masses to be impressed by certain suggestions”). Towards the end of his life (shortly after the passage of the APA Act), Schmitt speaks of the shift away from individuals and towards “technicity”–the ultimate “neutrality”. We see this transformation of societal thinking in the mid-to-late 20th century in every aspect of society and of its relationships with the world–for example, the development of numerical taxonomy and subsequently molecular systematics in biology and the reliance on mathematical and subsequently computational models in ecology (both of which have lead to unprecedented dissention)–but more relevant here is the change in attitudes towards governance and planning philosophy.

                Why is it that urban and land-use philosophy, taking the form of the likes of philosophies of Ian McHarg and Jane Jacobs, reach their apex circa the 1960s? …Coincidentally, shortly before or contemporaneously with the creation of APA? I would argue that the essential and important underlying philosophy of that period is totally precluded by “technicity”, or, as per Michael Polayni, the “moral inversion” that favors reductionist low-level concepts over higher-level orders. The foundational philosophies of modern land-use planning are rooted in a strong “a priori reasoning” (my own poor choice of words) that cannot be reached through reductionistic process; and, arguably, such land-use planning regimes can similarly not be effectively governed by non-decisive, reductionistic procedure.

                Given all of the above, it is finally important to distinguish this “a priori reasoning” from the many things for which it will be confounded. It is not romantic atavism in the sense that the foundations of reductionism are, in fact, coherently grounded in a priori ways of human understanding. Similarly, it is not the romantic moral universalism shunned by Schmitt, since it is amoral–and yet, it is not nihilistic, since it is rooted in customary, prescriptive concepts such as reciprocity. Further, it is not related to–other than being its precedent–Enlightenment rationality, since the latter is only possibly via the development of disembodied intellectualism–a priori knowledge is necessarily embodied; and a priori human understanding transcends, at least in many indigenous societies, logocentric truth-false conceptions. A priori understanding is not synonymous with the theological, yet it serves as the foundation both for theology and for Schmitt’s secular political unity/enmity. Similarly, it is not political, yet not only is political leadership reliant upon a priori authority, but, by definition, all (true) political leaders must possess a priori understanding in order to definitively maintain both connection to the past and foresight for the future. All of these essential benefits of a priori human understanding are negated by technical reductionism. Our relationship with the world becomes nonusufructory and nonreciprocal, and thus, unsustainable. The conflict between unified society-states transcends its previous liberal devolution into fractious internal antagonism and finally becomes–to the rational man’s delight–a hard-won conflict between the “state of man” and the “state of nature”. The false dichotomy becomes a reality, and the vision becomes the future devoid of visionaries: “for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts / Were always downward bent, admiring more / The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold, / Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed.” (Not as good as your poetic ending a couple of weeks ago, Lee, but I needed a justification to end this arduous post!)

                • Lee Nellis says:

                  I can’t wait for your book! Truly, I am honored that my thoughts evoked this explanation. It has quite different roots (that I am happy to learn about), and yet much the same as what I see. An individualistic worldview (mythology, if you prefer) translated into economic “isms” (from this perspective, differences between capitalism and socialism aren’t all that important) is not able to deal, as you suggest that feudal societies could and indigenous peoples clearly can (or at least could) with intrinsic value. Everything has to be assigned a value that can be translated into a common denominator. And that simplification, that abstraction (Wendell Berry has something to say about this) is inevitably abuse. Or one might push it to say that we can – by definition, by structure – hold nothing sacred.

                  Love the poetry at the end. If you have not, you should read Morris Berman’s The Re-enchantment of the World.

                  • JB says:

                    Lee, thanks. (I had to get out my notes.) Despite the Schmittian absolutism, I really do enjoy discourse and discussion and am always very glad to engage with some of the Adirondack “big fish” like yourself. In monologue format–“my book”–I fear that it would all be completely impenetrable!

                    To answer the original premise more succinctly (losing some nuance): Does it matter if good things come incidentally?…I think that the writing is on the wall: If–as folks like us from different backgrounds come to the same ultimate conclusion (or, peasantry and nobility, private clubs and APA, etc. realize shared interests)–if “good” can come about “serendipitously” (emerge from an irreducible higher-level order), then that good will be better than anything that we can purposefully create as a collective of individuals (Wendell Berry indeed looms large). If we do find ourselves embedded into a systematic cycle of reductionism (or abstraction), then we need to resort to or rely upon extra-system, extra-reductionist phenomena to see ourselves out.

                    I almost forgot to add: the poem is from–who else–Milton. And I am not familiar with Berman. Poets tend to push back hard against reductionism. I need to read more poetry. My specialist anti-reductionist war chest could use some humanities. Many thanks for the recommendation, and it has been added to my list. If I could lend you a book in the spirit of reciprocity, it would probably be the indigenous hermeneutics gem Tedlock, “The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation.” (…This also serendipitously in keeping with the larger spirit of eclecticism.)

  4. Big Burly says:

    Dave Gibson … There are so many times I have agreed with your reasoning and support for the DAKs as such a special place. Ms Martino has protected the Agency from a venal and vindictive Governor for most of the time she has been in the position. The Board appointments controlled by that Governor are the people you need to target, including the de facto agency reps. You are a better person.

  5. Ryan McHugh says:

    Is it too much to ask for David and Peter to dig a little bit deeper? 20 years ago the Landowners Associations had the APA in their pockets. Now it has become a rubber stamp for business interests. What is allowing for this agency to be so easily corrupted? Who are the individuals at the agency that are involved in the permitting process and what ties do they have to the applicants? Yelling about impact studies is doing little to hold the agency accountable. Every Adirondack project has a unique story with many layers – time for the Almanack/Explorer to start peeling them back.

    • Keith McHugh says:

      While my year 2000 application for a1500SF log home on an 8-acre, Lens Lake lot was crawling through a 2 year long Public Hearing, John Banta’s (APA chief counsel) application for a home on a 1-acre lot in a RM zone was approved on-the-spot even though the “brave” staff concluded that the narrow, steep lot did not seem to have adequate area to locate a septic system on his lake front lot.
      There was no outrage from any of the environmental-protection groups that quickly signed-on to oppose my insignificant, in comparison, development.

  6. Phil Terrie says:

    Thanks, Dave!

  7. louis curth says:

    Dave Gibson puts forth a foundational question toward the end of his thought-provoking essay; “Will that person have the strength of character….?”

    This experiential question about integrity is fundamental to our conduct – be it for better or for worse. From time to time, we might all benefit by asking ourselves how Dave’s question applies to our own conduct? I would hasten to add that it would be especially beneficial for those who are elected or appointed to serve in positions of authority at all levels in our system of governance.

  8. chris cohan says:

    Wow, you really put the state of APA in perspective. The Cuomo era was so frustrating. I hope, wish and have my fingers crossed we are truly witnessing a 180 degree change.

  9. Lee Nellis says:

    I had a job interview with the APA not long after I moved to the Adirondacks. The questions were almost entirely about loyalty rather than about competence. I didn’t have to turn down the job, which I would have. I am sure the conversation made it clear that I was not going to forsake professional planners’ ethical (and sometimes very uncomfortable) obligation to speak truth to power.

    At the same time, having directed and consulted with planning agencies that face difficult challenges, I hasten to say that being ED of the APA is not for the faint-hearted. David is placing quite a burden on a single individual and those who will select that person.

    First. as he points out, legislative changes are essential. I will not enumerate them, but they include procedural reform, as well as substantive direction. Getting those changes made is the responsibility of David and his political allies, not that of the new ED. Having a new ED who says, “Yes, this would be helpful, and here’s why from my point-of-view”, would be great, but the new ED needs to spend a lot more time up here in the mountains than in Albany.

    Second, without significant personnel power, the new ED will fail. Doesn’t matter who he or she is, how charismatic, how talented, or how successful in some past role. The Commissioners have to insist that the Governor make this happen. The APA still, I think, takes a certain pride in tracing its “theoretical” heritage to irascible landscape architect Ian McHarg. The independent thinking about the landscape and how to build in it that McHarg taught is inconsistent with civil service careerism. The Commission must also expect its staff to adhere to the ethics and standards of the planning and design professions.

    Third, the new ED cannot come from the Adirondack clique. I have never watched the process run in anyplace that is as cliquish as the Adirondacks or where there is such an abiding perception that there was a golden age (what David says here and some of the comments are full of that). I wasn’t here to see it, so I am not going to say that there wasn’t a “golden age’ (though I am pretty certain not everyone thought it was golden). But the APA must go forward, not backward and there is no one from the clique who will not have way too much “baggage.” The new ED needs to have demonstrated success in providing visionary leadership for planning and conservation functions in some other landscape.

    That should irritate just about everyone one or another, but its 50 years of mostly successful experience speaking, so I will wait to see what it provokes.

  10. chris cohan says:


    I appreciate your extended comments. That is eye opening about how your interview was more about loyalty than professional competence.

    I had the opportunity to meet McHard and was always captivated by his presence. He spoke so well and convincing. Sometimes after our meetings my head cleared and then after the fact I was ready with cogent rebuttals. Nevertheless, he was usually on the money, engaging and had the personal presence to sway many his way- which almost always was the right way.

    Whether a Golden Age ever existed, let’s hope that we are on curp of a Golden Age as The APA and Adirondacks deserves it.

    • Lee Nellis says:

      I show my students a video clip of McHarg in action. He didn’t create anything – all the pieces of the puzzle existed, some for a long time – but he brought it all together at just the right time. We build on the foundation he laid.

  11. David Gibson says:

    Lee – your interview, history, comments and recommendations are very well written and taken. They are absorbing. Thank you.
    And no, at least from my first impressions of the agency a long while ago now there has been no golden age.
    But, the independent thinking about the landscape, ethics, standards that you see as essential, and I do as well, existed from the outset at staff and board, as did levels of mutual trust and respect. And have lasted a human lifetime (almost), with peaks and valleys. At present, all have been badly eroded, but not lost.
    And you are also right that my post places an overly large burden and expectation of any one inherently frail human being.

    • Lee Nellis says:

      Thanks for continuing this conversation. However realistic the expectations (or not), there will be a new ED. I hope that everyone, from every angle, is patient enough to allow that person the space to succeed. It is going to take more than two years to see how it goes, to begin rebuilding the agency culture.

      I could tell another story about customer service (or not) at the APA, but will not because it would point to an individual. Let’s just say that the inward, political focus shows at all levels. And in thinking about this ED, let’s not forget that the DEC is the APA’s inevitable partner in protecting this region. DEC’s response to the new ED is going to be very important.

      Mitigating the load of expectations on one inherently frail (as we all are) person is going to be primarily the responsibility of the Commission. There will be give and take in that. The new ED has to be able to help the Commission reach its potential, too. But the buffering the new ED will need to get established and then become effective is going to have to come, and come quite explicitly, from the Commission. If they can’t unite to create the space necessary for rebuilding, then this job will be close to impossible.

  12. Lee Nellis says:

    Well, we all know the outcome. Business as usual, it seems. Though I doubt she will ever read this, I truly do wish the new ED the best of luck. If you do read this, ma’am, here’s my one thought: As long as I have watched, the APA has been trying to answer the wrong question. If you get the question right, things will go much better.

  13. chris cohan says:

    Don’t set bar low before whomever is hired. I worked in public service from NYC to CT as well as private sector managing staffs. Mostly , I was tasked with cleaning up messes and righting the ship so to speak. I ran large parks/rec dept with a load of agendas by staff, commission, and community. Shackled with complacency, path of least resistance, apathy and ‘well this is how we always did it’ or, ‘ we never did that before’, etc.

    Never easy BUT can and should be done. APA staff, et al may be thirsting for a strong leader. New ED is new sheriff in town and should set a clear standard and direction and make it stick. Anything less then they hired the wrong person.


  14. louis curth says:

    Lee Nellis says; “Well, we all know the outcome. Business as usual, it seems.”

    Call me naive, Lee, but I find it very difficult, as one so fortunate as to live my life in this grand Adirondack region, to accept “business as usual” without at least trying to help make a difference for those who come after us.

    Just sharing our disparate comments here without hate or malice (under Melissa’s watchful editorship) gives me hope that our opinions, like our many other differences, need not be an impediment to joining together as a “community” that can work together for positive change.

    To my mind, such change can, and should, begin at the local level, with an overhaul of the politicians who have become wholly self-serving and complacent to the needs of the people – all the people, not just the rich.

    We can do better than “business as usual”. The future of our.democracy depends on a better outcome.

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