The coming months could be pivotal for the Adirondack State Park as Gov. Kathy Hochul considers filling key vacancies, the first of two important ballot questions go to voters and the Adirondack Council aims to elevate the park in the national discussion on fighting climate change.
Former-Gov. Andrew Cuomo left Hochul a litany of important vacant positions across state government, which she has set out to fill since taking office, including chair of the Adirondack Park Agency board that oversees development and enforcement of legal protections in the park.
Voters in the November election will be asked whether to add a “right to clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment” to the state constitution’s Bill of Rights, which in the future could bolster conservation efforts in the Adirondacks. That ballot question is a precursor to another initiative set for the 2022 ballot, a bond measure that would support major investments in land preservation, improvements to clean water and climate resiliency projects.
“In the Adirondacks there is sort of an assumption you will have clean air and water and a healthy environment, but that’s not always the case,” Adirondack Council spokesperson John Sheehan said in a recent interview. “It should not just be an expectation in the Adirondacks but everywhere.”
The council, one of the most prominent Adirondack advocacy groups in the state, earlier this week released its annual State of the Park report, a review of how elected officials and government agencies have handled issues in the park over the past year and a reminder of the many key challenges still facing the park.
The report highlighted numerous accomplishments and steps forward in the past year: a focus on combating road salt contamination of local water sources, new initiatives to manage trail overuse and a landmark Court of Appeals ruling that prevented the construction of wide snowmobile trails and the destruction of trees in the state forest preserve.
But even major accomplishments cut two ways. While lawmakers established a new road salt task force to study the issues of salt contamination in the park, Cuomo never appointed and approved members to serve on the board. Advocates are still looking for more ways — and funds — to divert foot traffic from the most popular areas in the High Peaks. The Court of Appeals’ decision barring snowmobile construction exacerbated frustration among local officials who see the trail connections between towns as a key driver of economic activity.
The report also focuses on the role that the park played in lives of its residents and visitors during the pandemic, serving as a refuge of nature and calm for many.
“The key is how vital the park has become in the lives of people in upstate New York and throughout the northeast as a place of refuge,” Sheehan said of the report’s overarching theme. “The Adirondacks always seem like a place of extreme calm.”
The report serves as a summation of the challenges and debates that will continue to shape the future of the park in the months and years to come. Besides filling the APA board’s top spot – a critical position in steering state management of the park – and two expired board seats, Adirondack advocates are also calling on Hochul to boost and diversify staffing at the agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation and among the ranks of the Forest Rangers charged with day-to-day protection of the park and the people who enjoy it.
The report applauds early efforts to curb overuse and parking violations near the most popular trailheads, including a private-public partnership to experiment with parking reservations at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. As a larger debate unfolds about whether backcountry permits — which exist in many federal wilderness areas, particularly national parks — might be something to try in the Adirondacks, the parking reservation system was a first step to bringing more order and limitations to backcountry crowds.
Sheehan said the reservation system has proved effective and should be expanded to other busy trailhead parking lots but said he did not think it was necessary yet to expand to requiring permits in the backcountry.
The report does call for more state funding to improve trails and frontcountry facilities like bathrooms and develop a stronger network of trailhead parking and shuttle services.
“We really still need to see some capital improvement in the way of rebuilding trails and some of the investment in the state directing people to places other than Keene Valley and Lake Placid,” Sheehan said.
The Adirondack Council and other Adirondack-focused organizations and advocates will be focused over the next year on another source of money that could benefit the park: the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act that will go up for voter approval on the ballot in November 2022.
If approved, the bond act would support millions of dollars of investments to improve wastewater facilities, conserve land, strengthen flood controls and improve climate change resilience in the park.
Making the Adirondacks a national model
The Adirondack Council also sees a chance to elevate the park to a national platform as federal lawmakers consider massive new funding for infrastructure and climate-related projects. Hoping to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s focus on combating climate change with a Civilian Climate Corps charged with building trails, restoring wild areas and more, the council sees the Adirondacks as a good place to start.
Aaron Mair, an environmentalist from the Schenectady area who previously served as president of the national Sierra Club, earlier this summer joined the Adirondack Council as an ambassador of sorts charged with promoting the Adirondacks as a national model in the fight against climate change.
Mair said evidence of climate catastrophe surrounds us everyday and painted the need to make the Adirondacks a central part of a strategy in fighting climate change as existential.
“The crisis and urgency is already upon us,” he said, noting recent forest fires and floods throughout the country. “We are witnessing the effects of climate disruption.”
Mair noted that two major resources on the planet can serve as stores – rather than sources – of the carbon that fuels warming: the oceans and the forest. In New York, he said, a significant amount of forest has already been protected and even more can be protected in the future.
“The thing nature has given us over millions of years is forest and woodlands,” he said. “We have worked them to the point of significant damage, but we can restore them.”
He also said he thinks broader national and global efforts to combat climate change could mean thousands of new jobs in the Adirondacks – jobs protecting wilderness, fostering eco-tourism, constructing more resilient infrastructure and more.
The original Civilian Conservation Corps employed millions of people during the Great Depression to construct trails, roads and some of the most iconic buildings and art installations in the country. Mair said the climate crisis calls for a comparable effort across the country and that the Adirondacks — with ties to New York’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt who initiated the first conservation corps — should sit at the forefront of those efforts.
“The urgency and crisis is now for us to go from neglecting these massive efforts to scaling them up,” Mair said.