Almanack Contributor David Gibson

David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

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 a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dave Gibson on Birding: The Tale of the Veery

Summer has flown. Bird song no longer greets our sunrise. Many Adirondack migratory songbirds are starting to fly to their wintering grounds in Central and South America and the Caribbean islands this month. I take account of one very familiar bird I really missed this summer. Since we moved to Saratoga County in 1984, the flute-like, descending song of the male Veery ( Ve-urr, Ve-urr, Ve-urr) penetrated from our woodlands, beginning in late May and lasting well through the summer. The bird bred and raised young here for at least 25 years, and probably for centuries before that.

Veery, one of our familiar upstate thrushes, was a constant in our summer lives until this year when I only began to hear Veery in our woods in mid- July, long after this species usually nests. Its immediate habitat hadn’t changed. With this 50-acre patch of forest habitat more or less unchanged, I conjecture there were simply fewer breeding Veery in the area to fill its favorable habitat, and a non-breeding adult came to these woods late in their season. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Anne LaBastille Rediscovers Verplanck Colvin

Fifty people in a room can seem like a crowd. Not so in a great church full of pews, or when spread out on a slope or under trees in the Adirondacks the impression is of a small, intrepid band. One Adirondack celebration with 50 people stands out in my mind. Anne LaBastille helped organize it.

As Anne just passed away, she is much in the collective mind this summer. The year was 1992, the Adirondack Park’s Centennial Year. Anne’s co-conspirator was Norm Van Valkenburgh, the retired director of Lands and Forests with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and a surveyor from the Catskills. Both were keen admirers of the 19th century Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920, and Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, 1872-1899), who did so much to improve awareness, understanding, knowledge of the Adirondack mountains, and to inspire legislative action in the creation of the Park itself. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dave Gibson: Building Rights for ACR?

Most American communities will ultimately develop according to how they are zoned. Absent state or federal regulatory protection of wetlands, for instance, or other legal protection or zoning overlays, land in R-1 or other residential zoning will ultimately, some day be valued, bought, sold, and developed consistent with the number of houses allowed there under the local zoning code.

Of course, towns are legally allowed to plan for their futures, and regulate development in a far more creative fashion, but few in my area seem to use that authority. I live outside the Adirondack Park in Saratoga County, and found out that the allowable density under the zoning law in my town far outweighed the presence of a lot of small (read unregulated) wetlands, wet soils, lots and lots of trees, and well adapted critters like hawks and owls.

An out of state developer was, therefore, “entitled” to 18 homes and 18 separate driveways on 18-wooded acres in this R-1 residential zone. Any questioning of this formula resulted in assertions by the town attorney that the applicant has vested rights in that number of lots. Lo and behold, the planning board actually asserted its authority and knocked out two lots, but I suspect that was only because a bunch of neighboring citizens, including my family, sued the town for failing to conduct a meaningful environmental review (the suit proved ultimately unsuccessful).

The neighbors walked and photographed the land in question in all seasons, and predicted that building over such a high water table would require expensive engineering vulnerable to failure, subjecting the neighbors to flooded cellars, and requiring sensitive wildlife “to move.” Any sympathy at town hall evaporated after the lawsuit. The board felt they had bent over backwards by knocking out two lots. Why this swampy land full of wood frogs was wrapped into the adjoining R-1 district was the town board’s, and not the planning board’s responsibility.

In contrast, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) must interpret development density in the context of complicated regional legislation called the APA Land Use and Development Plan whose purpose is to “insure optimum overall conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the park’s unique resources.” Under the APA law, there are no land use zones. In fact, you can not even find the word “zoning,” or zone in the definitions section. There are, instead, “land use areas.” Each of these six areas is described as to their character, purposes, policies and objectives. Each has a different guideline for the overall intensity of development which, according to the law’s logic, is compatible with and help to perpetuate the existing character, purposes, and uses of the land.

For instance, under the Resource Management (RM) land use area (whose basic purpose, quoting from the Act, is “to protect the delicate physical and biological resources, encourage proper and economic management of forest, agricultural and recreational resources, and preserve the open spaces that are essential and basic to the unique character of the park”) the overall intensity of development “should not exceed approximately fifteen principal buildings per square mile.” Hence, the oft-used expression that in this largest and most protected of private land use areas there is “43-acre zoning,” or one principal building allowed per 42.6 acres.

“43-acre zoning” is a serious misreading and misapplication of the APA law. This is because mathematical achievement of the overall intensity guidelines should only be viewed in context with other criteria for determining project approvability, including whether or not a development project would be compatible with the purposes, policies and objectives of the land use area in question, or whether it would cause an “undue adverse impact” upon the resources of the park which, in turn, must be assessed according to numerous and defined development “considerations” for water, land, air, noise, critical resources, wildlife, aesthetics, historic factors, and lots more defined in regulation. Knowing this makes the “shall not exceed approximately” language of the overall intensity guidelines more understandable. The Act is clearly not like my town’s zoning law. 43-acres per principal building in RM are not a vested right, but a guideline judged in context with other equally weighted criteria needed to comprehensively assess a given project.

Some APA applicants, particularly if they have attorneys representing them, misread the APA Act purposefully and speak of these intensity guidelines as a legal, vested, valuable (in dollars) right. Even the APA can forget the context of its own law. For instance, as the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) hearing got underway in March, APA hearing staff issued a draft document attempting to stipulate how many mathematical “building rights” the applicant Michael Foxman had in the two affected land use areas, Resource Management and Moderate Intensity Use. This language was objected to by a variety of parties, and APA quickly conceded the point and from then on used the term “principal building opportunity.”

Foxman’s ACR attorney Tom Ulasewicz never conceded the point, and used the term “building rights” repeatedly, even at the last day of the hearing in late June. At no point do I recall APA staff correcting him, or objecting to his frequent assertion of “building rights” in the hearing record. This tolerance for language that so distorts the law’s purposes may be a pet peeve of mine, but I fear it’s a symptom of a lowering of standards for project review at the park agency.

Does the fact that ACR’s Michael Foxman proposes to build 82 new principal buildings on nearly 4800 acres of Resource Management mean he is in the clear as far as this aspect of the law goes? Applying the overall intensity guidelines math (“43-acre zoning”) means he could “potentially” build 111 new homes on RM. As ACR attorney Ulasewicz frequently pointed out, his client is far below the “legal threshold.” There are 29 “additional principal building opportunities” which ACR is “not using” he pointed out at frequent intervals.

The answer to such a distorted view of the law should be that after weighing the hearing evidence and its law, the APA would be completely within its legal rights to declare that, for instance, all or large portions of the RM land should remain as it is, undeveloped, so that this land use area can continue to serve its legally defined purposes, policies and objectives, and so that a variety of undue adverse impacts may be avoided.

Photo: APA Staff at a 2007 field trip to the ACR site.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dave Gibson: Partnering For The Moose River Plains

Congratulations to the Adirondack Community Trust (ACT), the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Towns of Inlet and Indian Lake, and the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, among others, for their work together to maintain facilities in the Moose River Plains.

The 85,000-acre wild forest area is, as DEC has long maintained, pretty unique within the Adirondack Forest Preserve because it is permeated by hardened dirt roads and resulting roadside camping that result from the area’s logging history under Gould Paper Company’s former ownership. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Urban Youth Meet Nature On The West Branch

What follows is a story of some young men from Albany learning to fly fish on the West Branch of the Ausable River, and who for the first time experience the pull of the river, its rocks and pools, a trout on the line, and in their hands. I start with some background.

When Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve organized one year ago, we decided to seek out non-traditional allies and educational partners in our efforts to broaden aware, informed support for wild nature. One of those partners is Brother Yusuf Burgess of Albany.

For many years, Brother Yusuf has been helping young urban youth to discover discipline, teamwork, self-awareness and self-worth in the great outdoors. As often as time and funds allow, Yusuf brings youth from Albany to the Adirondacks, Catskills, Hudson Valley and beyond to learn outdoor skills such as boat-building, fishing, skiing, camping. He understands young people and the streets. He has walked their walk.

A former counselor at the Albany Boys and Girls Clubs, Yusuf is employed as Family Intervention Specialist with Green Tech Charter High School. He is an experienced kayaker and fisherman, founder of the Environmental Awareness Network for Diversity in Conservation, and is also New York’s representative on the Children and Nature Network. For several years, Yusuf worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to recruit more children and families of color into DEC’s Summer Campership program. His successful efforts to create teen “eco-clubs” in urban America have been noticed at home and internationally, and he is widely sought as a speaker. Some of the young men and women whom Yusuf influenced have gone on to professional careers, and some have returned to help Yusuf mentor today’s teens.

Yusuf and his students are featured in the acclaimed 2010 documentary film, Mother Nature’s Child (Fuzzy Slippers Productions, Burlington, VT), which explores nature’s powerful role in children’s health and development. To quote from the film’s promotional materials, “The film marks a moment in time when a living generation can still recall childhoods of free play outdoors; this will not be true for most children growing up today.” For more, go to www.mothernaturesmovie.com.

Recently, Yusuf brought six young men from Albany’s Green Tech Charter High School to learn fly fishing from Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley, to apply what they learn on the West Branch of the Ausable River, and to camp out at Dan’s oak grove in Keene. Yusuf had each boy equipped with fly rod, poncho, and camping gear. Dan worked tirelessly to improve their casting technique, where the thumb and tip of the rod work together to drop the fly where it wants to be – right where the hatch is rising and the fish biting. Few other sports require the wrist and shoulder to be so still. Slowly, with Dan’s careful guidance some of them got the feel for it.

On the river, Dan explained about the Forest Preserve and its significance, and taught the boys that this particular section of the West Branch was a “no kill” conservation area, where fish are “catch and release” only. He showed them how to tie a fly, how to hold the hook to avoid being punctured, and how to read the river for the best places to fish.

One boy got in the waders, took Dan’s favorite rod, and immersed himself in the life of the West Branch. Completely absorbed, he moved upriver to an unoccupied pool, casting by himself. About 2 pm, we heard him. He had a trout on his line! His friends joined him as he unhooked a nice brown trout, proudly held it for the cameras, and released it. This was one of many special moments where these young men exchanged self-consciousness for independence as they explored a completely new and challenging outdoor world.

As other fishers left a pool unoccupied, Dan moved the group to that very spot and found that within minutes the trout were rising to a hatch, perhaps the black flies which were beginning to harass us on the bank. Dan positioned the young men for success, but their casts were just falling short of the constantly rising fish. Finally, Dan took his rod and practice-cast upstream, and then dropped the fly perfectly. After several attempts, he had a trout on the line. He called for one the boys to bring it in slowly and very soon in their hands was a handsome, small brook trout which tolerated a photo-shoot, and then shot from their hands back into the river: a magical conclusion to the afternoon’s “edventure,” a term Yusuf uses frequently.

Back at their camp in Dan’s oak grove, the boys settled in to tend and watch their camp fire, joke and laugh, and also to think on the day and what they had accomplished. “I am thinking about how far I am from home right now,” said one young man very quietly as he stared into the fire’s light. I knew he was not merely referring to road miles, but to inner miles. Next morning, Dan asked another about his overnight experience. “It was my first time camping, and it was extremely fun!”

It is remarkable to see how Yusuf works with these young men who, without the guidance and opportunities for growth he provides, might easily fall under many negative influences close to their homes. Yusuf participates in their camaraderie, knows these young men, and knows how to bring out their best qualities, put them to work, and to earn their respect. I am pleased we are playing a small role in Yusuf’s determined campaign to transform the lives of several generations of urban youth through exposure to nature in the wild Adirondacks.

Photos: Brother Yusuf Burgess with the young men he brought with him to the Ausable; Brother Yusuf; Dan Plumley coaches from mid-stream; Trout in the hand.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Dave Gibson: ACR Economics and Fair Reporting

The region is fortunate that the Adirondack Daily Enterprise is covering each session of the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) adjudicatory public hearing. Their reporter, Jessica Collier, is doing a good job writing multiple, interesting stories about each day’s testimony and cross examination.

One of the witnesses reporter Collier covered this week (see Adirondack Daily Enterprise’s June 2nd edition) was Shanna Ratner. I’ve known of Shanna Ratner and her firm, Yellow Wood Associates, for many years. Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley contacted her to testify at this hearing during 2007 when he worked for the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks because he knew she was not just smart and accomplished, but a thorough, deep thinker, and analytical. We were glad that she was retained by Protect the Adirondacks.

Among many other projects, she helped the Adirondack North Country Association to develop a program seeking to add greater value to the region’s forest products. Yellow Wood offers a wide array of consulting services in rural, community development. Judging from her resume, Shanna has devoted a large part of her professional and personal life to helping rural communities survive and develop, if not thrive by focusing on the strengths of their people, their natural resource base, their histories and geography, and their talents for organizing. She has a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics from Cornell University. Among the publications she has authored or co-authored are: “Keeping Wealth Local: Community Resilience and Wealth,” and “Challenges and Opportunities for Rural Communities in a Rapidly Changing World.” She has reviewed a lot of resort development in neighboring Vermont, among other places, and has real-world experience to offer the hearing.

Among other points in her testimony this past week, Ratner challenged ACR’s assertion that “the majority, if not all, of the construction workers will come from the regional labor force” (ACR 2010 Fiscal and Economic Impact Study). Of those firms qualified to construct a resort of this large scale, Ms. Ratner testified that “these firms will use their own employees first, followed by subcontractors with whom they have previous positive experiences. Only after these avenues have been exhausted will they look for additional hires. It is highly unlikely that they would open a hiring hall locally; they are far more likely to work through their own internal channels and with their subcontractors to locate qualified firms and let the firms locate qualified individuals…It is highly unlikely that the ACR will provide a substantial boon to the many unemployed construction workers in the four county area” (Franklin, St. Lawrence, Hamilton and Essex). Under cross examination, she said that the ACR methodology for arriving at their employment numbers uses a simplistic formula not used by other serious resorts with which she is familiar.

She also punched holes in ACR economic multiplier figures. She argued that per capita costs of the sewage infrastructure are likely to be higher than estimated because of the risk of excess sewer capacity, and a lack of home sales to support those costs, leaving those burdens to the community. On town services, she pointed out that newcomers like ACR homeowners will demand better service delivery and quality, sending service costs up. On payment in lieu of taxes, Preserve Associates has no control over the value of the house that eventually gets built, so ACR can not predict accurately the assessed value. As a result, ACR tax revenue projections may be significantly inflated. She also argued that Tupper Lake must plan for peak use periods, and ACR figures for service demands only estimate average use periods.

In summary, according to her testimony, ACR estimates of local employment may have no basis in reality, per capita service costs may be higher than ACR’s application estimated, and revenues from payments in lieu of taxes may be lower because future owners are not required to build million dollar homes.

Not much of this testimony will be found in the Tupper Lake Free Press, where editor Dan McClelland unabashedly and uncritically shouts loudly for the ACR, shouts down anybody with concerns, and not just on the editorial pages. Would that the Free Press more broadly represent the community it serves and be reasonably impartial, knowing how many in town may badly want the ski area redeveloped, but who may be skeptical about ACR claims.

This week the Free Press chooses to only quote the financial and economic analysis of the ACR. In contrast to the even-handed coverage of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, McClelland writes this week about Shanna Ratner and any witness put forward by ACR “opponents”: “the interesting thing about ‘expert’ witnesses is that they can be readily found anywhere. They often testify selectively to meet their employer’s requirements” (Ratner is not employed by Protect the Adirondacks, she is a paid consultant). McClelland continues: “APA Commissioners must listen to what the people of Tupper Lake and their leaders want in the development. What the ‘experts’ of the opposing groups testify must be considered by the board in the fashion it is delivered: paid for by the people who have an agenda to stop the resort.”

Putting an ACR-type application to the test of meeting rigorous standards of review that might actually withstand professional scrutiny, and thus better serve its local community and the park is not on the Tupper Lake Free Press agenda.

Photo: View north from Mount Morris.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Dave Gibson: Wild Forest Lands Do Need Our Help

Phil Terrie’s essay in the current Adirondack Explorer, “forests don’t need our help,” rebuts those who claim that no further land acquisition is justified because the state “can’t take care of what it already has.” Phil is absolutely correct to call the list of unmet recreational maintenance projects on a given unit of Forest Preserve, such as a trail or lean-to in rough shape, as a lame excuse for not adding additional strategic lands to the Preserve.

He is incorrect, however, in asserting that the “forever wild provision of the state constitution provides a perfect management plan. It costs nothing and provides the best guarantee possible for healthy, aesthetically appealing, functional ecosystems.”

Article 14, the forever wild clause of our Constitution, has never been self-executing. Its implementation requires both a vigilant defense to prevent bad amendments from being passed, as well as an offensive team of alert citizens and principled and funded state agencies to proactively carry out its mandate that the forest preserve is to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” Call it field management, if you will. Over time, you can not preserve wilderness, or shall I say, Forest Preserve without actively managing ourselves, the recreational user. This prerequisite demands that we have management principles, plans and objectives in place, and that we oversee and measure the results.

I don’t mean a lean-to here, or a trail there that may be out of repair and needing maintenance, and not receiving it. What I mean is that the underlying philosophy, principles, plans and objectives for managing our uses of “forever wild” land are vitally important if you expect to still have wild, or natural conditions years hence. Remember that a part of the Wilderness definition in our State Land Master Plan (which echoes the national definition) is to “preserve, enhance and restore natural conditions.” Howard Zahniser, author of the National Wilderness Act, was inspired by New York’s Forever Wild history. He always maintained that our biggest challenge, once Wilderness was designated, was to keep wilderness wild, especially from all of us who could, and often do love wilderness to death. The same applies to the Forest Preserve. Of course, restoring “natural conditions” in a time of climate change is a significant challenge that wilderness managers are facing across the country.

Remember the way Marcy Dam used to look? Restoring that area from the impact of thousands of boot heels and lean-to campers took decades of effort. The High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan established clear management objectives of, for example, restoring native vegetation at heavily used lean-to and trailhead sites, and redistributing and limiting the heavily concentrated camping pattern that once existed. It then took additional years to actively carry out those objectives, measure their progress, and achieve the desired results.

So did the efforts led by Edwin H. Ketchledge, ADK, DEC and Nature Conservancy to ecologically restore the High Peak alpine summits. In the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the UMP is seeking to restore wilder conditions in the central core area, and move some of the dense snowmobile traffic to the perimeter of that unit.

In the Siamese Ponds Wilderness and Jessup River Wild Forest, it will take years of well directed management effort to restore parts of the western shoreline and islands of Indian Lake to achieve “natural conditions” after decades of uncertain management and overly intensive day and overnight use. Without a Siamese Ponds Wilderness UMP, there would be no clear wild land objectives, and no timetable to achieve them. Yes, those timetables are often exceeded, but these UMPs hold our public officials feet to the fire, and accountable to the State Land Master Plan and to Article 14 of the Constitution.

Our Constitution’s assertion that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” are, in these myriad and laborious ways, carried out for future generations. And yes, wild land management requires financial resources and devoted personnel. That is why it was so important a decade ago to establish a land stewardship account in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Yes, these funds are insufficient, so a stronger public-private partnership for Adirondack wild lands is needed.

Lost so far in the debate over whether and how to acquire some 65,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn lands for the Forest Preserve is the good thinking that should be underway about how to best manage these lands as wild lands, for their wild, ecological and recreational values. Assuming that some day these lands will be part of the Forest Preserve, time and effort needs to be devoted now to management planning that may help keep these lands as wild as possible, preserving their ecological integrity while planning for recreational uses that are compatible with the paramount need to care for these lands as part of the Forest Preserve.

For example, public access will need to be closely managed if wild land and natural conditions are to be preserved, enhanced or restored. During a visit sponsored by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, I was impressed, for example, with the extensive logging road network leading to the Essex Chain of Lakes south of Newcomb. This beautiful chain of lakes offers a fine future canoeing and kayaking attraction in the central Adirondacks, as well as an ecologically interesting and important aquatic resource.

State and private natural resource managers are giving quite a bit of thought, as they should, to how and where the paddling public might access the chain of lakes. Closing off some of the roads to motorized traffic, turning these into narrower trails, and requiring paddlers to carry or wheel their boats longer distances to enter or leave the lakes would create or restore wilder and more natural conditions along these sensitive shorelines, conditions which would appeal to paddlers from across the Northern Forest and Canada. Special fishing regulations may also be required to preserve the fishery long treasured by the private leaseholders here. The same level of planning thought will be needed to assure or restore both wild and natural conditions at Boreas Ponds, the Upper Hudson River and other former Finch lands and waters that merit Forest Preserve status.

Photo: Paddling on the Essex Chain of Lakes, south of Newcomb, NY, as guests of The Nature Conservancy.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dave Gibson: Reform APA Project Review

The Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) adjudicatory public hearing is finally underway. The ACR project was first introduced as a conceptual Adirondack Park Agency (APA) application in 2004. Seven years later, it is still massive, involving 719 dwelling units spread over 6,200 acres near Tupper Lake.

Hearing witnesses gave ample evidence last week that show APA’s staff decision to deem the ACR application complete in the fall of 2006 to have been premature. In reference to the applicant’s repeated failing to produce any kind of serious wildlife or natural resource studies, a key witness for APA, retired director of regulatory programs Mark Sengenberger, noted that APA can only ask for additional information and not receive it so many times. Wildlife habitat was a key piece of that missing information, Sengenberger said. As other witnesses revealed, also missing was any rigorous assessment of alternative designs of the development.

The costs of not requiring comprehensive data before deeming such a complex and controversial application complete are considerable. Between the applicant, the APA and the hearing parties, millions of dollars have been spent over six years in pre-hearing phases of the ACR without arriving at any deep understanding of the site to be developed. There are also big gaps in understanding the reliability of infrastructure and financing data in the application. Countless person hours have been spent at APA struggling to get information out of this applicant. I suspect that several legitimate requests from citizens to send other Park projects to hearing were denied, in part, because APA is such a small agency and ACR has consumed too much of its human and economic resources since 2004.

Dr. Michael Klemens, a conservation biologist and witness for Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, stated last week at the hearing: “we are forced to spend time at this hearing debating the lack of biological data, which should have been compiled and assessed before deeming the application complete, while instead this hearing should be discussing the implications of a robust set of ecological information that actually informs how and where to site development.”

In characterizing the proposed layout of development on the ACR site, Dr. Klemens stated “this is classic sprawl on steroids.” The ACR spreads negative ecological impacts out across the landscape, he stated. He added that by compacting the design to be less fragmenting of the landscape, many objectives would be met, both economic and ecological. Less money would be spent simply reaching the site with infrastructure, for example, while the impact or zones of influence of development on sensitive areas would be smaller. His testimony revealed a well known process to successfully build housing in sensitive landscapes that involves developing a complete understanding of the project site first, mapping that information, and only then developing plans for housing which avoids the most sensitive areas and maintains the integrity of ecological processes.

This could have happened for ACR, but unfortunately this application does the very opposite, he noted. Only the APA can determine why they allowed this to happen, he stated. Asked whether or not there is sufficient biological and ecological information in the application for the APA to reach a determination of no undue adverse impact, Dr. Klemens stated “there is insufficient data to make such a determination.”

Asked whether the APA could merely place conditions on a defective application which purport to “mitigate” adverse impacts, Dr. Klemens said “a defective application should never be conditioned. It should simply be denied without prejudice, and the applicant given time to develop that information, and resubmit the application.”

Dr. Klemens is the Planning Board chairman for a town in Connecticut. In that capacity, he said he often imposes expectations on developers working within a complex, ecologically important site to identify and map sensitive resources prior to laying out development sites. “Understand the site first, and from that understanding develop plans for housing or other development.” In fact, he noted, in his experience fast-tracked applications are those that have developed good biological and natural resource data. That way, conflict is reduced, development occurs in the less sensitive places, and money is saved. The “train wrecks” result when a process does not allow for understanding natural systems in the first place, like the ACR.

In responding to cross examination, Dr. Klemens took time to explain his view that his testimony is not about whether or not development should or can take place on the ACR site. It is very likely that development is compatible with areas on the site, he said. The “real issue involved in this hearing is the amount, intensity and lay-out of that development. That’s the key.”

How can the APA use the ACR experience to improve its project review? One way is to mimic the way its sister agency, DEC, as well as many town and county planning boards utilize the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) Act. After determining that a project may have one or more significant environmental impacts, a step known as a positive declaration of impact, the lead agency in SEQR must require an environmenal impact statement (EIS) of the developer. Project scoping invites the public to comment on the proposed topics to be covered by the EIS. “The purpose of scoping is to focus the EIS on the most relevant issues and potential impacts, including means to avoid or minimize those impacts; the lead agency may thereby ensure that the draft EIS will be a concise, accurate and complete (emphasis mine) document adequate for public review” (from: www.dec.ny.gov).

Think of the APA application process as a version of SEQR, and the APA’s review as a kind of EIS. Before deeming an application complete, the agency could invite the public to help APA undertake project scoping in order to ensure that an application actually and thoroughly answers key questions, and provides the information required for a comprehensive review of impacts. If that process were used, there might be more meaningful constituent participation with APA and fewer “train wrecks” like ACR, where so much time is spent at an APA hearing debating the paucity and reliability of information and data needed by the commissioners to reach a sound, post-hearing decision. In fact, I remember several APA commissioners suggesting this very reform of their own project review of large projects in 2008, following their approval of the FrontStreet application in North Creek. I have yet to see positive results from their suggestions.

Photo: Dr. Michael Klemens points to a map of ACR during his testimony at the public hearing last week.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Commentary: Oversight Needed for Conservation Easements

Conservation easements are real property arrangements designed for the insider. Specialists predominate before and after an easement is consummated in private, including the negotiators to the terms of the easement (the seller, donor, buyer, or grantor and grantee and their lawyers), the appraiser of the easement’s value, and an ecological specialist who conducts baseline surveys of the land in question. There is rarely, if ever, a public meeting to discuss the details of the easement. The public may learn about easements through after the fact press releases, but their specific provisions and public benefits may be unclear for years. » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Dave Gibson: Elected APA Commissioners?

Brian Mann has raised a proposal to allow Park residents to cast ballots and elect the five Park resident APA Commissioners, which would require a change in the law which requires the Governor to nominate, and the Senate to confirm all eight of private citizen members of the agency. I happen to believe that the current law remains the most equitable and practical way to ensure a proper diversity, array of statewide and park talents and commitments to the purposes of the APA Act. Be that as it may, Brian’s is hardly a new idea.

I found some interesting quotes from early APA Chairmen who were answering a question posed to them in 1981 at a conference. The question from a member of the audience was: “If one of our main goals is to win the acceptance of the Adirondack people, wouldn’t it have been a good idea earlier on to include local representation and to have the commissioners elected, or to give the local people some other access or resources in dealing with the agency”?

One of the most interesting resources from which to follow the thinking and trends of the Adirondack Park Agency in its early history are the printed records of the Conferences on the Adirondack Park, 1971-1981, published by St. Lawrence University. SLU faithfully captured every word spoken at those June conferences held on their beautiful Camp Canaras campus on Upper Saranac Lake.

Just about every conference in those years featured the views and reports of APA Executive Directors and Chairmen, along with those knowledgeable in Adirondack wildlife research, tax policy, land use planning, Forest Preserve, water quality, invasive species, great camp architecture, and much more. The costs of publishing these printed records of the conference in the era before computerization eventually became prohibitive, but SLU’s Camp Canaras conferences continued for another 15 years or so, and I always felt they were “must attend” events. The content, entry price, company, and shoreline scenery were all outstanding.

How did former APA Chairmen Richard Lawrence of New York City and Elizabethtown and Robert Flacke of Lake George answer the above question which was posed to them on that summer day of 1981? The answers are found in the printed proceedings of St. Lawrence University’s 1981 Conference on the Adirondack Park. Richard Lawrence served as chairman of the APA from its beginnings in 1971 until 1975. Robert Flacke succeeded Dick Lawrence as chairman in 1976 and served until 1978.

Robert Flacke: “I think the history of land use controls give us the answer to that…if 51 percent of any type of a voting body has a parochial interest, whether it is in a village or a town or a county or region then essentially those are the only interests that will be forwarded and protected. That is what happened with the (Lake) Tahoe experiment (in California). There was an equal voting strength between the two bodies and there was no overriding concern. Now, the basic question was asked in the Study Commission on the Adirondacks: Are the Adirondacks an area of statewide concern? The answer was affirmative. The program goes beyond the interests of the people who are here, although the interests of the people who are here are very, very important. Therefore, the balance that was established, I think, is the proper balance… One must maintain, then, a statewide interest if one continues to believe that the resource is important for all the people of the state.”

Richard Lawrence: “I might add just one other point. We have, of course, elected representatives in the legislature such as assemblymen and state senators. Yet this is a fact of political life that not one of our local representatives is here. Andrew Ryan, Glenn Harris or Senator Ronald Stafford could not possibly be reelected if they would support and go all out for the Adirondack Park Agency. That is a simple fact of life. If they choose to be in office they simply cannot believe very strenuously in land use planning. Perhaps ten years from now there will be a different answer. That is the name of the game now.”

Later on, in response to a statement from Park resident that “the thing I am most worried about is that the Adirondack Park Agency may disappear. I do not want it to disappear because I do not want to lose any of this,” Robert Flacke continued, “That brings out the fundamental question of membership in a land use agency. Land use control started with the Park Avenue experiment in New York City, but the lowest level of government, when you look back in the history book, has always been unable to perform adequately in land use controls because of the very issue that you bring out. If a town board gets involved in land use questions, its members then become subject to very grave social and economic pressures… I can remember during my tenure as town supervisor certain councilmen had to make a decision that they felt very strongly about. It may have gone against certain other economic interests. A fellow that ran a gas station came to me one day and said ‘I’m going to go broke because all my customers are telling me that if I don’t vote that way they will go elsewhere for their gas.’ This essentially says that when you are involved in land use, you have to have an insulated body generally at the next level of government, whether it is county or regional. I think time will tell that economically the local people are not destroyed (by the APA), but benefited, if in a different way.”

Photo: Above, looking out on Upper Saranac Lake from the SLU Camp Canaras campus, 1991 Conference on the Adirondacks; Below, a panel at the same conference.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Dave Gibson: Less Pigeon Holing, More Story Telling

Today, the experiences, views and outlooks of wild land advocates and foresters are often pigeon-holed as necessarily antithetical to each other. I don’t hold that view, and neither does Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley. For evidence, read Dan’s “December Wood” essay. We were both mentored by Paul Schaefer, one of the most effective advocates for wilderness conditions in the Adirondacks during the 20th century.

Paul had many outdoor debates during the 1950s with former Finch, Pruyn executive Lyman Beeman. The two men saw a tract of forest and viewed its potential quite differently, of course. Yet, they both respected each other’s point of view and recognized, as we do today, that foresters of all kinds share with wilderness advocates a deep love for the land, for productive soils and for stewardship over a long period of time, on a human time scale anyway. Good wood grows on good wood, some say. And sometimes a conservationist has got to make some money cutting trees.
What brought this to mind is one of the most interesting stories I ever heard from Paul Schaefer. One day in January, 1991 he was reminiscing about the great depression and World War II, when the bank withheld his assets from his construction company. Then his bank closed, and would not allow any withdrawals, forcing Paul to take on odd jobs in order to feed his family. Then came severe restrictions and shortages on the building materials he used as a homebuilder, and the cost of a house became very dear, preventing him from doing a lot of building.

One day during WW II, Paul read in the daily newspaper in Schenectady that the county airfield, mostly undeveloped at the time, needed to be transformed into a bombing range and military airport. Trees had to be cleared there, pretty big ones at that. Paul read this and went over to Scotia to take a look. He found about ten state or county workers clipping goldenrod with handclippers. He went in and spoke with the person in authority and asked “you want someone to cut trees for you don’t you?” Yes. “What are they cutting goldenrod for?” “They don’t have the skills to cut trees,” came the answer. “Well, you’ve got your man here,” Paul replied.

Paul needed the help of some Adirondackers, so he got in touch with George Morehouse in Bakers Mills to come down and give him a hand with the tree cutting. Each week, Paul would drive up Route 9 to Bakers Mills (at least a 2.5 hour trip one way in those days), pick George up and drive him down to Scotia and the two of them would cut for days at a time. George would stay at Paul and Carolyn Schaefer’s home at night. There were no chain saws available. They required a cross-cut, two-man saw.

“We worked together really smooth,” Paul told me. They cut and they cut. One day, Paul and George got a saw wedged in the tree. They left it, took up another saw and went on cutting. Years later, Paul recovered that wedged saw, all rusted except the blade in the bole of the tree, which was gleaming. “If you want your blade to remain nice and shiny, keep it in a piece of oak or something,” Paul advised. That blade was a part of Paul’s memorabilia destroyed when his barn burned down in the early 1960’s.

One day, after many hours of cutting, George Morehouse said he had to get home. Paul offered to let him stay overnight and drive him home tomorrow. No, I got to get home today, George said. Paul, dead tired, drove George back to Bakers Mills and all the way back. He was so tired on his return journey that he almost failed to stop at a railroad crossing. He put on his brakes a foot before the train roared past him.

So that’s the way Paul Schaefer, the wilderness advocate, guide and homebuilder, got by several years during World War II by selling some of this wood from the airport as lumber and firewood, and turning the little airfield in Scotia, NY into a military facility.

Photo: Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin, c. 1960, courtesy of the Paul Schaefer Collection, Adirondack Research Library.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Dave Gibson: Tupper Lake and the APA Act

It is noteworthy to read local supporters of the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort expressing their full faith in the NYS Adirondack Park Agency’s ultimate review of that proposal. The Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce and ARISE (a Tupper Lake nonprofit) were quoted this week as saying “let the agency do its job.” Meanwhile, these organizations deride the efforts of others – “outsiders” – in the public hearing as obstructing the agency’s work.

Four years after it was ordered to adjudicatory public hearing by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), the proposed subdivision and second home development known as the Adirondack Club and Resort encompassing 6400 acres near Tupper Lake may finally get the close scrutiny it merits. The hearing, encompassing a dozen interrelated issues and over three dozen parties, should begin this spring. The group I work with, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, is one of those parties.

The Chamber’s apparent embrace of the APA Act and its implementation through this public hearing is both interesting and gratifying: interesting because Tupper Lake rejected sharing local land use controls with the APA in the early 1990s because it might lend legitimacy to the APA legislation that the Chamber now apparently embraces; gratifying to hear because the APA Act mandates the very statewide concerns that “outsiders” can help to bring to the table.

The APA Act states “continuing public concern, coupled with the vast acreages of forest preserve holdings, clearly establishes a substantial state interest in the preservation and development of the park area. The state of New York has an obligation to insure that contemporary and projected future pressures on the park resources are provided for within a land use control framework which recognizes not only matters of local concern but also chose of regional and state concern” (Section 801, APA Act)

Reflecting as it does 150 years of statewide concern for the Adirondacks, the Act and its regulations anticipate statewide interest in the upcoming ACR public hearing, and mandate that the APA take those interests into account in its review. One of the biggest statewide concerns is that two thirds of the ACR proposal involves large second homes across Resource Management lands “where the need to protect, manage and enhance forest, agricultural, recreational and open space resources of paramount importance because of overriding natural resource and public considerations” (Section 805, APA Act)

That public can come from Tupper Lake and from anywhere else within the boundaries of the state, or beyond. Adirondack Council, Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks and others seek to help represent the broader public’s interests to “protect the delicate physical and biological resources, encourage proper and economic management of forest, agricultural and recreational resources and preserve the open spaces that are essential and basic to the unique character of the park” (Section 805).

There are still many others who want to focus on the local benefits and burdens of this proposal. The proposal if permitted and carried out to its full extent would carve out a new, sprawling development hub miles from current service providers in the village.

All need to bear in mind that whatever comes out of the hearing and agency review will have an effect on the entire Adirondack Park. This may be a precedent setting decision, and hundreds of thousands of people around the state will watch and examine its results carefully. The last time such a large subdivision and second home development was proposed in 1972, APA was a new and untested agency. I suspect the Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce back in 1972 viewed the Agency as “outsiders.” Judging from the Chamber’s news release this week, the Agency and local perspective on the Agency from Tupper Lake has matured since then. The local and regional economy is rough today, but it was also rough in 1972. Second home subdivisions consume more of the environment, demand far more services and draw far more energy than they did in 1972. Meanwhile, one big thing hasn’t changed since that year – the APA Act, which has been amended just once in 38 years.

Photos: Hearing parties at the ACR field visit, May 2007; and visiting the beaver dam holding back Cranberry Pond.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Forest Rangers: Ambassadors for the Wild

As the ice clogged rivers, streams and trails of the Adirondacks thaw, there are many things to look forward to. Wildflowers and spring migratory birds are tops on my list. The sound of running water is another.

Seeing a Forest Ranger in the woods may not top my list, but it’s pretty rare sight and very important to those woods and the public which recreates or works there.

Last year the NYS DEC Forest Rangers celebrated 125 years of care and custody of our wild lands like the NYS Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills. It was an historic occasion far too few of us took note of. We may never need to depend upon a Ranger to get us safely out of a wild forest or off of a wild river but, as they say, you never know. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dave Gibson: Little’s Forest Preserve Logging Amendment

I’ll risk it and take the bait in responding to Senator Betty Little, Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward and others concerning a proposed constitutional amendment to permit logging and forest product utilization on newly acquired Forest Preserve.

Their simplistic ecological arguments for the amendment, such as wanting to see more rabbits on the Forest Preserve, or expecting that logging the Preserve would help the climate are being made up as they go along and will not withstand serious scrutiny. I prefer to focus more on their constitutional hurdles.

The Senator is clearly motivated to keep the Finch lands and Follensby Pond out of the Forest Preserve. Unstated may be a desire to maintain certain leaseholders occupying the Finch lands – such as the politically influential members of the Gooley Club west of the Upper Hudson. These are at least rational positions to take and, while I have a different viewpoint, I can respect theirs. They will also attempt to accomplish their objective of keeping the lands out of the Forest Preserve through legislation, and one would think that an easier step than a constitutional amendment. Perhaps they think not.

They apparently believe a good way to accomplish their objective is to create a separate class of Forest Preserve that on some date certain, after a constitutional amendment is approved by the voters some years hence, and after new Forest Preserve is acquired will permit the practice of forestry on the new land. They may feel that the public would accept this, knowing that the existing three million acres would still be “forever wild.” They may believe that all they need to do is neatly sidestep a sticky clause in Article 14, Section 1 of the Constitution, and exempt new lands from its provisions. That clause states: “nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

But that’s not all they have to do. Theirs is no technical amendment. By attempting to exempt only new Forest Preserve from the strictures of Article 14, they must amend all 54 words of Section 1 of Article 14. They must roughshod over the very constitutional language which voters have refused to change – despite given numerous opportunities to do so – in 116 years.

Perhaps they are betting on a constitutional convention virtually doing away with Article 14 as we know it, and I’d say that’s a poor bet.

Section 1 unifies the Forest Preserve. Its first sentence states that “the lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” A simple exception clause for new acquisitions after some date would not do the trick. “Hereafter acquired” means just that. “Forever kept” means forever. The words pertain to any lands owned before, or acquired after the effective date of Section 1 of January 1, 1895. They were reaffirmed at the 1938 and 1967 constitutional conventions, and on many other occasions in the 20th and 21st centuries through passage of over 30 limited, site specific amendments which nonetheless preserve the overarching language of Section 1.

The second and final sentence of Section 1 is just as problematic for the Senator. “They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” Allowing DEC, a public corporation, to supervise and control logging on newly acquired Forest Preserve would constitute a clear taking of the lands. The legal agreements to permit logging activity by private parties on any parts of the Forest Preserve might likely constitute a lease, further violating that provision. The third and final clause of that sentence – the one that the Senator may think is the only hurdle – speaks for itself.

I conclude that pretty much all 54 words of Section 1 would need to be amended, rewritten and stripped of their present and historic meaning in order to achieve a separate class of Forest Preserve managed for forest products. The public may be willing to make occasional, limited, site specific amendments to Article 14 for worthy objectives that both meet a legitimate public purpose and enhance the Forest Preserve. However, the voters have demonstrated over a very long period that they are unwilling to make substantial changes to the “forever wild” policy because the Forest Preserve as now constituted provides such enormous benefits. It is the envy of the world. It distinguishes New York from all other states and from all other nations. It is woven into our social fabric, as well as our laws. It provides billions of dollars in ecological and recreational services. It pays taxes for all purposes. The voters would be especially unwilling when the reasons for doing so, on economic, ecological, social and public policy grounds, are so questionable.

Prior to 1983, Senator Little’s amendment might have a better public policy rationale and more public appeal. That was when the conservation easement legislation was approved that permits the State to acquire rights in land without the land becoming Forest Preserve, and which has been so effective in keeping forest management and forest employment alive in the Park, which are the stated objectives for the amendment. Putting more resources into effective programs like this would be the more realistic way to achieve them.

Photo: Article 14, Section 1, NYS Constitution.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dave Gibson: Wilderness is not a ‘Special Interest’

Ed Zahniser is the son of Howard and Alice Zahniser (Howard was chief author and lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964), and Ed’s essay “Wilderness and our Full Community of Life” is now on the Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve website. It was written as a public address, but also stands on its own as an exciting piece of writing.

Re-reading Ed’s presentation gives me goosebumps because it ties together so much of the human experience. As he makes clear, wilderness is not about natural resource management, ecology, or Adirondack State Land Master Plan guidelines, as important as those are to keeping and restoring of wild places through the management of human use. As Ed says, wildness causes us to think about right relationships with the broader community of life.

To see wilderness is to see ourselves, as his father Howard Zahniser described it, as “dependent members of an interdependent community which gains its energy from the sun.” It is “where we feel most keenly our interdependence with all life.” Most keenly. We can feel also this in our backyards, in our parks, in our guts after a rich meal. But wild places are set aside in law to help us to come face to face with this interdependence in a very real way.

Thinking about what that word interdependence means leads one to recognize how little we know about the land as a whole community of life, not dissected under the microscope, but connected to us. Ed compares the Hubble Space Telescope looking at galaxies spiraling outwards with soil layers and organisms spiraling downwards. If there was ever a “4 G network,” it is in the soil. It is even in the teaming mites and bacterial life on our heads! Towards the end of her life, my mother thought wildness was coming a bit too close to our house, as foxes and deer moved ever closer as the result of a kind of re-wilding going in the neighborhood. Well, it turns out wilderness was always that close – even closer.

Experience with the wild really is a humbling experience, and that humility is critical to our Christian traditions as well. Ed traces today’s wilderness ethic to many biblical stories and traditions, to Christ himself wandering in the desert, and the spiritual purification, and the finding of “right relationships” to man and the universe which many people have found there.

One of those humbling days for me was in the Split Rock Wild Forest near Essex and Lake Champlain. Gary Randorf led Ken Rimany and me on a ski trip there with six inches of powder on top of an icy crust. Gary flew uphill; we edged our way up, slipping constantly. From white and red pine plantations, we moved into mixed hardwood forest and occasional glades of hemlock, and then scrub oaks and red cedar near the cliff face above Champlain. Huffing and puffing (Gary was resting easy); we watched bald eagles circling, meeting in mid-air, their talons hooked together in an aerial spiral. A raven checked on the eagles. The sky above was a deep blue. Wow. What a wild moment.

We headed into a deep ravine, following the sun in its southern arc to Champlain’s Barn Rock Bay. Gary explained that here huge rock ballast was cut and slid on great bridges and docks into waiting ships. We tried to comprehend, and all we saw was thick hemlock above us. Here another of our great human enterprises was swallowed up by the unmoved, unimpressed earth organism. Knowing what was once here and how many people sweated, or bled to create this enterprise is an exercise in humility. Now, animal tracks, mouse, deer, bobcat accompanied our ski tracks up the ravine, as we scrambled after Gary, finding him again after a wonderful swoosh back to the parking lot.

Fundamental to Ed’s essay, then, is that wilderness is not a special interest, but part of a core interest in the human condition which is constantly seeking “right relationships” with others and with communities, human and more than human. Protection of wilderness is part of a broad movement which included women’s suffrage and civil rights, and today’s struggle to spread economic justice and opportunity and the search for spiritual meaning in our lives. Ed, like his parents, has read widely and thought laterally as well as deeply about these matters. His presentation connects us, lessens the divides between us and our worlds. Enjoy it.

Photo: Ed Zahniser


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