One speaker called the 200 people who gathered Thursday at Newcomb Central School a “who’s who of the Adirondacks.”
The seventh annual forum of the Common Ground Alliance of the Adirondacks featured an audience of local government leaders, environmental and recreation advocates, state officials and others, all under one roof to discuss some of the economic and ecological issues facing the Adirondack Park.
There was talk about promoting tourism, economic strategies, renewable energy and water quality protection — and there wasn’t a raised voice all day.
Such a calm gathering of such diverse interests would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, when hostility and tension over the state’s land-use decisions ran high, after a state commission recommended higher levels of planning to protect the park, and Adirondack residents — and their elected leaders — objected.
“The times have changed. The tenor of the dialogue in the Adirondacks is not what it used to be,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of The Adirondack Council. “I think both sides have moved significantly toward the middle.”
The alliance held its first meeting in 2007, after the idea was broached that maybe everyone could agree the state Forest Preserve is the 6-million-acre park’s biggest economic asset and should be supported.
“I’m so excited that seven years later, the Common Ground Alliance is still occurring,” said Lani Ulrich, who was one of the founders of the alliance and is now chairwoman of the Adirondack Park Agency board.
In the past few years, the alliance has gained solid footing and its participants have worked together on a wide variety of issues. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with Newcomb and other affected towns on how to use the vast new tracts of forest land the state is acquiring from the conservancy, which bought them from the paper company Finch Pruyn several years ago.
“The barrier as far as I’m concerned has been trust, and the fact we are meeting indicates the progress we are making on a daily basis to build trust between stakeholders,” said Paul Hai, program director of the Northern Forestry Institute in Newcomb, which operates the Adirondack Visitor’s Center.
The state is in the process of acquiring thousands of new acres around Newcomb, a tiny Essex County community that stretches along Route 28 just to the south of the High Peaks.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency are deciding how much public access to allow on land along the upper Hudson River. A “wilderness” classification would require closure of many established primitive roads, while a “wild forest” designation would let them remain open.
But either way, the lands — some of which are open to the public now, other parts of which will open this fall — are expected to bring new visitors to the small community.
“We know the former Finch lands will be some form of economic infusion into the town of Newcomb,” Hai said during a presentation.
One of the points of agreement at Thursday’s forum was that promoting public use of the Forest Preserve — about half the land in the Adirondack Park — is the best path forward for local communities looking to create jobs.
“We can use the land mass of the Forest Preserve as our asset,” said Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office for Sustainable Tourism, as the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau is known.
The region’s tourism potential “has always been there, but we’re realizing it more than ever,” said Robert Stegemann, director of DEC Region 5, which covers the eastern Adirondacks.
The Adirondack region has Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attention. The Finch Pruyn lands are being acquired on his watch, more than $200 million in economic development projects have been pledged through the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, and Cuomo will be in Indian Lake today and Monday for the Adirondack Whitewater Challenge, kicking off what officials in that Hamilton County crossroads hamlet hope will become an annual festival.
“We’ve had a couple of governors in my lifetime who have really loved the Adirondacks, and I believe Gov. Cuomo is one of them,” said state Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, who represents much of the park.
Room for everyone
Stec said the park has room for a variety of users.
“It’s a 6-million-acre park. There’s room enough for everybody to do their thing,” said Stec, who is an Adirondack 46er — someone who has climbed the state’s 46 tallest peaks.
Jeffrey Ciabotti, a senior planner with Toole Design Group, said the mountainous and scenic park is well positioned to take advantage of growing public interest in bicycling and other outdoor activities.
“The things this park is able to do with its assets are also the things that people are most wanting to do,” he said.
Ciabotti encouraged those who are interested in the Adirondacks to continue to work together.
Dan Plumley of Keene Valley, a partner in the conservation group Adirondack Wild, said there’s a long history of groups and individuals working to build consensus around Adirondack issues, even if there will always be points of tension. The creation of the park in 1892 itself grew out of negotiation and consensus-building, he noted.
“If there are people here who believe you can eliminate all tension over land-use issues, I’m not sure how realistic that is,” said Plumley, a Niskayuna native. “There are going to be tensions, but there also needs to be collaboration.”
“We’re enthusiastic that the local governments in this forum and others are seeing the Forest Preserve as a community asset,” he said.
Local government leaders echoed how much agreement they now have with environmental advocates, thanks to the dialogue.
“It’s the foundation of beating down the old historic rhetoric to where people can be reasonable,” said Morehouse town Supervisor Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors. “The Common Ground forum has really humanized the conversation.”
Chester town Supervisor Fred Monroe, a longtime critic of the Adirondack Park Agency as executive director of its Local Government Review Board, said he’s been surprised at how much agreement there is among the various parties about the park's future.
“I’m amazed at how much agreement there is on what the park should look like in 25 years,” Monroe said. “I thought there would be tremendous disagreement.”
The vision, as developed by a Common Ground Alliance offshoot called ADK Futures, focuses on ecologically friendly recreational tourism, and communities finding ways to adjust to a warming global climate and aging populations.
“Most everyone has come out now to try to figure out how the Forest Preserve is a solution, not a problem,” said Jim Herman, co-directors of the ADK Futures project.
Monroe said the Common Ground Alliance really congealed in 2008-09, when Gov. David Paterson proposed freezing state payments of taxes on Forest Preserve land in dealing with the state budget crisis. Environmental advocates and local government leaders came together and persuaded Paterson the move would be harmful to local governments and stir opposition to future stand land acquisitions.
“The question was simply, can we get over the traditional conflicts and find common solutions?” said Brian Houseal, a former executive director of The Adirondack Council and one of the alliance’s founders. “We were learning how to cooperate across traditional tension lines.”