By Tim Rowland
If voters cooperate, in less than a year New York could begin girding for climate change with a well-funded wave of projects designed to protect the state’s woods, wildlife, waters and communities from increasingly severe storms and shifting weather patterns.
But that gives little time to prepare, so state officials are blanketing the state, gathering feedback and explaining what projects will be eligible for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s planned $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. The measure must first pass the Assembly and would then go to the voters in November. Funding would begin in the winter of 2021.
A bond-act roundtable, sponsored by Adirondack North Country Association, came to Lake Placid Monday, attracting conservationists, government officials, planners and other interested parties.
“We believe people will respond strongly and realize how critical it is to protect our resources,” said Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “We have reached a critical moment in staving off the worst effects of climate change.”
The bonds would be part of Cuomo’s five-year, $33 billion plan to prepare for an increasingly unpredictable future. Contrary to massive public works projects that build upon grand piles of bricks and concrete, Restore Mother Nature would play out mainly in the trenches, doing uncelebrated but crucial work such as culvert replacement and restoring forested strips along streams.
This work is important, as one shoddy culvert can disrupt a trout fishery and, when comes a flood, cause thousands of dollars in damages to roads and private property and send tons of sediment coursing downstream.
Money from the bonds would also go toward land acquisition, recreation, carbon reduction, the preservation of open spaces, the removal of aging dams and beefing up public infrastructure. Supporters were hopeful it would have economic spinoffs as well, from such diverse pursuits as electric buses, new markets for wood products, community dynamos, composting and construction of heated sidewalks, powered by the sun, to reduce the need for applications of salt.
In many ways, the stakes of a warming planet are higher for the North Country, since much of its economy and lifestyle are climate dependent. “The decline of snowpack and the change in the seasons is just incredible,” said Bob Stegemann, Region 5 Director for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “Is the line for the sugar maple moving north? I’m just blown away by the challenges that were not there 20 years ago.”
The parameters of the bond money are fluid at this point, and in some instances unknown. Seth Jones, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the organization would like to see funding for durable hiking trails, something that may or may not be allowed under bonding law.
Traditionally, Stegemann said, trails are not eligible because they are not guaranteed to last the 30 years it takes to pay off the bond. But ADK and the DEC have teamed up to build hardened trails up Cascade and Mount Van Hoevenberg that will stand up to an increasing number of hikers in the High Peaks. Such trail construction might be eligible for funding, but that’s up to the lawyers to decide, Stegemann said.
In other areas, it’s a chance to make up for lost time. Katie Malinowski, executive director of the New York State Tug Hill Commission, said she hopes funding will be available for easements on forests, which are typically less available than for agricultural land.
This is the first environmental bond put to the voters since the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act of 1996 under the Pataki Administration, which went for a variety of projects, including new sewage treatment plants whose wastewater discharged into Lake Champlain.
Like the 1996 initiative, the Mother Nature Bond is open to creativity. Conservationists and state and local officials are also challenged to come up with plans quickly, but at the same time take a step back and see how it all fits into a greater plan. Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, said it’s one thing to plant trees on an eroding streambank. But the cause of the erosion may be way upstream, and unless that’s fixed too, the trees will wash out with the next flood.
Similarly, Warren County Supervisor Claudia Braymer said local governments keep rebuilding riverside roads that keep getting washed right back out again with each new flood. A wiser course might be to change the location of the road, she said.
An additional problem, she said, is that small towns tend to get shut out when it comes time to divvy up the funds because they have no money for planning studies or grant writers. “Small communities need money too,” she said.
But if the planning is in place, and the money is spent wisely, the Mother Nature Bond could have an impact that is generational, said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “This is a great opportunity to protect our air, our water and our wild lands,” he said.