No, the APA did not conspire illegally with the Nature Conservancy

I don’t usually write headlines like that one. It’s not a journalist’s place to reach conclusions. We offer facts. We offer different sides of stories.

We find good, thoughtful people — hopefully — and let them illuminate the issues in our communities. But this story is different.

Since at least 2008, some locals in the Clinton County town of Black Brook have alleged that the Park Agency is conspiring illegally with the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.

They say the goal was to force former forest ranger John Maye from his property, so it could be added to the state Forest Preserve.

The claim was featured prominently in a story published last Sunday by the Glens Falls Post-Star.

According to Will Doolittle’s account, the APA may have pretended to find fault with a cabin built on the shore of the Saranac River to harass Mr. Maye. (Doolittle describes the charge as “plausible.”)

But here’s the weird aspect of this case. No one — not the locals and not other journalists who’ve given this story coverage — offers any facts or evidence to support what really is a remarkable allegation.

So I looked in-depth at the case. I was the first (and am still the only) reporter to actually review the enforcement case file compiled by the Park Agency.

I interviewed more than a dozen people connected to the case or the APA’s enforcement process.

Even staunch critics of the APA and the Nature Conservancy told me that the claims were not plausible. In the absence of any proof, the most common response was laughter.

There are a lot of reasons for this skepticism. The APA is a leaky, gossipy place, for one thing. There’s a lot of staff turnover, and new political leadership whenever a new governor is elected.

Remember, the APA staff couldn’t conceal the porn on their computers. Could they hide a complex, multi-year plot?

And would state employees risk their careers, their pensions, and likely their freedom to join in a conspiracy over a small chunk of land in Black Brook?

Nobody I’ve found thinks any of this makes sense.

That said, there is some evidence that the enforcement case was handled clumsily by the APA. Like a lot of enforcement cases, the process here was obviously slow and adversarial.

But our review of the file and other public records turned up some important new facts.

1. The APA did, in fact, conduct a reasonably thorough preliminary investigation, using Health Department and tax records, as well as aerial photographs. They also interviewed local officials. There existed a legitimate concern that a new cabin had been built inside an environmentally protected area. In their correspondence with John Maye, the APA asked repeatedly (and cordially) for permission to inspect the property so that they could settle the case promptly. He refused.

2. A lot has been made of the fact that this case dragged on for four years. Fair enough. But as I learned from looking at the case file, many of the delays were caused by Mr. Maye, who frequently failed to reply to APA correspondence. He once requested a 6 month adjournment for health reasons. Along with his refusal to grant investigators access to his land, I think it’s reasonable say that both sides share some fault for the delay.

3. Mr. Maye is a prominent member of the Local Government Review Board, representing Clinton County. The LGRB is a politically influential organization, with an advisory (non-voting) seat on the APA commission itself. Howard Aubin, who has also pushed these conspiracy allegations, is also a member of the Review Board. It’s noteworthy that the Review Board hasn’t taken up their cause. What’s more, the LGRB’s executive director, Fred Monroe (chair of the Warren County board of supervisors) described their allegations as “hard to believe.”

4. This case was dropped abruptly. Some observers, including the Post-Star’s Doolittle, are convinced that the APA backed off after locals raised allegations about a conspiracy. But I’ve looked at the file closely and it’s clear that state officials asked for one thing repeatedly over the four year period: access to the property. Shortly after Mr. Maye finally allowed an inspector on his land, in the summer of 2008, the case was indeed dismissed.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions. And tune in tomorrow morning for part two of my special report on the Maye case.

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