Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s departure from office ends more than a 10-year run in which his Adirondack initiatives both buoyed and frustrated environmentalists.
Cuomo’s Tuesday announcement that he would resign this month could leave incoming Gov. Kathy Hochul with some unfinished business that park advocates have awaited, including key appointments of an Adirondack Park Agency Board chair and a new road salt task force.
His administration’s work in the Adirondacks included both substantial purchases that expanded the public forest preserve and a thwarted effort to expanded motorized use on some of those lands.
Perhaps central to his Adirondack legacy is the purchase of some 69,000 acres of the former Finch, Pruyn & Co. timberlands in the central Adirondacks. The $47 million purchase included the coveted Boreas Ponds, a scenic paddling destination around which the state would ultimately expand the High Peaks Wilderness Area.
But the purchase also set in motion controversies that are still playing out. First, not all local officials wanted the land in public hands. Then Cuomo’s efforts to expand recreation divided public opinion. At the time, he touted the expected economic benefits. “Today’s agreement will make the Adirondack Park one of the most sought-after destinations for paddlers, hikers, hunters and snowmobilers,” Cuomo said in 2012.
That last part—about snowmobilers—would prove a continuing source of strife. The Cuomo administration sought “community connector” snowmobile trails of up to 12 feet wide, which would require tree cutting on the state-constitutionally protected forest preserve. It rallied some support from hesitant local officials, but divided environmentalists over just how much tree-cutting was legally appropriate. Ultimately Protect the Adirondacks sued and, this year, won a case that barred the trails’ construction and left town leaders feeling swindled.
Since its start in 2011, the administration has protected more than 90,000 acres in the park, according to figures that the Department of Environmental Conservation provided to the Adirondack Explorer this summer. Those numbers included 80,390 acres brought into state ownership and 11,570 acres of private lands protected though conservation easements. The total has continued to grow through the summer, though, most recently with the announcement two weeks ago of 8,000 acres protected on the South Branch of the Grass River.
Cuomo also proposed and legislators enacted a $3 billion environmental bond act that would aid park conservation and climate resilience programs, though the state ultimately delayed asking voters for final approval till next year after the coronavirus pandemic shook up the budget last year.
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The governor’s park management, and that of his conservation officials, remains a point of contention in the Adirondacks. The Adirondack Park Agency has frequently had vacancies on its board or members serving on expired terms at the governor’s pleasure, leading some to question its independence. One board member resigned last winter over similar frustrations and a perceived lack of commitment to studies that could better protect park lands and waters.
Cuomo has also left the agency without a board chair for two years, a situation that some advocates say leave it “rudderless.”
The Adirondack Council’s most recent “State of the Park” report lauded Cuomo for maintaining the Environmental Protection Fund at $300 million and addressing increasing hiker use in the High Peaks through a task force, but criticized him for allowing the conservation workforce to decline while not adding forest rangers to keep up with growing demands on the land.
Adirondack Explorer reporter Gwendolyn Craig contributed to this report.