I blogged last week about the idea of holding Park-wide elections for at least a couple of the Adirondack Park Agency commissioners. To read the substance of my argument, go here.
(In this blog, you’ll also find my arguments about the importance of community sustainability inside the blue line.)
On Monday, fellow blogger John Warren — host of the Adirondack Almanack — weighed in, calling it “the worst idea to come up the pike since David Paterson tried to stop paying local taxes on state land.”
Before I wrestle with John’s thinking, let me talk for just a moment about the forum for this discussion. This isn’t a case of dueling blogs. I love the Adirondack Almanack and read it daily.
And I think John’s arguments are well reasoned and legitimate. I’m only responding here on the In Box because, well, this is NCPR’s blog and we hope to bring as much discussion of North Country issues to this site as possible.
Now, back to John’s criticisms, which you can read in full here. This is the center-piece of his concern:
[Mann seems] to forget that the Adirondack Park isn’t a political entity with competing constituencies,it’s a unique natural place with a statewide, regional, and even national historical and cultural significance.
Despite the occasional angry bumpersticker to the contrary, the Adirondacks is a park, and an important one.
That park, the country’s largest National Historic Landmark, is all of our responsibility to manage and maintain.
Offering an opportunity for one special interest group to use their media and financial friends to get their candidate elected in an attempt to dominate decision-making at the Adirondack Park Agency threatens to destroy an already weak institution; the only institution holding official responsibility to protect the Adirondack Park – our last public wilderness in the east – from over-development.
As I say, it’s a reasonable point of view, one a lot of people would probably support.
There are three reasons why I disagree.
First, the idealism and daring at the heart of the Adirondack experiment isn’t actually that it creates big open spaces and protects a lot of beautiful vistas and habitat. Parks like Yosemite and Denali do that much better.
No, the revolutionary vision here is that people and wildness can co-exist. And for this ambitious model to work, it can’t be a shotgun marriage imposed from outside — at least not forever.
The truth is that the Park was created using a largely colonial model. Its rules and regulations were imposed from the outside using raw political power, an approach that was fairly common in the 1960s and 70s.
Environmentalists and government officials simply didn’t believe that “locals” were capable of or willing to partner in this kind of ecological work.
And maybe they were right.
But times change, ethics change, and management of the Park needs to change, too. It has to evolve into a system where locals have as much self-control and -determination as possible.
Fortunately, communities across the Park have been moving in the right direction, at least as long as I’ve lived here. The Common Ground project is one example; so is the APRAP report.
In town after town, local government leaders are working closely with the APA, with state officials and (yes) even with environmentalists.
Communities are developing more reasoned policy arguments, wrestling with legitimate questions about sustainability, and supporting innovative projects, such as the Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
Yes, there are occasional flare-ups that get a lot of attention (including a lot of attention from NCPR).
But the bigger picture is a substantial and progressive change in the way year-round residents are thinking and talking about the Park they share with the rest of New York state.
We also have a far more nuanced media culture, ranging from the Adirondack Almanack to the Adirondack Explorer magazine to NCPR, WNBZ, and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Some of this change reflects the changing make-up of the Park’s population. There are a lot more people here now who came to live in our communities because of the Park.
They often support the core vision behind its creation.
As an aside, I also think it’s just plain wrong-headed to suggest that the Adirondacks aren’t a fundamentally political landscape. There’s a reason that historian Phil Terrie called this place “contested terrain.”
Which leads me to my second heartfelt conviction: elections are good.
One of the more dismaying aspects of progressivism — and, yes, environmentalism — over the last half century is that far too many battles have been won in the courts, or in the tangle of bureaucratic red tape.
I prefer the ballot box. I prefer open and public campaigns, where people can air their ideas, hold substantial debates, and build coalitions of support.
Currently, Peter Hornbeck’s nomination to the APA commission is tied up in the state Senate.
Imagine if instead of drowning in Albany politics, he could take part in public forums and make his arguments in meeting halls and living rooms across the Park.
I’m convinced that a little more democracy wouldn’t “destroy an already weak institution,” as John suggests. It would legitimize and strengthen it.
Finally, I want to point out that the Park is changing regardless of our wishes.
Let me quote at length something Joe Martens, head of the Open Space Institute (an environmental group), told me last May:
“Some of the old assumptions about how the park is going to be managed will have to be re-examined.
We are going to have to rely on the communities themselves more.
I think there’s going to have to be more of an emphasis on communities getting involved in issues of management in the Park and maybe more deference to some of the communities in the Park than in the past.
Because if the state doesn’t have the resources to do it, somebody has to.”
To be clear, Martens wasn’t speaking in the context of this discussion. He certainly hasn’t endorsed or embraced my proposition.
But he was clearly wrestling with the idea that while the vision of the Adirondack Park remains valid, the details of how it operates need a fresh look.
In closing, I’ll point out that my suggestion was that we experiment with this idea by electing just two of the five resident Park commissioners.
For the time being, that would leave the vast majority of the votes and influence in the hands of the governor and the state Senate.