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Adirondack Council: Park’s popularity is blessing and curse

Mixed reviews in green group’s State of the Park report

Much of the High Peaks Wilderness Area is seen from the summit of Giant Mountain — the state’s 12th highest peak — on Sunday morning. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

The Adirondack Council, an environmental advocacy group based in Elizabethtown, has released its annual State of the Park report, giving mixed reviews to local and state leaders who have hands in managing the Adirondack Park.

“The success the Adirondacks enjoy is now one of our biggest challenges,” Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway wrote in the report. “The Park looks like a success. The maps show lands as protected. Government says it supports protecting clean water, air and wildlands. Everyone says they support the Park. The science shows otherwise. The Adirondack Park is so popular that overuse is harming wilderness and communities. Air pollution is increasing, excess road salt and untreated sewage are harming drinking water, climate change is real, and sales of ATVs and UTVs are soaring. Development and roads are being built on lands mapped as protected.

“Hundreds of millions of state dollars are announced for needed community development, yet there is no new funding for the traditional work Forest Rangers used to do, including education and wilderness management. Ninety percent of people with boats don’t stop at the new invasive species decontamination station on the Northway because the free wash isn’t mandatory. These challenges are also opportunities. The science that tells us to be worried also tells us what the solutions are and guides the achievable 2020 priorities listed in the back of this report.”

Governor

The Council laments several ongoing issues within the Adirondacks at the state executive branch level, namely the current state of the Adirondack Park Agency and the level of Department of Environmental Conservation funding for forest rangers.

The APA board is supposed to be made up of eight citizens appointed by the governor to serve four-year terms, plus three state agency designees. Currently, only one appointed board member is serving on a valid term, four are serving on expired terms, and there are three vacancies. The APA has also been without a chairperson for several months.

“The Governor ignored the need to nominate a full-time chair of the Adirondack Park Agency following the resignation of Sherman Craig of Wanakena,” the Council’s report says. “Karen Feldman voluntarily served as acting chair until quitting, citing a lack of compensation and a lack of respect. The nearly full-time job of chair comes with a $30,000 salary (unchanged since 1971). Other board members receive no salary.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated four new APA board members earlier this summer, but that slate was held up in the state Senate, which has to approve all nominees. The Council supported the Senate committee leader in not approving the slate.

“At the end of the legislative session, the Governor proposed only four nominees to the Senate to fill the six (now seven) empty seats and expired terms on the Adirondack Park Agency board,” the Council’s report said. “The Governor’s nominees would have been acceptable if they had been accompanied by others with experience in conservation law, environmental science and planning.”

The Council also faulted the governor for not increasing the DEC’s and APA’s budgets to increase staffing so that state workers can “curb overuse of popular Forest Preserve trails and summits, to halt the spread of invasive species, or to reduce the impacts of using too much road salt.”

However, the Council also highlighted several actions Gov. Cuomo took that the group is pleased with, including new climate change legislation, funding for the Adirondack Diversity Initiative and the two Adirondack Visitor Interpretive Centers, banning plastic bags and providing money to combat invasive species.

Senate and Assembly

In the state Senate, the Council found fault with a pair of bills, each of which failed to make it out of committee. One would have allowed more ATV and UTV use on Forest Preserve lands, while a second was for a constitutional amendment that would have changed state senators from being elected in population-determined districts to having one senator from each county. While this change would have increased the say North Country senators have, “Bias in favor of Upstate is still bias,” the report says. “Under this plan, Manhattan (pop. 1.65 million) would have the same Senate representation as Hamilton County (pop. 4,485).”

The Council gave a thumbs-up to the state Assembly for looking into the state Department of Transportation’s use of road salt, while a thumbs-down went to a bill that would have expanded ATV use on Forest Preserve lands.

Courts

The State of the Park report gives positive reviews to three court rulings from the past year, including one that “declared that plans to build a road-like snowmobile trail through the Adirondack Forest Preserve would cause ‘an unconstitutional destruction of timber,'” the report says. “The Forever Wild clause of the NYS Constitution prohibits the sale, removal or destruction of timber on the Forest Preserve.

“Unsettled were the questions of how many trees the state could remove lawfully and which trees should be counted. The state’s prior standard had been to count only trees larger than three inches in diameter at breast height. The appellate panel recognized for the first time that small trees can be valuable to the overall ecosystem, and should be protected.”

The Council also applauded a guilty plea from a sewage treatment plant operator who falsified water tests and the acceptance of an amicus curae brief regarding a motor-free stretch of the Hudson River.

The Council also gave positive reviews to both of the women who served as New York Attorney General over the past year: Barbara Underwood and Leticia James.

Local governments

While the Council local governments commended within the Blue Line for increasing access to green energy, attempting to spread visitors out to less used parts of the park and taking action on septic systems, the report is generally critical of local elected officials.

The report cites examples of local governments wanting to increase motorized and mechanized uses on Forest Preserve lands, opposing state land acquisitions and failing to support mandatory invasive species inspections.

2020 priorities

The Council ends its report with a list of priorities for next year, most of which revolve around the items above. Namely, the Adirondack Council wants the state to expand invasive species protection with mandatory inspections of watercraft, appoint APA board members, continue work on climate change and water quality, and increase funding for conservation measures.

The full report can be found at www.adirondackcouncil.org.