If you talk with a leader of the Adirondack preservationist movement you get a deep appreciation of how far we have come in the last forty years.
But you also get a vivid sense of how much more should be accomplished. Both judgments—the work well done and the work left to do—reflect on one idea: Park. As Peter Paine points out in “Talk of the Towns,” there has been an inspiring, if subtle, change over the last four decades: Adirondackers now commonly refer to their region as a park. Yet the state continually fails to provide services in a way that reflects a unified park with unique needs.
In 1970, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks issued findings that would lead to some of the most important—and controversial—developments in the history of the Adirondack Park. These included creation of the Adirondack Park Agency and laws to ensure that both public and private land within the Park would be managed to protect the environment as well as the interests of the people who live here. Less tangibly it set in motion a slow evolution in residents’ perception of this region. It envisioned the Adirondacks as a true park, a place that boasts great natural and human diversity but is tied together by environmental and cultural bonds.
This wasn’t a generally held view at the time, and it wasn’t universally loved, especially inside the Blue Line. Side by side with protests against the APA and state policies came resistance to the very idea of an Adirondack Park. “It’s no damn park,” read bumper stickers. “It’s our home.”
The last forty years have seen a heartening change in this attitude. The notion of park seems to have taken root even among many of those who disagree with specific policies.
But to understand the opportunity lost in the last two decades we need to remember the findings of a second important Adirondack commission, Governor Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century, which published its conclusions in 1990.
The Cuomo commission called for sweeping and ambitious changes, including a new Adirondack Park Administration and redefinition of several major state agencies. The commission made hundreds of detailed recommendations, but a central theme was its view that the state, by failing to create a unified authority, had kept the Adirondacks from reaching their true potential.
It pointed out that the Department of Environmental Conservation allocates the Park to two regions, one headquartered well outside the Blue Line in Watertown. The Department of Health divides the Park among six regions, Transportation three, and so on through the bureaucracy. With this fragmenting of what should be a single region, agencies that address Adirondack issues also are responsible for other regions with different needs. The Park and its people are poorly served by a system that’s incapable of producing consistent management.
We end up with the Department of Transportation violating the Forest Preserve and the Department of Agriculture at odds with the APA over farm housing.
The Cuomo commission recommendations foundered in the political storm that met the report. It’s likely that any attempt to adopt the full-scale reforms now would meet a similar fate.
But we can take the path to rationality in steps. A good starting point would be the creation of an Adirondack Park Service within the DEC. The Cuomo commission laid out a sensible and politically achievable plan for streamlining the DEC’s Park operations and creating a cadre of staff devoted exclusively to this region. Their mission would be to carry out the agency’s traditional responsibilities in a way that understands, respects, and champions those things that make the Park special.
Whether the assignment is overseeing Forest Preserve, managing fish and wildlife, monitoring water and air quality, or regulating facilities like sewage-treatment plants and solid-waste centers, the needs of the Adirondack Park are different from those outside the Blue Line. From interpretive programs to law enforcement, an Adirondack Park Service would enhance the agency’s work. Moreover, it would send a powerful symbolic message to the bureaucracy as well as to the general public that the Adirondacks are indeed a park and should be viewed as distinct and valuable—not to mention vulnerable.
Building on this foundation the state could move on to consolidate other agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Health Department in some form of park administration. As these efforts prove their worth, support for the principle could grow to the point that the Cuomo commission’s original sweeping proposal to overhaul Park administration could become reality.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher