Michael Barrett leads toward a diverse future
By Zachary Matson
Two years at the helm and Michael Barrett has positioned the Adirondack Mountain Club to start the year with a new board, new building and a 100-year legacy to celebrate.
Barrett, 47, who lives in Saratoga County with his wife and kids, was appointed ADK executive director in October 2019.
He grew up in Putnam County, explored trails near his home, and served as a foreign language interrogator in the U.S. Army. He worked as an attorney in both the legislative and executive branches of New York state government. For nearly a decade he served in Missouri state government before returning to New York to live in Halfmoon.
Since taking charge at ADK, Barrett has overseen a restructuring of governance and bylaws while addressing finances. He struck a deal to buy Cascade Cross Country Ski Center on Route 73 near Lake Placid, aiming to create a hub for outdoors information in the High Peaks. Barrett has sought to center the club’s attention on its core education and trails work, jettisoning an international adventure travel program and seeking to abolish the New York City chapter for alleged misconduct.
“We are at our core a trail building organization, who saw the benefits of giving the public access to state wildlands,” he said. “In many respects, we are still that.”
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Barrett said many Adirondack trails need updating to handle more traffic and extreme weather. The organization has developed expertise in modern trail design, using smoother routes to avoid erosion. A redesign of its popular Mount Jo trail will serve as a showcase.
“We have these skills now, these techniques, to build better, more sustainable trails that will last generations,” he said.
Barrett described an urgent need for a “comprehensive assessment” of the park’s 2,000 miles of trails and a long-term plan to update them. That such an analysis is lacking is a failure of state government and advocates, he said. ADK and others plan to push the state for $10 million for recreation.
“It’s a little bit of a head-scratcher for me that you have this remarkable place, the forest preserve… the largest protected area in the contiguous United States. It’s reported to be used by 10 to 12 million people per year, a number that only seems to be growing,” Barrett said. “It seems to present the best opportunity to be the catalyst for the North Country economy, and yet the state’s investment is wildly inadequate.”
ADK intends to increase access to the outdoors and will work to add trails that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is working with a group focused on Parkinson’s Disease and its Schenectady chapter is developing programs with an organization for youngsters.
Inside the historic Adirondack Loj, at the foot of the MacIntyre Range, ADK staff cram into a small group of offices. “I can’t add anyone even though operationally I need to. I don’t have anywhere to put them,” Barrett said.
Rather than expanding the footprint at Heart Lake, the organization hopes the Cascade facility will serve as a regional base offering greater educational programs and the outlet for miles of cross-country skiing. In December the club received $500,000 from the state toward the Cascade purchase. ADK’s Cascade center could open as early as the spring. The club is also looking to lease around Glens Falls and sell its Lake George office.
ADK, during Barrett’s two years on the job, has also stirred discontent among some longtime members and fellow Adirondack advocates.
After adopting new bylaws and overhauling its governing board, ADK seats an almost entirely new board. They bring broader geographic, professional, gender and racial diversity.
The new bylaws eliminated board representation from the 27 chapters and instead provided each chapter a seat on a new advisory council, which elects one person to the board. The changes are the result of a strategic planning review initiated before Barrett took charge.
“We will be more streamlined, more efficient in our decision-making, and we will have more professional people on the board,” said President Tom Andrews. “I think it will bring better representation for our membership.”
But the organizational changes caused some angst.
Longtime ADK member Tom McGuire, a former board member, said he fears the moves will cut input from members and set up a self-perpetuating circle of leaders running the organization.
“It takes all control out of the hands of the membership, absolutely all of it,” said McGuire, who led outings for the Albany chapter. McGuire and others who criticized the changes highlighted the elimination of the phrase “member-directed” and removal of membership approval over future bylaw changes.
“We have had a member-driven organization… and we always took it very, very seriously,” McGuire said. “It just amazed me that they were making such drastic changes to a club that’s been successful for 100 years. It’s no longer the Adirondack Mountain Club I thought it was.”
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