Memoir draws from three decades as an Adirondacks environmental powerbroker
By Brad Edmondson
Former Adirondack Council lobbyist Bernard Melewski advises: “Find out what motivates the people you need to take action. Convince them that your goal is something they also want.”
Melewski’s new memoir, “Inside the Green Lobby: The Fight to Save the Adirondack Park” is drawn from three decades as an environmental powerbroker in Albany. He is a fine storyteller and the book should be irresistible to political junkies, but it is also worthwhile for those who don’t know much about how a bill becomes a law. People often think of politics as a game of competing ideas where the outcome depends on who spends the most money. But that is only part of the truth. Melewski adds missing pieces.
Legislative politics is about relationships. Lobbyists study legislators the way thieves study doors and windows. They case the joint, trying not to attract attention to themselves as they look for ways to unlock lawmakers’ votes. Information can be more powerful than money. That is why Melewski often brought an intern along to the state Capitol. “The intern helped me read the room, like a second camera,” he said. “If a senator says something and his staffers make faces at each other, that tells you something.”
The core of the book is about the long, dramatic and unsuccessful attempt to upgrade environmental protection in the Adirondack Park between 1989 and 1993. It is the most convincing account of that struggle yet published, and it contains several revelations that are, to an Adirondack history geek like me, truly startling.
Melewski joined The Adirondack Council in 1990, just before a commission appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo released “The Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century.” As the book opens, he was reading a smuggled copy of the report on the train. Melewski realized immediately it was tone-deaf to political realities. Its 245 recommendations were confusing and too aggressive and its primary goal was to prevent development in the vast majority of the park. “They’re going to piss a lot of people off with this,” Melewski concluded. He was right.
Read a series of short vignettes that tells the story of the at-times contentious campaign to create the Adirondack Park Agency.
Adapted from the book “A Wild Idea: How the Environmental Movement Tamed the Adirondacks,” author Brad Edmondson interviewed more than 50 people who fought for and against the APA, some of whom have since died.
Opponents of the report were well-funded and skillful, and they waged a damaging publicity war against the Adirondack Council and its allies for several years. But the enviros soldiered on, and in 1993, they succeeded in negotiating a major deal. Mario Cuomo’s budget contained funds to buy a few choice parcels to add to the Forest Preserve. Melewski and others took it up with Sen. Ron Stafford, whose district encompassed the eastern half of the Adirondacks. Stafford’s approval was essential. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he could block critical statewide legislation and nothing happened in his district without his approval.
Stafford wanted to move the Adirondack Park Agency out of the executive budget and make it an independent commission. Melewski said yes and the governor’s people did, too, but one board member of the Council, Harold Jerry, was convinced that moving the APA would kill it. Jerry had been the staff director of the commission that set up the APA in 1971. He was convinced that the APA needed gubernatorial protection to survive.
Harold Jerry might also have been Ron Stafford’s closest friend. He asked Stafford to kill the deal, and Stafford did it as a personal favor to him. Jerry resigned from the Council soon after, and bitter feelings lingered on both sides for years.
Tension between Adirondack environmental activists has always been a problem. In the late 1950s, two legendary figures, Paul Schaefer and John Apperson, took opposing sides on a bitter fight over the proposed route of Interstate 87 (the Northway). Schaefer and Apperson, who had worked together for decades, never spoke to each other again.
Some activists, like Apperson, are proudly determined to fight any proposed compromise to Article 14 of the state Constitution, known as the “forever wild” clause. They are committed to the vision of a vast wilderness. Others, like Schaefer and Melewski, might agree in principle—but they also engage in the annual give and take of legislative sessions. Hardcore activists often portray lobbyists as mere traders whose deal-making blinds them to more important principles. Melewski disagrees. “The perfect can be the enemy of the good,” he said. “It’s OK to compromise if you know you’ll be back next year to keep pushing. And it’s fine to say what ought to be done, but it doesn’t mean much until you make sure that the funding and votes are there for it.” He points to the Environmental Protection Fund established by the legislature in 1994, one year after Jerry sank the Council’s land deal. The fund provides hundreds of millions of dollars per year for land protection and other measures.
“I was never worried about the moral consequences of what I was doing,” Melewski said. “I wrote ‘Inside the Green Lobby’ to show people how the system really works.”
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