Is electing APA commissioners a terrible idea?

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.

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21 Comments on “Is electing APA commissioners a terrible idea?”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    I don’t know, Brian. Does a Drill Sargent make a lousy pyschiatrist?
    But on a serious note, if we are going to talk about park wide voting on commissioners, I think we first to address a problem seldom if ever addressed.
    The Adirondacks is not a unified place. It is split into separate area codes, power companies, DEC regions, telephone companies, BOCES and on and on. The land area of the towns makes little sense in many cases, as you have pointed out with the status of Saranac Lake. Then there are the towns themselves. Each town is proud but each town suffers from a degree of insularism. This is why it is so difficult to consolidate anything. Everyone wants to save their school, their highway department, their town or village. Many people who live in the Adirondacks have no knowledge or experience beyond their own town. In some cases, hamlets within a township feel picked upon other hamlets within the same town.
    Currently, there is less unity in the Adirondacks than there is in the whole United States.
    You must realize that voting for commissioners will be a huge regional, town vs. town, county vs. county fight.
    It might be interesting but I wonder if anyone will be satisfied.

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  2. Paul says:

    Brian,

    I think this sort of back and forth is very good. I disagree with both you and John but the discussion has to take place. Keep up the good work.

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  3. Pete has some good points. Maybe what’s needed is to reconsider the political boundaries themselves and make the Park a single entity separate from the counties that it intersects. If electing local representatives locally is radical, I suspect that redrawing the county lines is way too radical.

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I agree with Pete in that it seems too unwieldy to try to elect 2 commissioners for such a large and diverse area with so many competing interests. Unless maybe there were more commissioners.

    To your point about everyone working together better, that seems like the direction things are going. Many towns within the Park still don’t have local control over zoning type issues because they have stubbornly refused to set up local boards to perform planning and zoning functions and get their plans approved by the APA. As time goes by people are seeing the value of having zoning and local planning. They are coming from places that have laws that are far more restrictive than in the Park and they are wondering what the fuss is all about. Good planning is good for everyone and we’ll all get used to it. Call me a commie.

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  5. Mervel says:

    Great post Brian.

    It is like other areas around the globe, you can’t sustain ecosystems in Africa without local control and local buy in, you can’t impose things from the outside in the Adirondacks either, not totally. It is unique, it is a national resource, but it’s not Yellowstone or Denali either.

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  6. Bret4207 says:

    Right off the bat I find a troubling sentence in Warrens post- “…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…” Fer cryin’ out loud! This is exactly what the anti-APA folks have been griping about for decades, only the shoe is on the other foot! Look at the Adirondack Councils representatives recent statement that he “was to ensure this passed” in reference to the Foxman project in Tupper. The blatant implication that the Adk Coun. had the power to make or break the deal and to get the APA to do as THEY wished was staggering to me, but most here never gave it a thought. That’s the problem with the APA- it’s not run by locals, it’s run by environmentalists with little concern for the hicks and trailer trash living in the Park.

    So put me down for electing ALL the APA board members, every last one. And while we’re at it there should be a member from each town within the Park. This idea that if the stupid redneck locals don’t like it they can just leave is asinine. A good portion of those families were here before there was an APA. YOU guys leave!

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  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Bret, count me as one of the ones who was here before the APA. Still, I often really dislike the people my fellow Adirondackers elect to public office — not personally, ideologically. Often there is a deep divide between the “locals” and the newcomers. Sometimes it doesn’t run the way you think it might.

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  8. Joe says:

    Just an observation from a 3rd generation local. Most local officials run for office based on a very narrow agenda. And many are elected based on populartiy not on the basis of how well they would govern anything. Often times they get elected and find out the job is not so easy and they don’t really have any effect on whatever issue it was they ran on/against. don’t get me wrong I’m not saying there would be no good locals on the APA board but the majority of them would be lost and of no real help to the local populatioin of the park.

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  9. Brian Mann says:

    Some interesting comments here. Let me respond to a couple of them.

    1. I agree with Pete that the Adirondacks lack a sense of unity, of this being “one place.” And I think a Park-wide election might help with that. If candidates for the APA commission are forced to canvas the entire Park, from Great Sacandaga to St. Regis Falls, it might spark a much more interesting sense of shared issues and concerns.

    2. I agree with Joe that many local officials in the Park are elected on fairly parochial issues. That’s why a Park-wide election, with far more voters spread over more communities (and communities of interest) might prompt a more interesting outcome.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  10. George Nagle says:

    Brian doesn’t seem to understand that the Adirondack Park is a treasure which all of New York State cherishes and seeks to enhance and protect. It is not an example of a 60s and 70s “colonial model’ but of a sustained commitment for over a century.

    In the words of the Court of Appeals, the Adirondack Park is of “supervening state concern.” The state’s payment of taxes on its own land has only once been seriously questioned. The suggested reduction was withdrawn as it became clear that the payments express a commitment of all the state to the Park.

    One way of testing Brian’s proposal is to imagine what would be the campaign issues were an election for APA members to be held now. Perhaps whether a candidate is “for” or “against” the proposed Tupper Lake development. Just how would an elected candidate fulfill a campaign promise when judging whether the proposal satisfies the requirements of the APA Act?

    Bret is right. If in principle an APA member should be elected within the Park, then all should be locally elected.

    Perhaps Brian’s reforming zeal might extend to the FCC. Why not have Congress elect two members of the FCC to represent the interests of private enterprise? Public radio receives some federal funding, and the same federal government regulates it, while tax paying corporations are regulated without designated representation. I don’t suggest doing this, but it’s comparable to Brian’s thought for the APA.

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  11. Brian Mann says:

    George –

    I’ve interviewed many of the people who created and implemented the modern Adirondack Park Agency.

    They’re pretty candid about the fact that it was a program crafted by a very small group of non-elected elites and imposed on what they viewed as a hostile local community.

    Some have expressed real regret about the tone and approach of those early days, which included closed-door APA meetings and a circled-wagons mentality.

    In his most recent book, Ross Whaley writes bluntly about the “visionaries with power” who created the modern APA.

    “Would you get that alignment somewhere else?” he wrote. “I don’t know whether that exists. Maybe in monarchies, but I’m not sure where that exists in the democratic world today.”

    I’m also a little dismayed at the recurring theme from critics of this idea, that democracy, stewardship and reverence for the Park are mutually exclusive.

    What’s so scary about the idea of letting local people who live in the Park have a direct say in its management?

    Regarding your argument about the Adirondack Club and Resort project, I’ll note that judges are elected all the time in New York state.

    If our judiciary can stand the text of the ballot box, without unduly swaying future decisions, why can’t the APA?

    Finally, your analogy to the FCC is unfortunate.

    The FCC is one of the most dysfunctional, bureaucratic and politically muddled entities in America.

    Would some form of representative democracy make the FCC better? It certainly couldn’t make it worse.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  12. George Nagle says:

    Brian, you write “What’s so scary about the idea of letting local people who live in the Park have a direct say in its management?”

    They already do.

    You have written elsewhere of the Park-resident members, the ability of local people to stall and perhaps prevent the appointment to the APA of a person not to their liking, of the close involvment of the Local Government Review Board, and of the transparency of the APA’s deliberations. I would add the transfer of jurisdiction over Class B regional projects to local governments with an APA-approved land use plan.

    At issue is whether a different mechanism, an election, of some APA members would better bring to bear a local perspective on APA decisions. I question whether it will.

    Finally, I don’t know how to respond to your quoting one writer’s description of the enactment of the APA Act. I was among those who worked for its passage and never thought of myself as among “visionaries with power.” Your comment strikes me as an ad hominem argument.

    I don’t believe that it is helpful to revisit the political processes of 1971 and 1973 to guide our decisions today. We can, but there is far more to say than what you reference, and I doubt it would move us forward. Incidentally, the legislature and governor were solidly Republican.

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  13. Is the Adirondack Park the “last public wilderness in the east?” The federal national parks site lists 10 national parks in the east. Some aren’t “wilderness,” but don’t Acadia in Maine and the Everglades in Florida qualify? And are there really no other wilderness areas in the whole of the eastern U.S.? I find that hard to believe. The Nature Conservancy calls the Central Appalachians “wilderness” and describes it as home to, “one of the Earth’s healthiest, most biologically diverse temperate forests.” The Nature Conservancy’s Central Appalachians Initiative works across 50,000 square miles, an area more than 5 times as big as the Adirondack Park, some of which is public land, some private. The Adirondacks, too, is not all public so describing the Adirondack Park as a “public wilderness” is misleading, I think.

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  14. Paul says:

    I can fully understand how the administration and management of STATE owned lands is a concern and responsibility of all of NYS. However I have never been able to grasp the idea that the rest of NYS should have as much of a say in what happens on private land in the Adirondacks. The only thing unique about the Park is that the sate oversees the zoning on private land where everywhere else in the country it is done at a local level? Brian is just suggesting is that a very TINY bit of that decision making be done at a more local level. The fact that there is such strong opposition to this idea, and that in some cases folks don’t even think that Adirondacker’s are somehow “incapable of participating” (see the comments at the Almanack) makes me think that the quote about “visionaries with power” may be onto something.

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  15. Paul says:

    Also it is worth revisiting some of the decisions that go far back before the 1970’s. The original “vision” of the park was to make it, over time, just that a Park. The whole reason for drawing the Blue Line was to demarcate where it was the state was to focus its purchase of land. The idea was to buy as much of the private land within that line and make it all a park. At the last check we are about half way there. Many people would like us all to think that the place is slowly slipping away, and that local control would somehow accelerate that progression. The problem is is that the progression is in the other direction, so all their arguments go out the window.

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  16. Chris says:

    It does not seem practical for elections within the park. Our present election process is based on village/town/county voting districts. The Adirondack Park boundary does not conform to political boundaries – it follows survey Patent and lot lines..

    Can you imagine the process to determine who could vote in a town that was split, part inside and part outside the park?

    Who would vote, residents or property owners? “In-park” seats were established to give local input into the land use regulation process. Seems to me if we are going to be democratic then the “in-park” seats should be elected by the people whom the land use regulations directly affect – that would be the owners of the land that is regulated, not the tenants of the land. Just another view of how democracy might be applied…

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  17. Paul says:

    Chris, speaking as a person who owns land inside the park, yet lives outside the park I totally agree. But the old English version of “no land no vote” would probably not be too popular.

    I think that I would be satisfied with the representation that I get as an out of park resident with the other commissioners that would be on the board. Again Brian is only suggesting this for a few seats. It might give the board some interesting diversity.

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  18. Brian says:

    One additional factor in this debate. Opening up the APA board to purchasing of commissioners by development interests is even more dangerous given recent articles (including on this blog) about the gutting of the DEC. With a gutted DEC and an APA under the influence of developers, what would that mean for the constitutionally protected Park?

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  19. Brian says:

    On second look, I don’t think two elected commissioners out of eight is that unreasonable.

    I’d thought the board was smaller.

    I just want to make sure there are some finance restrictions of the campaigns.

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  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Just a little reminder to everyone that while the APA is only, what? thirty-some years old’ the Adirondack Park is over a hundred years old. Everyone who was born here or lives here has known that they live in a park for the whole time they’ve been here. It isn’t new.

    All parks have administrations, rules change all the time. Nothing unusual in that. Stop feeling personally persecuted.

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  21. Brian says:

    The modern APA, which established broad new restrictions on private land, is a little more than 40 years old.

    –Brian, NCPR

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