Monday, February 6, 2023

APA Act at 50 – Interdependence, not Balance

Gov Nelson Rockefeller signing the APA Act in 1973 while others look on

Well, it’s happened again. Another state budget is proposed by the Executive wherein the Adirondack Park Agency’s job is mischaracterized by this Governor’s (and former governors’) budget divisions as working “to achieve a balance between strong environmental protection and sustainable economic development opportunities for the residents of the Adirondack Park” (2023 Executive Budget Briefing Book).

Balance is important to strive for in our individual lives. However, nothing in the Adirondack Park Agency law, now reaching 50 years in May, calls for “a balance between strong environmental protection and sustainable economic development.” That is a construct and interpretation that has been superimposed upon the law, most especially since Governor Andrew Cuomo began his first term in 2011, as in this example from that year: “The APA Act is a balance of the adverse resource impacts of the project with its potential benefits” (APA staff during the Adirondack Club and Resort public hearing). Many have stated similar “balancing” objectives since then.

The unstated assumption behind such a statement seems to be that natural resource protection and economic development are on a seesaw, oppositional in purpose and competing in nature, and therefore requiring a state referee to provide necessary balance. That is not what the APA Act is about.

It’s been fifty years since the APA Act, the nationally groundbreaking Private Land Use and Development Plan, was enacted in the spring of 1973 and still those in charge of the Agency, from the governor’s office to the APA use words which suggest that natural communities and human communities here in the Park and by extension anywhere else in our world have independent, unlinked, competing trajectories and trend lines requiring some wise ones to balance them on a scale, and make sure that one does not overtop the other.

Even during these times of dramatic climate alteration, we still have difficulty expressing the basic truth that humans are inextricably part of the natural world and that we are “dependent members of an interdependent community which gains its energy from the sun” (to quote Howard Zahniser, author and chief lobbyist, the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964).

The assumption of competing environmental and economic goals is deeply flawed here and around the globe. Our groundbreaking Climate Act of 2019 and the ice-in, ice-out schedules from Lake Champlain to Moose Pond tell us that the very foundation of economic health and our life support systems in Adirondack Park and beyond the Park are tied to our environmental health. The APA knows this and should be teachers of this truth to the rest of the state – and the rest of the United States. Stop talking oppositional balance , Governors, APA, and start talking again about our interdependence with and upon the natural world.

One would wish that those writing the APA Act in 1973 were again around the table to say this explicitly, but they were definitely not thinking that the environment was in opposition to the economy of the Park. Far from it. An original APA member serving from 1971-1977, Lake Placid’s Mary Prime, wrote this to then Governor Hugh Carey: “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.” Courts have upheld Mary Prime and the Act, one of which stated that “the APA…is not charged with such a balancing of goals and concerns but, rather, is required to ensure that certain projects…would not have an undue adverse impact” upon the resources of the Park (Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks et. al. v. Town of Tupper Lake, AD 3d, 2009).

There are three references in the Act’s first Section, 801, about the legislation’s purpose of preserving natural resources or open space character. There is only one use of the word “balanced” in the statement of legislative findings and purposes, and that refers to the “sensible apportionment” of land in the Land Use map given over to human community needs and to the Park’s open space character. In contrast to “balanced,” the word “interdependence” is used. “Complementarity” is also used. Both words, interdependence and complementarity between and among human and natural communities, are entirely the right way to view APA’s 50 year mission and purpose. Moreover, in contrast with the Governor’s budget briefing book, the Act is not solely and exclusively “for the residents” of the Park but also intended to serve the interests of everybody in the state.

Here is Section 801 of the Act, unchanged since 1973. Read it again.

“The basic purpose of this article is to ensure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park.”

“ A further purpose is to focus the responsibility for developing long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide concern This policy shall recognize 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.”

The Act goes on this way:

“The Adirondack park land use and development plan recognizes the complementary needs of all the people of the state for the preservation of the park’s resources and open space character and of the park’s permanent , seasonal and transient populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong economic base, as well. In support of the essential interdependence of these needs, the plan represents a sensibly balanced apportionment of land to each. Adoption of the land use and development plan and authorization for its administration and enforcement will complement and assist in the administration of the Adirondack park master plan for the management of state land. Together, they are essential to the achievement of the policies and purposes of this article and will benefit all of the people of the state.”

On this 50th anniversary of the APA Act, I would add these bullet points to the  current list of what the APA is not (see “what the APA is not” in the APA’s Citizen Guide at the agency website):

  • “The APA does not balance the environmental and economic health of the Park. Instead, it strives to strengthen the foundation of economically healthy communities tied closely to mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, wetlands and their wildlife habitats. These are all interdependent here in the Adirondack Park where the health of the natural environment plays such a crucial, inextricably linked role in the region’s economies.”
  • “The APA Act is not solely to benefit the residents of the Park or its visitors but is designed and written to also serve all of the people of the state.”

Gov Nelson Rockefeller signing the APA Act, 1973, photo by Paul Schaefer

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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.


12 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    It looks like the Act itself puts these five things into equal consideration:

    “ensure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use..”

    It is just as much an act to govern development and use, as it is one for conservation, protection and preservation.

  2. George Nagle says:

    This is an excellent statement of the purpose of the APA Act.

    To see the APA as balancing development with the environment gives to proposed development a greater significance then does the statute and at the same time collapses open space and the detailed attributes of the land into an ill defined generality.

  3. Habitatman says:

    Thank you Mr. Gibson for so adroitly pointing out the intended historic truths regarding the formation of the Adirondack Park.

  4. G says:

    Looks like everything written is about balance. I think you are reading what you want to read, not what is written.

  5. Kierin Bell says:

    This essay is concise and spot on, and I hope that it is widely read.

    Another distinction that seems to have been confused is that between “development” and “economic development”. “Development” as used in the APA Act and APLUDP relates to the need for sensible and appropriate land use and is inherently tied with that idea of the interdependence between economies and environment, whereas “economic development” (a term which never occurs in the APA Act) is rooted in the theory that rural economies are essentially regressive when left to their own devices and need to be artificially pushed toward the realization of various goals involving modernization, industrialization, etc. (Relevant examples include the Regional Economic Development Councils, Forward New York, zoning reform, rural recruitment, and ORDA — all mainstays in recent budgets.)

    The APA Act could be seen as a response borne out of necessity to situations created, in part, by economic development policies, but that does not mean that its objective was ever to “balance economic development”. (Though the apparent admission that economic development cannot balance itself does raise some interesting questions.) Instead, its purpose is arguably to render drastic economic development measures obsolete, or at least unpalatable, by establishing a system based on accountability and demonstration of need rather than one based upon top-down directives and political ideals. Obviously, that system is not functioning properly, but the framework is there should there be a desire to get serious about addressing the many issues (increasingly) faced by the region.

  6. Big Burly says:

    We might all be better served David if you were inside the APA tent helping the Agency to counterbalance the undue and misdirected weight of the DEC folks.

    Thx for another thought-provoking essay.

  7. If you have read the Almanac for years as I have you must have realized:
    1. APA, DEC and the Governors office see the Adirondack Park as a giant free store that got somehow mistakenly got locked up so no one can use it. .
    2. No one at those three agencies/organizations could ever have read any book on what the park is, why it was created and what it is supposed to do.
    3. The only groups who care about preserving the legal, social and environmental integrity of the park are Gibson’s and Bauer’s and their lawyers (god bless them.).
    4. The two big groups, AC and ADK, are essentially economic developers and diversity promoters not “wilderness advocates” as the term is used elsewhere.
    5. No one with the slightest grasp of what the park is for could have planned, supported or built those blatantly illegal snowmobile “connector” trails.

    What employees of the APA and DEC shsould fear is going to heaven someday and coming face to face with Bob or Louis Marshall, John Apperson or Paul Schaefer.

  8. Naj Wikoff says:

    Unchecked economic development such as excessive lumbering throughout the region and ore extraction near Newcomb and Moriah, created wealth that benefited the wealthy, and exploited the workers while laying waste to and polluting the Adirondack environment. The Park was created to help this region recover from that devastation, and the APA to add further protections as the natural environment remained greatly at risk as is true today. Lack of smart zoning and weak enforcement of existing laws has resulted in housing crisis as residential properties have been gobbled up for short term rentals, which intern is making it impossible for young families, teachers, shopkeepers, hospitality people etc to live here. Meanwhile the need for environmental protection has increased in light of climate change, our region’s ability to capture carbon and provide sanctuary for a multitude of species is more important than ever. So when we talk about enhancing local economic development, we need to think hard about what that means. In my mind, better is for the APA to strengthen environmental protections, establishing strategic alliances that can both help us roll back some lax zoning while creating real opportunities for area residents. A good place to start is with the APA board, which currently doesn’t have enough strength in its “environment’ bench and expanding the staff.

  9. JBF says:

    Given the objectives of the APA Act, I think it should apply to the entire State, not just the Adirondacks.

  10. louis curth says:

    The world is filling up with densely packed humans whose actions, for better or worse, impact on everything else. Our Adirondack Park and its checkerboard of forest preserve lands, for all its imperfections, is a glorious remnant, among the world’s rapidly vanishing wild ecosystems, to be understood and cherished by all of us.

    Sadly, even this cherished remnant will not survive without the steadfast efforts of the dedicated men, women and the organizations who fight against tough odds to try to protect and pass on what is left.


  11. Gregory Wait says:

    I met a man and his son riding the chair lift at Gore last week. They were awestruck and amazed as they looked at the view. ” This is beautiful”! They were from Pennsylvania. They had never been to the Adirondacks. ” Where are the Hotels and Condos”? They were staying at a little lodge in North Creek. He said he could not be happier staying in in a little village.
    The reason we have the Park that we love and cherish today, and are very fortunate to live in, is because of the people who have dedicated their lives to preserving the natural integrity of the Adirondacks in the face of enormous pressure and greed to
    develop. Thank you to those who wrote and published this article.

  12. gregory wait says:

    I met a man and his son riding on the chairlift at Gore last week. They were awestruck and amazed as they looked at the view. ” This is beautiful”! They were from Pennsylvania. They had never been to the Adirondacks.” Where are the Hotels and Condos”? They were staying at a little lodge in North Creek. He said they could not be happier staying in a little village.
    The reason we have the Park we love and cherish today, and are fortunate to live in, is because of the people who have dedicate their lives to preserving the natural integrity of the Adirondacks in the face of enormous pressure and greed to develop.
    Thank you to those who wrote and published this article.

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