Since its creation in 1971 the Adirondack Park Agency has borne the responsibility of shaping the character of the Adirondack Park. Its decisions on how to manage state Forest Preserve and regulate the use of private lands set priorities and chart a future course.
Its actions provide the answers to big questions: Will we value our critical natural areas? Will we respect a legal framework that consistently applies principles of preservation across the Park? Or will we substitute political opportunism and expedience and weaken laws designed to safeguard a vulnerable region for generations to come?
Too often in recent years the APA has failed to take the firm, politically courageous stands that effective stewardship demands. Some, including the commissioner who is the agency’s most forceful voice for environmental principle, say the governor has forced the agency to weaken key legal protections.
With this as backdrop the APA is entering a critical time. The terms of Board Chair Leilani Ulrich and Commissioner Richard Booth expired this summer. Booth is the commissioner who called foul on the governor and has been the one consistent voice on the APA Board for environmentally rigorous decision-making. His articulate and legally solid arguments have been a reminder of what an APA could accomplish for the Park if a majority of commissioners shared his values and abilities. Though Ulrich was not the force for preservation that Booth has been, she worked hard to find common ground among the various advocacy groups in the Park and brought a welcome civility to debates that in the past fell into rancor.
With these terms expiring this year, one seat already vacant, and two commissioners serving beyond the expiration of their terms Governor Andrew Cuomo will be appointing five of the eight citizen commissioners on the board. (Three other seats are filled by representatives of the state departments of Environmental Conservation, Economic Development, and State.)
Cuomo has the opportunity and the obligation to compose an APA committed to the ideals it was created to serve: environmentally sound preservation, public enjoyment of state lands, and the enlightened regulation of private lands. If he does so he will place public interest over political power-brokering and lift his reputation above that of a behind-the-scenes operator.
How does he do this? Here is a short checklist of traits he should be looking for in his appointees:
Someone who will take to heart these lines in the Adirondack State Land Master Plan and champion their cause forcefully: “If there is a unifying theme to the master plan, it is that the protection and preservation of the natural resources of the state lands within the Park must be paramount.” Human recreation is central to people’s enjoyment of their Park and to the economic well-being of residents. But it must be compatible with this first principle.
Someone who understands the bedrock principles embodied in the SLMP and decides management and classification questions with a historical perspective. They will not bend environmental laws to rationalize a politically convenient outcome. They will always adopt a Park-wide view of the landscape and not give in to the temptation to make ad-hoc decisions that apply to only one area and in the process weaken broad protections.
Someone who believes that the SLMP can be flexible enough to respond to new conditions or activities but must be amended through a thorough and thoughtful legal process, not manipulated on the fly or on a case-by-case basis.
Someone who sees that motorized access has an important role in the people’s enjoyment of public lands in the Adirondacks but will not be driven by pressure from local governments or Albany to give snowmobile interests power over every important decision.
Someone who understands that in considering private development the starting point should always be the application of the principles of conservation design. Practices like ecological assessments of development sites and the clustering of buildings can both enhance a development’s value and preserve the natural world.
Someone who recognizes that protecting water quality is imperative. They will seek clearer, stronger APA jurisdiction to reduce runoff and prevent contamination of water bodies by phosphorous, salt, and other contaminants.
Someone who sees that the Park’s prominent uplands need to be protected from garish or inappropriate development in order to preserve scenic beauty that won’t be replaced once lost.
APA commissioners are asked to do difficult, time-intensive work and do so knowing that they will be constantly second-guessed, often by several competing interests at the same time. We should be grateful for their service but at the same time set a high standard. The Park, the state, and future generations are relying on them. Cuomo has a great responsibility in filling these vacancies, and his Adirondack legacy depends on his getting them right.
— Tom Woodman, Publisher