North Country Community College students who spent eight months studying the Adirondack Club and Resort found many reasons to fault the state Adirondack Park Agency's review and approval of the Tupper Lake project. Basically, they said the decision wasn't based on common ground.
"To date, the common interest has not been identified," student Elyse Relyea told a crowd gathered for a symposium on the study at the Saranac Lake Free Library last week.
NCCC adjunct professor Rebecca Steinberg's environmental science classes in fall 2011 and spring 2012 studied the ACR decision-making process in an interdisciplinary framework. They examined not only the environmental issues that people tend to focus on but also the social and policy problems with the case.
From left, North Country Community College adjunct professor Rebecca Steinberg poses with her students Elyse Relyea and Mark Davy around a poster on research they did on the Adirondack Club and Resort. They presented the poster at this week’s Adirondack Research Consortium Conference on the Adirondacks.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
"I figured, why stick with a textbook when there's an outdoor classroom," Steinberg said.
Relyea and fellow student Mark Davy joined Steinberg in presenting their research at last week's symposium, and they also presented a compressed poster displaying their research at this week's Adirondack Research Consortium Conference on the Adirondacks.
At the beginning of the symposium, Steinberg made it clear that their research conclusions don't reflect the opinion of the college but are solely based on her classes' analyses of the case.
Relyea said there are a number of problems with the APA process that her class found, including these:
There was a selective focus on scientific biophysical data and not enough social or policy data.
The standards of comprehensiveness and timeliness were not met.
Small and large developments are treated the same, regardless of their impact.
Wildlife data used to decide whether the ACR would have an undue adverse impact were based on a dated database from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and there was no current data collected.
There was a lack of comprehensive environmental impact studies overall.
There were myths that the ACR development area was not pristine while they argued that no land today can be considered pristine, and that development is good for wildlife.
The term "undue adverse impact," the standard by which APA commissioners decide whether a project is approvable, is not clearly identified and is not measurable.
"No one seems to know what it means," Davy said, noting the meaning of the phrase can change from one person to the next.
Relyea described how, while the intended scope of the APA is to give equal consideration to economic and environmental developments, it's been more of a pendulum, swinging more to environmental interests since the 1970s, but more recently swinging toward economic growth in part because of the current crisis situation with the economy.
The classes interviewed six different participants in the ACR process, including Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan, Adirondack Residents Intent on Saving their Economy head Jim LaValley (who also took students on a visit to the ACR site), APA spokesman Keith McKeever and Adirondack Wild's Dan Plumley. They assessed each party's demands, values and strategies. Then they compared each group's values to find common ground, which Relyea said should find balance between economic and environmental issues.
In a slide, they mapped out the parties involved in the process and where their values fall on a scale of the common good from special interest to common interest. Protect the Adirondacks and ARISE fell the farther toward special interest while the Adirondack Council was closest to the common interest, with the APA close behind.
Relyea noted how participants use the media to communicate their ideologies through talking to reporters and getting letters published on opinion pages.
But she noted that the media also participates in the process, mainly through editorial writings like those found in the Enterprise and the Tupper Lake Free Press. In addition to that, she said the media uses symbolism to illustrate participants' perspectives, but that can be misleading and perpetuate myths.
"Pictures have power and inspire emotion," Relyea said.
They also noted that the length of the APA approval process polarized the parties, which didn't help find common ground.
"We know that there are many additional perspectives," Relyea said.
Davy said the class recommends the APA could create an alternative forum that will facilitate shared decision making in the public arena in a way that could include more diverse opinions.
"Special-interest groups have been allowed to dominate," Davy said. "The Adirondack Park is not being managed for the common interest."
Steinberg said she hopes to be able to share her classes' research with more people, possibly through putting it on a website, though she said she wanted to be careful not to give the impression that it's the college's viewpoint by posting it on the college's website. But their research was meant to help make suggestions for improving the process.
"We're trying to be helpful here," Steinberg said.
The students who participated in this class included three international students, 12 people from out of the state, 28 Adirondack residents and five students from Tupper Lake. They had six diverse majors and ranged from 18 to 48 years old. The majority of them were male, and they came from a variety of backgrounds.
The fact that Steinberg's two different classes, as well as her former professor and mentor whom she checked in with regularly, came to the same conclusion helps confirm that their research was on the right track, she told the Enterprise.
The fall 2011 class attended a session of an APA meeting when staff was presenting information on the project to APA commissioners. Steinberg said she was nervous there wouldn't be enough material for the spring class, since the APA made a decision on the project on Jan. 20, before the semester began. But then two environmental groups and three landowners filed suit to challenge the decision, which provided plenty of material for the class to focus on.