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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dave Gibson: Review Board’s Attacks on APA Unjust

Commendations to the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) for its recently released Policy Perspective found on their website [pdf]. It is a substantive policy update and, for a government report, a pretty strong communication piece to the general public as well as to “stakeholders.”

What I especially liked about the APA report and Chairman Stiles cover letter are that:

A. They strongly make the case that the environmental quality of the Adirondack Park is a fundamental prerequisite to a stronger economy.

B. They state in several places APA’s fundamental statutory purpose, upheld by older and very recent court decisions, which is “to serve a supervening state concern transcending local interests.”

The only problem is it’s reactive, not proactive, genesis.

The restrained but pointed cover letter from APA Chairman Curt Stiles to Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board (LGRB) Executive Director Fred Monroe makes it clear that Policy Perspective is in reaction to the LGRB paper released two weeks earlier under the kind of catchy headline most nonprofit advocacy groups dream of using, APA: Under the Influence and in Need of Detoxification.

Now, which report do you think the media covered? You’re right! Under the Influence wins the coverage. Of course, LGRB led with its report, and APA reacted, which makes one hope that the APA could be more proactive, and issue substantive annual policy updates about what they are doing to fulfill their mandate.

Section 804 of the APA Act requires the Agency to “report periodically to the governor and the legislature on the conduct of its activities but no less than once a year, furnishing a copy of each such report to the clerk of the county legislative body of each county…and to the review board.” The APA’s published annual reports have probably fulfilled this minimum requirement, but in all honesty these tend not to be overly substantive.

LGRB’s Under the Influence admirably served its statutory purpose of “periodically reporting” about the administration and enforcement of the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan to “the Governor and the Legislature, and to the country legislative body of each of the counties.” Of course, I take issue with much of what the LGRB reports says, and how it says it.

In terms of content, I’ll select just three of the many topics covered in these reports:

1. Does the APA, as the LGRB alleges, sneakily expand its authority by secretly issuing regulations at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve? No. I remember the exhausting TAL (Technical Advisory List) meetings of APA stakeholders following the 1995 report of the Task Force on the Administration of the APA. If there was ever a never-ending “stakeholder” review process on regulations, APA demonstrated it from that day to this. LGRB attended every one of those meetings, and influenced the outcomes. Then, Governor Pataki introduced GORR, the governor’s office of regulatory reform. Every draft APA regulation undergoes months of additional scrutiny.

As to the 2010 boathouse regulation (which was under review for nearly a decade), at the last moment APA bent over backwards for developers, wealthier shore land owners, and the LGRB. The regulation should have been far stronger on behalf of all the other critters that use the shoreline, but who don’t answer to the word “stakeholder.”

2. Is there truly “no official local government role in the APA appointment process?” That is what the LGRB claims. Actually, LGRB has pretty effective influence, as the evidence bears out. All eight citizen commissioners must be confirmed by the State Senate. In thinking about the late Senator Stafford and now Senator Little, it’s hard to say that the Adirondack local government interests are poorly represented in that elected body. And many of those confirmations have been for deeply rooted Adirondackers. John Stock of Tupper Lake served the APA for decades. John was the chief forester for Litchfield Park and I remember the pride with which local leaders viewed his participation on the agency. Former APA Chairs John Collins and Bob Flacke were deeply involved with affairs in Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake and Lake George respectively, and still are. Today, former Johnsburg Town Supervisor Bill Thomas, Lake Pleasant Town Supervisor Frank Mezzano, Webb activist Lani Ulrich, and North Elba businessman Art Lussi comprise four of the eight citizen APA members and all enjoy strong local government support.

The Town of Minerva’s viewpoint apparently didn’t matter to the LGRB. Minerva voted to endorse Gov. Paterson’s nomination of Pete Hornbeck, one of that Town’s esteemed residents, a former member of its planning board and a successful businessman. LGRB didn’t like that nomination, and Senator Little has so far blocked Hornbeck’s confirmation.

Twelve years ago the LGRB was given a non-voting role at the APA table each month, and invited to comment on every agenda item at every meeting. Other organizations and individuals, lacking a statutory role, wait for Friday afternoons every month to communicate in person to the Agency.

Requiring the governor to select solely from a list of people endorsed by local governments in the Park would be dismissive of the interest all New Yorkers have for consideration of people with a broad array of talents, life experiences and motivations to uphold the intent of the APA Act.

3. Are APA enforcement fines against violators regularly unfair and egregious, as LGRB alleges? No. First, there are many potential violations out there, and only a handful of enforcement officers. The facts in APA’s report suggests that most violators who come to the agency’s attention want to do the right thing, and most APA enforcement staff want to work with these people in a respectful, fair and personal manner to heal environmental damage. Civil penalties in 2009 ranged from $100 to $4,000. LGRB hardly makes a strong fairness case here. The cases LGRB raises concern not the “little guy,” but a few high profile landowners whose purpose is to wage a legal and public relations campaign against the APA.

Photo: Whiteface Mountain in early November

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Climate Change: What We Owe The Pine Martin

I saw my first Adirondack pine marten (Martes Americana) the other day in Newcomb. I was on a marked state trail through Wild Forest, and came to a sizable stream fresh from the recent rains. A log seemed conveniently placed for me, but I hesitated. Knowing I would have wet feet, how badly did I wish to go on? Then I looked up. The marten was staring back at me from the opposite bank.

Give way! Hadn’t I seen the marten crossing sign, he seemed to be saying? The marten loped downstream, and took the next log across, paused and vanished. The animal was larger than I had imagined, redder, too, like my face flushed with excitement. The photo above is not of this animal. It is one of the many fine photos in the public domain provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

When I got home I remembered reading in Jerry Jenkins’ Climate Change in the Adirondacks (2010, Wildlife Conservation Society) that Adirondack martens are isolated by a hundred miles and more from cousins in New England and Canada; and that they can outcompete the larger fisher only by having an advantage in deeper snow. When the number of days with snowpack decline, as they are doing, the fisher may gain a competitive . There is already a 15-30% decline in the number of days with snowpack since I was in grade school c. 1970.

Do we have obligations to ensure Adirondack martens survive, because of their intrinsic worth, and so that our successors experience the same excitement I felt? Many might agree on the moral obligations. Fewer might agree on whether we have legal obligations. Fewer still might agree that those obligations, moral and legal, apply to our leaving the legacy of a planet at least as healthy as the one we now live on.

The hard realities and impacts of the warming oceans and shrinking ice which are already turning so many societies, human and more than human, to survival mode all over the world does challenge a boundary between moral and legal justice concerning future generations. This is because the global science is uniformly advising us that today’s pace of warming is the result of emissions in the 1950s and 60s and 70s.

Given the lag between greenhouse gas emissions and impacts of atmospheric change, we make climate decisions today that are likely to make life support systems much less functional for people – and martens – 100 years hence. This is a debt we are piling up far more ominous for society than fiscal imbalance.

Many philosophers have thought about current debts to future generations, and more than one has lived in the Adirondacks. One who did, and who regularly acted on his thinking, was the Reverend Woody Cole, Chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency from 1984-1992, and a resident of Jay. Woody died recently. He spoke to an Adirondack audience in St. Huberts (Ausable Club) in 1991 about his view that we have an intrinsic duty to protect life forms built into our evolutionary past. Here is an excerpt of what he said:

“In nature, each organism has its own uniqueness in the way it finds to procreate, to endure, and to associate with its habitat. Each organism has evolved its complex way of capturing the energy of the sun and of maintaining its species population, building up its genome or genetic code so that it can adapt, keep going; and keep struggling in a universe that is supposed to be running down.

These millions of organisms evolved from symbiotically derived relationships with other species within ecological systems both over space and time. Contemplating this billion year old record is awesome; biota helped to produce the thin layer on this planet known as the living biosphere. …it is unique in this universe, and of value intrinsically, in and of itself, beyond mere utility for human satisfaction….

Thus it is that the conservation of ecosystems can be seen as an ultimate good, a moral obligation for observers who have been nurtured and sustained by the diverse biomes that up Earth’s biosphere. As creatures capable of appreciating inherent values, we now have a moral imperative as human organisms to protect the rich biotic ecosystems that perpetuate the life systems of the planet.

As suggested by the anthropological – cosmological principle, we have a duty to insure that complex life will be available for eventual transmission into the universe itself. But first we must conserve our own planet’s diverse ecosystems.”

Photo: Pine Marten, Erwin and Peggy Bauer, USFWS.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Adirondack Conservation Easements: Trends and Expectations

Definition: “A conservation easement typically consists of permanently enforceable rights held by a land trust or government agency by which the landowner promises to use property only in ways permitted by the easement. The landowner retains ownership and may convey it like any other property, subject to the easement’s restrictions. Conservation easements have been made possible by enabling legislation in virtually every state” (from Reinventing Conservation Easements: A Critical Examination and Ideas for Reform by Jeff Pidot, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2005).

Society has many expectations for large tracts of forest under conservation easement. The list often includes some form of public recreation on private ownership, sustainably harvested timber and pulp, biological diversity including diverse watchable and huntable wildlife, recreational leases, drivable roads, protected streams, ponds and wetlands, shared taxes, timely enforcement of the rules.

If that list is not long enough, some believe that these protected private lands can be managed to help slow or mitigate a changing climate that is likely to continue to warm for centuries, even if Homo sapiens cut emissions dramatically in order to maintain current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, which we are not.

During a winter 2009 workshop about Adirondack conservation easements, it was reported that there were 737,000 acres under some form of state conservation easement in all of New York State, with 98% occurring in the Adirondack region. An additional 100,000 acres were being negotiated. According to Regional Forester Tom Martin, in DEC Region 5 (two-thirds of the Adirondack Park) there were 365,000 acres under conservation easement with 113 different landowners in 2009. 340,000 of those acres were certified by third-party certification systems such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

During the workshop, Jerry Jenkins of the Wildlife Conservation Society offered his opinion that easements in the Northern Forest have achieved a basic goal to conserve biodiversity. Jenkins’ report Conservation Easements and Biodiversity in the Northern Forest Region (2008 by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Open Space Institute) provides important background and recommendations. As Jenkins stated at the workshop, conservation easements negotiated in the future should also address the issue of carbon emissions, which have global consequences.

If conservation easements are to address climate issues, landowners must be provided with the information and spectrum of management options. Forestry management plans which utilize low grade trees as biomass feedstock are on the “front lines.” To satisfy the Chicago Climate Exchange, forests need to be FSC certified.

Certification provides the standards and incentives to capture this low carbon energy source and the practice of low carbon forestry. Would easement lands qualify for carbon offset markets? Jenkins noted that the dollar value to landowners may not come solely or even primarily from carbon offsets, but from the avoidance cost of replacing fossil fuels as primary heat source in the northeast. As Jerry Jenkins put it, “how much money can we save the local school board by putting in a wood chip boiler in place of the old oil burner? How can those savings be translated into financial benefits for the landowner?”

In September, 2010, the Adirondack Park Agency sponsored a field visit with the Adirondack Park’s largest private landowner and manager of lands under conservation easement, Lyme Timber. Lyme’s land manager Sean Ross led the APA to lands they have harvested north of Tupper Lake. Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley and I went along. These foresters manage blocks as large as 15,000 acres. Lyme owns 250,000-acres in the Adirondack Park.

In general, Lyme views the conservation easement positively, as well as the rigorous certification requirements of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Ross made the case that the Adirondack Park’s protected status, including laws and publicly-owned Forest Preserve, were strong incentives to engage in easements and certification. Lyme’s field operations must be audited each year by the FSC or one of its third party certifiers. As Sean told us, FSC certification is an expected cost of doing business these days.

Why is Lyme in this forest land business? Trees are adding diameter and value yearly. This steady return on investment jumps when a large cherry or maple grows into a larger diameter class. Lyme’s markets are wherever they can find them – the Ticonderoga mill, nearby biomass plants, Canada and the world.

If he had the power to do so, what would he change about the conservation easement? Sean Ross said that he might take small parts of a given parcel out of the easement, and put other areas in it. Other than this, he saw no need for change. In answer to other questions, Sean Ross noted that fragmentation of land ownerships across the Northern Forest is making it challenging to manage lands for forestry. Asked if Ross could estimate Lyme’s minimum viable tract size, Ross stated it was around 10,000 acres.

Were there any collaborative efforts to conduct ecosystem-based, wild land planning for wildlife and ecosystem integrity on these lands, such as wildlife corridors? In response, Ross noted that Lyme was able to get a grant through DEC to hire a wildlife biologist that is exploring these issues for their Adirondack lands. He noted collaboration with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Audubon New York.

Lyme also participated in the 2009 workshop. During that meeting, its representative noted the time pressures to complete contracts, and to assess what’s important to conserve in a conservation easement. On the other hand, biologists at the workshop felt that on large forested tracts several field seasons were required to survey and document rare or unique ecological communities.

The 2009 workshop concluded by identifying the following needs and tasks:
• Studies to indicate whether easements in the Adirondacks are truly meeting stated ecological, economic and social objectives.
• Studies of how easement lands respond to climate change.
• Methods for compensating landowners for achieving easement objectives
• Funding for baseline documentation and monitoring programs for both land and aquatic resources.
• Completing a conservation easement registry program, already required by law.

Photo: Sean Ross of Lyme Timber addresses questions during APA-sponsored field visit in September. Photo by Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Norm Van Valkenburgh: Conservation Hero and Sleuth

I was watching a Sherlock Holmes mystery the other day titled The Second Stain. Holmes’ deductive reasoning solves the theft of a letter that, if placed into the wrong hands, would result in a diplomatic and military crisis. The bumbling Inspector LeStrade provides the critical clue when he asks Holmes to inspect a “mere trifle,” the blood-soaked carpet which lacked any corresponding stain on the floor immediately beneath. “There is nothing more important in solving crime than attention to mere trifles,” one can hear Holmes’aside to Watson.

So, I am thinking this weekend of a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, an author of mysteries in his own right, and one of the State’s most important conservationists and public servants, Norman J. Van Valkenburgh. Norm acquired for us all magnificent tracts, both large and smaller, of wilderness placed on the market in the Adirondacks and in his beloved Catskills during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Just as important, Norm has written numerous histories about the Forest Preserve and how its tracts of land came into public ownership. In many cases, he was directly responsible. » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Origins of Friends of the Forest Preserve

Today’s paddlers on the South Branch of the Moose or West Branch of the Sacandaga Rivers, or hikers, loon watchers and snowmobilers along numerous winding forest trails in the Moose River Plains or Ferris Lake Wild Forests would be fifty feet underwater if the mid-20th century dam proponents, and their state sponsors had held sway.

Citizens who valued these Adirondack valleys for their wildlife and wildness opposed them. One of those organizations was Friends of the Forest Preserve, founded in 1945 by Paul Schaefer. I write this on September 13, his birthday. This history of the founding of the organization is contained in Schaefer’s book, Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer (1989, Syracuse University Press). » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dave Gibson: On Common Ground

The political reality in America today is certainly distressing. We elect too many Republicans and Democrats who feel unable to reach across the party aisle towards each other, or to be even seen with one another for fear of being unelectable in their primaries. The same polarization can be found dividing environmental and conservation circles. Fortunately, I’ve known quite a few Adirondackers who relate to the person, not the label, and who share the Adirondack woods and waters as common ground. I wanted to write about two of them.

Last night I read an entry in my journal about DEC Regional Director Tom Monroe’s retirement dinner in Lake Placid in early 1994. Tom had been Regional Director since the 1970s, still a time when DEC Regional Directors rose to that position through the civil service ranks, and who had considerable autonomy as a result. Put another way, these Regional Directors were forces unto themselves. That all ended by the time Tom Monroe retired. For good or ill, his able successors have been appointed by Commissioners, and ultimately answer to Governors, and enjoy far less autonomy.

I had gone to the dinner with my friend and associate Tom Cobb, who at the time was Park Manager with the State’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and Trustee of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, and who is now a Director of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. Both Tom and I – and many others from all ends of the conservation spectrum – respected Tom Monroe. Environmental leaders sometimes had their reasons to distrust him. I remember an environmental colleague advising me “just make sure he is truly retired”! However, the respect came from the fact that Tom Monroe was completely his own person, and was seen to treat people equally, without favoritism. Tom did not suffer bullies easily, and there are many interesting stories about his time at DEC. This quality of perceived even-handedness brought a diverse crowd to his dinner. In my journal, I write: “I feel pretty good about going to a farewell dinner that brought together the likes of Bob Purdy (Supervisor of Keene), Peter Paine (member of the APA), Roger Dziengeleski (Woodlands Manager of Finch, Pruyn and Co.), Senator Ron Stafford and Tom (Cobb) and I in one place.”

These qualities of Tom Monroe reminded me of a woman attending his dinner who was beloved by sportsmen and women, and respected by elected leaders. She died late last year. Nellie Staves of Tupper Lake was a deeply rooted Adirondack conservationist who made friends and influenced people wherever she went. Elegant at an evening dinner one day, warmly clad to inspect her traps the next, she was comfortable being Nellie Staves. Like Tom Monroe, Nellie didn’t mind in the least whom she was seen with. I first met her in 1988 when, in a memorable few words to the Adirondack Park Agency, she made the case why wildlife mounts deserved to be a part of the soon- to- be opened Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smith’s. Her presentation earned her an audience with Governor Mario Cuomo at the dedication of the VIC the next year. Years later another Governor, George Pataki, would dedicate the Wild Center (Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks) with its founding director, Nellie, at his side. In 2007, I was so grateful to Nellie for coming up to me after a fractious meeting about the Adirondack Club and Resort at the high school. “Good to see you in Tupper Lake, Dave,” she beamed.

One day at an Adirondack conference on Upper Saranac Lake, Nellie opened the back of her car and she invited our staff member and photographer Ken Rimany to look in: there were some of the world’s most beautiful depictions of wildlife drawn not on canvas, but on bracket fungi (“toadstools,” she said) once growing on great, craggy Adirondack trees. Ken was overwhelmed with her artistry. From that time on, their friendship grew and he was introduced to members of her family. With Ken’s encouragement and help, her artwork came to be featured in The Conservationist magazine – not once but several times.

Thanks to Nellie, we were introduced to some fine Adirondack people from diverse perspectives whom we learned to respect, people who shared Nellie’s sense of humor and gift for storytelling. What hearty laughter she induced in all who knew her. Thanks to Nellie, we learned not to take ourselves too seriously, to observe closely and be receptive to the unexpected. From her, we learned that those who know the most about the Adirondack woods, from its wilderness to its wildlife, to those who work in those woods also care very deeply about the future. Nellie helped us remember that those who log, fish, hunt, trap, create or teach in the Adirondacks have one great legacy to pass on: caring, understanding, knowledgeable, talented kids growing up on these lakes, or on the trails.

Photo:(Nellie Staves outside Tupper Lake High School

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dave Gibson: Return to the Moose River Plains

A summer day. The road to the Moose River Plains from Limekiln Lake is free of traffic this morning, the sun’s rays have not yet turned the evening dew to dust. As I drive down the shaded road I think about the work of local people from Inlet who dug and placed sand on these roads to give the heavy logging trucks enough traction on the steep sections.

Dick Payne, former Inlet Police Chief, left me memorable impressions of working the Plains in the “old days.” Since 1964 when the Gould Paper Company sold this land to the people of the State, the land is Forest Preserve. As the cicadas begin to whine from the trees, I try to remember another group who hiked in via the Red River valley to discover what was at risk from the Higley and Panther Mountain Dams on the South Branch of the Moose River. » Continue Reading.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Commentary: The Adirondack Club and Resort

Michael Foxman invariably exudes confidence in his proposed Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake, and elicits great loyalty from many in the community who have a legitimate interest in reopening the Big Tupper ski center.

For all that, in my five years of observation he is one poor negotiator. Since the first conference between Mr. Foxman, APA and potential parties to a public hearing in April 2007, he has been unable or unwilling to substantively negotiate two major problems with what he wants to do: the lack of a permanent open space protection component in his proposals and his inability to allay concerns for water quality impacts from sewage, stormwater and steep slope development.

He blames “the process” for his inability to make much forward progress. From the beginning in 2005, he proved unable to win the trust of his neighbors, including abutters of Oval Wood Dish who happen to provide much of Tupper Lake’s drinking water. His payment in lieu of taxes scheme raised questions about fairness to taxing districts and residents. He paid for independent economic consultants ordered by the Town, and when he didn’t like their concerns, he temporarily stopped paying them. Despite the great recession, he seems supremely confident in his plan, the market value of the properties, resort markets, sales projections, and, ostensibly, the great tax boon this will be for Tupper Lake some day.

Fourteen months of mediation, the process he favored, resulted in useful exchange, yet few results. Overall, in the forty-two months since the hearing was ordered, he is not even close to a permit, or shown through detailed engineering how to get water onto the mountain and waste water off of it, or how he will pay for miles of infrastructure for a second village in Tupper Lake – for second home owners.

Once he exercises his option to acquire the bulk of the land from Oval Wood Liquidating Trust, Mr. Foxman may re-sell the properties to others. He will only exercise the option with that invaluable APA permit in hand. That permit can only be issued based on review of a lengthy public hearing record. That record will be developed at great expense over many months, and rests upon the ten hearing issues raised by the APA in its Feb 2007 decision to go to hearing, but undoubtedly other issues will be shown to be highly relevant, including energy, and wildlife impacts. The Law Judge in the case has to rule on each additional issue. Weeks of discovery, the process by which the parties to the APA hearing gain access to pertinent documents, are likely. Finally, it seems no hearing can start until the APA finds that Foxman and the LA Group have done the necessary engineering studies and completed detailed drawings of the water, stormwater, sewer, electrical and road systems.

Apparently the applicant has now delivered these to the APA, only to raise other impediments to starting the hearing process, principally his alleged future right to access and build on the Moody Pond Tract over lands owned by The Adirondack Conservancy. Meanwhile, the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency and Legislature must rule on the private bonds to pay for the tens of millions in new infrastructure.

ACR is not the biggest threat in the history of the Park. Horizon Corp would have built 10,000 homes in Colton, Ton-da-lay several thousand just north of Tupper Lake. That was all when the APA was brand new. After lengthy legal action, State objections to water supply and quality issues, and economic downturns, these behemoths were never built. Yet, this is the largest project to go to an APA adjudicatory public hearing, and tests the APA’s interpretation of the Act severely when it comes to the purpose of Resource Management lands, energy issues and fiscal and other burdens and benefits on a local community.

Were Mr. Foxman an experienced, well financed and Park-aware negotiator, had the housing bubble not burst into full recession, were the APA less risk averse, the public hearing called in 2007 might be over and a decision already reached.

My hope: a productive community dialogue on the future of these lands would occur. The housing component of the project would be downsized and largely concentrated around the base of Mt. Morris on good soils and with easier access for village services, with a wide protective buffer around Lake Simond and over 2000 acres of the project area, including Cranberry Pond, permanently protected, publicly accessible open space, a mix of conservation easement and Forest Preserve. Certified forestry, and public recreation would be encouraged, skiing started without the need to sell 38 (or whatever the number is now) great camp lots, posted signs few, and full taxes paid. My vision is hardly the right one, and may be unachievable. I do know that we are at least another year away from the APA’s review of any public hearing record.

Photo: View from Mt. Morris looking towards Tupper Lake.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Commentary: Forest Preserve – Forever Taxable?

The approximately three million acre, publicly-owned and “forever wild” NYS Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks is taxable for all purposes. Since 1886, that’s been the law. How can we make sure such tax obligations are paid, forever? I want it that way, and so do many others.

The law says that Forest Preserve lands shall be valued for tax purposes as if privately owned (Section 532a of the Real Property Tax Law). Late 19th century lawmakers recognized that downstate economic and other benefits of protecting upstate watersheds in the Adirondacks and Catskills more than justified waiving the State’s exemption from being taxed. And thus it has been ever since. » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Commentary: Firetowers and Wild Lands Management

I love fire towers – and fire wardens. They remind me of my youth and the excitement of finding a firetower and firewarden tending it, and weaving stories around the campfire about the fire warden living on the flanks of a wild mountain.

Interpreting Adirondack cultural and environmental history from a firetower is important work being undertaken by wonderful volunteers and some Forest Rangers in the Adirodnack Park. Our Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) acts in the spirit of an educational and interpretive force for the Park by participating actively in the restoration and educational use of the 20 or so firetowers in Wild Forest areas, such as the Bald Mountain Fire Tower above Old Forge and Inlet, Hadley Mountain in Saratoga County, Azure Mountain in Franklin County, Wakely Mountain firetower in Hamilton County, and many others. » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dave Gibson: Lessons in Adirondack Activism

Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer was a pied piper for young people in search of a cause, just as John Apperson had been for him when Schaefer was in his early 20s. By the 1970s and 80s, Paul was approaching 80 years of age, and scouts, teens, and earth activists of all ages found their way to Paul’s doorstep. I want to share a few of the lessons he conveyed.

One spring day in 1990 I met with Paul to discuss Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks (Berle Commission) report which was about to be made public. Paul mentioned that on Earth Day, a group of “idealistic” young people had come down to pay him a visit. He had planned to show his award-winning film, The Adirondack: The Land Nobody Knows, but his Bell and Howell 16-mm projector could not be found (I had borrowed it). Instead, Paul invited the students into his living room. “I’ve never had a better time in my life,” Schaefer told me. “These kids were idealists, and we need them.” » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bill Porter: Friend of Wildlife, Ecology, and Education

The weather was pleasant at the Long Lake pavilion, and the dialogue at this year’s Common Ground Alliance stimulating enough. Then, my thoughts strayed to the fire tower on top of Goodnow Mountain, and what I could see from it. So, off I went. This being my first hike of the summer, I took my time and climbed the fire tower just as dramatic clouds and welcome summer rains moved in, allowing glimpses of the scintillating lake country, and High Peaks Wilderness to the north. Out below me was Lake Harris, the Newcomb VIC, Rich Lake, Arbutus and and Catlin Lakes on the 14,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest, one of the world’s best and longest running experimental forests.

Some of my most interesting moments in the Park have been in the Huntington Wildlife Forest with Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) faculty who helped me gain some understanding of dynamic predator-prey interactions in the central Adirondacks. A lot of the prey constitutes tasty Adirondack hardwoods, consumed by its predator, white-tailed deer, which in turn faces its great killer each winter – deep, long snowpack. Dick Sage, Ranier Brocke, and Bill Porter generously provided us with many ecological insights, such as how to do shelterwood cutting of forests on private lands to benefit wildlife, insights from decades of faculty-student work at this unique wildlife field station.

Indeed, those three stalwarts from ESF might remind us that we could have more “common ground” in the Adirondacks if we consciously recognized our collective fascination with the Park’s wildlife, and thought about working together to benefit from this common passion.

I especially wish to thank Professor Bill Porter, who will soon leave his professorship at ESF for new adventures at the University of Michigan. I was fortunate to join the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks when four of its board leaders considered visits to Huntington Wildlife Forest as essential background education for any staff that sought to protect the Forest Preserve and the Park. Prof. Bill Porter not only welcomed these engagements with advocates for the Park, he pushed his small staff to schedule as many as possible.

The very first speaker I ever invited was Bill Porter, at Paul Schaefer’s behest, in 1987. Bill spoke about the fact that the central Adirondack black bear, that lover of berries and veggies, was also adept at catching and eating white-tailed deer fawns in the spring. He presented an image most of us had never thought about, the black bear as ambusher and meat-eater. It was the first of many presentations about Adirondack wildlife that made people sit up and take notice. It dawned on me that to get people into a stuffy room and out of the beautiful Adirondack outdoors, make wildlife your topic.

As Bill’s responsibilities increased, he pushed all the harder on his public communications. He went on to chair the Adirondack Research Consortium, and made the College’s wildlife research more accessible. His presentations on wildlife ecology were fun and interesting. Remember the gas molecule theory in high school, he would ask his audience? Most people would squirm uncomfortably. Well, forget it when it comes to deer biology. Ah. We relaxed. Deer, Bill informed us, do not simply disperse from areas with lots of deer to fill the least concentrated areas of their habitat. Females, or does have a complex social structure called kin groups which greatly effects their affinity for an area, and includes their faithfulness to the places where they were born. So, deer are not distributed uniformly on the landscape at all. Central Adirondack deer societies, like our politics, are local.

Bill Porter’s ability to convey the broad story lines and myriad details of Adirondack wildlife ecology have never failed to amaze me. Later, I learned what an excellent strategist he is. Porter had long believed NYS DEC was flying blind when it came to managing the Forest Preserve because they lacked a thorough digital inventory using GIS (geographic information systems). ESF had the equipment and skilled students to help digitize the data and train DEC in how to access it for more informed public lands management. What Bill needed were advocates to push DEC and the Governor’s staff to fund the work, and make use of the data. With Audubon, the Association, ADK, WCS and Adirondack Council, Bill found his advocates. Here was a partnership to improve understanding and management of the Park’s Forest Preserve we all could believe in. In the last ten years, the GIS project has resulted in greatly improved State Land inventories and much stronger working relations between academia, DEC and private advocates for the Forest Preserve.

This success was followed by Bill’s visionary creation, backed by ESF President Neil Murphy, of SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute, acquisition of Masten House above Henderson Lake as a future wilderness training center and ESF’s decision, announced last month, to manage the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center in 2011.

So, thank you, Prof. Bill Porter. I will miss you. You have made my Adirondack experience so much more meaningful. You have made partnerships for the more than human world tangible and productive. Thanks to your efforts, young people with your thirst for knowledge and passion will be communicating in new and exciting ways about Adirondack wildlife for years and years to come at the Northern Forest Institute, the Masten House, and the Newcomb VIC.

Photo: The view from Goodnow Mountain, Rich Lake in the foreground.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Unsung Adirondack Heroes: Lydia Serrell

In thinking about Adirondack unsung heroes, singer-songwriter Peggy Lynn’s powerfully moving song Lydia about Lydia Smith (wife of Paul Smith) comes to mind. I write about another Lydia who related very strongly to that song, and who did so much for the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (AFPA). Her name was Lydia Serrell. I worked with Lydia for 18 years, and can attest that she was an extraordinary Adirondacker in her own right, and instrumental to the success of the organization.

Lydia Serrell fell in love with the Adirondacks at an early age. The daughter of Hungarian immigrants and carriage makers working in Schenectady, she was “shipped out” after her mother’s death c. 1918 to live with her mother’s sister, her Aunt Anna and Uncle Chris Kohler, at their farm in Gravesville, Town of Ohio in the southwestern Adirondacks. Lydia’s great friend Linda Champagne writes: “Lydia attended a small north country school. Her uncle, a guide in the nearby Adirondack League Club (Uncle Chris), and his wife (Aunt Anna), who had been a cook at the club, created a comfortable life for the city girl. The modest home had only a spring for water. Entertainment meant skating on ponds and reading Zane Grey novels by kerosene lantern in the evenings. When her father remarried, and she returned to Schenectady, she continued a lifelong love of hiking, touring and reading the history of the Adirondacks.” » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Commentary: Land-Banking is Poor Public Policy

It is purposefully difficult to change our Constitution. In thinking about Article XIV of the New York State Constitution, the “Forever Wild” clause, amendments have to undergo tests in two separately elected legislatures. Ill or hastily considered measures to weaken or dilute its legal mandate to ensure a wilderness forever in the Catskills and Adirondacks are weeded out. Overly complex measures are tied up in committee.

Ultimately, the voting public decides whether an amendment constitutes a significant shift away from the mandate of 1894, which is to make the Forest Preserve safe from exploitation as an enduring wilderness for people and wild nature, and a haven for the ultimate expression of our human partnership with nature. » Continue Reading.

Monday, June 28, 2010

VIC Commentary: Vital Service, No One’s Responsibility

I went to the ceremony this week that formally announced plans for a smooth transition of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) in Newcomb from the Adirondack Park Agency to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

It was a great relief to learn that APA, SUNY and the Town of Newcomb had been planning for this transfer of responsibilities even before the Governor’s budget announced plans to close both VICs in 2011. The fate of Paul Smith’s VIC remains very much up in the air, despite a long-held awareness that interpreting the Adirondack environment is a vitally important job and service that should be available to anybody throughout the Adirondacks at low or no cost.

The tragedy of the commons holds that all parts of the environment that we share in common is everybody’s to use, perhaps to exploit, and nobody’s to care for. The resource seems abundant, someone is responsible, it just isn’t me. The failure to systematically make the incredibly diverse and exciting natural and cultural history of the Adirondacks accessible to more Adirondackers and visitors to the Park is one of those tragedies.

Interpreting what is in a Park, and how it came to be there, and how it relates to people’s lives is a fundamental mission of the National Park Service, but not of any one agency in the Adirondack Park. It is said that not systematically offering to interpret a place to which so many are drawn, like the Adirondacks, is akin to inviting someone into your own home, and then abruptly disappearing. How many families have come and left the Park without ever encountering an Adirondack expert, in whatever field, who is also well versed in this form of public communication? Well over ten million people visit the Park each year. Less than one percent may seek out or casually encounter someone who can deepen their awareness, understanding and knowledge of Adirondack wildlife, Forest Preserve, unique architecture, or cultural history. This failure to reach more people with expert interpretation remains one of the greatest gaps in the continuing maturation and overall performance of the Adirondack Park.

The building and opening of the NYS APA’s VICs at Paul Smith’s and Newcomb in the late 1980s were expected to be the catalyst for the development of a well distributed and coordinated network of interpretive services across the Park. The Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st century made the “development of a comprehensive interpretive system for the Adirondack Park” one of the core functions of a proposed Adirondack Park Service (see the Commission’s Technical Report Vol. 1, #11 by Thomas L. Cobb, one of the Commission’s staff). Once built, in the 1990s the APA finally selected Adirondack Discovery as its nonprofit partner or arm of the VICs. Discovery featured expert presentations, coupled with field trips covering a wide range of Adirondack subjects, and convened these programs in town halls and libraries throughout the region, thus expanding the reach of the two VICs at very low cost since all expertise and service delivery were volunteered. Discovery’s founder, Joan Payne of Inlet, said at a 1987 conference called Envisioning an Interpretive Future for the Adirondack Park (see Cobb), “the trick in this whole field of interpretation is to bring together people who are receptive and eager to learn with people whose love of the place and all of its components just overflows.” She and Discovery did this very well for 25 years. I was just one of hundreds of people she invited to speak to local audiences throughout the summer months. In my case, I spoke about the Park’s conservation history that dated to the 19th century, and tried to relate that history to current events and threats. These talks and walks introduced me to some great towns and villages, people filled with curiosity and local knowledge, and opportunities for enlisting them in our cause of protecting the Adirondack Park.

Adirondack Discovery has ended its work, Joan died in 2009, and the VICs are threatened with closure. We can be grateful that the Newcomb VIC will in 2011 be under new management which has a similar commitment to “educational resources for both students and visitors so that they can learn about the wonders of ecology in the Adirondacks” (SUNY ESF President Neil Murphy). I walked Newcomb’s Peninsula Trail after the ceremony, feeling the freshness of discovery that I felt in 1990, gratitude for all the staff and volunteers who for 20 years have devoted themselves to enriching the lives of visitors, and the hope that anybody who comes here in future years will be guaranteed the chance to meet a naturalist who can help them gain fresh insights, and rekindle their love of and commitment to this Park that is so unique on planet earth.

Hopefully, Paul Smith’s College and other partners will help maintain and extend the services of the Paul Smith’s VIC. Meanwhile, The Wild Center, Adirondack Museum, Adirondack Architectural Heritage, Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Explorer, and many other diverse institutions are doing wonderful interpretive work. The stubborn questions still remain: who is coordinating and marketing all of those efforts? Who is ensuring that visitors and residents alike receive a schedule of all their program offerings? This continued failure to guarantee a Park-wide system of interpretive services is a gap we all share in common, and a problem nobody has the clear responsibility to solve. As Tom Cobb wrote for the Commission, “the future of education and interpretation in the Adirondack Park hinges on the acceptance of this role as an integral part of park operation and management.”

Photo: From the Peninsula Trail, Rich Lake, Newcomb VIC

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