Gov. David Paterson took up his budget axe last week and is swinging it ominously in the direction of the Adirondack Park. In doing so, he is most likely following a respected rule among those new to axecraft: Practice where as few people as possible will notice and/or get hurt.
To be fair, the governor’s 2010/2011 budget promises to take his timbering skills to every corner of the state, but the allure of a vast wilderness, represented in the state Legislature by members of the opposition party, has proven irresistible.
If a state program falls in the forest, will any Democrats notice?
Along with the traditional precautions offered to anyone wielding heavy, sharp instruments — wear boots, protective head gear, and grippy gloves — the governor should understand that the political landscape of the Adirondack Park has changed significantly in recent years. This change has yet to be reflected in the park’s legislative delegation in Albany, where all seven state legislators whose districts overlap the Blue Line are Republicans.
However, our three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including two elected last year in special elections, are now all Democrats. This happened with the help of voters from elsewhere in the state who registered in Adirondack districts where they maintain second homes — a practice prompted by the desire to have some say over the wildly escalating school taxes on vacation properties.
So the message to the governor is clear: Be careful where you fell that local school aid; it is apt to land on the upstate gazebo of your wealthy downstate campaign donor.
The cruelest cuts
Indeed, many of the hardships that the budget claims to spread evenly to communities statewide — cuts in education, health care and municipal aid to name a few — will afflict Adirondack communities even more. Their impacts are amplified by a number of factors: the fastest aging population in the state; our dramatic topography; and ridiculous geopolitical boundaries that, once upon a time, were laid out with a pen, a straight edge and little or no respect to actual terrain.
Some of the harsher cuts outlined in Gov. Paterson’s budget eliminate Adirondack institutions: two visitor interpretive centers (VICs) and two state correctional facilities. The closing of the Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility and the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility are a consequence of successful efforts to reform New York’s Rockefeller-era drug laws and their attendant Siberian-style prison system.
The VICs are run by the Adirondack Park Agency and offer hiking and skiing trails as well as a wide array of educational programs on the region’s culture and environment. By cutting the VICs, the governor would remove the most visible evidence of the APA as a positive force protecting and promoting our ecological resources. This news will comfort more than a few Adirondackers who still cling to their preferred stereotype of the agency as an unforgiving overseer of environmental regulation.
Perhaps the most ominous of the cuts outlined in the governor’s budget is the continued raid on New York’s Environmental Protection Fund. By diverting over a third of its revenue stream to deficit reduction, the governor would starve programs that are essential to maintaining the integrity of the park’s ecology, while eliminating entirely the mechanism for conserving any new tracts of land within the park. Sadly, this is a move endorsed by a few of our state legislators who reflexively blame conservation groups for the loss of our vigorous industrial past.
Ultimately, the longest-lasting effect of this budget on residents of the Adirondacks may be less about money than self-image. The governor’s budget has held up a mirror to a region that has historically prided itself on its spirit of rugged individualism and independence. Reflected back is an Adirondack Park whose shallow, public sector-dependent economies are limited as much by global market forces and geography as by environmental edicts. Disproportionate cuts to state programs up here, like a landslide on a deforested mountain slope, will leave permanent scars.
Mark Wilson, an illustrator and writer, lives in Saranac Lake. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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