By Gwendolyn Craig
Dan Stec is no stranger to Albany, but the former assemblyman is finding his new niche in the state Senate as the “hiking senator.”
The North Country native was elected in November to succeed former state Sen. Betty Little.
Stec, R-Queensbury, serves District 45, which includes the majority of the Adirondack Park. It expands beyond that, too, to parts of Washington County on the eastern side, west past Tupper Lake, north to the Canadian border and south beyond Lake George. It’s a big change to serving 300,000 constituents from about one-third of that in Assembly District 114, the last elected office he held. Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, has taken on that seat.
Though the State Capitol and Legislature are very different from past years due to the coronavirus pandemic, Stec has a list of items he hopes to address related to Adirondack Park constituents. As the ranking member of the state Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, he also has a direct link to policy decisions that could influence what happens in the park.
Stec has received mixed reviews in his past assembly seat when it comes to his votes on the environment. In 2018, the League of Conservation Voters’ environmental report card rated Stec at 69%, the highest rating of all his North Country Republican colleagues. His rating in 2019 dropped to 50% for voting against initiatives like the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide.
Speaking with Adirondack Explorer on Thursday, Stec said his job as a public servant means balancing not just the environment, but also the economy. He is also worried about the state’s financial picture with a growing deficit and more resources needed for fighting the pandemic. But as an avid hiker and the son of a retired forest ranger, Stec has the Adirondacks–its people and its wilderness–on his mind.
Here is some of what he had to say about issues in the park, with both questions and answers edited and condensed for brevity.
Q: How has it been starting in your new role as senator? You’re not new to the Capitol, but what is it like taking over for Betty Little?
Stec: First, it’s an honor to follow Betty. Experiencing the size of the district now, I have greater respect for her and what she achieved and just representing everyone so well. She was a role model for me. I’m going to try and emulate that as much as possible.
But like you pointed out, the Capitol is not new to me, and I’m thankful I have the benefit of that experience behind me, because I do feel badly for the new folks that are coming in. In some ways, this might be easier for them because it’s moving a little slower. We’re not inundated with people banging on the door for advocacy, which is important. We are missing that. But that’s one piece that isn’t happening.
Q: How has that dynamic changed with advocacy groups, and how are people still able to reach you?
Stec: Earlier this week we had the highway guys. They would have wanted to come around in the orange T-shirts and visit everyone and have a big press conference on the Million Dollar Staircase. That wasn’t allowed to happen. Everyone picks their day, and of course, my favorite one that I enjoy because it’s my district and my personal background is Adirondack Advocacy Day. So while that’s not happening in person, everything is happening by Zoom (an online video platform). I think I’ve seen more people and had more interactions with people via Zoom than I would have in person, but it might not be as high quality. There’s trade-offs. We’re making it work, all of us.
Q: I know you have a lot of different issues on your plate, but what are some of the top priorities you have for the Adirondacks?
Stec: The big picture certainly is always the budget, and there are very specific things for the Adirondacks in the budget. The Environmental Protection Fund is something that is important, but so much is going to depend on what that $1.9 trillion package coming from the federal government looks like, what the rules are on that, and we still don’t know all of that. But I am hopeful it looks like the state is going to get approximately the $15 billion number that the governor has put on it. People can debate whether or not that’s the real number or an overstated number, but clearly we had a hole. We need to find a way to close that hole in the budget. The federal bailout money is going to help, but I want to emphasize we had budget problems before COVID.
Specifically there is a lakes survey that I would like to see funded from the EPF that would go a long way to getting new baseline data for a lot of our Adirondack waterways. It has been decades since we had that.
High use, some of my friends call it overuse, I don’t call it overuse, but we’ve definitely seen an increase in use and it’s created some problems in some parts of the High Peaks. I want to make sure we don’t get caught up in a one-size-fits-all approach where somehow Albany hears that this is an overuse issue everywhere in the Adirondacks. It’s not. But arguably the Route 73 trailheads, Cascade (Mountain) and Giant (Mountain), the Adirondak Loj, that can fill up. We need to find a way to improve parking and just making sure that the resource is protected. I don’t want to chase anyone away because that’s important to the area’s economy as well. This is all going to take money in a year that it’s really hard to want to seek money.
Another big one that’s related to all of this, the numbers of rangers in the state has been more or less flat. As we all know, we’ve got a lot more people running around in the Adirondacks hiking. Again, it’s a nice problem to have, but it still creates other problems.
One of those is that we need more help. We need more trained people. God bless our summit stewards and our trailhead stewards that are trying to head off problems. I’d love to add more rangers, or boots on the ground, more staffing to be able to cover whatever is coming our way. We need to do more trail work. We need to do more education. Sadly, we’re going to need to do more search and rescue. And that’s going to take money to do that and again, in a very difficult budget year, I will advocate for it, but I also feel I need to tread lightly because the 800-pound gorilla in the room is COVID and the pandemic. Understandably, that’s got to be the top priority for all of us.
One last one obviously is broadband and cell service. Cell service is related to the whole search and rescue thing. Now I’m not suggesting we put cell towers on High Peaks by any stretch, but anything we can do to improve cell service is good, not only for safety in the Adirondacks but more importantly to the people that live there and want to work there. I know there are a lot of people in my district that still don’t have it (broadband) and that puts them at an economic disadvantage, that puts their kids at an educational disadvantage, and it’s just like electricity now. We really need to start looking at it as one of those public services that we need to make sure everyone has access to.
Q: Going back to the high use issue, what are your thoughts on potential limits or a permit system?
Stec: I’m a hiker. If there’s a mountain challenge in the Adirondacks, there’s a good chance that I’ve done it. I think there’s a lot of intermediate steps that need to be taken before we jump into a permit system. I haven’t seen a report with what it would really generate for revenue, what it would cost to make that revenue, because there’s going to be a cost into enforcing this and collecting it, administrating it. And whatever is left over, what is that number?
Q: What else would you like our readers to know?
Stec: With COVID and everything, we’ve been seeing a lot more outdoor recreation. This past summer, you couldn’t rent a bicycle. You couldn’t buy a bicycle. You couldn’t rent a boat on Lake George. Real estate was hopping. People were buying stuff in the Adirondacks without even seeing it. I think a lot of our metropolitan New York folks were spending a lot of time up here. I know locally a lot of us, you couldn’t go to the movies, you couldn’t travel. A lot of people stayed near home and people were recreating more than ever. That has highlighted some of our infrastructure needs to the high use.
I think it’s great that people are taking advantage of the Adirondacks. I know that it helps bring attention to our issues, so I can talk to my colleagues. My colleagues love this place. It’s beautiful. They understand it’s a unique place. They also understand how to represent constituents, as I do, that we’re trying to balance an economy and those needs. So there are people in Albany that truly love the region, so that encourages me. They want to be helpful. I think that’s important for people to know, the Adirondacks are well known by a lot of my colleagues in Albany.
They all know I’m the hiker. I’m the hiking senator. They may not agree with me politically, but they know that I’m the son of a forest ranger, I grew up here, and I’m all over the mountains. Hiking is not controversial. Everyone likes hikers. So down in Albany, it gives me a leg up. They know, oh, he’s the mountain man. There’s worse things they could think about somebody than you’re a mountain man or you’re an outdoorsman. I got a little niche there. I like it.
Q: Favorite hikes?
Stec: My favorite fire tower, and no disrespect to the many fire towers in my beautiful district, but my favorite is Hurricane. St. Regis is a close second. Noonmark, as far as mountains go, a good bang for the buck.
It would be nice to learn from one of these interviews why something else — the environment, public health, education, whatever — always has to be “balanced” against “the economy.” Have we no imagination or ability to consider the notion that a healthy, well educated public, living in a clean environment, might also thrive economically.