Gov. Cuomo’s golden opportunity to safeguard the Adirondack Park

Hats off to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for moving New York state to the forefront in the fight against climate change with his goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050. The governor has gone all out to put New York state on a carbon-neutral path while we still have a chance to save our planet.

Mr. Cuomo also deserves credit for his efforts to make the Adirondack Park an even better place than he found it. He has done so by supporting land acquisitions for the “forever wild” Forest Preserve, creating new campground and equestrian facilities around the abandoned Frontier Town tourist attraction in the central Adirondacks, and expanding recreational opportunities through support of a multi-use trail on the old railroad line connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

Now the governor has another great opportunity to enhance this largest and most diverse park in the lower 48 states. He can do so by strengthening the state’s Adirondack Park Agency, which was established nearly 50 years ago in response to uncontrolled land development on the park’s private lands and growing pressures on the intermingled public lands. Back then, the APA was at the cutting edge of regional land-use planning in this country. Its mission was clear and urgent: to preserve the wildness and beauty of the Adirondacks while still allowing for compatible growth.

Over the years, however, some weaknesses in the APA’s land-use plan have become evident. For example, the plan stipulates that residential development should be done 1) on substantial acreages or 2) in small clusters on carefully selected and well-designed sites. Those two choices reflected the best environmental thinking of the time, but during the next half-century, conservation-based planning evolved considerably. Concentrating development — rather than spreading it out in huge lots over a natural landscape — is now favored when it comes to environmental protection. Creating a patchwork of backcountry lots containing “substantial acreages” is considered to be urban sprawl, a condition destructive of the wild and scenic character that distinguishes the Adirondacks.

The 6,000-acre land development proposed for Tupper Lake, and approved by the APA several years ago, illustrates the problem. This ambitious project envisioned hundreds of units clustered around the base of Mount Morris, the preferable way to subdivide and develop. But the plan also includes dozens of “Great Camp” lots, ranging in size from 25 to 118 acres, scattered throughout the entire tract. While the “building footprint” on each of these lots seems insignificant compared with the overall acreage, the “ecological footprint” can be 10 times as great. The environmental impact comes not only from the principal houses but from roads, cars, driveways, garages, guest cabins, pets, noise and human activity. According to studies by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the disruption can extend 30 acres as it affects various bird species, and for small mammals the impact can go well beyond that.

Conservation science leaves no doubt about how to minimize the environmental damage from carving up land. This is done by concentrating development and overlapping “impact zones,” leaving 70 to 90% of the land in CONTIGUOUS, INTACT open space. And this is where Gov. Cuomo has the opportunity to strengthen the APA and help restore the agency to its former, leading-edge status.

He can do so by strongly supporting a “conservation design bill” soon to be reintroduced in the state legislature. This bill would amend the APA law to require that subdivisions of land exceeding a certain number of lots to be done in a way that respects the natural character of the park. The option encouraging “substantial acreages” will be dropped as an APA guideline, and only the second option, designed to preserve wildlife habitat and unbroken open space, will apply.

Mr. Cuomo can also strengthen the APA through his appointments to the agency’s governing board, which makes permit decisions and sets park policy. The terms for most of the board positions have now lapsed, giving the governor an opportunity to fill the vacancies with experts in environmental law, regional planning, sustainable development and conservation science.

Earlier this year, the acting chairwoman of the APA board resigned after not being paid for many months of work. This leadership vacuum has been filled by a representative of the state Department of Economic Development, a move that seems to ignore the real purpose of this pioneering agency. There’s no question that economic development is important to the future of the Adirondack Park, and there are many local, regional and state agencies devoted to this mission. But the APA was established, first and foremost, as an environmental protection agency responsible for maintaining — and enhancing — this unique part of the world where human beings and nature have managed to peacefully coexist.

Let’s hope that Andrew Cuomo will continue this remarkable tradition.

Dick Beamish was a staff member of the Adirondack Park Agency in its early years (1972-78) and founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine in 1998. He currently lives in Middlebury, Vermont.


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