Climate goals, green energy projects, trail work, High Peaks visitor management among topics brought up during hearing
By Gwendolyn Craig
Lawmakers grilled state department heads about Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed environmental conservation budget on Tuesday with an emphasis on climate initiatives.
During the marathon hearing, the president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, executive director of the Office of Renewable Energy Siting and commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation received most of the spotlight. Legislators asked what progress the proposed $216 billion budget would make toward the state’s greenhouse gas emissions goals.
Legislative leaders questioned DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos on plans for managing visitors in the Adirondack and Catskill parks. He revealed that the state will be taking bids from contractors interested in setting up a visitor management system.
Adirondack Park organizations testified before the state Legislature around 12 hours into the hearing and asked lawmakers for more funding and specificity in the budget for Adirondack and Catskill parks programs.
Progress toward climate goals
The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed in 2019 was on many legislators’ minds. The law calls for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, 40% by 2030 and 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.
To help reach those goals, in April 2020 the state developed the Office of Renewable Energy Siting to streamline the build-out of projects 25 megawatts or larger. Projects between 20 and 25 megawatts are eligible to opt-in to the siting process, too. One such project was announced last April in the Adirondack Park, a 20-megawatt solar installation on an old iron ore mine in St. Lawrence County.
But lawmakers expressed shock when ORES Executive Director Houtan Moaveni said the office had issued four final permits, with 63 permits still in the pipeline. Moaveni said getting the office running in the early days of a pandemic was one challenge. Some projects were also under review with the DEC.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, chair of the environmental conservation committee, asked Seggos why DEC was “preventing them (ORES) from the expeditious approval of projects.”
“We have a balanced mission,” Seggos said. “We have to protect wildlife while helping the state transition off of fossil fuels.”
The Long Island Democrat asked Seggos if he was confident the state would meet its emissions goals.
“We have to hit our targets, not just required by the law, but we have to do it because the climate crisis is real,” Seggos said.
Others, including state Sen. Thomas O’Mara, told state agency heads he wanted more investment in climate resiliency projects rather than “clean energy pie in the sky.” The Republican representing Big Flats said New York’s emissions account for a trivial amount of the global greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy projects would hurt ratepayers’ pocketbooks.
Some lawmakers worried about the loss of farmland when siting solar panel projects, a concern for some groups in the Adirondack Park for smaller projects in the Champlain Valley.
Richard Ball, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, said replacing traditional farms with solar farms is the “issue of the decade.” Ball said he was conflicted because he respects private property rights and protects agriculture acreage. The state has organized a farmland preservation work group.
“We don’t want to have a loss of farmland,” Ball said.
Moaveni said the office has regulations around developing solar projects on agricultural lands including requirements for decommissioning projects. Doreen Harris, president and CEO of NYSERDA, said the New York Sun Program prioritizes using lands like brownfields.
State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, said she worried some counties will become “dead” because they host so many solar panels. The regulations in place now, she said, “are not working on a regional perspective.”
In Hochul’s proposed $400 million environmental protection fund is $50 million to go toward stewardship activities.
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Steve Englebright, D-Setauket, asked Seggos why spending sums to deal with Adirondack Park overuse do not appear in this year’s budget plan. Seggos said with the $100 million increase in the environmental protection fund, the department will have “extraordinary flexibility” eliminating the need for so-called line items or carve-outs.
Hinchey said the carve-out was hard-fought in last year’s budget and she hoped the Catskills would be included.
State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, also asked Seggos to clarify if trail maintenance would be part of the planned spending from the environmental protection fund. Seggos said it would. Trail maintenance would also be funded under New York Works, a New York City job growth program that would be part of the $4 billion environmental bond act, should voters pass it in November.
Kaminsky asked Seggos if the DEC was close to a time when Adirondack Park visitors could pull up a phone application and see how busy a trail was in real time. Two U.S. senators, Steve Daines of Montana and Angus King of Maine, seek an app to inform visitors of crowd levels at national parks and other federal lands. It is part of their bipartisan bill introduced in a National Parks subcommittee on Wednesday.
Seggos said with cell service poor in most of the backcountry, he did not anticipate developing such an app. But the state is taking seriously the recommendations of two advisory groups appointed to address visitor management in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Seggos pointed to the reservation system set up last year at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, a gateway to a number of High Peaks trails in Keene. He pointed to a trial shuttle service in the High Peaks.
Englebright asked Seggos about the New York Court of Appeals’ decision issued last year that some Adirondack Park snowmobile trails were unconstitutional.
“Any of the trails that would have been started pursuant to that historic plan went to a grinding halt when we saw the subject was brought before the court,” Seggos said.
“We’ll be watching that carefully,” Englebright said. “The fidelity of your agency to that court decision is really important to us.”
Adirondack groups testify
Environmental organizations asked lawmakers to commit $10 million under the environmental protection fund for the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The parks comprise about 6.5 million acres, or about one-fourth of the state, said Cathy Pedler, director of advocacy for the Adirondack Mountain Club. They get more than 25 million visitors annually. Funding would be used for trail work, recreational infrastructure, planning and outreach, Pedler said.
Kevin Chlad, director of government relations for the Adirondack Council, said he was thrilled to hear Seggos say the DEC would bring in an outside organization to create a “visitor use management framework.”
But Chlad said budget planners need to provide details with a funding amount identified.
The Adirondack Council is also requesting $2.1 million to fund programming at Timbuctoo, a historic Black suffrage settlement in Essex County. The council plans to partner with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and CUNY Medgar Evers College for an annual summer climate and careers institute for high school students held at the site.
Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman, a Democrat from Queens, said she visited the site last fall with the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus. Hyndman said she supported the $2.1 million ask.
“It was a real eye-opening experience,” Hyndman said. “I do plan to visit the Adirondacks again. I think it’s such a treasure we have in New York state. I’m just pledging my efforts and support.”
Read groups’ budget testimonies here: https://www.nysenate.gov/calendar/public-hearings/february-01-2022/joint-legislative-public-hearing-2022-executive-budget-0
First hearing video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaB5hqsEqMM
Second hearing video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILjjSE9UXdc