The Adirondack Park has a reputation for being a place where policy debates can become bruising, bare-knuckle affairs.
Those who lived through the turbulent years following the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1971 can recall a time when even the most optimistic might despair of ever finding a subject on which constructive conversation was possible. As former APA Chairman Ross Whaley famously quipped (or lamented), it seems that the Adirondacks is a place “where people would rather fight than win.”
In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. In trying to shape the future of a rare and precious wilderness interwoven with private lands and human communities, the stakes can be high—and passions can be, too. But when disagreements turn into hostility and distrust they serve no cause but disorder.
Thankfully, while we still must take strong stands on important issues, we are also in an era where we can find reasonable people of many political stripes with enough goodwill to recognize issues where agreement is possible. In a project called Mapping the Future of the Adirondack Park, volunteer consultants Dave Mason and Jim Herman recently completed a yearlong project to identify those issues. The two worked with the Common Ground Alliance, a diverse group of activists and community leaders. In a series of community meetings they gathered hundreds of people committed to the Adirondacks, from common citizens to elected officials to leaders of advocacy groups.
They sat together and talked through various visions of what the Adirondack Park should be like by the year 2037. The process, by itself, had great value, demonstrating that people of differing ideology and backgrounds can still share ideas together in a civil and constructive way.
If this exercise in constructive engagement were all the project accomplished, it would probably still have been a success. In fact, though, the discussions of various scenarios for the future Park generated broad-based support for a vision that was deemed both desirable and attainable.
This consensus combined continuing strong support for the Forest Preserve with a vision for the human communities that the consultants called the “Sustainable Life.” This scenario pictures a Park where local food and energy sources help reduce our carbon footprint. Land-use regulations together with services like broadband internet would encourage residents to cluster in hamlets where the quality of life is high and the impact on the nearby open lands is low. Goals of forest management would include adapting to climate change and warding off threats like invasive species.
Granted, such a generalized concept probably glosses over the difficulties and conflicts that would arise from the details of making it happen. But it is a particular and positive Park view, much different from a view that said, for instance, we should build out every available square mile in the name of economic development.
One area where much work has already begun illustrates how a common-ground approach might succeed: the fight against invasive species. Whether you are a biologist concerned for the integrity of Adirondack habitats, a forester eyeing whether the paper industry has a future in the Park, or a resident whose livelihood depends on the tourist industry, you can recognize the grave threat that invasives pose. There remains plenty of room for debate on how best to meet the threat, but because so many can agree on a common goal, the prospects for solving the challenge look better.
Within the larger framework of “Sustainable Life,” various working groups talked through approaches on subjects such as water quality, local food, small businesses, and attracting retirees. In each of these areas someone is already at work, whether an environmental group, a government agency, or a business organization. One of the values of this process is that it threw a wide net and drew in people from various constituencies to share ideas. Because of that diversity the existing interest groups can draw more strength to tackle the challenges.
Even with all these benefits, finding common ground isn’t the first priority. Protection of the Park comes first—even when that sparks an outcry. That means working for a strong Adirondack Park Agency to protect wilderness and privately owned lands. It means going forward with key acquisition of lands for the Forest Preserve. And it means constant vigilance to prevent erosion of the forever-wild protection of public lands in the Adirondack Park.
Naturally, we would like to see universal acceptance of these first principles. But clearly each of them inspires strong opposition from some interests within the Park. We would not compromise these principles for the sake of finding common ground, but at the same time Mapping the Future of the Adirondack Park shows that we can find ways to work with sometime opponents on those issues where we don’t disagree.
We can disagree on land acquisition in the morning but work together to fight invasive species in the afternoon. The work of the Common Ground Alliance and Mapping the Future of the Adirondack Park identifies important opportunities to do that. They deserve congratulations and support as various groups move forward to build on this foundation.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher