Green groups advocate for additional land acquisition
By Gwendolyn Craig
The executive director of Protect the Adirondacks is questioning Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed $82.5 million investment into Olympic facilities that could be considered contrary to the intent of the state Constitution and “at a time when funding for management and conservation” of the state’s forest preserve are “in dire need of substantial increases.”
The state Legislature is expected to discuss the matter and others with Peter Bauer and other Adirondack Park organization leaders on Wednesday during its joint environmental conservation budget hearing.
Hochul’s $233 billion proposal included $82.5 million to the Olympic Regional Development Authority for maintenance of the state’s Olympic and ski facilities, energy efficiency projects and payment of liabilities. The allocation, should it be approved in the final state budget, is $17.5 million less than what ORDA received last year.
ORDA has not provided Protect with details of how it would spend $82.5 million, Bauer wrote to legislators. He urged that a list be provided “that can be scrutinized.”
ORDA’s director of communications told the Explorer the funds “will be invested in lifts, snowmaking, electrical & building infrastructure, year-round operational infrastructure and economic development opportunities.”
Bauer wants more specificity.
Constitutional amendments allowing for some ORDA-managed facilities were for “ski trails and appurtenances to facilitate winter alpine ski recreation. ORDA has been pushing the envelope to build summer-type tourist attractions like ‘mountain coasters’ and ‘zip lines’ and new extreme mountain biking parks. Such attractions are not authorized by Constitutional amendment and would be illegal and should not be part of the state budget,” Bauer wrote.
The constitution’s Article 14 mandates the state’s forest preserve remain “forever wild.” The clause has been amended 17 times since 1941 for exceptions ranging from building ski facilities to building the Adirondack Northway.
In 1941, it was amended to authorize Whiteface Mountain Ski Area. Gore and Belleayre Mountains were authorized as ski facilities in a 1947 amendment. In 1987, the constitution was amended again to allow for expanding ski trails at the Whiteface, Gore and Belleayre alpine centers.
The Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex is currently in violation of the state constitution, although legislators are working on passing an amendment that would retroactively take effect. The amendment received first passage last year and will need to receive second passage in 2025 under a newly elected Legislature before going to a public vote.
Bauer compared the investments the state has made into Adirondack-area Olympic sites to the $600 million in state subsidies funding a new Buffalo Bills football stadium in Orchard Park. The state has invested more than $600 million in ORDA over the last six years, he wrote, in addition to $46.5 million in grants for the 2023 World University Games and $6.5 million in revitalizing downtown Lake Placid.
Advocating for land acquistion
Meanwhile, Bauer and his organization, as well as many other Adirondack advocates, hope legislators will boost funding to ensure the state meets its goal of protecting 30% of New York’s land by 2030.
In 2022, the state acquired just over 5,000 acres. That’s compared to an historical average of 70,000 acres annually acquired over the 30-year history of the Environmental Protection Fund, a number of environmental organizations emphasized in written budget testimonials.
Groups including Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, the Open Space Institute, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Nature Conservancy are urging legislators to speed up the state land acquisition process.
With about 3 million acres left to acquire to achieve the 30% protection goal, said Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild, the state will also need to add more staff to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Lands and Forests.
Bauer is also urging state legislators to designate $1 million toward the “long-required, long-neglected carrying capacity studies of waters in the Adirondacks” starting with the Saranac Lakes Chain. The carrying capacity of a water body would identify the various uses a water body can handle, “particularly motorized uses,” before seeing negative impacts. The 1972 Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan directs the DEC to conduct these studies.
The environmental conservation budget hearing is scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday at in Hearing Room B of the Legislative Office Building in Albany. It will also stream live on the state Senate’s website: https://www.nysenate.gov/calendar/public-hearings/february-07-2024/joint-legislative-public-hearing-2024-executive-budget.
Top photo: A view of Little Whiteface Mountain from outside the main lodge in 2018. Photo by Mike Lynch