APA chairman looks to cap a family story
By Gwendolyn Craig
On a rainy day in June, John and Margot Ernst sat before a roaring fire in their second home in North Hudson. The four-bedroom contemporary house provides spectacular views of Elk Lake and distant High Peaks. On this day, the mountaintops were shrouded in clouds. The Ernsts stepped out on their stone terrace, pointing to the purple lupine that each year has spread down their hillside. A loon called in the mist.
Aside from the 1965 home and a waterfront resort the Ernsts operate down the road, the panorama was perhaps unchanged since John Ernst’s grandfather, Bernard Ernst, admired it over a century earlier. The president of the Society of American Magicians summered on nearby Clear Pond in the early 1900s. It was when Finch Pruyn timber company owned the land and operated hunting and fishing lodgings.
Now, the approximately 12,000 acres is owned by the Ernsts with protections from development. The family was the first to give a conservation easement to the state in 1963. John and Margot Ernst protected the remainder of their land in 2012. There are several developable lots left, but the rest of the Elk Lake shoreline will never see new structures.
“I just wanted to try and freeze it, preserve it,” John Ernst said. “Strange things are happening in the world, and it may not always be going the way you want it, but this place will look the same.”
Many in the Adirondack Park champion John Ernst and his family’s conservation legacy, but his performance as chair of the Adirondack Park Agency this past year has left some deflated.
Environmental groups haven’t seen the push for public hearings or ecological protections they had hoped for from the 82-year-old, whom Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed in October 2021. Some local government leaders disfavored the choice because Ernst, whose primary residence is in New York City, is the first out-of-park chairman of the half-century-old agency.
Speaking with the Explorer, Ernst said he hopes he’s not “out of sync with people who live here all the time,” and promised action at the APA. He discussed a background that suggests he has been more than a visitor in the Adirondack Park.
Entering his second year at the helm of the agency, he said, “I still want to be at the table.”
A family legacy
Bernard Ernst was a magician and the attorney for escape artist Harry Houdini. He loved the Adirondacks, camping at Clear Pond in 1905. Down the road on Elk Lake, a reverend operated a two-story log cabin retreat, which would later become Elk Lake Lodge. A postcard the Ernsts have from 1873 advertises 25 cents a night.
Bernard Ernst would bring his family up to the Adirondacks, where his son Richard developed a shared affinity for Elk Lake and Clear Pond. In 1938, Richard Ernst married Susan Bloomingdale, the daughter of Samuel Bloomingdale, owner of New York City’s Bloomingdale’s Department Store. In the early 1950s when Finch Pruyn put thousands of acres up for sale, Richard Ernst was able to buy some of the land that included Elk Lake Lodge, but could not afford the full lake, its islands and surrounding lands.
His father-in-law, however, could.
In July 1963, Samuel Bloomingdale helped his son-in-law and daughter purchase the biggest chunk in North Hudson, including Elk Lake and its islands. It cost $117,000, records show; that’s over $1.1 million today. The deal allowed the paper company to continue some timber harvesting. Bloomingdale also agreed to sell development rights on part of the property. It would become the first conservation easement in New York, sold to the state for $1.
The easement was a handful of pages and described “preserving the natural scenic beauty” including the “bed of Elk Lake, the islands within Elk Lake, including two inlets and extending 1,000 feet from the high water line of the entire perimeter of Elk Lake.” Though Samuel Bloomingdale signed the easement, the owners of the property were listed as Richard, Susan and John Ernst.
John Ernst wasn’t sure Samuel Bloomingdale had ever set foot in the Adirondacks.
“He did this because my father persuaded him,” he said. “It is a melding of the families in a funny way.”
Peter Paine Jr., one of the appointees of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks and a long-time park advocate, called the easement “very pioneering at the time.”
In the late 1970s, John Ernst took over the Adirondack property from his father. In 2012, John and Margot Ernst signed another two conservation easements, over 100 pages long in total, to protect their remaining land.
The easements were drafted through four gubernatorial administrations starting with Gov. George Pataki. The Ernsts’ conservation easements and participation in the state’s forest tax law program has afforded them substantial tax reductions on about a dozen parcels, and they still pay county and school taxes.
Around the same time as the 2012 easements, the Ernsts also arranged a land swap with the help of The Nature Conservancy—the 1,500-acre Casey Brook tract for a similar sized parcel the state owned on the east side of Elk Lake Road. The exchange, John Ernst said, was the linchpin for the state to connect the Dix Mountain Wilderness with the High Peaks Wilderness. It created the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States, nearly 200,000 acres.
“His family has an extraordinary legacy in the park,” Paine said.
The Ernsts’ land also hosts research projects. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, has conducted wildlife tracking there and found American martens thriving. Paul Jensen, regional wildlife manager, said DEC collared 26 martens in the Elk Lake area from 2007 to 2011. The marten population was dwindling in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to the DEC, due to habitat loss from intensive logging and trapping. Now, numbers are looking promising.
Elk Lake is also home to a population of wild brook trout. Spencer Bruce, a student who had been working on his PhD at the University at Albany, studied the fish and found that “Elk Lake appears to support one of the most genetically diverse and distinct strains of Brook Trout in the state.” Audubon New York also designated Elk Lake an Important Bird Area because of the number of Bicknell’s thrush, a species of special concern in New York, that the land supports.
New York City
John and Margot Ernst’s primary residence is at the United Nations Plaza in Manhattan. A website for their apartment building towering over the East River calls it “home to some of New York’s most prominent families in politics, entertainment and commerce.”
John Ernst is the chairman and president of Bloomingdale Properties, a private investment firm and the reincarnation of the family’s store sold to Federation Department Stores.
John and Margot Ernst are well-known for their Adirondack and New York City philanthropy. They were partially responsible for funding the National Museum of the American Indian. The Ernsts were on the founding board of the New York Chapter, and John Ernst was later on the national board in Washington.
They donated some of their Navajo blanket collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At Harvard University, John Ernst was involved in the school’s Native American Program. Ernst said his interest in Indigenous culture started with Western films he watched as a boy.
Margot Ernst is currently on the board of the Adirondack Foundation. In 1981, John Ernst joined the Adirondack Council’s board and served as chairman for a time. He was also a board member of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Land Trust, the Adirondack Center for Writing, the Adirondacks Lake Survey Corp. and New York League of Conservation Voters. He is past-president of the Adirondack Landowners Association, served as chair of the Adirondack Foundation, and was a member of the Executive Council of North Country Public Radio. He remains a board member of the Open Space Institute.
In 2013 shortly after the Ernsts finalized their latest conservation easement, the Adirondack Council named them “Conservationists of the Year.”
“The Ernsts don’t just talk about conservation, they live it and lead by example,” said Marcia Bystryn, former executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “They have encouraged and assisted conservation and sustainable community development, from Manhattan to the Adirondacks and all around the state.”
Bernard Melewski, a long-time lobbyist and former legislative director for the Adirondack Council, called the Ernsts “the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life” and described John Ernst as a good listener, who paid attention to all points of view. These traits were helpful during meetings about land acquisitions and park constitutional questions.
Ernst was also “savvy,” Melewski said, and hosted parties at his Manhattan and North Hudson homes, providing the council opportunities to meet with politicians and potential donors. Melewski remembers Republican state Sen. Ron Stafford attended one of the parties at Elk Lake, the only time Melewski saw the North Country powerhouse in a social setting. The council staff were pleasantly surprised, Melewski said, that Stafford and Ernst got along well.
Melewski would use Elk Lake for tours, too, when the council needed to show what a conservation easement had protected. Melewski called these “black fly tours,” and one in particular involved a group of senior legislative staffers. Elk Lake Lodge had closed for the season, but the Ernsts had opened it for them, Melewski said. As the group took first steps along the shoreline, a loon appeared and let out a call.
“Half the people had never heard a loon before, and I can’t tell you what a positive impact that was,” Melewski said. “They became interested in learning more about the park, which was the sole objective of the trip. The park sells itself.”
Some legislative staffers quipped that the council had somehow staged the display, Melewski said. It became a joke to say, “release the loon.”
In June 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Ernst to the Adirondack Park Agency and he quit many of the Adirondack organizations, he said, “because I didn’t want any appearance of conflict.” It was a “natural evolution” to join the board and be part of guiding the park’s future.
“We lived through the period where the APA was reviled, people’s barns were burned down,” he said.
Margot Ernst said she was fine with her husband joining the board, but becoming chair was a different story.
Karen Feldman was the last acting chair of the APA. She resigned amid a pay dispute in 2019. Feldman was never fully appointed, some said, due to her out-of-park residency. Feldman was a great chair, John Ernst said, and he thought it was unfair that she was paid a commissioner salary ($5,000 annually) and not a chair salary ($30,000 annually).
The Cuomo administration had asked Ernst to be chair, he said. After “reluctantly” agreeing, Ernst said he never heard back. Margot Ernst told her husband not to give the Adirondack Explorer “too many of the gory details.”
Cuomo failed to appoint an APA chair for nearly three years. When the Explorer ran daily banners on its website noting how long the top APA post had been empty, that drew attention, and Hochul fixed that, Ernst said. At a dinner party, she approached Ernst and asked if he would be chair, picking up the threads left untied, he said.
“There was, you know, a little bit of reluctance because frankly I thought Karen Feldman was treated very badly,” he said. He reasoned this appointment was under a new administration.
Around the same time of his appointment, Ernst donated $22,600 to the Hochul campaign. The Democratic governor was seeking an election win this November and was successful.
John Ernst said he made the donation because Hochul had attended meetings with the Common Ground Alliance and Adirondack Council and was always personable and prepared. They wanted her to win the Democratic primary, which she did. It was the biggest campaign check the Ernsts had written.
Past donation records show John Ernst donated to the League of Conservation Voters PAC ($2,550), Pataki ($12,000), Cuomo ($5,000) and former state Sen. Betty Little ($300). The Ernst Family Fund also donated $5,000 in 2021 and $5,000 in 2022 to the Adirondack Explorer.
Ernst’s chairman appointment drew some criticism.
Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, was “extremely disappointed,” he said, “that somebody who lives and works outside the park now gets to have so much power over the people in the park.” A year later, Delaney said the disappointment hadn’t gone away, but that Ernst was “doing all right” considering the circumstances.
“It’s not required in law that the chair be a full-time resident in the park,” Paine said. “I think stepping away from that tradition is commendable and particularly with the person of the quality of John.”
Delaney added staff turnover at the APA, including a new executive director, made it difficult to judge how the agency performed this year. The COVID-19 pandemic also made for new challenges. “It’s a tough time to be chair,” Delaney said.
Margot Ernst said she was “a little leery” of her husband taking the chairmanship because she knew the job could be “very intense.” She also thought he was the perfect choice.
In some ways their North Hudson home has become their primary residence, especially since the pandemic. Their daughter rode out six months of it with them there while she was pregnant.
“We just really appreciate every aspect of being in a wild place like every other Adirondacker, I think,” Margot Ernst said.
They took the time during lockdown to renovate Elk Lake Lodge, too. John Ernst said it still looks the same, but the nuts and bolts are all modernized: “Trying to change things without changing them,” he said.
Looking to the future
In his first full year as chair, Ernst has not wowed environmental organizations. The Adirondack Council gave the APA a “thumbs down” in its annual State of the Park report. It applauded Ernst’s appointment, but said the APA needs more staff and “opportunities to reform and strengthen.”
“While some remain hopeful, little progress was visible on an updated ecological agenda by the summer of 2022,” the council wrote.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he was displeased with Ernst’s vote when the APA granted a permit for granite mining on White Lake in northern Oneida County. He felt the thousands of public comments warranted a public hearing before a judge, called an adjudicatory hearing. The APA has not held such a hearing in over a decade, and it is the only way for commissioners to deny a permit.
Ernst said he believes adjudicatory hearings are important, but he doesn’t believe every project with public interest warrants one.
There are issues ahead that will require an adjudicatory hearing, Ernst said, but he would not specify which issues.
Bauer did appreciate that Ernst voted against some projects including the use of an herbicide on Lake George. But it was ultimately approved, which Bauer said shows a chairman without control of his board.
Melewski noted Ernst’s “centering, calming influence” but lamented that Ernst had not been appointed chairman at a younger age. Ernst said as long as he’s healthy and able, he intends to complete his term, which expires in June 2025.
One of Ernst’s biggest priorities, he said, is visitor use management. The APA and DEC have moved toward hiring a consultant, purchasing computer tablets and starting field work on the current conditions of some trails and campsites. The goal is to collect data to help the state determine management actions needed to protect natural resources and the people recreating there. It is evidence-based and something the park should have been doing from the beginning, he said.
Ernst is not convinced legislation is needed to push the APA toward conservation design, a process for laying out subdivisions that favors protections of natural resources and inhibits sprawl. It’s a bill green groups desire. He’s willing to be convinced otherwise, he added.
The chairman also hopes he can make communities feel that the APA “is a positive force for them,” and is focused on working with local governments.
“If that’s it,” he said of his legacy, “I’m OK.”
He hopes that his board’s ensuing decisions will be the best ones for the park.
“We probably won’t get them all right,” Ernst said, “but trying to do the right thing, under the law, that’s all you can do.”
What does he hope will be the future of Elk Lake? Good question, he said. He and Margot Ernst have three children and six grandchildren and the family enjoys multi-generational trips to the Adirondacks. He doesn’t know if any of them want to take on the management and financial responsibilities.
Yet no matter who is Elk Lake’s next caretaker, the wilderness, and the loons, should be there.
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