One way to look at the Adirondack Park is what the novelist Russell Banks wrote: “What they call the Adirondack Park, you understand, is no small roadside park, no cutesy little campground with public toilets and showers I mean, we’re talking six million acres of woods, mountains, and lakes, we’re talking a region the size of the state of Vermont, the biggest damn park in the country – and most of the people who live there year round are scattered in little villages in the valleys, living on food stamps and collecting unemployment, huddling close to their fires and waiting out the winter, until they can go back outdoors and repair the damage the winter caused.
It is a hard place, hard to live in, hard to romanticize. But surprisingly, not hard to love – because that’s what I have to call the feeling it evokes, this strange combination of fear and awe I’m talking about….”
Another way to see the Adirondack Park comes from park historian Ethan Carr who has written the park encompasses portions representative of the three American conservation ideals. Almost 50% of the Park is constitutionally protected “forest preserve” including designated wilderness. About 40% of the Park is or should be used as managed forest land, a form of utilitarian conservation where the forest regenerates. In the remaining portion of the park one finds the civic ideal example of conservation with a variety of active recreational activities including skiing, hiking, swimming, snowmobiling, shopping on Main Streets, fishing and hunting. Realizing Carr’s interpretation of the Park, it is hard to image a failure to realize its potential.
Either way, the Adirondack Park’s vastness and complexity makes it very hard for people to understand the Park as being really a park. Most people only understand parks as gated public estates.
Some people deny the Adirondack Park and see only the forest preserve. Wild forest is what they value and communities are anathema to these people.
On the other hand, some of the Park’s residents are resentful of the limitations the Park places on much of its territory that come from it being viewed as possessing special state interest. Some of these folks display bumper stickers declaring “This is no damn park, I live here”.
What has been missing in Park is common ground or what can be identified as agreed policies, qualities and physical characteristics a sizable majority of State residents living inside and outside the Park can accept.
A cross section of Park residents and other interested parties have participated in recent years in a program called “common ground”.
Started by Lani Ulrich, recently appointed Director of the Adirondack Park Agency, a sizable and diverse group met in Long Lake in July to sort through issues and subjects that the cross section represented in the group could agree upon. Those items where agreement was not found were put aside and an agreed upon agenda for the betterment of the Park and its communities was prepared to provide a working document. Consensus is a step to unity.
Another step forward is proposed in Lee Keet’s Viewpoint in the Adirondack Explorer entitled “Let’s unify the Park”. Keet is correct about the value that would come from state agencies treating the Adirondack Park as a single entity. In fact, as a bill drafter I drafted the proposed Adirondack Park Service legislation that would have established a unified Park organization. The idea of an APS has been kicking around.
On the positive side, I would like to point out some steps for unity occurred during the time Pete Grannis was DEC Commissioner and I was a part time policy advisor to the Commissioner.
When a million dollars became available for smart growth grants to municipalities in the Park, provision was made park wide and regional projects as well as projects in individual municipalities. Initially, a couple of town supervisors asked me why they would want to do a project with neighboring towns or villages. A couple of weeks later Fred Monroe told me that some Adirondack Association of Towns and Village (AATV) members were thinking about park wide projects and they had some good ideas. In the end, some excellent park wide and regional projects like a broadband siting and hamlet development projects were proposed and funded.
Along with the smart growth grants, the Commissioner and AATV former President Bill Farber conceived the notion of establishing an Adirondack Steering committee made up of four local officials (Farber being the Chair), two reps from higher education and reps from the Adirondack Community Foundation, the Adirondack Council and regional tourism and a retired county planner from Essex County. DEC’s regional directors in the Park and a rep from APA sat in on Steering Committee meetings and the Commissioner offered to and did help the Committee connect with state officials in Albany. The Committee also established useful working relationships with two important regional economic development entities bordering the Park: the Center for Economic Development (Mike Tucker, President) and the Plattsburgh Chamber of Commerce (Gary Douglas, President) giving the local officials and some institutions within the Park important allies on the State and regional scene.
The Steering Committee collaborated with Common Ground and helped spawn a “partnership” that is connecting the dots for sustainable development and raising the level of dialogue to a higher constructive level. It received funding for planning in the second smart growth funding round and portions of the park with the North Country was one of the 4 recipients of the $40 million regional grants under Governor Cuomo’s regional economic development program.
The Adirondack Park needs structural unity as a unique Park of people, communities and nature. The process to that unity may be progressing through connecting the dots, building common ground on local and regional solutions and building relationships inside and outside the Park.
Governor Cuomo may be able to use the relationships developed as a stepping stone to restructuring state government for the Adirondack Park to be the world class park it is fully capable of being.