Joe Martens didn’t get out too much as New York’s environmental commissioner, responsible for millions of acres of wilderness and other protected land, yet he made up some lost ground last week bicycling east across the state.
The 59-year-old Martens exits this week from the post he’s held since February 2011. After peddling 400 miles along the Erie Canal, he’ll soon rejoin the Open Space Institute. He left the land conservation group for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, where he shepherded its most politically charged environmental decision and banned hydraulic fracturing statewide for deep wells of natural gas.
“Utica Harbor lock. Mile 17, day 6,” he tweeted last Friday. “Lift 6 feet. Geese waiting to pass.”
Martens also worked in the first Cuomo administration, where he was deputy secretary for energy and environment under Cuomo’s late father, Mario. With a master’s degree in natural resource management from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, he had already spent a decade working for the state Assembly and the Adirondack Park Agency.
“Back in the ’90s we had major amendments to the Clean Air Act, which we had to enact our counterpart on the state level, and Gov. Mario Cuomo got that done,” Martens recalled. “He laid the foundation for the Environmental Protection Fund, I think enacted in ’92, after the failure of the 1990 bond act. He really did some big things there on the state level in the statutes.”
Recently more has been done through budgets by the governor and Legislature and through Department of Environmental Conservation regulation, like the regional greenhouse gas initiative, Martens said. That multi-state effort lowering power plant emissions has never been codified in New York.
It was the same with the ban on hydrofracking for natural gas. The hot button during his entire tenure sometimes drew thousands of protesters to the Capitol trying to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo it was politically and environmentally bad. Drilling interests argued it could be done safely and bring billions of dollars to the state. Cuomo said he’d let the science decide. The DEC initially had proposed allowing drilling in limited areas.
“I can say there were many on DEC staff who felt at a minimum it needed to be regulated very strictly,” Martens said. “There were folks on the DEC staff who felt very genuinely it could be regulated to a degree and allowed to go forward.”
His conclusion, and that of the executive staff, was that more and more concerns were raised over years of study about effects on the air, water, health, communities and traffic in a fairly large landscape. They questioned whether the agency could effectively manage it, especially with limited resources. They decided “to err on the side of caution. I don’t think it was a political decision,” he said.
Other environmental measures over the past four years reauthorized Superfund and brownfields programs, banned elephant and rhinoceros ivory sales and required more wastewater measures in settlements with New York City and Albany. The state also began to address threats from nitrogen in Long Island waters.
Meanwhile, New York made 162 land acquisitions that totaled more than 94,000 acres ranging from Catskill mountainsides to Long Island and part of the Zoar Valley in western New York, according to the DEC.
Martens got one day out two years ago to canoe whitewater through newly acquired wilderness along the upper Hudson River in the Adirondacks with Michael Carr of the Nature Conservancy. That nonprofit first bought the paper company timberlands and then resold them to the state.
“I didn’t get out that much,” Martens said. “But when I did, it was spectacular.”
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