Christopher Amato is resigning as the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s assistant commissioner for natural resources. He said will return to practicing law in the private sector or go to work for the state attorney general.
Amato told the Explorer that he expects to remain in the Albany region, where he lives. He said he will stay at DEC for “at least a week” longer.
“It was time for me to move on,” he said. “I very much enjoyed my time here.”
Amato had been in private practice before joining DEC four and a half years ago. Earlier in his career, he worked as a lawyer for six years in the state attorney general’s office.
As assistant commissioner for natural resources, Amato oversaw many decisions involving the management of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Asked to list a few of his accomplishments at DEC, Amato mentioned the unit management plan (UMP) for the Moose River Plains Wild Forest, which he described as a model for balancing various uses of the Forest Preserve without harming the environment. Among other things, the UMP established an Intensive-Use corridor for car camping and a new Wilderness Area where all motorized access is forbidden.
“The Moose River Plains is like a microcosm of the entire Park,” he remarked.
DEC is notoriously decades behind in drafting UMPs for all the Forest Preserve tracts in the Adirondack Park. A few years ago, Amato wrote a Viewpoint for the Explorer in which he argued that DEC should streamline its UMP process by consolidating planning for neighboring tracts. Under such a scheme, for example, DEC would write a single plan for the High Peaks, Dix Mountain, Giant Mountain, Sentinel Range, and McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Areas.
Amato still believes the UMP process needs to be improved. He suggested today that DEC could draft one management plan for all Wilderness Areas and include appendices for dealing with specific problems in the individual Forest Preserve units. “So much of these UMPs are a lot of the same [information],” he said.
DEC was supposed to finish all the UMPs in the 1970s and update them every five years.
“How are we ever going to get the staff and the time to do the five-year reviews?” Amato said. “At this point, it’s an unrealistic expectation.”
One of the biggest controversies of Amato’s tenure erupted when DEC postponed enacting a ban on floatplanes landing on Lows Lake. The action upset environmentalists, but Amato stands by the decision.
“The Lows Lake floatplane decision was important,” he said, “because there is a real necessity to encourage the type of recreational activities that rely on the Forest Preserve. If the state is going to be the owner of huge tracts of land, it needs to support uses of the Forest Preserve that are consistent with people accessing it and enjoying it. For me, floatplanes are part of the picture.”
After a three-year delay, the Lows Lake ban will take effect next year. Amato said DEC is finishing a report that will explore other opportunities for floatplane operation in the Park.
Amato leaves as DEC continues to work on two major land acquisitions for the Forest Preserve: 65,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands and the 14,600-acre Follensby Park. The Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought the lands in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and plans to sell them to the state.
Despite the state’s financial problems—and some opposition to the deals—Amato said DEC remains committed to the purchases. He said DEC has been meeting with hunters, fishermen, hikers, paddlers, and other user groups to discuss how the state will manage the Finch, Pruyn lands (which will be purchased first).
Amato also has been a champion of paddlers’ rights. After I paddled through private property on Shingle Shanty Brook and encountered no-trespassing signs and a chain, Amato tried to negotiate with the landowners to allow public access. After the negotiations failed and the landowners sued me, DEC and the attorney general’s office joined the suit on behalf of paddlers. The case is still pending.