Thursday, March 15, 2012

Commentary: APA Lacked Will, Not Authority

Will New York build upon its historic leadership as a steward of our protected Adirondack Park, home to people and wild nature, exhibiting the highest standards for ecosystem management? Or will that promise be lost to the lowest common denominator, where the most specious claims to the economic bottom line win the argument, a “go along-to-get along” mindset? Following the issuance of a permit by the Adirondack Park Agency for the sprawling Adirondack Club and Resort, citizens around the state are wondering.

Remember what APA permitted in January: 706 residential units, 332 buildings, 39 large “great camps,” 15 miles of new roads, sewer, water and electric lines, fences and posted signs spread across 6,200 mostly undeveloped forest acres – 75 % of which is in the most protected private land classification in the park, Resource Management. Remember what this permit jettisons: a variety of traditional backcountry recreational uses, including hunting leases as well as forestry operations. The permit sanctioned real estate estimates shown to be highly exaggerated and completely unreliable. The applicant’s payments in lieu of taxes scheme is probably illegal. This is speculative development at its worst. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Adirondack Council: Revise Development Rules

The Adirondack Council is calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the NYS Legislature to make sweeping changes to the rules for private land use and development in the Adirondack Park.

“The current rules for development are too weak and outdated to protect the park’s pure waters, wildlife and unbroken forests,” said the Adirondack Council Executive Director Brian L. Houseal said in a statement issued last week. “Conservation science and smart growth principles have advanced a great deal since 1971. Unfortunately, the Adirondack Park Agency’s regulations have not.”

The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) was created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1971, after resort development and the construction of an interstate highway (I-87) through the Adirondacks prompted a public call to protect the park. None of those rules has been amended since 1978, when several were weakened, the Council asserts, adding that “a recent resort review illustrated why the rules need attention.” » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Study: Environmental Protection Fund Builds NY Economy

New York’s Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) supports industries that generate approximately $40 billion annually for the State’s economy and sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to a recent analysis.

The report, prepared by The Trust for Public Land (a national conservation organization) in collaboration with the New York Environmental Leaders Group, concludes that the EPF generates jobs, supports local economies, and elevates property values. The analysis also concludes that for every $1 invested to protect lands under EPF, $7 in economic benefits is returned to New York through “natural goods and services,” such as filtering air and water of pollutants, and flood control. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Philosophy: A New Vision for Old Woods

Something has had men heading for the interior, long before Henry David Thoreau publicly declared “I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” And as men of a certain tradition in 19th century America began to make their private pilgrimages public through written and artistic records, their excursions and revelations became canonized.

These meditations contributed to a change in national ideas about the value and fragility of nature and “man’s” place within it.

I understand the importance of reaching back into our histories to understand the cultural touchstones like these that have come to signify certain ideas and ideals, certain styles of thought and ideologies. After all, our histories are our foreground and they mark the path that we took to get here. Yet, from time to time in the midst of what can seem like a tireless reminiscence on the trope of the vigorous and steadfast wayfaring male archetype depicted through art and literature in the wilderness; I can hear a sucking sound like my boot makes when I’ve gone walking in mud season.

Since its creation, advocacy for and against conservation and preservation within the Park boundary has called on these and other similar images to underscore qualities like individuality, independence and virility in the midst of a seemingly untamed and unspoiled country. Guided by certain American philosophers and artists we enter into a stylized landscape, one that was politically manufactured through legislation and philosophically manufactured through the proliferation of 19th century ideals.

When popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story, the impact often resonates outside the original medium of paint or narrative and into the larger cultural landscape. In the case of 19th century landscape art and literature, the story that fine art and prose conspire to tell transcends the cultural period and becomes part of one collective identity. Artists and writers who have become signs themselves of this aesthetic, and of a singular set of values, labored under a shared vision of wild America. These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.

Yet, this ideal only represents those who are drawn into its frame. But ours are stories (plural) and histories (as in many) so what would it take to shift the emphasis from one tone of voice to another? When old signifiers dominate a changed contemporary scene, we risk losing our way by walking backwards into the present.

Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Forests: The Blight of Beech Bark Disease

For more than fifty years, woods walkers in the Adirondacks and elsewhere have learned not to take the beautifully smooth, “thin-skinned” bark of the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) for granted. Our grandparents grew up suddenly missing the American chestnut as the blight of 1900 quickly decimated that species as a dominant tree in our eastern woodlands, along with its innumerable cottage and industrial uses, and its sustenance for so much of our native wildlife. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Phil Brown: Assessing The Tupper Lake Resort Vote

In the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, Brian Mann asks whether the approval of the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake reflects disarray or weakness in the environmental movement.

The answer: it’s hard to tell.

We do know that in the end the Adirondack Council broke ranks with Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild and endorsed the mega-development. But up until then, the council also had opposed the project and in fact offered an alternative development plan that would have been more environment-friendly.

The council’s change of heart (after revisions to the development) may have given cover to some of the greener commissioners on the Adirondack Park Agency to vote for the project, but it’s hard to believe the last-minute endorsement altered the outcome. After all, the board voted 10-1 in favor of the resort.

Perhaps the environmental organizations could have mounted a stronger case against the resort or galvanized more public opposition, but they weren’t feckless. In one major concession, the developers agreed not to allow further subdivision of the so-called Great Camp lots on lands classified Resource Management, the APA’s strictest zoning category for private lands.

Longtime activist Peter Bauer, the head of the Fund for Lake George, told Mann that he thinks it would have been impossible for the environmental organizations to stop the project outright. He also said this defeat—assuming it is a defeat—is outweighed by the conservation of hundreds of thousands of acres in the past fifteen years.

What does the approval of the Adirondack Club and Resort say about the state of the environmental movement in the Park? Click here to read Mann’s story and let us know what you think.

Photo by Carl Heilman of project site near Big Tupper Ski Area.

Phil Brown is editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Champlain Watershed Educators Opportunities

Since 1992, the Champlain Basin Education Initiative (CBEI) has provided professional development opportunities for educators who wish to teach their students about the Lake Champlain watershed. More than 700 educators have participated in workshops and graduate courses offered through the CBEI partners. A new web resource, WatershED Matters, has now been developed to compile the knowledge and teaching strategies used by recent course participants. WatershED Matters is housed within the Lake Champlain Basin Program’s website on behalf of the CBEI partners.

WatershED Matters features curriculum units and community projects currently being implemented by New York, Vermont and Québec educators. The CBEI partners expect the site to grow as educators suggest links to their favorite field trips and classroom resources for teaching about the Champlain basin.

“This resource tool has been in demand for several years by both teachers and the CBEI partners,” says Colleen Hickey, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Lake Champlain Basin Program. “In recent years, nearly 40 educators have completed our eleven day watershed course and it’s great to be able to share what they’ve learned about the Lake, its tributaries and nearby resources.”

Champlain Basin Education Initiative partners currently include: the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Shelburne Farms, Lake Champlain Sea Grant-UVM Extension, ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, the Lake Champlain Committee, and curriculum coach Amy Demarest. Several New York groups have also assisted with educator outreach in the past year by implementing workshops about specific watershed topics.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Major Climate Adaptation Meeting Planned

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Division of Fish, Wildlife & Marine Resources and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies will co-host a public meeting to discuss the draft National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy. The public meeting will take place at DEC’s central office, 625 Broadway, Albany on Thursday, February 9th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Lake George’s Beach Road Getting Porous Pavement

Beach Road at the south end of the Lake is about to become the first heavily traveled roadway in New York State (and one of the only roads in all of the Northeast) to be paved with porous asphalt. This technology allows stormwater to drain through and be filtered naturally by the earth below. The silt, salt and pollutants the stormwater carries are expected to be filtered naturally and not go into the Lake.

The $6 million-plus reconstruction project is expected to begin in mid-April, and be completed in about 18 months. The pavement will be installed between Canada Street and Fort George Road. Warren County Director of Public Works, Jeff Tennyson, and the state Department of Transportation, have helped move the project forward, one expected to get national recognition, and set a precedent for other lakeside communities.

Beach Road has been in need of reconstruction for several years. In 2010, Warren County was planning to use traditional asphalt on the road. After attending the North County Stormwater Conference & Trade Show, and seeing several presentations on porous asphalt applications, Randy Rath, project manager at the LGA, and Dave Wick, director of Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, encouraged the county to consider porous asphalt as an alternative to traditional asphalt.

Together, Randy and Dave quickly conducted research on the possibilities and made a presentation. In 2011, the LGA provided just over $8,000 in funding for a feasibility study with project engineer Tom Baird (Barton & Loguidice), to provide the information the county and state needed to move forward. At the same time, Dave Wick helped draft an application for additional monies to offset any higher cost from using porous asphalt.

Because this technology is still relatively new in the U.S., the county plans to install the infrastructure and storm drain system that would be needed with traditional asphalt, while the road is under construction. This traditional drainage system will be capped off and is expected to be brought online only in the event that the permeable pavement fails and has to be replaced by traditional asphalt at some point in the future.

Stormwater runoff is considered the number one source of pollutants entering Lake George. The dense development at the south end of the Lake, and the many impervious surfaces created by it, increases the volume and rate of flow of stormwater. Along with the stormwater, many contaminants, such as silt, salt and harmful nutrients, are carried directly into the Lake.

According to the Lake George Association (LGA), research studies and previous projects have shown that porous pavement is highly effective in draining stormwater, and as a result, it increases traction, reduces the build up of ice, and requires much less de-icing material in the winter. The amount of salt detected in the south end of the lake has doubled in just over 20 years according to the LGA.

Photos: Above, the Beach Road in Lake George Village; Middle, a cross-section of porous pavement technology; Below, porous pavement in use at an Albany parking lot. Courtesy LGA.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Champlain Area Trails Writing Contest Winners

An independent field biology study turned out to be especially fruitful for both teacher and student. Every week since January 2011, Westport ninth-grader Peter Hartwell and mentor David Thomas Train have been exploring the Champlain Area Trails along shoreline, streams, wetlands, and woods near Westport. Those explorations eventually prompted them to enter the Champlain Area Trails Society Travel Writing Contest.

Hartwell attends the BOCES Special Education program in Mineville. To supplement the Mineville curriculum, he studies several subjects privately—including field biology with Thomas Train. “Peter and I spend time together every Wednesday after school in outdoor science explorations, and we wanted to share what we do and see,” Thomas Train explained. “He is an avid outdoors explorer, with great observation and drawing skills.” And Thomas Train is certainly no stranger to the trails of the Champlain Valley: He is the guidebook author for the ADK Guide To The Eastern Region. “I know the CATS trails well and am excited every time a new one is developed, more open space is protected, and I have a new place to explore!” Thomas Train said. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Discovery

It was Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, 2010. I had driven through the night to make it to the Adirondacks from my home in Madison. I had to see for myself the amazing opportunity I had stumbled upon while browsing around on the web. I was already tired, unknown territory lay ahead, and there I was, face to face with one of the most imposing natural wonders in all the Adirondacks: Vinny McClelland.

No doubt many Almanack readers are familiar with Vinny, but if you don’t know him he is the owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley among other vocations and he is intimately involved in the community in a plethora of ways. Amy and I have come to have great affection for Vinny. He is a “salt of the Earth” kind of guy: capable, authentic, generous of spirit.

We also find Vinny to be – and I can’t think of a better way to say this – hard core. Vinny has this way of looking at you, a certain sort of sizing-up. It is not egotistical and it isn’t judgmental of your worth as a human being, but it is as if to decide whether you know what you are doing. Either you do or you don’t, either you make the cut or not. Vinny knows what he is doing. I don’t really know how many things he is expert at: mountaineering, skiing, building, guiding, landscape engineering, exploring… it’s a long list. Vinny knows the Adirondacks; for example he knows that if you are going on a day hike four miles into the wilderness on no sleep, off trail, in new territory, in winter conditions, with two hours of daylight, two thousand feet of climbing and a lot of ice… well, either you know what you are doing or you don’t. Probably you don’t.

At the moment Vinny was looking at me with what I would describe as a level of skepticism. From what he had to go on at that point I didn’t blame him.

Amy and I had been daydreaming, searching on real estate sites for small houses we might buy on the cheap and fix up over several years before eventually fulfilling our long-held plan of moving to the Adirondacks. One such MLS search produced a list that included a sixty acre parcel with a picture that showed a beautiful, densely forested mountain view. These are the sorts of listings I have learned to ignore seeing as I am not a multi-millionaire. But the asking price of this acreage was unbelievably low, far less than any other listing I’d seen except for those that turned out to be poor or recently cut-over land. The picture sure didn’t make it look like it was poor land. How was this possible?

Incredulous, I called the realtor whose site I had been using and asked her to contact the listing agent with a few basic questions. When she called back to tell me that the parcel held mature timber and views and was embedded in State Wilderness I was stunned. Apparently the price was low because the tract was inaccessible, with no road or trail to it and no possibility for development. In other words it was perfect! It was the embodiment of my life-long dream to own wild land in the heart of the Adirondacks, a dream I had never once considered could become reality.

I was seized with the kind of fear one gets when a miraculous opportunity seems too good to be true. In the unlikely event that the land was anything like it was being represented, then to a value system such as mine it was priceless. Surely there were like-minded people who would covet such a piece of wilderness and be all over this offering. I was sure it was already gone. The realtor called me back: no, it wasn’t sold but an offer was imminent.

Time was of the essence. I decided to be rash. It was Thanksgiving week and my college classes were not in session. I consulted with Amy, she agreed and I headed for the driveway with a pair of boots and a sleeping bag.

On my way through Illinois the realtor called to discourage me from coming out as the offer was expected at any moment. Besides, she said, the listing agent told her that the land was “difficult to get to” and that the last potential buyer he had sent back to look at it “got lost” and never made it. This sounded better and better by the moment. “Too late,” I said, “I’m already in the car and on my way.”

We arranged to meet at 1 PM at a café in the nearest town after which I would hike to the land. In the meantime the listing agent continued to express his concerns. He provided her with a map containing GPS points on the route in. “I hope he has a GPS,” he said. “There is snow up there,” he warned, “It’s off trail.” I assured her that I was experienced.

No doubt harboring a healthy measure of reserve, the listing agent decided to attend the meeting too. I have since speculated on what his thought process must have been… “Here is some guy who lives in the Midwest. He’s driving through the night to look at a piece of land without having the slightest idea what he’s getting into. He’s probably a lunatic or an idiot; I’d better see for myself…”

By now you have guessed the name of the listing agent. Vinny McClelland is also a real estate professional. He typically represents marquee properties but as fate would have it he was selling this little forgotten swath because he had a personal connection to it going back years. He is one of the few people in the world who has actually been there.

It was nearly 1:30 PM before we got started with our meeting. Vinny had assembled an impressive packet on the parcel with a name on the cover: Lost Brook Tract. I asked some questions. Vinny seemed anxious for me to go. He reminded me that late-November days are short, that there was snow up high and a lot of ice. “Do you have gear?” he asked. I said that I did (I had boots, after all). I asked another question or two. “You need to get going,” Vinny urged. “Do you have GPS?” I replied that I never used GPS (I can’t stand the idea of it). At this point I could tell that the “idiot” assessment was prevailing. I decided to play an assurance card. “Vinny,” I told him, “My most recent bushwhack this summer was Allen to Redfield,” knowing full well that not a lot of people try that one. I wanted to think it helped a little but Vinny showed no outward sign that he was impressed. Now that I know him better I think that saying I’d just done the North face of Eiger might have helped more.

In any case, off I went. The way up was indeed icy and progress was slow. I did not get all the way there – at least I never saw his flagging – but I did bushwhack to a small outcropping on the way with a view of the parcel from a short distance. It looked beautifully forested, dark and dramatic, utterly wild. I was enchanted.

I returned to Madison. We made an offer, prevailed somehow and closed on the property two days after Christmas.

On the afternoon of December 29th Vinny took us up to Lost Brook Tract, following an old bushwhack route he first took as a child. For two miles it was easy, relatively open woods and a gradual climb. At the halfway point near a pair of huge boulders Vinny paused for a moment to inform us that the route got “gnarly” from there. The snow deepened, the forest thickened and the grade became formidable. Our snowshoes were subpar, our packs were heavy and we fell well behind. After an exhausting climb we came upon Vinny sitting at an old lean-to, contentedly enjoying a late lunch. He told us he admired our family for doing this, wished us a happy new year and bid us farewell.

We had arrived in a winter paradise. The first thing we all noticed was the snow-draped spruces towering overhead. Some looked to be more than eighty or ninety feet in height, something I’d never seen at this elevation in the Adirondacks. We were filled with wonder at the sight of them. “I think this is old-growth forest,” I whispered. We dug through four feet of snow, pitched our tents and make a fire pit. The temperature dropped to twenty below.

We spend two magnificent days. We explored the immediate area and the interior of the partially collapsed lean-to. We made our way down to Lost Brook, frozen and under a sea of snow. We uncovered part of an original fire ring and for a time got two fires going. Just before leaving I blazed a tree by the brook so as to be able to find the land again. We hiked out on our own, following the snow trail we had made going in. I thought of all the writers of old from my tattered copy of the Adirondack Reader. I recalled their reverent descriptions of the primeval and the wonder of discovery with a new understanding. This is what it is like.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Striking a Balance

One of the most romantic characteristics of Lost Brook Tract is that hardly anyone has ever been there. This is not a wishful abstraction; we know it to be true. Fascinated by having found it to be old growth forest when we first visited it, I plunged into a research project to find out everything I could about the land.

Remarkably, the record is complete enough to paint a fairly thorough picture of its history. I was able to assemble a detailed chronology that shows Lost Brook Tract was simply missed by the surprising volume of human activity that occurred in the park, to the point where it is likely only a handful of people have ever walked on it. I find this a very compelling idea. It is incredibly romantic to imagine that in wandering through it I might set foot on some part where no one has ever trod. But is this a characteristic I am justified in preserving?

In last week’s post I offered my rationale for writing these dispatches. However I see now that what I presented was incomplete. Shortly after it posted one reader wrote a comment that this endeavor seemed self-serving, “praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.” I think this is a valid criticism. I thought so before he wrote in. In fact I have been troubled by this very issue and it is one of the reasons I decided to write these dispatches.

It did not occur to us initially, but my family and I find ourselves deliberating a serious and difficult question about Lost Brook Tract that is an analog of the larger dispute over the Adirondack Park itself: how do we strike a balance between our interests, the interests of the public and the interests of the woods themselves? This is a challenging problem in ethics and aesthetics – that I used the term “primeval aesthetic” in my previous dispatch is no accident. Perhaps I should enlist the help of the Almanack’s resident Philosopher, Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, but in the absence of her input let me share a little bit about how we have tried to sort it out.

First, there are what I would describe as the two extremes. At the one extreme we simply deny access to anyone other than family and keep a shotgun handy to ward off any trespasser who ignores the signs that say “Posted.” This is easy enough to do. All it requires is a typical embrace of the centuries-old European cultural heritage of private property rights. Whatever one might think of this heritage (and it is a bloody one), it has prevailed in almost all the civilized world. From this view there is no debate at all: property ownership is sacred, especially land. This is the case with Lost Brook Tract: we have a deed, you cannot set foot on it without our permission, end of story.

I think most people would recognize this as the default condition (perhaps absent the threatening shotgun, but consider that this right is so sacrosanct as to give me the justification to shoot a trespasser to defend my property). If so, how can I characterize it as an extreme position? My answer to that has to do with context. It is fashionable to think in absolutes these days, especially with respect to political and social rights and morality. But absolutes are never universal. “Thou shalt not kill” seems about as defensible an absolute as there is. But it is beholden to context, lest we rule out war, the death penalty, self-defense, doctor-assisted suicide and even food consumption. As concerns property rights, absolutes are uncommon in practice. The average suburban homeowner makes multiple levels contextual distinction with hardly a thought. Consider a handsome stranger on your property without your permission. If he walks onto your front lawn will your authority as land owner engage at the same level as if he walks to your front door? Through the front door into your living room? Into your bedroom? At night?

Even if we have the force of law and cultural norms entirely on our side it seems to be a problem of context if we choose not to share Lost Brook Tract at all. Virgin forest is a precious and rare resource that is potentially of great importance to others. To hoard it while trumpeting wilderness values raises the damning specter of elitism.

At the other extreme we open the land to all. We go further: recognizing its unique value to the world at large and having preached about the importance of the primeval experience we invite all the readers of the Almanack to come up for a visit, describing its location and the route in, attaching a map and giving out GPS coordinates.

Obviously this is no balance either. For one thing we did not purchase Lost Brook Tract without a good share of self-interest on behalf of ourselves and our heirs. While we like to think we’re as altruistic as the next folks we’re not ready to entirely give up those interests, which include solitude among other things. But of course there is another competing interest in the mix, that of the land itself. Advertising it to several tens of thousands of Almanack readers risks what makes it valuable in the first place. Sixty acres is not a whole lot of land. If one percent of the Almanack’s readers came out to camp in a calendar year the land would be irrevocably damaged.

As always, that leaves the middle ground. How do we sort it out?

Our thinking has proceeded from the idea that Lost Brook Tract’s uniqueness and importance is directly due to its inaccessibility. The idea that a visit to such a place should be earned by effort and skill is not uncommon in the wilderness ethos. But this implies that it can and should be earnable. Therefore we decided to achieve our balance by allowing people to earn the experience of the land on the land’s terms. We’ll give up the romantic notion that no one should walk on it but we’re not going to make it any easier to get to.

Here’s how this has translated into practice.

First, we did not post Lost Brook Tract. Barring a disastrous series of incursions we never will. Instead we have a visitors log posted in our lean-to. The log welcomes hunters, hikers and campers. It has rules that we require visitors to follow; those rules are designed to protect the land. We allow use of the lean-to but not the gear we have stored there. We prohibit camping elsewhere. We allow fires in the fire ring, but only during hunting season and winter. Other rules are consistent with DEC wilderness regulations

Next, we have advertised Lost Brook Tract to important people in the political and environmental spectrum of the park who we think should know about the forest and see it. Several have already visited. We have invited an Adirondack-based ecologist who is currently doing research on old growth forests to come and conduct field work on the land.

Finally, we’re writing about it, for reasons already given. We do so knowing full well that makes it a potential destination for an enterprising reader. If someone really wants to find Lost Brook Tract they will. We have to trust that such an effort would be made with reverence for the land, for its wildness, and that the hike in, compass in hand, would earn it.

We welcome any comments or ideas on this balance.

Photo: Long Pond, in the Saint Regis Canoe Area (Courtesy Wikipedia).


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Adirondack Native, Local, Outsider or Stranger?

A few years ago I noticed a small sign taped to a cash register in a local store. It read “no checks from strangers.” Well, I reasoned, this is a quirky establishment so I smiled and went on my way. Sometime later I was talking with someone who asked me where I was from. I answered and she raised her chin, looked down and replied, “Oh, you’re an outsider.”

I live on a road that is closed this time of year but this morning the automated gate stood open in protest to the cold. Despite the impossible-to-miss “Road Closed” sign, a vehicle drove slowly through. When I stepped out to tell him that the road was closed, he assured me that he was a “native” just out for a drive. Strangers, outsiders, natives – have I stumbled into a National Geographic special about an exotic colonized land?

I’ve noticed that in conversation here in the Adirondacks it is advantageous if you can slip in your provenance,because like any commodity, identity is valued according to lineage, history and ownership. But when does a stranger or an outsider become a local, and where is the line between local and native? And what, in the name of homogenization, is the difference!

Are people subject to the same hierarchy of belonging when it comes to Adirondack identity that we argue over with respect to the plant and animal community? Are we one step away from setting up an invasive species task force to weed-out the outsiders before they take over the landscape?

In an interesting reversal, being “local” has a cache in certain situations but when it comes to weighing in on management and planning decisions “local” can be a liability. To that point, a recent conversation among colleagues (some of whom have lived here for 30 years) focused on how to encourage “locals” to participate in discussions about the future of the Park. The question was asked, “Who among us is actually from here?” As I watched the unanimous shaking of heads I tried to ask why it should matter, but I wasn’t nimble enough to work it in before the conversation got away from me. The reason for my inquiry was simple: I don’t actually think that the question that was asked, was the question that was meant.

After all, if you’ve lived and worked and belonged to a place for 20-30 years could it possibly matter that you were born in Jamaica, Queens? I submit that the intended question was too impolite and indelicate to ask. The honest question among this group of educated professionals was “Who among us is socially and economically disadvantaged such that our circumstances prevent us from feeling empowered to contribute to a discussion about the future of the Park?” Then, in response to what I’m sure would be another unanimous head shake, we could talk about why these types of conversations don’t feel inviting and why a feeling of being a “local outsider” prevents certain people from joining in.

A similar debate rages in the area of “environmental pragmatism.” In short it asks whether wildlife management decisions should be deliberative, inviting a range of viewpoints and perspectives from professionals and laypeople alike, or whether the decisions should be left to specialists with merely a back-end nod at the democratic process that invites comment from the unwashed.

I have heard it said that some opinions are worth more than others. I think that those of us who are empowered either by social or economic circumstance are obligated to do more than to rhetorically toe the liberal party line. And if our objective is deliberative and democratic then no, no single perspective or category of citizen is worth more than another.

Book cover image of The Stranger by Albert Camus

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dave Gibson: 10 Votes Gave Away the Park

The outcome to approve the Adirondack Club and Resort was not a surprise. The ten to one margin of the vote was a surprise. Nor was it surprising that Commissioner Richard Booth assembled the reasoned arguments why this massive, speculative real estate subdivision should be denied. He has an excellent mind, an articulate voice, and a logician’s ability to arrive at the kernel of a matter in relatively few words, readily dispensing with the “dead wood” of an argument to arrive at the heartwood at its core.

The vote went in alphabetical order, so Mr. Booth went first. Here is what he forcefully and passionately argued, in ascending order of importance:

1. Independent experts testified at the hearing that the project sponsor’s sales projections and real estate valuation estimates were completely unrealistic. Since it is the Agency’s job to take into consideration the possible economic and community benefits of an application in judging whether or not there are undue adverse impacts to the Park’s sensitive ecological and physical resources, the failure of the applicant to come up with even remotely reliable quantitative figures (it was shown in the hearing that the applicant derived the projections himself without aid of a professional appraiser or market analyst), means that the Agency must in rendering its judgment, as a matter of the law, largely discount the claims of large or even significant economic benefit;

2. Despite numerous requests to do so by the Agency, the project sponsor failed to conduct a wildlife inventory and assessment, something that is rather routinely done for smaller development projects elsewhere in the state. This failure, in and of itself, is not the central problem. The central problem is that such an inventory and assessment is crucial to judge whether the proposed project design poses adverse impacts to wildlife habitats and migratory pathways. If you don’t know what lives on the site, and where their habitats are, how can you determine the impacts? That is the “big hole” in the application that “never got filled.” This hole can not be corrected with project conditions, he said. To emphasize his argument, he reminded his colleagues that a single hearing expert (Dr. Michael Klemens) who was never invited to tour the property found in a matter of one day and night in a very small section of the project area more species than the project sponsor identified in seven years;

3. Most importantly, the project is not consistent with the description, purposes, policies and objectives of Resource Management land because it spreads houses across thousands of forested acres contrary to the letter and intent of the law. The ecological integrity of Resource Management, and the paramount importance of protecting its delicate biological and physical resources under the APA Act, is violated. A yes vote would send a negative message to other applicants that this type of development on Resource Management is acceptable. Furthermore, given the acreage involved there are many alternative ways to design the project which would avoid this violation, alternatives that the applicant failed to analyze.

The other Agency members followed, many either agreeing with Mr. Booth or sympathizing with his arguments, but concluding that “the process had worked,” the numerous project conditions would adequately protect natural resources, while a permit would lead to a better future for Tupper Lake. “It’s been an education for me,” said Mr. Lussi. “The sponsor has been receptive to some of the sensitive issues, and removed a number of upland developments. The plan is thoughtfully done.” Ms. McCormick of the State’s Economic Development Corporation gushed: “I am happy to vote yes. We’ve protected the land, and achieved tremendous economic benefit.” This is all in line with Governor Cuomo’s program for job growth, she noted. Mr. Wray was the last vote, and he “agonized” over his decision, nodded to Mr. Booth’s arguments, then concluded that “notwithstanding my discomfort, we can justify this.” How he justified it remained unsaid.

Mr. Booth’s logical arguments failed to carry the day because other members largely ignored the hearing evidence (upon which their decision was to rely on) and the law in order to fall into line with one or more of the following leaps of faith:

a. the project sponsor’s assertions of great economic benefit, hearing evidence to the contrary notwithstanding;

b. the feeling that our staff are the experts, we trust them and they say this is OK. Staff concluded that numerous project conditions would satisfactorily protect the park’s delicate physical and biological resources, and that this is an “ever so carefully regulated design” (to quote APA Chair Ulrich);

c. this development seems to fall into line with Governor Cuomo’s economic development program, the APA law and hearing evidence notwithstanding.

There is a large cultural sympathy for Tupper Lake that must also be acknowledged as a factor. “We have to do something for Tupper” is an undercurrent from many in that town and beyond it which, while hardly constituting evidence justifying ten votes in favor, does play with an Agency that craves public acclaim. Tupper Lake does need and deserve plenty of help to develop as a community, I readily agree. However, in this case the fact that “doing something for Tupper” may actually mean taking the same speculative gamble with the community’s resources, services and taxpayers that Mr. Foxman and Mr. Lawson and the project boosters are taking did not seem to overly concern these members.

A critical factor in the outcome of the vote, in my opinion, is that the APA staff performed badly (I could use a stronger word) in their summaries of the adjudicatory hearing evidence for the Agency’s members. On numerous occasions the staff downplayed what they considered “bad” evidence, and emphasized what they saw as evidence favoring the project. For instance, bad evidence that the project posed undue risk to the area’s natural resources from Drs. Glennon, Kretser and Klemens, was often given a sentence on a summary slide, and then members were invited to read the relevant pages of testimony for more. Good evidence, for example staff conclusions that deed covenants adequately constituted project alternatives and satisfactory resource protection, were spelled out in their entirety on a slide.

A particularly egregious example is that in the final project permit order APA staff chose to illuminate a positive April, 2007 letter from the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency “taking official action toward the issuance of PILOT bonds on behalf of the Project Sponsor finding that the Project constitutes an appropriate ‘project’ within the New York State Industrial Development Agency Act.” The staff ignored “bad” evidence in the form of an FCIDA communication dated Feb 1, 2011 which so clearly makes its 2007 letter irrelevant and dated: “It has been four years since ACR’s application to the IDA in February 2007, and nearly that long since an inducement resolution was passed in April, 2007. The board that approved the project has since turned over four times and the project has changed….we have not determined the legal basis, precedent or workability of it (the PILOT) (emphasis mine)…it is premature for the IDA to provide testimony or opinion in the case of the ACR.” Why wasn’t this 2011 letter quoted in the final project order?

Another badly flawed project “finding” that the staff reached is this: “Site investigations to evaluate wildlife and wildlife habitat on the project site followed standard Agency guidelines and procedures.” This statement is utterly at variance with the hearing evidence. APA’s witnesses Sengenberger and Spada, along with outside experts, all found that the applicant failed to do what the Agency asked it to do, repeatedly, and that it was the applicant’s burden and responsibility to conduct the wildlife studies, not APA’s. At the last moment in the Agency’s deliberations this week, staff distributed to the members a 1993 APA staff memorandum titled “Guidelines for Biological Survey” which had not been disclosed during the hearing. Staff described the memorandum as supporting their finding that standard Agency guidelines and procedures with respect to wildlife and habitat had been performed. In fact, a close reading of this memorandum and its tables satisfies me that the Adirondack Club and Resort easily reached the threshold required for a comprehensive, quantitative biological survey – precisely the opposite conclusion reached by the staff. Agency members did not have adequate time to study this memo, and made no objection to the way staff characterized it.

I conclude:

1. The hearing’s evidence, upon which the members were legally and solely bound to consult in rendering their decision, actually played a relatively insignificant role in that decision. Witness Mr. Lussi’s closing comment that the land has been heavily logged, and is therefore not pristine – seemingly deaf to abundant hearing evidence, even from the Agency’s staff, that a history of logging in no way compromises the ecological integrity and functioning of this Adirondack landscape, while housing development can and does.

2. The facts emerging from the hearing that the applicants failed to carry their burden of proof on wildlife, alternatives and fiscal and economic impacts, and that this did not sufficiently bother more of the members calls into question how and why this Agency performs adjudicatory hearings;

3. The staff was not impartial in the way they chose to present the evidence, and in the evidence they chose to emphasize for the members;

4. Too many staff findings of fact and conclusions of law were not faithful to the hearing evidence and official record;

5. Many if not all of the “significant changes” to the original site plan (applauded by the members as something new) had been decided four years ago.

6. The Agency’s press release issued shortly after the vote was self-congratulatory to an extreme, cited all of the economic and employment benefits shown in the hearing to be highly exaggerated (Mr. Lussi even lectured the applicant about these exaggerations), and could have been written by the applicant himself.

7. There are some good project conditions, such as the after-the-fact wildlife studies and the independent environmental monitors, but these are wholly inadequate to correct such a deficient and defective project application.

I have interacted with the APA for twenty-five years. I readily admit to a point of view. I also have had and expressed great respect for the Agency and its staff over the years, and stood up for the Agency’s mission, budget, policies and staffing levels on many occasions. My final conclusions are, therefore, hard ones for me to express: they are that the Agency voted to give away the park, failed in its duty, failed the public’s confidence, and deserves to be chastised and investigated in the way it is currently performing its statutory mission to protect the “unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space, historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack Park” (Sect. 801, APA Act).

Photo: From the summit of Mt. Morris and Big Tupper Ski Area looking down at the ACR site, Tupper Lake in the distance.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: A Wilderness Primeval Aesthetic

Lost Brook Tract is a miracle both modern and ancient. Steeply situated on a high ridge in the central Adirondacks, miles from the nearest road and with no trail to it, it is a sixty-acre swath of Adirondack territory virtually unknown to all but a handful of people. That it exists today, an utterly unspoiled piece of high mountain boreal forest tracing unbroken lineage all the way to the ice age, can only be explained as a remarkable accident of fate.

As it turns out, that is indeed how it is explained. In future posts I’ll tell that story, how this little jewel came to be spared and saved from the debilitations that were suffered by most of the Adirondacks. For now it is simply there, a virgin forest never logged, never burned, largely spared even from the depredations of acid rain. Surrounded on all sides either by strict conservation easements or by New York State lands designated as Wilderness, it is in the fullest sense primeval. » Continue Reading.



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