Deeper Adirondacks exposure for lawmakers sparks plan to invest in future environmental ‘champions’
By Gwendolyn Craig
As state budget negotiations continue this month, there is a push from downstate lawmakers and Adirondack organizations for $2.1 million to fund a careers institute set on graduating future climate change leaders, while also making the 6-million-acre park more accessible.
One of the lawmakers leading the push is Zellnor Myrie, a 35-year-old Brooklyn Democrat. The state senator never visited the Adirondacks until about four years ago when he took a trip with friends. But his skiing vacation hardly scratched the surface of the park’s mountains, waters and historic sites. Last year, Myrie dove in deeper on a trip to Lake Placid with the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
The caucus met in the Adirondacks for the first time, and members spent three days exploring places like Heaven Hill, John Brown Farm State Historic Site and Timbuctoo, where Brown and Black men seeking suffrage settled in the mid-1800s.
The December visit, Myrie said, made him “shocked and disappointed” that he had not learned about the Adirondacks’ historic significance, let alone its role in conservation.
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Myrie and state Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages are sponsoring a $2.1 million request in the state’s tentative $216 billion budget for the Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute. It would be a partnership between the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and City University of New York Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. The Adirondack Council has led the call for the funding, along with other park stakeholders.
The state Assembly and Senate have passed their respective budget bills, with funding earmarked for Adirondack Park-related projects. The Assembly included $10 million for the Adirondack and Catskill parks, while the Senate itemized $50 million for state land stewardship. There is not a specific carve-out for the climate institute, though the Senate budget includes an option for $13 million for priority projects in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The institute would host annual, two-week courses for students interested in climate science with “the dual benefit of beginning to address the systemic issues of access to the Adirondack Park from an equity and justice perspective,” according to a description of the project.
“I think it’s a really smart investment and one that could become, I believe, a legacy of this state to connect downstate and upstate regions,” Myrie said. “I believe our next climate champions will come out of this institute.”
Solages’ office did not respond to requests for an interview, but earlier this month she held a caucus talk on the social media platform Twitter about the Timbuctoo proposal.
“It’s a small investment for something that has a huge impact in our state,” she said.
Aaron Mair, campaign director of the Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks, said he hopes the institute can assemble this summer and eventually support 30 to 100 students.
“(It’s) going to be a Herculean task, because you’re building this plane while you’re flying it,” Mair said.
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Mair envisions the institute as part of a national push for a Civilian Climate Corps, similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. FDR’s program employed young men from urban areas in the country’s forests and parks.
“We’re doing that again,” Mair said, “in the time and in the moment of climate change.”
The institute could foster the next generation of trail builders, researchers, land managers, journalists, mappers and foresters. Funding the institute, Mair said, could lead to a bigger investment in the Adirondacks and in the next generation. It could also be an opportunity for the state to recognize a place of historic significance. Mair said some of the legislators during their visit to Timbuctoo last year looked like they had “recovered a piece of lost memory.”
“In 1846, this was a place of liberation for them, and the first fight for Black suffrage, for the right to vote,” Mair said. “And then you’re able to go outside and then see the High Peaks and say ‘Wow, I now know why they came here.’”