Hochul appoints new APA chair
RAY BROOK — John Ernst was appointed chair of the Adirondack Park Agency by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday more than two years after the position was left vacant by former interim chair Karen Feldman.
Ernst has served as a member of the APA board since 2016, though his term expired on June 30. The governor plans to formally nominate him for reappointment to the board once the Senate returns to session, according to the governor’s website. The reappointment needs to be confirmed by the state Senate to be finalized.
“This appointment is an important first step in developing a long-term public and private land use plan for the largest protected area in the continental United States,” Hochul said in a statement. “John has demonstrated a strong dedication to the North Country and I am certain he will excel as the next chair of the Adirondack Park Agency, helping build a better and brighter future for this natural gem.”
Ernst lives in New York county, where he is chair and president of a private investment firm in New York City, according to the governor’s statement. He’s listed as an “out of park” board member on the APA website, but he and his wife Margot have owned the Elk Lake Lodge in North Hudson for years. Ernst’s family has vacationed in North Hudson since his grandfather camped at Clear Pond in 1905. Ernst’s family donated the development rights of the lodge’s shoreline and islands to the state in the 1960s, creating the first conservation easement in New York.
Ernst has been involved in Adirondack organizations and committees for 40 years. He acted as chair of the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Foundation, and he served as president for the Adirondack Landowners Association. He’s also served on boards for the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Land Trust, the Adirondack Center for Writing, the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation and the New York State Tourism Advisory Council. Right now, he serves on the board of the Open Space Institute, which gave John and Margot the 2009 Land Conservation Award.
Reactions from public officials to Ernst’s appointment have been mostly positive, though some have raised concerns about his out-of-park status.
In a Thursday phone interview, State Sen. Dan Stec said that historically, a park resident has filled the APA chair slot. He said Ernst’s out-of-park status is noteworthy because some park residents have expressed frustration with the APA being run by out-of-park “entities.” Jerry Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, raised those same concerns in an interview with the Adirondack Explorer.
“I’m extremely disappointed that this new precedent is being set, that somebody who lives and works outside the park now gets to have so much power over the people in the park,” Delaney told the Explorer. “I can’t emphasize how disappointed I am in this choice.”
Stec said that after meeting Ernst “a handful of times” throughout the years, he thinks Ernst is well-qualified for the job and that Ernst’s history in the park puts him on the map.
“I’m not dwelling on it,” Stec said. “I’m comfortable with the governor’s pick here.”
Zoe Smith, deputy director of Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute and an APA board member since 2020, said she’s in full support of Ernst’s appointment as chair. She said that in her time on the board, she’s seen Ernst ask thoughtful questions about park needs, show a sense of leadership and form good relationships with APA staff. She also said he’s helped to educate her and direct her to resources she’s needed as a new board member.
Smith said she doesn’t see Ernst’s out-of-park status as a challenge to the role, and she believes his experience as a business owner and park landowner have prepared him for the job.
“The acceptance of stakeholders of him in this role will be the bigger challenge … I really believe he has a deep understanding of our issues,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.
APA board member Art Lussi also gave his approval of Ernst’s appointment on Thursday.
“I’m very excited about the nomination of John Ernst as APA chair,” he said. “I think he’ll do an outstanding job. I think he has a very good ability to balance the environmental issues with the economic issues of the park, and I look forward to working with him.”