Was the Big Tupper resort decision really a major defeat for green groups?

In the latest edition of the Adirondack Explorer, I probed the question of what the Adirondack Club and Resort decision means for environmental groups in the Park.

Some green leaders are indignant at the notion that the 10-to-1 Adirondack Park Agency vote might signify weakness, disarray or ineffectiveness on the part of the region’s environmental movement.

In an email, Adirondack Wild co-founder Dan Plumley responded this way:  “To point blame for this so-called defeat on the environmental community or concerned citizens is tantamount to bald-faced propaganda.”

Here’s why I thought the issue was worth writing about.

When I came to the Adirondacks 13 years ago, green groups dominated the environmental debate.  They generally framed the issues, and had remarkably strong ties to the Pataki administration.

Green groups were arrayed in a more or less strategic pantheon, with different leaders playing different roles.  There were strong indications that these partnerships were at least somewhat coordinated.

They won big battles, pushing through wilderness designations for forest preserve parcels, blocking the use of SONAR on Lake George, shutting down float planes on Lowes Lake, and

In those days, it was often difficult to find strong, informed and influential spokespeople for the local government and pro-development side of debates.

These days, all that has changed.  Pro-development groups like the Local Government Review Board and ARISE are much more sophisticated, coordinated, and politically connected.

Green groups, meanwhile, have gone through a half-decade of turmoil, as prominent leaders have departed the scene, venerable groups have dissolved, merged, reformed, and splintered yet again.

On the ACR debate, they were clearly divided, with two relatively new groups — Plumley’s Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks — maintaining that allowing the project would set a hugely dangerous precedent for hte Park.

But the region’s biggest group, the Adirondack Council, embraced the resort in its final design, and publicly distanced itself from the rest of the movement.

For that kind of muddle to happen in the middle of a debate that many environmentalists singled out as a seminal battle in the history of the Adirondacks — one that they spent seven years fighting — that’s significant.

One prominent green leader, Peter Bauer now with the Fund for Lake George, makes a salient point in all this:

This APA commission seemed very likely to approve the Big Tupper resort in some form, no matter how unified or efficient the green movement was.

But that fact raises an even bigger question about the state of the environmental movement in the Park.  Why is it that activist groups have been unable to successfully influence the choice of APA commissioners?

Green favorite Dick Booth was chosen by Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer to serve as chair of the APA, but that decision was easily derailed by local government leaders and by state Senator Betty Little.

(Booth now serves as a regular member of the board.)

Governor David Paterson then appointed environmental leader Peter Hornbeck to serve as an APA commissioner — at a time when Democrats controlled the entire state legislature.  Once again the pick was sidelined.

The situation is so difficult for green groups that last year Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan acknowledged that his organization was keeping mum about its preferences for the Park board.

“We used to publicize it but we’ve decided that it doesn’t help those on the list so much,” Sheehan said.

“If it was a Democratic governor and Democratic Senate, we wouldn’t have to go to these lengths to keep it quiet.”

The point here isn’t to suggest that the ACR decision was the green community’s “fault,” or that environmentalists have somehow “lost” the APA.

The situation in the Park is obviously more nuanced and complicated than that.  But it’s reasonable to look skeptically at the balance of power in the Adirondacks as it shifts and changes over time.

And I think it’s fair to say that a significant shift has occurred.

So what do you think?  Do you see a different debate in the Park?  How do you view the relative strength of the pro-development and local governments inside the blue line, compared with environmental activists?

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23 Comments on “Was the Big Tupper resort decision really a major defeat for green groups?”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think it is wrong to cast the debate in terms of pro-development vs environmental anti-development. There is a plan that has been in place to develop within hamlets but that plan hasn’t been implemented sufficiently.

    There are a few towns in the Adirondacks that are successful. Other towns need to figure out how to do the same thing.

    I drive through Tupper Lake and wonder why it is that Tupper hasn’t been more successful. Why is it almost completely devoid of charm, as a whole? I have a couple of favorite stops that I make there but I get a vibe from the town that says “beat it, outsider.” By all rights Tupper should be quaint, but it aint.

  2. Two Cents says:

    I half agree Knuck, I don’t get the beat it vibe, but there is certainly no charm vibe that grabs me.
    Maybe a Town Planner can give us a lesson on charm developement.
    (now that was sarcasm)
    Don’t know if the Resort will help on that front, personally i would have liked to see it as a LEED developement, or something way different like an off the power grid community, something unique.
    As to Brian’s question, i believe it’s a little backlash behavior, the pendulum swings both ways.

  3. Jim Bullard says:

    To me Tupper Lake feels like a mill town after the mill closed, except that the ‘mill’ in Tupper’s case is the lumber industry. I don’t know if “charm” is the appropriate word but it is in need of a facelift, a more positive and welcoming identity.

    As for the shift Brian addresses, I think it has a lot to do with the downturn in the economy. In bad times people are more willing to do things they wouldn’t consider in good times.

  4. Two Cents says:

    I agree jim.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    I think the problem with some of the “green groups” is them having developed a “Tea Party” mentality. By that I mean, you must toe the line on every item in our dogma or you are against us.
    Without naming names, some in the environmental movement as well as some in the pro-development, don’t see why they must always be on one side of the fence or the other.
    In other words some on the environmental side and some in the pro-development side have decided to be “reasonable” while some would still rather fight than win.

  6. laurie says:

    I can’t help but think the shift that’s gone on within the park is just the local manifestation of the shift that’s gone on in politics as a whole. The mainstream political landscape has shifted from the center/left to the pretty-far-over-to-the-right. Look at the global warming debate — there shouldn’t even be a debate, but there is, and some pretty influential (and rich) people are lobbying very hard against pro-environment initiatives on the basis that A. they’re not necessary because global warming doesn’t exist and B. they stifle growth and hurt business (and therefore people’s wallets).

  7. Paul says:

    “The mainstream political landscape has shifted from the center/left to the pretty-far-over-to-the-right.”

    I don’t follow this. The Whitehouse and the senate are controlled by what I would call center/left democrats. Here in NYS democratic politics rules the day. What is “pretty-far-to-the-right” about any of it?

  8. oa says:

    To answer your question, Paul, whose record in office (as opposed to rhetoric) is more pro-big-business, low tax, smaller-government and anti-labor–Pataki or Cuomo the Younger?

  9. Will Doolittle says:

    I think it says a lot that the approval of a project that follows the APA Act, abiding by all the specialized zoning established to protect the Adirondack environment, prompts lots of hand-wringing in the environmental community and questioning like this, of whether environmentalists’ influence has waned. All that implies that, in the past, even projects that followed the law were doomed if, for some reason, environmentalists didn’t like them.

  10. Brian Mann says:

    To be fair, Will, I’m the one who asked these journalistic questions. Yes, some green activists have been willing to think out loud about the significance of the vote vis a vis their movement. But the questions, and the prompt for the conversation, were mine.

    –Brian, NCPR

  11. tourpro says:

    Perhaps a defeat on this permit. I’ll bet it has had some deterrent effect on anyone else who might consider a similar project, so maybe a small victory too.

  12. Will Doolittle says:

    Sure, Brian. But there has been plenty of hand-wringing in the environmental community. And questioning by journalists like you, who have followed the Adirondack scene for years, goes to my point. To have a big project that follows the law approved is surprising enough to prompt lots of analysis and speculation on how things have changed. What is implied is that, in the past, big projects that followed the law would not be approved if they did not find favor with environmental groups. My point is that, things seemed to have moved back to where they should always have been — with the law guiding the process.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I don’t see that it is all that surprising. Didn’t the development in North Creek get approval? If I remember correctly the now defunct RCPA supported that one.

    Large projects take a long time to get approvals even when they aren’t in the APA jurisdiction. When will a journalist do the compare and contrast story I’ve been asking for vis a vis the Mont Luzerne Development in Lake Luzerne which abuts the Park but is not in the Park. It has taken years and has been opposed by a vocal group who as far as I can tell are NOT environmentalists.

    The background story that is not reported because it isnt a dog bites man bit is that many thousands of permits have been issued by the APA or local jurisdictions since the APA has existed and the vast majority have sailed through the process with little or no opposition.

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sorry, man bites dog!

  15. Paul says:

    You have a story here at NCPR today about the state following through on their 60,000 acre purchase of TNC land. 60,000 preserved for ever – 6,000 developed with less density that is allowed under the law (and much of the remaining land protected in perpetuity by deed restrictions). Just look at this small piece of the picture. How is this some kind of defeat for green groups? I think they are just trying to frame the outcome in a way that will maximize the fund raising opportunities?

  16. Paul says:

    “more pro-big-business, low tax, smaller-government”

    oa, those are not far-to-the-right positions they are smart positions. And Cuomo is not anti-labor. He is pro-reality.

  17. Paul says:

    Also, democrats being the party that tends to favor big business is not a new concept.

  18. Paul says:

    “The background story that is not reported because it isnt a dog bites man bit is that many thousands of permits have been issued by the APA or local jurisdictions since the APA has existed and the vast majority have sailed through the process with little or no opposition.”

    Projects that meet the agency guidelines get approved. Why is that a big news story? Besides it has been reported in many places, why I have no idea.

  19. Adkrealist says:

    The ACR permit preserved thousands of acres of back country while leaving it on the rax roles…..all in return for a handful of great camps. That is a big win.

  20. Harley says:

    I don’t see a different debate in the park, but what I do see is an awakening by the citizens and taxpayers in the park who have finally realized that by uniting, participating in the process, organizing grassroots initiatives and getting the facts on the table they can influence state elected officials, the process and the outcome. Based on what I’m reading this is a wave that is spreading across the country and is only gaining momentum.

  21. oa says:

    Paul said: “oa, those are not far-to-the-right positions they are smart positions. And Cuomo is not anti-labor. He is pro-reality.”

    Sounds like you’re taking offense, Paul. You shouldn’t. I’m not arguing whether they’re good positions, just saying that Cuomo is a lot less liberal than Pataki on economic issues, and in some ways pretty far to the right, esp. for NY State. The fact that Cuomo’s even considering hydro-fracking, to name one example…

  22. sratchy says:

    in all fairness i believe pataki has endorsed hydrofracking, pataki never, for all his moderate stances, supported taxing rich people more (though he raised user fees and a variety of nuisance taxes on working class voters) and i doubt he would have gone along with a form of the millionare’s tax. The bottom line that the existing system of high medicaid costs and generous public employee benefits is no longer affordale.

  23. oa says:

    I’m saying Cuomo, seen today as a liberal Democrat, is more fiscally conservative, and on a lot of issues not any more environmentally protective, than was Pataki, who was seen not that long ago as a moderate to conservative Republican. That backs the earlier commenter’s point that the political discourse in this country has shifted quite a bit to the right, especially among the leadership. One more example: Hardly any acceptance of Keynesian economics in the highest echelons of power. Nixon was a Keynesian. Shift happened.

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