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.