By Tom Woodman
Part way through a presentation on a North Country Sustainability Study in January, an audience member commented: “The days of environmentalism and economic development being strange bedfellows are long gone. Now they work together.”
Sadly this was an overstatement—in many cases development efforts are not compatible with sound environmental policy. But this hopeful person did put his finger on an encouraging trend. Planners are recognizing that environmental-protection efforts are themselves economic opportunities. It’s an awareness that underlies the approach the leaders of the sustainability study have taken.
Building on work begun following a climate-change conference in the Adirondacks four years ago, a consortium of North Country counties and the Adirondack North Country Association contracted with an environmental consulting firm to produce the North Country Sustainability Study. They are working to identify the challenges to reaching a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle in the North Country and set goals for improvements. And they are weaving this effort into the work of the regional economic-development council that plays an important role in channeling state aid in the region.
Integrating the findings of the report with state grant applications creates a chance for funding through the state’s Cleaner Greener Communities program. But the findings will be useful to anybody working on such goals as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, improving energy efficiency, protecting water quality, and strengthening local economies.
As several participants emphasized, the biggest contribution may be less tangible: the cultivating of common ground among many different interests, all for the purpose of green development. More than two hundred people participated in the study, from business groups to environmental advocates, academics to government officials.
This sort of collaboration could yield big results. When both economic planners and environmentalists want to steer development to hamlets and villages, for instance, we will have a better chance of seeing that sort of environmentally smart growth. And the prospects of long-term success improve even more if, with the help of state funding, planners can complete projects soon to prove that collaboration works
That’s important. As many participants pointed out, all too many worthy studies end up sitting on a shelf. No matter how well-meaning the work is, if it doesn’t produce concrete benefits it just discourages future efforts.
The report does include specific projects that people have proposed, ranging from improvements to individual businesses, to region-wide planning policies. A few examples:
■ Convert four greenhouses at a Keene Valley farm from oil heat to solar, reducing carbon emissions, extending the operating season, and supporting employment.
■ Convert a cluster of forty homes in Tupper Lake to wood heating as a model to study whether high-efficiency, low-emission furnaces are an affordable option for low- and moderate-income families. On a broad scale, the report calls for studying whether biomass (the use of wood products like pellets, as well as other plant products) as an energy source could improve the region’s energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions, and build the local forestry industry.
■ Create a shuttle system to connect the downtowns of tourist centers with trailheads in the surrounding regions.
■ Revitalize downtowns and main streets as a way of creating attractive centers where people can live, shop, and find work in walkable environments, reducing transportation demands and development pressures on natural areas surrounding villages and hamlets.
The planners hope the study will lead to some funding for projects in the near future through the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. But they also propose goals and projects for five and ten years out and into the future.
In the long-term, the greatest accomplishment of the North Country Sustainability Plan could be as a foundation for yet more conversation and yet more work. As years go on, the details of what must be done will undoubtedly change. And we may face challenges not even anticipated in this work. But if as a region we embrace the idea that it’s in everybody’s interest to work for environmentally sound solutions, we will have the tools we need to build what the state is calling Cleaner Greener Communities. You can also label them as sustainable, durable, or resilient communities. The nomenclature isn’t as important as the underlying recognition that environmental protection is as essential for the economy and the well-being of the human communities as it is for the natural world.
The North Country Sustainability Study covers a broad region, including most of the Adirondack Park as well as the northern swath of the state from Watertown and the Lake Ontario region, across the St. Lawrence Valley to Plattsburgh and the Lake Champlain region.
Within this area it found, among many other statistics:
● 94 percent of the region’s electricity comes from hydropower, mostly from the Robert Moses Dam in Massena.
● The region produces 15 tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent (a measure of greenhouse gases) per person per year compared with a state average of 13, a difference explained by the region’s low-density population and high use of motor vehicles. By far the biggest source of greenhouses gases (40 percent) is fuel for transportation, a reflection of the distances between communities and lack of urban centers.
● Vehicles are driven an average 10,000 miles per person per year in the region.
● 13 percent of homes heat with wood, which is relatively inefficient but produces fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.
● At 39 percent, fuel oil is the most common home-heating fuel, followed by natural gas at 23 percent.
● The region disposes of 3.2 pounds of municipal solid waste per person per day (22 percent less than the state average), but is four times less effective at recovering materials from its waste than the state average.
The North Country Sustainability Plan can be read at www.adirondack.org/green