The splintering of the Adirondack Park’s “green” voice

Adirondack Council's Willie Janeway speaks to the Champlain Area Trails group.  NCPR file photo

Adirondack Council’s Willie Janeway speaks to the Champlain Area Trails group. NCPR file photo

So let me say in the very first sentence that in some ways that headline, about the “splintering” of the Adirondack Park’s environmental community, is a little misleading.

The truth is, green groups in the North Country have always been a fractious, disparate, herding-cats sort of coalition, with very different views on some key issues.

That’s only increased over the last couple of decades, as more environmental groups have emerged, and as some green groups have dissolved and reformed.

What’s interesting these days, though, is that after a period of real turmoil and uncertainty, environmental groups appear to have settled into something that resembles a stable new pattern.

And the big players in this rough network seem to disagree on some fundamental and profound things.

Big Questions, Different Views

The Adirondack Park currently faces two big questions that go to fundamental principles of how ecology and open space inside the blue line should be protected.

The first is the debate over whether a massive new resort should be built in Tupper Lake.

The second is the dust-up over whether the state constitution should be amended to allow a company called NYCO to mine wollastonite on 200 acres of state Park land.

These aren’t minor, peripheral issues.  One — the Adirondack Club and Resort — involves the largest single development project in Adirondack history.  The other would allow “forever wild” forest lands to be mined by a private company.

Environmental leaders disagree on the virtues of these projects.

The Adirondack Council, arguably the region’s largest and most influential environmental group, favors both, arguing that they represent a good balance of environment and local economy.

The Adirondack Mountain Club has also taken a public stance supporting the NYCO deal, while taking no public position on the Tupper Lake resort.

Two other groups, meanwhile, have positioned themselves vehemently against both deals.

Protect the Adirondacks has sued the Adirondack Park Agency in an effort to derail or at least profoundly reshape the Big Tupper project.

Adirondack Wild has also condemned the issuing of the permits, with co-founder David Gibson pointing to what he describes as the “abysmal failure to conduct a broadly scoped wildlife study on the property.”

Adirondack Wild and Protect have also described the NYCO project as dangerous and precedent-setting.

AGREEING TO DISAGREE

“I think we agree to disagree,” said Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley, referring to other groups’ support for the NYCO deal, adding that he doesn’t think that “the few environmental organizations that have decided to support this have made their case.”

“I think differences of opinion are common,” said the Council’s John Sheehan.

“Even though we have very similar points of view, we can disagree about the details of what does or doesn’t make a good deal.  I think there’s little animosity here, it’s just a matter of judgment.”

But in some cases, these debates don’t merely involve “the details” of Park management.  They speak to core principles about what “forever wild” means and how that interacts with communities inside the blue line.

A couple of trends may be leading to these more fundamental disagreements.

One is the growing effort by some environmentalists to partner publicly with local and state officials who are trying to boost jobs and economic growth, even when that means drifting into compromises and gray zones that make some green activists uncomfortable.

The other is the huge diversity within the green movement itself.

In addition to the four environmental groups named above, there is also the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, Champlain Area Trails, the Lake George Land Conservancy, and a half-dozen other smaller groups.

With so many voices, some are bound to be singing a different tune.  That can be confusing, and muddled, but it can also mean interesting ideas and debates.

A MORE PUBLIC INTERNAL DEBATE?

Two final thoughts.

First, if the NYCO minerals issue does make it the state ballot next November, voters statewide may be treated to a front-row seat for this debate within the Park’s environmental community.

Green activists on both sides seem committed to campaigning for and against this constitutional amendment, a road show that could be both confusing and edifying for people outside the North Country who don’t know much about our world.

Will that be an opportunity for folks downstate to learn about the Adirondacks?  Or will they simply tune out our strange, quibbly, angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument?

Second, I think it would be fascinating for green leaders within the Park to debate some of these points directly and openly, in some kind of public forum where they could air their different views of some of these fundamental principles.

I for one would love to hear David Gibson (Adirondack Wild), Willie Janeway (Adirondack Council), Neil Woodworth(Adirondack Mountain Club), Leslie Karasin (Wildlife Conservation Society – Adirondack Program), Mike Carr (Adirondack Nature Conservancy) and Peter Bauer (Protect the Adirondacks) wrestle with their differing views of the Adirondacks and its future.

This generation of environmental leaders are reshaping the Park in profound ways.  It would be great to know more about how they think, where they agree, and where they disagree profoundly.

18 Comments on “The splintering of the Adirondack Park’s “green” voice”

  1. Paul says:

    Brian, what is the size of the membership of each of these organizations. For example Peter Bauer and Dave Gibson seem very vocal and seem to get some good press but who are they actually speaking for?

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    A couple of observations concerning the above debate.
    Supposedly, the Adirondack Park is composed of public and private land. I say supposedly only because the idea of a park composed of public and private lands is a very unique concept. Normally, when they think of a park, they think all the land is public.
    Over the years, the public portion has grown while the private lands have decreased. This fact is what angers many if not most of the locals.
    Many of the locals view these environmental groups as tax free entities that provide employment for their paid staff who have no concern for those who live, work and pay taxes here.
    The dislike of these groups becomes extreme when they push for more private land to become part of the public land. Their anger explodes when the environmental groups push to have newly acquired land classified as Wilderness. Why? Simple. Wilderness is the least public of the state owned lands.
    Possible solution. Classify all future purchases as Wild Forest and reclassify all current Wilderness as Wild Forest. In that way the state owned lands would truly be public lands.

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  3. A wide variety of people care about the environment. So why shouldn’t “green” groups reflect that diversity? Their constituents are no more homogeneous than the “business community” (which comprises mom and pop stores and Wal-Marts).

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  4. Will Doolittle says:

    Brian,
    The environmental groups are not reshaping the Adirondack Park in profound ways, not that I can see.
    Some of them, in particular the more extreme ones you mention (Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks) are engaging in the angels on the head of a pin sort of quibbling, niggling, never-ending, lawyer-enriching lawsuits that you also reference. These lawsuits are the opposite of profound. Viewed cynically, they are efforts to promote a particular organization’s brand, to position the organization at the far edge of the debate where it can be seen as the purest, greenest group in the Adirondacks, immune to compromise. More charitably, they are expressions of the members’ own ideological purity and their belief they serve their cause of wilderness protection best by refusing to engage with others whose views differ and by resisting compromise. But these are not big issues. Plans do not equal realities and I think few people believe the Adirondack Club & Resort will be built as planned. As for the mining, it’s a speck of land. It doesn’t set a precedent, because any such swap must go through the laborious constitutional amendment process.
    What I find too bad is the lack of initiative by North Country journalists to challenge dubious statements these groups frequently make, such as the recent release from Protect the Adirondacks, claiming that quiet paddling experiences are hard to find on Adirondack lakes:
    http://www.protectadks.org/2013/06/the-myth-of-quiet-motor-free-waters-in-the-adirondack-park/
    Tell me, Brian, you live up there: Is it hard to find times you can go out on local lakes and enjoy a quiet, lovely experience?

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  5. Brian Mann says:

    Some interesting arguments here. Let me speak to a couple of them.

    1. I think ADK and the Adirondack Council clearly have the largest memberships, but the smaller, more focused groups appear to represent important constituencies. Clearly some have struggled to recruit enough members and supporters, as demonstrated by their struggles with fundraising. The Nature Conservancy is also a big, big player, with a lot of resources and influence, though they function in very different ways — less traditional advocacy and more deal-making.

    2. The green groups are certainly reshaping the Park in big, permanent ways. The Finch Pruyn deal, engineered by TNC, is only the latest map-reinventing effort. Protect the Adirondacks’ litigation against the Park Agency could also really move the needle on policy inside the blue line. Their role during the public hearing process for the Adirondack Club and Resort was a big factor in how the permits were shaped.

    3. I think it’s perfectly appropriate — even possibly a positive advantage — for there to be a wide range of views within the environmental community. But it still matters, especially in the political arena. When green groups disagree, or side with local and state officials against positions other activists are taking, it changes the dialogue.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  6. Paul says:

    This story here is that these groups are not really “green” groups. What these groups are up to was made clear during the “paddling rights” bruhahah. They are fighting for the recreational “rights” of their particular user group. They are not much different than a snowmobile club. When you argue for making sure that a common law gives paddlers the right to go on hundreds of miles of carefully stewarded private waterways you are not a “green” group you are a paddling club. The silly “motor-free-water” things is the same deal. They are fighting for exclusive use of some waterways for their special group of clients. I have never seen anybody arguing to throw paddlers off waterways with motor boast? These are not environmental issues they are “who gets to play in the sandbox” issues.

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  7. Paul says:

    “Clearly some have struggled to recruit enough members and supporters, as demonstrated by their struggles with fundraising.”

    Any idea how many members these groups have? If you look at Adirondack Wild’s 2012 annual report it doesn’t even look like their membership even fills one page? I do see that one member is their amphibian expert that worked for them on the ACR testimony.

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  8. Will Doolittle says:

    I agree with you about the Finch deal, Brian, but disagree about the importance of the two projects you mentioned — the Adk. Club & Resort and the NYCO mining land swap. But you’re right about the Finch deal and other huge land acquisitions of the last decade or so — they have remade the Park in a profound way, and in the exact way the environmental groups wanted. Now, much of the backcountry land the environmental community wanted to protect is protected. They have not won on every issue, but from a wider perspective, they have realized their goals. They have won, which may be why the more mainstream groups such as ADK and Adirondack Council have taken a more compromising stance.

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  9. Paul says:

    Placing a million acres of private land into NYS owned conservation easements was a coup for environmental groups. This is a move that will lead to the eventual addition of that acreage into the Forest Preserve. I don’t know if this was the plan for them but it is really brilliant. Once the development rights are gone from those lands, as they are now, the only value that remains is the timber. Once you strip that value as we see now then nothing is left. These timber-lands are no longer owned by logging companies, they are owned as real estate investments. Bad ones at that. Their investment cycles runs 10-15 years where the land is then sold. It is almost time to sell many of these parcels. The only buyer interested in land that is this worthless is NYS for addition to the Forest Preserve. I am sure the REITs had as a plan:

    1. Sell the easements ($$$)
    2. Sell the timber ($$$) (Lease if we can $)
    3. Sell the land to NYS

    Environmental groups did a fabulous job facilitating the transaction.

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  10. Paul says:

    It is also probably a challenging time for some of these organizations. Since this easement land has been protected (and with the sale and protection of the Finch timber-lands) you are maybe starting to see the beginning of the end as far as what is left inside the Blue Line to add to the Forest Preserve. Unless you start getting into going after smaller parcels for inclusion in the Forest Preserve the job in some respects is already done. That is maybe why we see some branching out into new areas like scrutinizing logging practices on easements or quibbling about how big a boat house should be. You gotta do something if you are going to take your members money.

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  11. Dave says:

    The lawsuits are an effort to promote their brand, or an effort to express ideological purity?

    How cynical does one have to be to come up with this sort of stuff?

    There is a much simpler, far less devious explanation. The lawsuits are an attempt to force the regulating agencies to actually regulate matters according to the actual regulations.

    Nothing more.

    Now, you may not agree with their interpretations of the regulations, or the agencies responsibility to uphold them, but insulting them by diving into cynical speculation and conspiracy doesn’t seem all that productive.

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  12. Paul says:

    Didn’t the APA board vote 11-1 to approve ACR? Didn’t the permitting process go on for years? Wasn’t it scrutinized from every angle? If so there has to be some reason other than what you suggest Dave for that particular lawsuit. I find it difficult to believe that those 11 (rather smart and well informed of the regulations) board members don’t understand how to legally apply the regulations? That lawsuit is nothing more than attempt to brand themselves in some way.

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  13. Will Doolittle says:

    Dave,
    How would I “not agree with the agencies’ responsibility to uphold them” in reference to state law? Of course I agree with the responsibility of state agencies to uphold laws they were formed to uphold. The statement is absurd. As Paul said, when the agency responsible for interpreting the regulations spends years on a project, and approves it, and other environmental groups such as the Adirondack Council, agree that the laws have been followed, it only makes sense to look for other explanations than your simplistic “an attempt to force the regulating agencies to actually regulate matters according to the actual regulations.” That explanation can be as simple as having differing interpretations of the law. On the spectrum of interpretations, these two groups under discussion, I think they themselves would agree, are on the extreme “green” side.

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  14. Lee Keet says:

    The Adirondack Council added a strategic objective almost ten years ago: sustainable local communities.

    This is a differentiator with other purely environmental groups who believe that wilderness is paramount. That is why the Council supported the ACR and supports the NYCO swap. Also, the Council is the first of the groups you list to publish the criteria under which it would consider a land swap. They did so before the NYCO details were released.

    The criteria are onerous, requiring (shortened version):
    1.The proposed land exchange must be supported by important public policy objectives; 2.The land currently in the Forest Preserve proposed for exchange cannot have unique biological, environmental, or hydrologic features, cannot include critical wildlife pathways, and cannot be part of a contiguous parcel that would become non-contiguous after the exchange;3.The qualities of the parcel(s) to be received should be superior to those of the parcel(s) being exchanged. 4.The parcel(s) to be received must be overwhelmingly superior to that being exchanged; 5.Any impact of the proposed exchange on local communities must be, on balance, substantially to the benefit of those communities; 6.taken as a whole, the proposed land exchange must achieve a significant improvement to the Forest Preserve and/or a long term benefit either to the local communities being affected or to the People of the State in general.

    Joe Martens and DEC negotiated long and hard to meet these hurdles. He and they deserve kudos. I challenge the other not-for-profits to say when THEY would support a land swap. If never, the people AND the environment lose.

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  15. Dave says:

    The length of a review, and the amount of votes to approve it, does not necessarily mean that regulations were properly considered or followed. All it means is that the process took a long time and then a group of people voted on it.

    The legal system is available to those who feel that the process, and the vote, did not properly interpret or consider those regulations.

    And that is what is happening here. That is all that is happening.

    I have to admit to being somewhat surprised that I have to explain this very basic concept to a journalist who covers these issues.

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  16. Paul says:

    The legal system is also available to those who feel they have lost and wish to try and delay a project into the grave.

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  17. Dave says:

    And by the way, let us not forget that so far the courts agree that this matter is something worth hearing. They have allowed the lawsuit to continue and rejected motions to dismiss it.

    How the courts end up ruling is yet to be seen, obviously, but clearly the courts disagree with you that this is some sham lawsuit devoid of substance.

    You seem to have a very suspicious mind, but again, just because you disagree with something does not mean the other side is acting unethically or with devious intent. Insulting them by diving into cynical speculation and conspiracy doesn’t seem all that productive.

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  18. Paul says:

    I don’t think that “branding” or delaying is devious? Who said that?

    I does surprise me that a group like the Council clearly focused on making sure that these regulations are enforced does not share these other groups view of that particular case.

    We will see what happens, either way the suing party wins on this one.

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