Update: The Department of Environmental Conservation sent a lengthy response to my blog post a few minutes ago. It’s too long for the comment section, so I’m including it at the bottom of this post.
Over the next year, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his chosen commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, have a landmark decision to make.
They will have to sort out what to do with more than 60,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn land in the Adirondacks.
The property is owned now by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, which wants the land to be acquired in fee by New York state and added to the constitutionally-protected forest preserve.
The Conservancy also wants New York to acquire the forests and bogs around Follensby Pond near Tupper Lake.
I’ve seen some of the terrain in question and I don’t think there’s any doubt that some of it should be made forever wild.
But especially at a time when New York taxpayers face an $11 billion budget deficit, and crucial environmental and stewardship programs have been de-funded, there is a legitimate debate underway over the size, scope and timing of these deals.
State Senator Betty Little and others want them canceled outright. They say the state already owns more land than it can properly manage in the Park.
Another key factor shaping the conversation is the woeful condition of many Park communities.
Local government leaders are worried that “locking up” this land will close off future options for development and prosperity.
Green groups make a passionate argument that these lands need permanent protection for their intrinsic ecological value, while also insisting that the deal will boost tourism and generate more property tax payments from New York state.
They also hope to eventually see a vast new wilderness area created in the core of the Adirondacks.
All these points deserve a thorough hashing out. The problem is that we have no public process in place to wrestle with the thorny questions surrounding big land deals.
Yes, the DEC has a forest preserve advisory committee, but as the Adirondack Daily Enterprise‘s Mike Lynch reported lat October, its deliberations are downright secretive.
“Meetings are not announced, nor are they open to the public and press,” Lynch wrote. “The committee is not bound to the state’s open meetings law.”
When asked about the closed-door policy, DEC spokesman David Winchell answered this way:
“Open and frank discussions by and with members are important to DEC. The presence of the press and the public would inhibit those valuable exchanges of ideas.”
The DEC also has two Adirondack regional advisory committees that provide broad input as it develops the Open Space Plan for New York state.
Those groups are made up of participants selected by the DEC, county leaders, and other state agencies. But their input tends to be more general in nature.
It doesn’t focus on the ramifications of specific land acquisition deals, both to the environment and to Park communities.
[Note: In their response, posted in full below, the DEC disputes this characterization and argues that land parcels aren't added to the Open Space plan without detailed local input and consensus support.]
It’s important to note that after the massive Finch, Pruyn deal was unveiled, the Nature Conservancy and the DEC won praise for their efforts to communicate with local government leaders as they developed their plans for the property.
Town boards across the Adirondacks approved resolutions endorsing the land purchase.
But here again, there were no public hearings where average citizens (those living inside and outside the Park) could learn about the rationales behind various management decisions.
[The DEC argues that hearings were held prior to creation of New York state's 2009 Open Space Plan; but no hearings were held to gather input on specific aspects of the Finch, Pruyn project developed by DEC and TNC.]
There was certainly no chance for average taxpayers to offer their input, despite the hefty price tag associated with the project.
Indeed, when these public land deals are concluded, the DEC’s specific management decisions and the amount paid by New York state are usually announced only after the fact.
This lack of sunshine has led to questions, suspicion and an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office.
Bluntly, it makes no sense that big decisions like these should be made behind closed doors.
Mega-land deals have a much bigger and longer-term impact on the Park’s economy and ecology than, say, the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake.
But the Big Tupper review has gone on in various forms for nearly seven years, with public hearings beyond counting, published site plans and a process that allows citizens to learn what’s going on and speak their mind.
The time has come to develop a similar approach for land purchases in the Park. Fortunately, the framework for this kind of public review is already in place.
“In New York State, most projects or activities proposed by a state agency or unit of local government…require an environmental impact assessment,” according to the DEC’s website.
The so-called “SEQR” process (pronounced “seeker”) includes a minimum 30-day public comment period and in many cases public hearings are held.
The SEQR Act, approved by the legislature, forces state and local government agencies “to consider environmental impacts equally with social and economic factors during discretionary decision-making.”
Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Martens should propose legislation immediately that requires state land purchases in the Adirondacks and Catskills undergo the same scrutiny.
The change would force state agencies and environmental groups to make clear, detailed and science-based arguments for how each land purchase would benefit the Park and its ecology.
It would also require the DEC to offer factual data about how these purchases might affect park communities and their economies. And state officials would have to outline plans for stewardship, maintenance and public access.
Finally, a SEQR review would allow the public to have a chance to kick the tires on these deals, reviewing the nuts and bolts of each acquisition in advance, while offering their own input.
Some preservation groups might argue that big conservation deals would wither away under that kind of public scrutiny. The obvious question in response would be Why?
If these acquisitions are in the public interest — and some clearly are — surely they would stand up to the same scrutiny that private businesses, landowners, state agencies, and local governments already face in the Park for far less significant projects.
The DEC’s response:
DEC staff read with interest your blog entitled “For Adirondack land purchases, a public process needed”. The blog implies that there is not a public process for land purchases by the State. However, from the DEC point of view there is a considerable amount of information about the process that is omitted from your blog and some misinformation as well.
(Note: I have asked the DEC to specify which points of my blog post they view as “misinformation.” If there are factual errors, I will correct them.)
There are essentially three components of the land purchasing process: the Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees, the State Open Space Conservation Plan and purchasing the land or easement:
Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees
· Article 49 of the Environmental Conservation Law calls for the establishment of Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees, organized by DEC administrative regions that provide advice and guidance in developing the State’s Open Space Conservation Plan.
· The Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees consist of a representative selected each County within the region and members appointed by the Commissioners of DEC and OPHRP. The committees are co-chaired by the DEC and OPHRP regional directors.
· The law states that each regional committee will have one more appointee than there are local government representatives. Therefore, the Region 5 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee has 17 members, with eight of them serving as county representatives appointed by the County government of each of the counties within the region – typically elected members of the County Board.
State Open Space Conservation Plan
· Article 49 of the Environmental Conservation Law requires that the State’s Open Space Conservation Plan be updated every three years.
· Prior to updating the State Open Space Conservation Plan, the Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees meet to determine the priority open space conservation projects in their respective region. A report of the committee’s recommendations is developed and submitted to DEC and OPHRP. The regional report includes a list of projects but may also include an overview of issues and recommendations for policy (see attached).
· Each of the Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee works a little differently; as I am the secretary to the Region 5 committee I will describe how they work to develop their report.
· An overview of a proposed project is provided to the committee by the project sponsor – typically a member of the committee, a third party invited by the Committee or DEC staff.
· The committee requests information on the size, location, and conservation benefits of the project. Most importantly they seek assurance that the local government in which the land is located supports the project and that the landowner is willing to sell the land – without these the committee refuses to entertain including a project as on the priority list.
· While the committee rules call for a vote on projects, typically they work to develop consensus. Very rarely are projects added to the priority project list without a unanimous vote.
· The Region 5 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee met 10 times over a three year period prior to finalize their report for the 2009 New York State Open Space Conservation Plan – so there is considerable discussion and review of projects and other recommendations.
· Once the reports from the nine Regional Open Space Conservation Advisory Committees are submitted DEC and OPHRP work to develop a Draft State Open Space Conservation Plan.
· The Draft State Open Space Conservation Plan is announced and made available for public review and comment.
· Workshops and hearings are held state wide and public comment is received and reviewed.
· 22 workshops and hearings were held during the public review period for the draft 2009 plan and 464 comments were received via the public hearings, mail, E-mail, fax and through DEC’s website.
· Based on the comments the Plan is finalized and serves as the guidance for open space conservation until the next update.
· Article 49 of Environmental Conservation Law prohibits the purchase of lands or easements on lands that exceed $250,000 in cost or 200 acres in size, unless they are listed as a priority project in the State Open Space Conservation Plan.
Purchasing the Land or Easement
When the State is prepared to complete a project by purchasing the land, or an easement on the land, a letter is sent to the local governments in which the land lies. They have ninety days to “veto” the purchase of the lands and/or easement. This is another opportunity for the local governments and their constituents to review an open space conservation project and determine if it is acceptable or not. In the 1990s, this is exactly what happened with the OWD lands in Tupper Lake.
As your blog seems to be initiated by the State’s recent purchase of conservation easements on the former Finch Pruyn lands, it should be pointed out that not only was this listed as a priority project in the Draft 2009 New York State Open Space Conservation Plan – which received significant review and comment as described above – additionally, DEC and TNC staff held more than 60 meetings with town boards that had former Finch Pruyn lands in the municipality. Each of the 27 Town governments approved the land deal.
In conclusion, the State’s process for purchasing lands for open space conservation is an open and public process that balances the need for public participation in setting our open space conservation priorities, but which is respectful of the private property rights of individuals and organizations who negotiate with the State on these land decisions
P.S. The Forest Preserve Advisory Committee focus is advising DEC on how to manage the forest preserve, not on land acquisition.
NOTE: David Winchell is spokesman for the DEC in Region 5, based in Ray Brook