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, November 8, 2011

Dave Gibson: Solitude on Eleventh ‘Cataract’ Mountain

There’s a great deal weighing on people’s minds this early November, starting with how they’ll get through another Adirondack winter, keep their family healthy, and earn a living. Some are wondering if they’ll be elected on Tuesday, others confused about who they’re going to vote for. One town supervisor I spoke with in July informed me that four of his town’s five rural post offices would be shuttered in 2012, and asked me if the fate of local post offices concerned me. I said it did.

My Adirondack Wild colleague Dan Plumley and his neighbors lost their Keene Valley local post office this year. I do recall a citizen campaign waged decades ago to keep the only small post office in Hallowell, Maine – near where I was born. It succeeded. Hope is always a crucial part of any early November day.

Some lose their immediate November worries and thoughts in the fall hunt, or adventure. My conservation mentor Paul Schaefer was in hunting camp this time of the year, beginning in 1931 when as a 23-year old he first guided the Cataract Club into the Siamese wilderness until the mid 1980s when his bad knee finally gave out on him. Often, Paul and other members of the Cataract Club would climb Cataract Mountain which stretches for miles above the East Branch of the Sacandaga River valley in Bakers Mills. That’s not the mountain’s designated name. On maps it is Eleventh Mountain.

Paul wrote in his book Adirondack Cabin Country (Syracuse University Press, 1993) that “Half a century ago a number of us who hunted that mountain and were enthralled by its magnificence, decided to give it a more fitting name. ‘Cataract Mountain’ it has been, and it is for us, U.S. Geological Survey maps notwithstanding. Five crystal streams tumble off the thickly forested peak that stretches 3, 249 feet in elevation. Some of the cataracts that form are spectacular.”

This past weekend I bushwacked up Cataract Mountain with my friend Herb. I think we were going to find something, not to lose our thoughts or troubles, relatively light as those may be – perhaps to find a coyote standing tall on that peak, yipping and yelping and looking out on their wild domain. Despite the slow, tough climb around boulders, birch, beech and balsam thickets, Herb said he was determined to summit.

When we finally reached one of the mountain’s five summits, we rested and looked out at the valley of the East Branch of the Sacandaga glimmering 900 feet below us, Rt. 8 winding to its left. We gazed on Black, Harrington and other mountains in the blue distance. Suddenly Herb exclaimed, jumped up and found coyote scat not 20 feet from where we were eating our lunch. Look, Herb said, a coyote did survey his domain from this very spot! As had Paul Schaefer, many times.

Paul writes in Adirondack Cabin Country: “There are numerous spots where I can stand on a rocky ledge above the precipitous forested slopes dropping off to the valley far below and experience a solitude so wonderful that it causes emotions I can not describe…Here on Cataract Mountain – protected by the ‘forever wild’ covenant – the work of the Divine Artist is all about us, from the lichens clinging to the bare rocks to the hawk wheeling in the sky far above.”

It was true. The rock, lichen, ferns, shining, soaking moss had a luminous intensity during Herb’s and my adventure. We checked our watch. Fleeting thoughts of home and of gathering darkness found its crevice and latched on. We’d better go. Picking our way down the steep slope, we reached the trail in good shape as the sun was setting, pleased with ourselves. A mile away on the other side of the mountain, the Cataract Club was settling into their camp, now in its 80th fall season. As for their quarry, the sagacious white-tailed deer, it was long gone – like that coyote.

Photos: Above, Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin below Cataract Mountain; Below, Herb at the summit of Cataract, or Eleventh Mountain.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dave Gibson: ACR Myths and Impressions

As Brian Mann recently reported on North Country Public Radio, Adirondack Park Agency (APA) commissioners recently toured the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) site. In addition, parties to the hearing have less than a week to make any final reply to the closing statements or legal briefs. In November, Adirondack Club and Resort’s public hearing record will close, and be delivered to APA. This winter, the commissioners will have to render a decision on the application based on that record, and only upon that record. Eight years of pre-hearing review and debate will reach some kind of conclusion.

For those unfamiliar, ACR is a resort proposal comprised of 719 dwellings in 14 separate areas proposed to sprawl across 6200 acres a few miles southeast of Tupper Lake Village, on the slopes of Mount Morris above Tupper Lake and Lake Simond, and just west of Follensby Pond. The subdivisions are proposed for 4800 acres of lands classified by the APA as Resource Management (the most protective land use area under the APA) and 1200 acres of lands classified as Moderate Intensity Use, with a few hundred acres classified as Low Intensity Use. This is the largest second home development proposal to come to the APA since the mid-1970s.

In future posts, I may focus more on the ACR hearing record, but for now I write about several personal impressions, as well as myths about the hearing and the APA law.

Impression 1: All of us involved in this hearing had the privilege of appearing before a truly competent, unbiased, helpful law judge in control of the proceedings, Daniel O’Connell of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of Hearings and Mediation Services. For newcomers to a full-blown adjudicatory hearing, Judge O’Connell regularly coached and talked parties not represented by lawyers through our frequently awkward efforts to cross-examine witnesses. Sometimes, he suggested how we could reword our questions to avoid objection. He was assiduous about maintaining the record and exhibits, reasonable about the hearing schedule, insisted upon decorum at all times, patiently listened to all motions and explained his rulings. Most significantly, he gave all parties an equally liberal opportunity to present evidence, admitting into evidence many items that opposing lawyers argued should not be in his effort to assure the APA commissioners with as full a record as possible.

Impression 2: My colleague Dan Plumley and I have watched the APA closely since 1987, and observed past agency staff developing a hearing record. Therefore, we were regularly surprised – and occasionally shocked – by the premature lengths agency hearing staff went in this hearing to argue that various draft conditions on a permit would mitigate demonstrated or potential adverse impacts of the ACR. One day early in the hearing, the agency hearing staff member seemed less interested in what a witness had to say about actual or potential visual impacts of the subdivisions, and more interested in how draft staff conditions had already addressed the problems. How could this staff person know to propose a solid mitigation measure if he wasn’t completely listening to the witness? Wasn’t developing the hearing record more important than presenting draft conditions to a permit so early in the proceeding before the evidence was presented? Isn’t the agency by law and regulation supposed to avoid and minimize impacts before it simply accepts them and attempts to mitigate the damage? I know that the hearing staff are not offering any recommendation to the commissioners as to whether or not to issue a permit, a permit with conditions, or a denial. I also realize that some of the proposed conditions may constitute effective mitigation. However, hearing staff appeared overly eager to condition a defective application and bend to the project sponsor’s aspirations during the proceeding, and even in their closing brief.

Myth 1: APA balances environmental with economic issues. Some media and project proponents portray the 1973 APA Land Use Plan as a balance between resource protection and economic benefits. It wasn’t, and it isn’t. The law’s section 809 states that the agency, in rendering a determination, must find that a given project “would not have an undue adverse impact upon the natural, scenic, aesthetic, ecological, wildlife, historic, recreational or open space resources of the park, or upon the ability of the public to provide supporting facilities and services made necessary by the project, taking into account the commercial, industrial, residential, recreational or other benefits that might be derived from the project.”

There is a vast difference between taking potential benefits into account, and a legal obligation to balance two very different missions. APA’s is an environmental mission, not a balancing act. The courts have ruled this way for decades. In fact, in Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks v. Town Board of Tupper Lake (3d Dept., 2009), the appellate court wrote that in contrast with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, “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”, etc. “Clearly by placing environmental concerns above all others, the APA’s mandate is more protective of the environment than that embodied within SEQRA.”

Myth 2: The decision by the APA in late 2006 to deem Mr. Foxman’s application complete somehow legitimizes all of the application’s data and information. The applicant argued this all the time during and long before the hearing. It is wrong. The application is a statement about goals, desires, and aspirations. It is an allegation, nothing more or less. The hearing is intended to subject those assertions and allegations to expert scrutiny and the rules of evidence. Those rules say that an applicant must present experts whose testimony is competent, material and relevant. The project sponsor had better come up with experts who can competently and materially defend the allegations in the application, or he or she fails to meet their burden of proof, which leads me to my 3rd myth.

Myth 3: Since Mr. Foxman’s application was deemed complete, and because his hearing lawyer was schooled in the law (he actually was the APA Executive Director at one time), the burden of proof is on other parties to show how the application may fail to meet the statutory and regulatory requirements of the APA. Wrong. The burden of proof is squarely on the applicant. “The burden shall be on the project sponsor to present testimony concerning the matters alleged in the application (emphasis mine)” (Section 580 of APA Regulations). Mr. Ulasewicz tried to switch that burden many times during the hearing, often attempting unsuccessfully to intimidate witnesses about their knowledge of APA law and regulation. “Has so and so expert read the Act?” he would ask. “If he had, he would know that residential development is an allowed use of Resource Management,”etc. Adirondack Wild’s expert, who was a conservation biologist, pointed out that he was not retained to debate whether the Act allows development, but to present evidence about how and where the location, scope and intensity of that development could impact sensitive natural resources.

To go one step further, even an impartial observer – and I readily admit to not being one – would have noticed how poorly Mr. Foxman’s team met its burden of proof about the alleged tremendous economic benefits of the ACR, its alleged vast sales and tax potential, and its alleged immaterial burdens on the community. ACR’s so-called expert witnesses in these arenas often were unfamiliar with the application, or where the data in it came from, or could not disclose material and relevant sources to back up their arguments. I may return to the hearing record in future posts.

Photos: Above, outlook from summit of Mt. Morris, Cranberry Pond and Lake Simond in distance; Below, scene from the hearing in Ray Brook, Judge O’Connell at center.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dave Gibson: River Management by Backhoe

“It is unfortunate that dredging has proceeded without any guidance from river experts who could provide natural stream dimensions based on a rapid assessment of natural bankfull, pool depth and riffle spacing. Measurements that could be done in a few hours and eliminate years of lost habitat,” stated Carol Treadwell, Executive Director of the Ausable River Association (ARA).

Natural stream dimensions? Bankfull? Pool depth? Riffle spacing? What is this, a how-to manual? A certain amount of assembly required? Or a level of river awareness and fluency that any floodplain community had better strive for?

It is understandable why the small streams and rivers in this heavily damaged region of the Adirondacks (twice this year) may be viewed as marauding aliens and enemies which require a serious “talking to” by backhoe. The human and community impacts of the flood are enormous and gut wrenching.

Yet, post World War Two we keep building in floodplains, whether we know we are or not. A favored textbook reads: “The average annual flood damage nationwide… has continued to increase… The use of flood-prone land continues to rise faster than the application of measures to reduce flood damages. This continues to be one of the foremost challenges to land planners – finding ways to control the use of flood-prone areas, and ways of requiring those who seek the advantages of use of floodable areas to assume a fair proportion of the financial risk involved in such use” (Water in Environmental Planning, by Thomas Dunne and Luna Leopold, 1978).

Carol’s quote was submitted for a news release issued this week by a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals who live in these communities, along with a letter to Governor Cuomo seeking an end to floodplain management by bulldozer, and a meeting to assess how best to respond to the altered nature of these waterways in ways that are mindful of people, property, stream health, aesthetics and tourism on which so many of these towns and Essex County depend.

Carol denotes an apparent lack of “river experts” and related oversight of the heavy earth moving equipment moving about our region’s streams during the Governor’s month-long emergency authorization. The Ausable River Association has spent years studying the Ausable. Similarly, the Boquet River Association on the Boquet. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency know something about the behavior and morphology of rivers and floodplains. NYS DOT has environmental experts who know how to manage highway rights of way without taking a proverbial two by four to the environment. So, where are they? It was good to read that the Essex County Board of Supervisors is calling on these experts to help them assess and, if necessary, adjust the in-stream work as may be necessary. Governor Cuomo should have had his environmental experts in the field overseeing any stream work a month ago.

Yet, our state agency experts and field managers at DEC, APA, DOT still seem unable to respond in a coordinated, effective fashion, despite the fact that the Emergency Authorization issued by NYS DEC on that fateful Sunday, August 29 states: “This Authorization hereby allows emergency work to occur in navigable waters, streams and wetlands regulated under Environmental Conservation Law Article 15 and Article 24. The work hereby allowed must be immediately necessary to address an imminent threat to life, health, property, the general welfare and natural resources. All work carried out under this Authorization must be conducted in a minimally invasive manner, consistent with the goals of the restoration work. Non‐critical work is not allowed by this Authorization. All work must be undertaken in compliance with the conditions below.”

The emergency authorization and all conditions for working in the rivers is found at the DEC website. Based on what Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild has observed, many of these conditions are being violated every day, but this assumes that the equipment operators understand the conditions, and that DEC is on-site to explain them, which it appears not to be.

There is probably a strong difference of opinion whether the work to date has been “minimally invasive” and necessary to address imminent threat. At the same time, the workers in the streams and their supervisors are doing all they can with the information and resources at hand. Which gets me back to Carol Treadwell’s quote: “natural stream dimensions based on a rapid assessment of natural bankfull, pool depth and riffle spacing. Measurements that could be done in a few hours and eliminate years of lost habitat.”

What is she talking about? I return to and quote from Dunne and Leopold’s Water in Environmental Planning (1978). Rivers construct their own floodplains, laterally migrate, and deposit lots of sediment in the process. Over a very long process of movement the river occupies each and every position on the flat valley floor, with the river moving laterally by erosion on one bank and deposition on the other. That is the meander that rivers want to achieve as their way of expending energy most efficiently. In fact, really straight stretches of river (absent human channelization) are rare “and seldom does one see a straight reach of length exceeding 10 channel widths.”

Yet, the river does not construct a channel large enough to accommodate flood stages. The bankfull stage referred to by Carol “corresponds to the river discharge at which channel maintenance is most effective, that is the discharge at which moving sediment, forming or removing bars, forming or changing bends and meanders, and generally doing work that results in the average morphologic characteristics of (river) channels.”

The authors Dunne and Leopold continue: “It is human encroachment on the floodplains of rivers that accounts for the majority of flood damage. Because it is a natural attribute of rivers to produce flows that cannot be contained within the channel, the floodplain is indeed a part of the river during such events. It is therefore important that planners know something about these characteristic features, and thus possibly counteract to some degree the emphasis placed on flood-control protection works. More logical is flood damage prevention by the restriction of floodplain use.”

In short straight sections in between meanders, stream pools and riffles alternate in consistent ways due to the creation of gravel bars on the convex side of a meander. “The distance between successive bars averages five to seven channel widths.” The alteration of steep (over the riffles) and less steep water (over the pools) is characteristic of rivers, as is the fact that meanders are steeper than the average straight section. I think this is the “pool-riffle spacing” Carol is speaking of. She may be suggesting that in-stream work should seek to maintain this kind of pool-riffle spacing, and ensure that stream slopes are not severely altered.

The worst thing to do, according to Dunne and Leopold, is to severely shorten a river channel with consequent change in channel gradient. “An imposed change of river slope can cause an instability quite irreversible in any short period of time, and is the most difficult change to which a stream must adjust.” It appears this is exactly what heavy equipment operators did to Johns Brook, and may be doing to other stream sections.

The authors’ conclusions may be ones which Governor Cuomo, DOT, DEC, APA, and Essex County should pay particular attention to: “Among the potential costs or disadvantages accruing from channel modification are: 1. Channel instability or effects of channel readjustment to the imposed conditions; 2. Downstream effects especially increased bank erosion, bed degradation or aggradation; 3. Esthetic degradation, especially the change in stream biota and the visual alteration of riparian vegetation, and of stream banks and channel pattern or form.”

Photos: Johns Brook, Keene, before and after channel dredging and grading by state-funded heavy equipment, photos by Naj Wikoff.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dave Gibson: Make DEC, APA Part of the Solution

It is heartening to know that Governor Cuomo has twice visited Keene Valley, and other Adirondack communities so hard hit by the hurricane. And to see that Rt. 73’s rebuilding in St. Hubert’s, and along its corridor to Lake Placid has become a high state priority. Clearly, the Governor is doing his utmost to release emergency aid for homes, businesses, roads, bridges and other critical needs.

I am puzzled, however, by the instinct in this Governor to order that environmental permits from agencies like the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency be waived. Governor Cuomo announced August 30 that “government needs to do all it can to help devastated communities and homeowners get back on their feet,” but that doing so also means that government must “get out of the way and allow for quick rebuilding and restoration.”

It is as if those DEC or APA permits are fifty-foot high obstacles to getting reconstruction or restoration work done, and have absolutely nothing to do with the quality, effectiveness or durability of the work. It is as if DEC and APA field personnel want merely to push papers as obstacles to cleaning up and restoring the communities in which they and their families also live and work. It is as if government is there to only throw money, but not good, experienced minds, at emergency situations. It is as if the quickest action in an emergency is assumed to be the best action.

I disagree with those premises. I don’t think recent history in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill would suggest that the quickest action in an emergency is always the best action. Both DEC and APA staff, for instance, have demonstrated an ability in the past to issue permits from the field, and rapidly in emergency circumstances while influencing decisions which, from an environmental, engineering, economic and other perspectives may save time, money, labor and environmental quality in the short and longer-term. For example, emergency work done in a stream or river bed, or along its banks can be done in ways which appear to help the situation in the short-term, but which actually make matters far worse downstream in the mid or longer-term. Both DEC and APA, as well as the Ausable River and Boquet River Associations and others, are trained and knowledgeable in how rivers work in general and particular (fluvial dynamics), enough to offer practical as well as prudent permit advice which addresses both the immediate and longer-term problem. Where and how to reconstruct may not be as much about butting heads as it is about adding heads from varying disciplines to reach better decisions. APA and DEC staff should be part of that mix.

Of course, Governor Cuomo and his aides might have thought that there are so few DEC and APA regional permitting staff that it would be near impossible to get field involvement or permit decisions made in a timely fashion to address the emergencies across DEC Region 5. If so, I think that sells his own state personnel short. The efficient teamwork at DEC Region 5 and at the APA has been tested often by storms of all kinds in this and past decades, and performed remarkably well – and there has never been a decade I have seen where DEC or APA had enough staff – and there never will be one.

Furthermore, local governments and agencies attempting to reconstruct want clarity about what is required or expected, as much as any regulated business wants to know what is expected of them. The Governor’s announcement of the waiver of permits may have the unintended consequence of injecting confusion into an already confused situation. It cautions that reconstruction, restoration and other work should be sensitive not to unnecessarily harm or damage natural resources. For instance, would a town supervisor or engineer find clarity or confusion in the following words contained in the Governor’s press release:

“Permitting for construction and repair projects in these areas is suspended. When possible, work should be undertaken in consultation with the DEC to ensure that the project will be carried out in a manner that will cause the least adverse impact to natural resources. To consult on environmental impacts in the wake of Hurricane Irene, individuals and businesses may contact the Regional Environmental Permits Office.”

Local government might be forgiven if it misinterpreted these words as “DEC will get out of the way, but rest assured, I had better call them, they sure as heck won’t be calling me, but their eyes will be burning into the back of my head.”

Wouldn’t it better to have the clarity and certainty of regulators working in the field with the authority to both consult on difficult restoration and reconstruction work and to issue field permits for reasonably well thought-out solutions that take environmental conditions into account?

The Governor’s statement releasing communities in this emergency from the burdens of government regulation perversely also contains the following regulatory language:
“In an effort to keep overall cleanup costs to a minimum and to reduce the overall impacts from the disaster debris it is important that those conducting the cleanup be mindful to separate out those waste materials which are benign or exempt from regulation, such as tree branches and limbs, from other more environmentally concerning debris during the cleanups.
Care should be taken to set aside such materials as household hazardous waste, gasoline containers and propane canisters and other regulated solid wastes that would require special handling.”

In general, I think that waiving environmental permit requirements in an emergency like this in the Adirondack Park, with all the cautions and caveats thrown in, is

• unnecessary to getting good work done reasonably quickly

• insulting to knowledgeable, experienced DEC and APA regional permitting staff

• confusing

• conducive to making quick decisions that may have negative consequences

• inimical to a place as important as the Adirondack Park

I hasten to add that I am ready to be proved wrong or ill informed, and that DEC and APA staff are actually in the field helping their local counterparts where help is needed or requested, with or without permits in hand. I also hasten to add that the Governor’s press release also may have contained helpful information that “DEC is also providing general assistance and guidance to help local communities address damaged facilities, debris disposal and solid waste. DEC has developed guidance for storm-related waste from damaged areas. Responsible parties should contact the DEC regional office for specific project applications.”

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dave Gibson: Stubborn Facts About Lows Lake

Facts are stubborn things. So are traditions, and patterns of use. These all lay at the heart of the recent Lows Lake court decision in Albany County Supreme Court which upheld a Wilderness classification for Lows Lake and the Bog River Flow.

Verplanck Colvin, the great Adirondack explorer and surveyor, came to what is now Lows Lake in the late 1890s, just before inventor A.A. Low dammed the Bog River in two places as part of extensive industrial enterprises that lasted less than 15 years. Colvin’s survey of 1898-1899 was his last (published by the Adirondack Research Center of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 1989).
» Continue Reading.

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

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:

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.

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