By Gwendolyn Craig
Barbara Rice, a Saranac Lake native and the first woman chair of the Franklin County Legislature is the next Adirondack Park Agency executive director, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday.
She will lead the 48-person agency charged with protecting public and private lands in the 6-million acre park. In a statement to the Adirondack Explorer, Hochul called Rice’s appointment a way to “further advance the long-term public and private land use that will preserve this gem for years to come.”
Current APA Executive Director Theresa (Terry) DeFranco Martino announced her retirement on Jan. 14 and is expected to hold the top post until the beginning of February. The Adirondack Explorer left a message for Rice for comment at her family furniture business in Saranac Lake.
Rice has deep roots in the Adirondack Park, graduating from Saranac Lake High School. She is a third-generation of her family to operate Rice Furniture in the village a few miles from APA headquarters in Ray Brook. The Democrat has served as a Saranac Lake trustee, Harrietstown Board of Assessment and Review member and Franklin County legislator.
In 2016, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Rice as an APA commissioner. She held the post through 2018.
“Barbara Rice is dedicated to the North Country having had a distinguished career in local government and her previous role as an APA Commissioner will serve her well in protecting this vital resource, and she will excel in her new role as Executive Director of the Adirondack Park Agency,” Hochul said.
“She’s the best,” said Karen Feldman, former APA chair, who served with Rice. “She’s smart. She’s got this great attitude. She knows the issues. She’s got all the attributes.” Feldman said Rice is an excellent successor to Martino and she would be well-received among agency staff.
In 2017, Rice became the first woman chair of the Franklin County Legislature. In 2018, Cuomo appointed her as his administration’s assistant secretary for economic development. She has maintained that role under the Hochul Administration, working on expanding broadband coverage and cell phone service across the state. Records show in 2020 she made $127,500.
Pete Nelson, co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, said Rice is a good choice for APA executive director. Other colleagues and groups, he said, would rather have someone with environmental experience leading the agency charged with protecting public and private lands in the park.
John Sheehan, communications director for the Adirondack Council, said he did not recall the environmental advocacy group having any major disagreements with Rice during her APA tenure.
“I think if we had any concern in this case it would be for the fact that her background is mainly economic development, even though she’s familiar with the park agency,” Sheehan said. “We have some concerns about how well it’s been doing its job protecting the environment, and I think we were hoping for strong environmental credentials in that position.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, also said he would have preferred the new APA director to have environmental expertise, but added he was “heartened” over Rice’s appointment. Bauer said his organization hopes she “will mark a new beginning for the APA,” with greater transparency.
While a county legislator, Rice worked to reform ethics in Franklin County government.
Nelson said the APA needs to be rededicated to its mission of protecting forest preserve, but he doesn’t see Rice’s potential appointment as a negative.
“Good executive leadership is important,” Nelson said. “The larger question of the APA’s direction resides with its oversight and the board and the chair of the board.”
Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, offered a favorable view of Rice. There are many strains on the agency because of staff turnover, retirements and institutional knowledge being lost.
“I think there’s real challenges there,” Delaney said. “I think Barb is up to them.”
Jim Odato contributed to this report.