Former governor discusses the park he lives in, and what he did to protect it
By Gwendolyn Craig
On a hot May day along the Boquet River, one United States and one Canadian flag fly outside the Willsboro Diner in Essex County. The Canadian border has been closed for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a couple of out-of-towners and a few locals sit spread out in the eatery. One of those locals is former Gov. George Pataki, recognized and greeted by nearly everyone inside.
The 53rd governor of New York has been living with his wife Libby on their Champlain Valley farm in the Adirondack Park throughout the pandemic. It’s his place of refuge, though he has started traveling more to his law office in New York City now that restrictions are lifting. Pataki has been out of the political fray for a few years. He was the last Republican to be governor; his third term ended in 2006. He also took a stab at running for president in 2015, though the campaign was short-lived.
There are plenty of things Pataki is remembered for from his state service. Many, perhaps, would point to his leadership during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But it was shortly after that American crisis that Pataki and his family sought a quiet place they could get away at times, and they found that in the Adirondack Park. It is a place where Pataki has left his mark, too, through his governance.
Pataki was responsible for deals that conserved more than 1 million acres, mostly in the Adirondack Park. His administration was also responsible for closing the last landfills in the Adirondack Park.
Not everything went the way he had planned, however, including a constitutional amendment involving a forest preserve land swap with a mining company. The amendment was under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, but Pataki lobbied for it. The amendment was intended to preserve jobs at NYCO Minerals, a company down the road from the Willsboro Diner where Pataki was sitting. The company would be allowed access to forest preserve lands to do exploratory drilling, while giving some of its land to the forest preserve. Once the drilling was finished, NYCO Minerals would return the rest of the property to forest preserve. But the company sold out to another buyer, many locals lost their jobs, and the land swap never went through.
Pataki agreed to sit down with Adirondack Explorer to talk about his views of the Adirondacks past and present. The interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Q: What are some things you like to do in the Adirondacks?
A: One of my favorite things is walking along streambeds, and this time of year it’s hard because you get all the brush and everything and if it’s wet, you can get stuck in the bog. But when it’s all frozen over you can just walk up the ice on the brooks and streams, walk over the land. There’s always a lot of interesting tracks in the snow. It’s great fun. We have a farm. I just love it.
Q: Do you grow anything there?
A: We have beef cows. We have horses. We have chickens. And the main thing we do is hay. Hay for the cows, and we sell hay for the horses, too, and right now we just started to cut the hay for the first time this year.
Q: How did you end up in the Adirondacks?
A: I always lived on a farm, and down where I grew up, it just got so built up and overgrown. My wife Libby and I love the Hamptons. We met out there in the early 70’s, but it’s been ruined, and that’s one of the things we love about the Adirondacks. When we used to go to the Hamptons with all the little inlets and bays and things, there would actually be farms. Now there’s 30,000 square-foot “McMansions.” We saw that happening out there. That was one of the attractions of the Adirondack Park is that that’s not going to happen here. We don’t have to worry about the people who have the farm down the road building 300 condos or 40 giant McMansions because it’s in the park.
Q: Did you drive through one and day and say, this is where I want to be?
A: I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. We had a farm down in Washington County but my wife didn’t want it because she wanted to be on the water. A friend of ours took us out on the boat. It was 2002. It was very busy. We were recovering from the attacks of Sept. 11 (2001), so I didn’t have time to look. I’m out on a boat (on Lake Champlain), and I said there’s a farm, there’s a farm, there’s a farm, there’s a farm. Went off to be governor again and told my wife to come look around and see. The place we found she hated because the place had been abandoned and the buildings had collapsed and you couldn’t get in the farmhouse because it was overgrown with vines and broken glass, but I loved it. So we got it. We’re still renovating it. It’s a perpetual process, but it’s just great. We just love it here. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s one of the most undiscovered parts of the whole Northeast, I think, certainly of upstate New York, the Champlain Valley and the Adirondack Park.
We always loved the Adirondacks. In fact, my last day as governor, the last night, I spent in Lake Placid. My last day I went to a Jets game because I’m a Jets fan, and they probably lost, I don’t remember. They hadn’t been very good. They’ll get better. And then we came up to Lake Placid and we stayed at Mirror Lake, and had dinner with all of our friends for the last night as governor. I love the Adirondacks. I love Lake Placid. I love Whiteface. Learned how to ski to the extent I can at Gore, when I was in school. It’s just been a unique, tremendous place that still has to fight to retain its incredible natural characteristics.
Q: You conserved a lot of land…
A: 1,020,000 acres.
Q: Was that easements, or purchases or both?
A: Both. It was enormous opposition initially, particularly up here. But I tried to stress the whole way through that we’re doing this not just to protect the space for future generations but also to create the appropriate balance where people would want to be here, and I think we’re seeing it now. Because of COVID, having all this protected space hasn’t been a negative. In fact, in some ways, it’s attracting people that the park isn’t ready to handle yet. I’m proud of that, and it was something we worked very hard on.
Q: Do you feel like you got your and the state’s money’s worth?
A: In government, too often the thinking is short-term. Today we’re here because 140 years ago, some people thought long-term. And I don’t know what people think about the 1,020,000 acres today, but hopefully they’ll be people saying, ‘Thank God they preserved all this space for us.”
Q: How did you get support for those purchases?
A: It’s a matter of trust, and when I first became governor, they didn’t trust me. They didn’t trust the state at all because there had been this horrible, contentious relationship. We went out of our way to make it more of a partnership where you listen to the communities. I remember the last piece we got in St. Lawrence County, it wasn’t in the Adirondack Park, but it was a fairly large chunk, and the head of the county says, ‘well, we’ve got real reservations. We could use a couple of million dollars to upgrade the snowmobile trails in other parts of the county.’ Done. So that was the deal. There was a partnership where the residents got their upgraded snowmobile trails, and the state got to preserve this land for future generations.
Q: Do you think party lines had anything to do with it, too?
A: I don’t think really. Maybe in the first year, but after that they’re not judging you by your party but whether you kept your word, and what your actions are, and what your approach is. It’s funny, one of the first big statewide things I did was the environmental bond act shortly after I got elected. I remember going to Lake Placid and there were people protesting it. I went over and talked to the protesters. They said the state always screws us. It’s nice to have such a beautiful place, but if you can’t have a job, and you can’t have a home, and you can’t live here, what does it do? I said I understand. We got the bond act passed, and we did a lot in Lake Placid, including renovate the Olympic facilities, creating a larger convention center, all sorts of things consistent to making Lake Placid more viable economically.
But I remember right here, the first project we did, and I wanted the first project to be in the Adirondacks because they voted against it because they didn’t trust me. There was a dam here across the Boquet and salmon, big salmon, are in Lake Champlain but they couldn’t get up the river beyond the dam to breed and to spawn. And below the dam, you’d have massive salmon and it was a great place to fish, but they couldn’t reproduce, so we put a fish ladder right here in Willsboro so the landlocked salmon could get up and be spawning in the branches of the Boquet River. The supervisor a couple of years ago blew up the dam, took out the dam, and I wish I thought of it. Because you look at the river now, it flows freely. I think the salmon are going to be doing a lot better than they did with the fish ladder.
Q: How do you think the current administration is doing when it comes to the park?
A: I’m trying my best not to comment on the current administration.
Q: Are you surprised with how the park has been since you were in office? Are you happy with the direction it’s going? That would be under a few administrations.
A: Yeah, three of them. The whole concept of the park is to create a vision for the entire 6 million-plus acres. I still think you have to think in terms of the big picture and not just protect here and protect there.
Q: When you preserved this land in your time as governor, was it also with climate change in mind? Did you consider the park as a carbon sink?
A: The answer is yes, but that was a secondary consideration. The primary consideration was to have the open space for future generations and for recreation and environmental reasons now. But I mean we made climate change a priority before anybody else did. Got rid of the sales tax on alternative fuels, passed the first green building tax credit in the world, created the regional greenhouse gas initiative. It’s still something I think that has to be a priority.
Q: How do you think the Adirondack Park Agency is faring?
A: I saw that it was just like eight people appointed? That’s typical that there are vacancies or holdovers, and it’s hard to be able to develop an intelligent team and vision going forward.
Q: They haven’t had a chair in a few years.
A: Sadly, that is not uncommon in this administration. That is unfortunate.
Q: How involved do you think the governor should be with what’s happening in the APA?
A: He should be involved. He should put really good people (on the board), and then you don’t just walk away. You have to have a concept of what the park should be and consistently work with local governments and the park agency to try and make sure that you’re moving towards that.
Q: Do you think it should be more independent as an agency?
A: That’s a tough question because sometimes people get appointed to a position and they become carried away with their own power and brilliance, and I’ve seen it time and again. So you have to retain the ability to have some capability of monitoring authorities. You don’t dictate day-to-day activities. You don’t make a decision on a particular project, but to make sure the vision you have is being maintained, I do think that you have to follow the activities enough to be able to do that.
Q: The APA and DEC are starting to look at managing visitors, too, in the Adirondacks.
A: It is a concern, certainly of the High Peaks getting overrun. It is. COVID has created opportunities, and it’s created problems. It’s created opportunities because people want to be here. They’re rethinking, do they want to be in urban and suburban areas. They’re thinking, can I work remotely? But the other side of it is people, if they’re not going to go to the city, they might decide to hike the High Peaks.
Q: What do you think about limiting access though? They’re piloting that this summer.
A: I think you have to consider it. You just don’t want it overrun. You want to be respectful of those who come here because they want that experience, but on the other hand, it’s not going to be a positive experience or sustainable if you have too many people.
Q: So you’re in favor of trying out a permit?
A: I think they should take a look at alternative approaches to see and try them out on a pilot basis.
Q: How did you become a kind of environmentalist?
A: I grew up like this. I grew up outdoors on the farm, and just loved it. If it was nice out, you were out. You were in the woods. Politicians are too often short-term and the whole idea should be to leave things better for next generations. Once you’ve destroyed land, once you’ve gotten rid of its natural uniqueness, it’s very hard to get it back. Another thing, when I grew up, I grew up in a little town on the Hudson River. It would be hot in the summer, and you couldn’t go in the river because it was so polluted. That was something that always struck me is, how did that happen? What I said as governor, we were struggling economically, really struggling economically, and people were saying, you’re wasting all these resources on the environment. Economics and environment are not incompatible. They’re synergistic.
Q: There are a few different constitutional amendments proposed for Article 14. There have been a handful of amendments in the last couple of decades. Do you think that shows how tough it is in the constitution to get anything done here? Should it keep getting amended?
A: I think you have to be very careful, truly, in looking at constitutional amendments. The constitution has worked for 140 years. Yes, there has to be an amendment from time to time. There’s one right here in Willsboro. There’s a mine that employs a couple of hundred people in the town. This is not a very high-income town, and every job means a great deal. They wanted to expand the mine, take some acres of parkland and give three times that. It wasn’t protected or sensitive land. Some of the enviros opposed it, which I thought was outrageous because that showed a lack of respect for the balance, but it passed overwhelmingly. And it made sense because it expands state-owned lands, and it just allows a continuation of these 200-plus jobs that are so essential for a community like this.
Q: Are you still glad how that turned out though? The mine deal didn’t work out the way it was planned.
A: It didn’t?
Q: No. They haven’t exchanged any land. The company switched hands and many people lost their jobs.
A: That’s a shame. That’s very unfortunate for the town. But that’s another thing. A lot of private equity firms, it’s important to make $1 a year more than to take decent care of your workers, and I think that’s an unfortunate development that’s happening too often. Plus, I understand people have doubts about the economic climate of the state because the state is the highest taxed state, which is awful, and it’s also over-regulated. It’s really sad for people who need the work here.
Q: Are you looking at another run for governor?
A: No. I think we need to change the direction of the state dramatically. It really troubles me, honestly. I’m going to work really hard to find the best candidate for the Republican Party to put up next year, and I think things are so bad that the Republicans have a chance to win, but it has to be a candidate that can appeal across party lines. You want someone who has the right vision for the future of the state, but you also want someone who can win, and too often I’ve seen all these candidates with great ideas but they have not chance of winning the race. You can’t be a rabid partisan Republican and hope to win.
Q: And that’s not you running?
A: There are a lot of people out there running already, and there will be others. It’s way too early. The one thing we know is things will change dramatically between now and next year. Things are changing every day, and I think we’ll see next year, but I’m going to try hard to help the party come up with a candidate with the right vision.
Q: You ran for president. Have you thought about doing that again? Any other office?
A: I’ve often thought of running for Mayor of Peekskill, but I don’t live there now. It’d be kind of hard. But no.
Q: What’s your legacy here in the park?
A: That’s for others. I’m proud, from rebuilding Lower Manhattan to getting through the human disaster and the economic disaster after that, to what we’ve done in the Adirondacks, to Albany with the whole semi-conductor industry that we brought here from nothing. Certainly, preserving a lot of space, but also just restoring the public’s faith that there could be a partnership that was respectful between the residents of the local communities and state government. I think that’s just so important. Preserving open space is tremendous and that’s something that will be here 100 years from now. Having that trust between the residents and local governments and state government and APA is essential. We had that when I left. I don’t know that it exists now. I hope it does.