By Tom Woodman
FOUR DECADES ago the Adirondack Park Agency came into being. It was not an easy birth or infancy. Political opposition weakened this new creature even before it saw the light of day. And controversy surrounded its early years as it worked to incorporate conservation values in the regulation of private lands. Its efforts often were met with misunderstanding, misinformation, hostility, and defiance.
Its future, though, seemed as promising as its present was turbulent. Conceived with the promise of protecting the Park forever, the APA embodied the optimistic view that the Adirondacks could become a model for the world, a mix of public and private lands managed for the benefit of wild nature and human communities, natural beauty and an economy nurtured by the attractions of outdoor recreation and the wise use of natural resources.
As a yearlong series of articles in the Explorer demonstrated, reality has not lived up to these hopes. For a variety of reasons and in spite of the efforts of many talented leaders and staff over the years, the APA has not been able to stay in the forefront of conservation planning and preservation of natural lands. Other regions of the country have taken the lead. Areas like Lake Tahoe have shown the way to effectively protect and restore water quality. Others, like the New Jersey Pine Barrens, have advanced conservation design that allows for development in better harmony with the natural environment.
Other regions once looked to this experiment in the mountains of northern New York to learn how to marry environmental protection with vibrant communities. Now we need to look to others as examples of how we can move Adirondack protections forward.
The Explorer is accepting this challenge. Our series identified key areas where protections must be strengthened and errors corrected. We will now build on our findings and continue the discussion in a way that we hope will bring action to better safeguard the future of this vulnerable Park.
On September 26 the Adirondack Explorer will convene a day-long conference called “Strengthening the APA.” We will gather experts from across the Adirondacks and around the nation to discuss the central topics of how the region can move forward. Scientists and planning authorities, public officials, and environmental advocates will bring their expertise to bear on these questions. Importantly, they will be able to cite examples of what has worked both for the APA here in the Park and for other authorities working in similar environments.
Though we face many issues here in the Adirondacks, this conference will focus on two large questions.
The first is how to protect the quality of the Adirondack waters that are at the heart both of the environmental health of the region and of the economic well-being of an area so dependent on outdoor recreation. Beyond protecting the waterways from threats like nutrient-loading and invasive species, we need to address the question of how to restore those watersheds that have been hurt by poorly designed and under-regulated development.
The other large subject area is conservation design. How do these principles allow for economically important development while preserving the natural beauty and ecological health of the Adirondacks? Randall Arendt, a national leader in the use of conservation and smart-growth strategies, will be a featured speaker.
Representatives of the APA, both current and past, will help us understand the challenges the agency faces, especially in a time of limited state resources.
And throughout the sessions, we will challenge ourselves to examine how environmental preservation can be compatible with economic well-being for the residents of the Park.
It’s time to move into an era of renewed vigor for the preservation of an Adirondack Park whose presence becomes more and more precious as wild areas become scarcer and the need for natural refuge becomes more critical for our state and nation.
The timing is good not only because the shortcomings are apparent, but also because of the distance we have come in the decades since the creation of the APA. Today’s climate is more conducive to constructive conversation.
The rhetorical—and occasional physical—violence that accompanied the early arguments has mellowed over the years. Disagreements are more respectful. Even those who differ fundamentally on the best course for the Park engage each other, more often than not, on the merits of an idea rather than indulging in ad hominem attacks. The recent series of public hearings on how the state should classify former Finch, Pruyn land were characterized by a civility that would have been hard to imagine in the cauldron of the 1970s. An evolution in the very vocabulary of the region is telling. Virtually everyone now refers to “the Park,” forgetting that this was once a loaded term derogated by opponents who charged that it betrayed an anti-resident bias on the part of preservationists.
The APA has helped bring about a new way of thinking. Let’s hope that we can now bring about a new strength and a new way of working toward those goals that seemed so fresh and inspiring forty years ago.
Strengthening the APA:
The conference will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 26, at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center. You can register at AdirondackExplorer.org.