By Gwendolyn Craig
Michael Barrett’s backstory might sound like that of a character in an action-packed suspense novel—former public defender, U.S. Army foreign language interrogator, official serving under the scandal-ridden former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, director of Missouri State Emergency Management—but the New York native is glad to be back in his home state and leading one of the Adirondacks’ largest nonprofit organizations.
The Adirondack Mountain Club appointed Barrett its executive director in September. Barrett, 45, moved from Missouri with his wife, Sebrina, and their two children, Mason and Molly. They call Halfmoon their home, but Barrett has traveled from Albany to the Adirondacks, learning about the club and the biggest issues facing the approximately 6 million-acre park.
He sat down in early March for coffee and questions with the Explorer. His answers are lightly edited for space.
Tell me a little bit about how it’s going so far, and how you got into your new role:
I’m a New Yorker. I’ve been gone for a while. I grew up in the lower Hudson Valley. … I was a cross-country geek in high school, which is one step below band. But my safe place was the trails.
When I was spending my days in the (New York) Capitol working in the (Eliot) Spitzer and (David) Paterson administrations, what you hear is true, you don’t get a lot of free time, but when I did, I would sneak out to the Adirondacks and I’d do a peak, or go back on the trail and go for a run. Now I’m not a 46er, which gives you some indication of how much free time I have as a government lawyer, but after being in government law for you know, 15, 16 years, it was the time (for a change).
How has it been learning about the organization, and what stood out to you where you said, ‘I can make a change or a difference?’
It may not come as much of a surprise that what ADK is all about depends a lot on who you ask. To some people, it’s an advocacy organization. To some people, it’s about educating the next generation of stewards. To some people, it’s a hiking club. And that’s OK. But it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and quite frankly, there’s a lot of people who have only a vague understanding of what we do. So if there’s one opportunity, it’s to bridge that gap between people who know we’re out there sort of, and fill the gap to educating them precisely on whatever it is that they do. And that’s one of our challenges. We do an awful lot of things.
As you know, we run a magazine. We put out publications, 10 to 12 titles a year. We run a lodge, and the lodge has a restaurant. And there’s another restaurant. … We run outings around the world. … We educate hundreds if not thousands of fourth-graders. We do outings with the state. … I’d rather do fewer things really, really well than be spread too thin.
Obviously, any changes that are made are in tandem with the board. … How I describe our respective jobs is the board points to a mountain, and I go after it.
We have seen more of an advocacy angle from your organization since you’ve started. Is that intentional?
That’s the world I came from, not just the statehouse here under two administrations and also a staff member of an Assembly committee, the codes committee. I was a staff member way back when, but in my role in Missouri, I was the deputy general counsel for the governor, and then ran two state departments that were constantly in the Capitol, so that’s the world I came from.
But I also landed in this job at the very beginning of the legislative session, so it would make sense that that’s where I’m spending at least a good deal of my time. Will it look that way in September? I don’t know. We’ll see.
What are some of the issues you’re advocating for now, and are on the top of your organization’s list?
We have the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group. … We have this huge issue, budget issue (referring to a $6 billion Medicaid deficit) … in large part because of the choices we make, and here, simultaneously, we’re having a separate discussion where we’re saying too many people are getting outdoors. Too many people are trying to go into the woods and recreate. And I’m going, are you kidding me? If I’m captaining the ship of the state of New York, I would be delighted to have this problem. Delighted. I would be tripping over myself to make the investments in the stewardship, the sustainable trails, the front-country infrastructure, to welcome and spread people out.
Now, it’s a fine conversation to have, and I’m happy to be a part of it, that we have to do all we can to protect the resource. Absolutely. I’m 100% on board. But it’s a big park.
How are you feeling about the investments in tourism that have been made? Do you think other investments should be made first?
This is a government problem operating in silos, right? … You have tourism doing their initiatives, and (the Department of Environmental Conservation) doing their initiatives. … We (ADK) always got the trails contract because we could do a lot of trail work, and give the state a lot of bang for its buck. But along comes prevailing wage, which is a good thing. But, the Labor Department doesn’t have a classification for a trail builder, and so when they’re pushing out the contract, and we’re bidding on the contract, they don’t have a classification for a trail builder, so what do they do? … They just borrow an existing classification from other areas, whether it’s carpenter or stone mason, or what have you.
Now, if we wanted to get the contract in order to fulfill the contract, we would have to pay a trail builder $40 an hour, $39 an hour. We couldn’t. So now you have the same government, the same administration, trying to get trails built, trying to get trails protected on one hand, and their own Department of Labor is keeping us … from helping the state do what we’ve always done, which is to get a lot of bang for the taxpayers’ dollars on building sustainable trails.
Whether it’s tourism or DEC, or labor, we need to be acting in concert a little bit more strategically so that our resources are reasonably tied to the demand.
Did you ever imagine yourself talking about this stuff?
As someone who has been working counter drug operations in Puerto Rico, who (was a) foreign language interrogator in the Army, or you know, whatever else I’ve done—a public defender, a humble, humble public defender in Albany County, New York, I stopped being surprised at the next turn a long time ago.