Two years ago Andrew Cuomo moved into the governor’s mansion at a time when issues of concern to the Adirondacks were languishing amid financial crisis and political neglect. Governor David Paterson showed no understanding of or interest in the Park; political turmoil had incapacitated the legislature, and budget austerity fell particularly hard on programs important to the well-being of the Adirondacks, including the Environmental Protection Fund, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Adirondack Park Agency.
Now, midway through Cuomo’s term, the political environment, at least as it pertains to the Adirondacks, is improved, and he can point to important accomplishments that benefit the Park. But not all is well. Financial hardship still shapes everything the state can do, a burden that may worsen as a result of the devastation that Super Storm Sandy visited on the state. So Albany has still not met some pressing needs. And state action in the form of APA approval of the sprawling Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake has set back the cause of Park protection.
If there is a common thread through state policy in the last two years, it’s that more work needs to be done. Even the brightest accomplishment, the commitment to purchase sixty-nine thousand acres for the Forest Preserve from the Nature Conservancy, leads to more work and more questions as the state decides how to classify the land and plan public access. At the same time, the low point marked by APA approval of the Adirondack Club and Resort (ACR) provides the impetus for re-examining and reforming the agency and the law that guides it.
As we think about the challenges of the next two years we can be encouraged by the tone that Cuomo has set. He is visibly engaged with the Adirondacks on a personal and policy level. His vacation visits to the region help make a connection that was missing in the Paterson years. He has won praise from regional officials of both parties for his constructive working relationship with them. His appointment of Joe Martens as DEC commissioner brought someone with close Adirondack ties and bipartisan respect to the head of a department of crucial importance here. And the governor’s high-profile response to Tropical Storm Irene’s destruction won him friends in an area that’s famously distrustful of state government.
So it’s in a much different context that we look back at the advice we offered Cuomo at the time of his inauguration in 2011 and suggest priorities for the coming two years.
Here’s the Adirondack agenda we urged him to take up at that time with challenges for where to go from here:
■ Live up to the state’s commitment to protect and acquire critical lands. The agreement to purchase sixty-nine thousand acres of land from the Nature Conservancy, most of it former holdings of Finch, Pruyn & Co., for $50 million over the next five years, is a singular achievement. Though there had been an understanding the state would acquire this land, budget pressure had raised doubts about the purchase until this commitment. There’s more to do, though. The state must ensure that critical wild lands in these tracts receive the strong protection of a Wilderness designation. The state should also make a binding commitment to purchase Follensby Pond and surrounding lands—14,600 acres in all—from the Nature Conservancy.
■ Undo the disproportionate budget cuts inflicted on the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency. Though agency budgets have not gotten better in the last two years, the state deserves some credit for finding creative coping strategies. The visitor interpretive centers, for instance, continue to function under the ownership of Paul Smith’s College and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry after the APA sold them. DEC partnerships with local governments and nonprofits have helped keep the Moose River Plains open, invasive-species programs operating, and ecological research alive. But there’s no disguising the fact that the state has not provided the resources to meet important needs in the Adirondacks. A dramatic example: when Irene’s floods swept through the Ausable River system, the state was not able to adequately guide stream-repair work, which created damage through improper clearing by untrained crews. Nor could the DEC provide the funding and leadership needed to develop a watershed-wide restoration project for the Ausable system.
■ Support stronger protection of shorelines and highlands. Though the APA succeeded in strengthening boathouse and shoreline-setback regulations, the APA Act still lacks adequate protections against rampant development on shorelines. The agency also lacks jurisdiction over most development on sensitive highlands, and local governments for the most part have not done enough to protect these lands. In the wake of the ACR decision, it has become clear that fixing these weaknesses must be part of a general reform of the APA. The governor must ensure that the laws protecting the Park are strengthened; he must appoint commissioners strongly committed to environmental protection; and he must provide the resources for the thorough fieldwork needed to meet the demands of stronger, smarter regulation.
■ Safeguard water quality. The state has worked well with nonprofits and shore-owner associations to educate the public about preventing the spread of invasive species that threaten the environmental integrity of lakes and the economic health of communities relying on tourism. But it needs to step up the battle. It should move quickly toward a pilot program of mandatory inspections and boat washes for vessels launching on Lake George. The program would present logistical challenges, which can be met. And it would be costly, but not as expensive as waiting to react once an invasive has entered the lake. More than $7 million has already been spent trying to rid Lake George of the handful of invasives that have infiltrated its waters.
As it was two years ago, this is an ambitious to-do list, but even in a time of fiscal austerity, these efforts are essential to the long-term well-being of the Adirondacks. Cuomo’s engagement with this region is highly welcome. But good lines of communication and mutual respect between Albany and the Adirondacks are not ends in themselves. They create the conditions in which we can accomplish much, but all of us, with leadership from the governor, need to insist on concrete accomplishments in these key areas.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher