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APA imbalance

For years, we’ve heard people from Albany to Ray Brook talk about the importance of balance — between protecting nature and allowing human activity — in managing the Adirondack Park, a unique patchwork of public and private lands.

Like governors before him, Andrew Cuomo has paid a lot of lip service to “balance.” But his recent nominations to the state Adirondack Park Agency board cast doubt on whether he really believes that.

Because the governor has been lax in keeping up with nominations, seven of the eight appointees to the APA board are up for appointment, including the chair. Cuomo used that as an opportunity to try to load the board with local government and business people, even more than it already is.

Mind you, he chose good people, as far as we can tell, but from too limited a range of experience. He intentionally left out important viewpoints. His slate, as a whole, was unbalanced.

He took all four from a list submitted by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, and none from lists submitted by environmental groups. Three are active in local government, and one of those — our friend Brian McDonnell of Paul Smiths — works in the outdoor recreation industry. The fourth is a former lawyer for the Department of Environmental Conservation, a state agency the APA oversees and which sometimes tries to dominate the APA.

Each would probably be good, able to look at the park with a relatively balanced perspective — the kind of citizens who have established common ground in the park for the last two decades. But it’s a problem that all were suggested by the same interest group and that good people suggested by environmentalists — such as retiring Adirondack Mountain Club director and lawyer Neil Woodworth — were not chosen.

Another problem with Cuomo’s list is that it’s incomplete. Instead of nominating seven, he only chose four. He expects three others to keep serving on expired terms — even though two of those have already been serving on expired terms for two years. Both local government and environmental advocates agree he should’ve picked a full slate.

This expired term thing needs to stop. Board members can act independently during their appointed terms, but on expired terms they serve at the pleasure of the governor. If they don’t do what he wants, he can dismiss them at any time, and even if they aren’t being pushed around, many observers will suspect they are. The governor already has way too much control over APA board members without this micromanagement tool.

Again, we think Cuomo’s picks are good individually, but because the APA exists to regulate human activity and oversee the DEC, its 11-member board needs at least a couple of people with backgrounds and environmental science, planning, law or otherwise. It has one, in Chad Dawson. It could use at least one more.

The state Senate, which must confirm APA board members, blocked the governor’s picks. In the past, when the Senate had a Republican majority, they might have sailed through, but this year its new Democratic majority was bound to pay more heed to environmental groups. Knowing that, we think the governor’s best course of action would’ve been to pick a full slate of seven and include at least one of the environmental groups’ picks.

There may be some personal or political animus getting in the way of this process. Environmentalists have been very harsh in criticizing Cuomo on the APA. Peter Bauer of Protect of the Adirondacks said last week that “Gov. Cuomo has squarely run the Adirondack Park Agency into the ground.” Meanwhile, the governor’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi told the Adirondack Explorer that these environmentalists just want “their own clubhouse.”

Or maybe they want it to be less the clubhouse of local government and the tourism industry.

Meanwhile, the APA must now limp along with a diminished board until next year, when the Senate returns to Albany. It will have eight members instead of 11 — fewer if some resign or are dismissed — and yet it will still need, by stature, six votes to pass any measure.

Maybe things have to get worse for the APA before they get better. Maybe this year the weaknesses will become unavoidable and improvements will begin to make process more democratic.

We hope members of the Legislature will get as fed up with this as we are and consider changing the law to let Adirondack residents, rather than the governor, choose APA board members — at least the four who must reside inside the park, plus the chair — and that they no longer let board members serve on expired terms. If they won’t do that — and we must keep relying on the governor and senators to control the Adirondacks’ environment and economy — we hope they will at least bring the kind of balance that makes sense to the broad array of park residents and the other New Yorkers who expect this to be a place where nature is protected, within reasonable limits.

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