Governor fills vacancy with New York City businessman/Elk Lake retreat owner
By Gwendolyn Craig
For nearly 900 days the agency charged with overseeing public and private lands in the Adirondack Park has operated without a chair. On Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul changed that, appointing John Ernst to fill the seat at the Adirondack Park Agency.
Ernst, 81, has been an “out-of-park” APA board member since June 2016 and has been serving on an expired term since June 30. But Hochul also nominated him for reappointment to the board. A state Senate vote is needed to complete that appointment.
An active member, he has had several leadership roles, most recently chairing state lands, park ecology and park policy and planning committees.
Ernst is the president and chairman of a private, family-owned New York City investment firm. He also owns the Elk Lake Lodge in Essex County with his wife, Margot.
His appointment is a boost to an agency that has waned over the years. The APA chair vacancy dates to the departure of Karen Feldman, who resigned in May 2019. She was serving as an interim chair. In the absence of an appointment, Brad Austin, an APA board designee for the state Department of Economic Development, had been running the meetings. The board also has one vacancy and two members serving on expired terms. Several staff members have also recently retired, though the agency is working to fill those positions.
Hochul touted the importance of the Adirondack Park, it’s natural beauty, tourism and small businesses, in a statement about Ernst’s chairmanship.
“This appointment is an important step in advancing the long-term public and private land use plan for the largest protected area in the continental United States,” Hochul said. “John has demonstrated a strong dedication to the North Country and I am certain he will excel as the next Chair of the Adirondack Park Agency, helping build a better and brighter future for this natural gem.”
Ernst said Hochul approached him at a dinner party and asked if he would take on the role. He had to think about it, he said, but “she’s a hard person to say no to.”
“I’m going to give it my very best, and I think we have great opportunities in the park,” Ernst said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I think we need to look at the park on a big scale.”
Ernst has been a contributor to several political campaigns in New York the past two decades, including to Hochul’s former running mate, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He donated $37,700 in all, according to state records, with recipients including the League of Conservation Voters PAC ($2,550), Gov. George Pataki ($12,000), Cuomo ($5,000) and Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, ($300). The Ernst Family Fund is a donor to the Adirondack Explorer, giving between $10,000 and $14,999 between March 2019 and February 2020.
Though Ernst has been coming to the Adirondacks for eight decades and hunkered down at his North Hudson second-home during the pandemic, he is considered an “out-of-park” member on the APA board. Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said Hochul should have given the chair’s post to an in-park resident to keep with tradition.
Delaney said he respects and likes Ernst and is glad the APA has a chair, but since the agency’s inception the top board position has gone to someone who lives within the Blue Line.
“I’m extremely disappointed that this new precedent is being set, that somebody who lives and works outside the park now gets to have so much power over the people in the park,” Delaney said. “I can’t emphasize how disappointed I am in this choice.”
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said “nobody is more respected and better understands the needs and the dreams of all who live, work or visit the park, or just appreciate it from afar. We look forward to working with him and Gov. Hochul to move the Park Agency forward in this critical time.”
Janeway added that the appointment was long overdue. Delaney, too, felt the appointment was needed, despite his concerns. While driving along the Northway, Delaney told the Adirondack Explorer he’d call back because he was about to lose cell coverage. Upon reconnecting, Delaney said he hopes Ernst and the rest of the board will do more to address cell coverage and revisit a cell tower policy. He would also like to see the agency develop management plans for areas lacking them in the park.
“I’m glad the countdown is over,” Delaney said. “The Adirondacks have suffered from not having a chair.”
APA Executive Director Terry Martino said the Ray Brook-based agency is “thrilled” with the news. “We thank Governor Hochul for her decisive leadership and commitment to the Park,” she said in prepared remarks. Ernst, she said, has been “a calm and knowledgeable voice” and “we look forward to his continued contribution.”
The APA has had plenty to tackle over the last two years, including solar development, management plans for popular spots in the park, cell coverage and a new court decision on tree-cutting in forest preserve. Ernst said he hopes the agency will also make progress on studying carrying capacity to discover how much of something the environment – such as ponds and lakes – can handle without negative consequences.
“It’s an issue that has come up, and it’s the hardest one to get your arms around, but that work is starting and we’ve got to finish it,” Ernst said.
State officials Wednesday highlighted Ernst’s participation in Adirondack-related organizations over four decades. The list includes past chair of the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Foundation and past president of the Adirondack Landowners Association. Ernst has also served on boards for the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Land Trust, Adirondack Center for Writing, Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation and the New York State Tourism Advisory Council.
Outside the park, Ernst served on the board of the national Museum of the American Indian. He was co-chair of the National Museum of the American Indian-NY, Smithsonian Institution. Ernst’s family donated the first conservation easement recorded in New York State to protect the shoreline of Elk Lake, according to the Open Space Institute, which honored John and Margot Ernst with the 2009 Land Conservation Award.
If Willie Janeway likes him,
then I automatically hate him already.
Joan Grabe says
Finally and Perfectly !
An inspired choice so Thank you, Gov. Hochul.
Jeff Mans says
Maybe now that he’s in a leadership role at the APA he’ll lead by example with DEC to make the public aware of a 2012 Conservation Easement that included Public Recreational Easements for public access and hiking over the existing Boreas Trail to Boreas Mountain (as well as the Dix Trail and Marcy Trail). The Easement specifically provides: “The Boreas Trail shall be available for Public Recreational Uses permitted by this Conservation Easement at all times during the calendar year and shall be located along existing woods roads and trails as shown on Exhibit 1 beginning at the Branch River Road gate at the south boundary of the Protected Property and shall continue to the peak of Boreas Mountain.” However, the public would never know that the Boreas Trail even exists. DEC only acknowledges the Marcy Trail and Dix Trail for public hiking, and has refused to recognize or make the public aware of the Boreas Trail over existing roads that the DEC continues to maintain on State land with heavy equipment and the trimming and removal of trees and vegetation. The existing roads then continue onto the Elk Lake property to the former Boreas fire tower cabin road and existing trail to Boreas Mountain. Instead, DEC’s failure to make the public aware of the Boreas Trail appears to be a wink and a nod to Elk Lake Lodge, and its self promotion of an exclusive private right of access to Boreas Mountain over it’s private trail only for paying guests, to wit: “Sunrise Mountain, Clear Pond Mountain, Lightening Hill and Grandpa Pete’s are all entirely within the preserve and off limits to those who are not guests, as is access to Boreas Mountain.” But reading the Easement, it provides for public access. Why has it been buried by DEC? There is nothing that needs to be done to allow public access over the existing roads and trail to Boreas Mountain, and anything to the contrary is just an excuse to deny public access to this longtime treasured summit with amazing views of the high peaks. Maybe the time has come to recognize public access over the existing Boreas Trail to Boreas Mountain.
Chris Savarie says
Jeff you are correct. Also being with held from the public is the fact that DEC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars destroying over 22 miles of existing roads ( interior oppalescent, fujacks, Casey Brook) these were existing roads that were perfect for hiking, and skiing, now they are impassable to even foot traffic. All this work being done while the Gulf Brook road leading to the Boreas Ponds remains closed. Why? The Supervisors of the five towns need to put pressure on the higher levels of DEC. There are some shaky decisions being made in the whole Boreas tract. The DEC website gives a # to call if you have questions about the Boreas Ponds tract, don’t bother, you will get a sugar coated, smoke screen response. Contact Sen Dan Stec to voice your concerns, now is the time to put pressure on the folks in Ray Brook who are making these decisions.
Jeff Mans says
Totally agree Chris. Why? Two years to fix Gulf Brook Road to Boreas Ponds and still not reopened. Must not want to reopen it to vehicular traffic. Passive-aggressive behavior. The promise of public land is that public access will be fair and balanced, and not cater to any particular special interest. What we have now is almost a complete reversal led by special interests, but public land belong to everybody. Our local officials should voice these concerns. Regarding Branch Road to the exisitng Boreas trail to Boreas Mountain, the roads and trail appear on the 1989 USGS Blue Ridge provisional map and the 1999 USGS Marcy map. Google Earth also show the roads pretty clearly. If anyone wants a copy of the 2012 Elk Lake Conservation Easement to read for themselves, just make a FOIL request to DEC.
The APA pendulum has swung long enough in the direction of local communities and economic development.The solar farm on the hillside outside Saranac Lake, for example, is an eyesore. Solar energy, clear-cuts for biomass, excessive trail development…these things make sense outside the blue line, in the Tug Hill and the St Lawrence Valley. The uniqueness of the Adirondacks is that it is a park. It’s a big, wild, and beautiful place, and there are not many places like it on the planet. Scenic quality and the protection of nature should always be prioritized, not compromised, particularly when suitable non-park areas are nearby.
It’s time to change the direction of the APA.
Tom Paine says
Your right, if Willy approves then I already distrust and hate the guy. Back to the old Albany standard of iron fisted rule at the APA and NYSDEC by the Environmental lobby. Careful moderates at both agencies your jobs are on the line. The handpicked downstate millionaire contributor (sugar daddy) to the Environmental lobby. The names change but the graft, corruption and mismanagement in NYS government remain the same.
Ernst has been serving on the APA board for several years. I suggest you look up his voting record before labeling him – you may actually learn something.
Tom Paine says
I have checked his voting record, his list of endorsements and his contributions to the groups that got him seated. That is why I am not supporting him. Yes, I have learned something, never trust the Environmental lobby.
Balancing environmental and development concerns are the reason for the APA. Would it be possible to find a person who perfectly straddles the fence? Or are you simply against the APA? I am not a fan of the APA myself, but they have been without ANY chair for too long. The true “environmentalists” on the rest of the board are well outnumbered anyway, as many have quit out of frustration. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.
LeRoy Hogan says
Wall Street tycoon now runs APA. Yay!
Shawn Typhair says
“The APA pendulum has swung long enough in the direction of local communities and economic development”. What does that mean ? As a 6th generation land owner and a lifelong resident of the Adirondacks I find thoughts such as this as a threat to my childrens ability to live on our land. I live in Fine , where at one time mines ,paper mills , logging and mom and pop shops were the major employers . Fine ,NY is by no means a pristine area. Development needs to happen in these areas and I hope the new commissioner sees this and helps us to be able pass on what was passed on to us. If this is the thinking of the park for the future maybe its time for towns to start looking at ways to dissolve the park. Remember in 1931 people voted to be part of the park maybe we can vote our way out of the park.
Here’s what I mean: In the 1970s, the APA made decisions strongly in favor of environmental protection. By the early 1990s, the pendulum swung towards the interests of local communities. For example, suggestions by Mario Cuomo’s 21st-century Commission to strengthen park protection were rejected, and a number of right-leaning activist groups were created. Then, during the Pataki years, the pendulum swung back. Almost a million acres of private land were acquired by the state in fee or easement. Under Andrew Cuomo, we had a return to decisions in favor of local concerns. For example, the Adk Club & Resort proposal in Tupper Lake was approved by the APA, yet a remarkably similar proposal for Loon Lake by Tony Delia in the 1970s was not. The only difference was in the position of the pendulum.
I understand your concern. I too live at the edge of the park (though just outside). For years, my work has taken me inside the Blue Line, where I also have friends. Still, my travels outside our region have convinced me that the park is a unique place. So I’ve come to the conclusion we should promote development outside the Blue Line, like in Edwards or Watertown or Massena. These places are not far from Fine.
Six generations is a long time, and I feel for you. But I am also aware that iron was not mined at Benson Mines until 130 years ago, and that the paper mill in Newton Falls was established at about that same time. These things haven’t been here forever. If the area around Fine returns to a more natural state, and if nearby areas to the north and west are developed to create opportunities for our children, I’m fine with that. Human settlements have always come and gone.
The future of the park is tourism, not mining or timber. Looking forward, I suspect there will be fewer towns catering to recreationists. Wanakena may thrive while other hamlets fade away, just as the logging communities of Newbridge and Clarksboro disappeared from the town of Clare many years ago. Maybe you are a farmer? The demise of agriculture strikes me as particularly tough. Farmers live on and off the land, and they hope their children do, too. Sadly, global forces over which we have no control can greatly affect our local economies.
You seem to know a bit about history. Can you tell me more the 1931 vote you mentioned? I’m not familiar with it. Was this a park-wide vote, a state-wide vote, or a local referendum? Why was the vote taken given that the park was established almost 40 years earlier? Why in 1931?
Thanks for the civil discourse. Name-calling and generalizations about the character of others gets us nowhere. Cheers!
Shawn Typhair says
I agree with you about tourism being the economic engine of the park . My point is how can the town of Fine get people to come. Our area of the park cant compete with the other areas of the park . The Five Ponds /Cranberry Lake does bring some people to this part of the park but its not no where near the number of people that go the High Peaks / Lake George area. If the APA shifts to more of a enviromental stance places like Fine wont survive. We need to look at other ways to bring people to this area. Most people will not drive to Fine and have to walk 6/7 miles to go and look at 2000 foot high hill. People want to see the mountains. One way to attract people would be to open ATV trails on these old logging lands. I’m not saying in the high peaks but within and around the blue line. I have read all summer how people want more diversity in the park . I would bet my pay check if you went to the urban areas and asked young people would you rather walk 6 miles on a old logging road to look at a 8 acre pond or drive ATV ‘s for 50 miles and several 8 acre ponds I am sure they would pick the latter.
Peter Baurer is suing the town of Clare for posting public roads for ATV s but is also at the same time recommending that Fort Drum use the same roads to train on.
As far as the history of the current location of the blue line, my understanding is that the current location was established in 1931 . Before 1931 the blue line was in the area of Star Lake /Cranberry Lake. My grandfather said that they voted to extend the blue line to its current location which is the Edwards / Fine town line . This is where my families property is located , the first acreage in the park. The Adirondack Park sign is my yard. My grandfather was 18 years old at the time. If my history is incorrect please let me know.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on the and i apologize about my first post
Six generations on the same land is a feat to be proud of. Not many people anywhere can make that statement! But let’s look at reality. Let’s say 6 years is a span of 120-150 years. If it is working field, forest, or mine, all will eventually be depleted. Actively forested land takes longer to deplete depending on the type of extraction practiced, but removal of timber indeed damages and depletes soils.
It is understandable to be proud of your land and wishes for things to remain the same or revert back to more prosperous and vibrant times. But harsh reality across the world has found people have become land-poor because for whatever reason, the land can no longer pay the taxes. Farmers in the Midwest that have been on the same section(s) of land since Land Rush times find themselves selling out to ultra-efficient corporate agriculture to remain solvent. If they are lucky, they are allowed to stay in their home while selling the bulk of their land. These situations have nothing to do with the Adirondack Park, local government, or the APA. It is simple World economics and difficult to combat. If we find ourselves struggling with the changing value of our land, and if value cannot be found with another use, it is indeed sad – but you are certainly not alone.
LeRoy Hogan says
We have Wall Street tycoons in the Catskills and experienced their resources used against anything against their pleasures. Let the little people eat cake.
Stephen Rose says
Now is the time to consider returning land to Native Americans. I’m so tired of listening to white people debate about how to use land that was stolen. Admit that we are receivers of stolen property and start returning it.