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Open letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Save the APA

Dear Gov. Cuomo:

The Adirondack Park Agency is weaker today than at any time in its 48-year history. That the fault rests with your office is both unfortunate and surprising: unfortunate because the APA was created to protect the Adirondack Park from damaging use and development but is now falling down on the job; surprising because, at the national level, you have become a leader in combating climate change, the greatest environmental threat to our planet in human history. Yet in a critically important way you have neglected the world-class park in your own backyard.

First, some perspective that you, as New York state’s chief executive, are no doubt aware of. At 6 million acres, the Adirondack Park occupies one-fifth of the state. It is the largest park by far in the contiguous U.S. — nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, as big as Vermont and a lot bigger than Massachusetts. The Adirondack Park is unique in its ownership pattern: Almost half of it consists of public Forest Preserve, protected by the state constitution as “forever wild” and owned by all the people of New York state. Which means that all New Yorkers have a vested interest in preserving this natural treasure.

Before the APA was established by the New York State Legislature, the private lands of the Adirondacks were wide open to any and all kinds of development, posing a threat to the adjacent public lands and to the integrity of the park as a whole. Thanks to the APA’s regional development controls, enacted in 1973, and to the forever-wild Forest Preserve, which has enjoyed ironclad protection since 1895, the Adirondack Park serves as a model for how people and nature can coexist in a mutually beneficial way. By protecting these woods, waters, mountains and wetlands, New York state is also nurturing the Adirondack economy, which depends largely on tourism and second-home ownership.

Sadly, however, the APA has fallen into disrepair. This tiny but essential agency (some 50 staff members overseen by an 11-member board) has been crippled by a combination of interference and neglect by your office. Indicative of this failure was the agency’s approval of a 6,000-acre subdivision near Tupper Lake that included dozens of “Great Camp lots,” ranging from 25 to 118 acres, with access roads and buildings that would be scattered across a forested landscape.

This was the largest subdivision proposal ever reviewed by the APA, and it represented a classic example of the wrong way to treat Adirondack land. The agency could have required — but failed to require — the developer to avoid “rural sprawl” and preserve wildlife habitat by concentrating development so that most the vast tract would remain in continuous open space.

The APA claimed it had no authority to do an ecological survey and require the necessary environmental protections, though it had previously, under a different governor (who happened to be your father), done just that with another potentially destructive development proposal. Yet when a “conservation design bill” was subsequently introduced in the New York State Legislature, which would explicitly allow the APA to exercise such control over large subdivision proposals, the agency refused to back the legislation. Nor did your office support this crucial step in strengthening and motivating the APA. As a consequence, the legislation, which was opposed by two influential Adirondack legislators, went nowhere.

The extent of your mismanagement is also reflected in the plight of the APA’s governing board, which supposedly consists of three state agency commissioners and eight citizen members appointed by you and subject to confirmation by the state Senate. The current number of citizen members has now dwindled to five, four of whom are serving expired terms. Adding insult to injury, only two of them have any background in land-use planning and environmental protection.

In May, the acting APA chairwoman resigned, having served eight months without being paid for the full-time work she was doing. In June, the state Senate rejected a slate of four candidates that you proposed for the APA board because they were clearly unqualified. These same candidates were, however, embraced by local governments and development interests, though they lacked any expertise in environmental science, law, regional planning or open-space protection — qualities essential to fulfilling the protective mission of the agency.

So please, Gov. Cuomo, get the APA back on track. Appoint people to the agency’s board who represent the state interest in safeguarding this special place, and then give them the freedom to do the job.

Development will no doubt accelerate in the Adirondacks during the course of the 21st century, but it must be done with respect for the park’s natural attributes. According to some recent estimates, the number of annual visitors to the Adirondacks has grown to 18 million (including both day and overnight visits) and will surely continue to increase. The number of seasonal residents has supposedly reached 200,000 and is also likely to grow, along with the park’s permanent population, currently at 130,000. The increasing popularity of the Adirondacks seems inevitable in the decades ahead as global warming makes life south of the park increasingly hot and uncomfortable — and working remotely becomes an option for more people.

Properly protected, the Adirondack Park can accommodate this growth and avoid the perils of being loved to death. But we need your leadership, and a strong, resolute Adirondack Park Agency, for this to happen.

Dick Beamish lives in Middlebury, Vermont, served as communications director for the Adirondack Park Agency from 1972-78 and later launched the Adirondack Explorer magazine.

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