Learnings from the Tetons and Yellowstone

We spent nine nights in the Tetons and Yellowstone in September 2016.  They are both small relative to the Adirondacks yet handle 2x the visitors.  They are managed by the Park Service. Different companies operate hotels, restaurants stores, gas stations, and such in the Park under concession agreements.  Some other observations follow and thoughts about what the Adirondacks might usefully copy are the last section.

The Tetons

The Tetons National Park is small, only 330,000 acres, but speculator.  The Jackson, WY airport is actually inside the Park so it is incredibly easy to visit.  It is about vistas, hiking, fishing, rafting and wildlife spotting.  Dogs are only allowed in limited areas.  The season is not over yet but we were told it might approach 5 million visitors for 2016.  We visited right after Labor Day. There were notable numbers of Asian tourist groups.

Camping is allowed only by reservation at designated sites.  You have to register your plans at a back country office.  If you plan on staying at campsites A, B and C you have to show up at each site on the designated day.  You are not allowed to stop early and camp somewhere because you are tired or it’s raining, snowing and so on.  Back country rangers check in on campsites daily.

Wildlife is abundant. Only hunting elk is legal and only under limited circumstances.   Roads have many viewing pullouts – signs tell you that you are approaching one.

Bears, especially brown bears, are a danger.  Instead of insisting people carry bear canisters, the Park Service installs bear-proof metal food storage bins at every picnic ground and even back country camping locations.  They are big enough for two people to fit inside and there is a latch release on the inside.  Bear spray is widely available, heavily advertised and can even be rented.  Training information about how to use it is all over the place (e.g. do not spray it into the wind).  The discourage people from thinking guns will protect them from a bear.  They encourage you to make noise when hiking, talk loudly, carry a bell, and go in groups of three or more.  The idea is to avoid surprising a bear.

Yellowstone is Just to the North

Yellowstone is 2000 feet higher and a very different ecological environment full of geysers and other hot water features.  It is 2.2 million acres, and the surrounding ecosystem adds another 22 million acres.  Ownership outside the Park is mixed private, other federal and there are small towns.  It was estimated that 5 millions would visit this year.

There is no hunting in the Park, but the the animal herds move outside the Park where hunting is big business.  The wildlife of the Park are treasured.  Herds of bison, elk and pronghorn antelope.  Grizzly and black bears.  Moose.

The same rules about camping and bears apply here are they do in the Tetons.

The big thing here is fire.  Days before we arrived, the road between the Tetons and Yellowstone was closed due to a forest fire.  It opened the morning we wanted pass, then closed abruptly again in the afternoon. Strong winds came up and the fire exploded.  Nearby by tourist facilities were evacuated and closed.  They do try to protect buildings and infrastructure, but otherwise they let fires burn using gates to close off roads when necessary (there is a whole system of gates).  You see recovering burned areas all over the Park with new pine forests of various ages growing up. Fires there serve the same purpose as beaver here, creating open lands for new plant growth in the open sun.  You don’t want to be near a forest fire, or downwind from one, but there is no special concern for the forest lost because you see it recovering all over the region.  Smoke clouds were as big as our summertime thunderheads.  The next day, it snowed 4-6 inches which helped dampen the fire so the road was re-opened as few days later.

Common Features to Both Parks

No one lives in the Park except Park staff and seasonal workers at various hotels, restaurants and campgrounds.  These people all live in dormitory style housing.  There are public bathrooms all over the area.  95% of people never get more than 500 feet from a road.  Some areas are heavily developed to handle crowds – most notably Old Faithful – but most of it is left untouched.

Areas are routinely closed for maintenance, restoration and recovery.  July and August are the busiest months of their short season.  The visitors there reflected international visitors but not notably diverse American visitors.

Traffic can back up due to two things.  Parking lots get full so waiting cars line up, causing roads to choke up.  Also wildlife sightings cause visitors to stop and this turns into a crowd rapidly. Staff is dispatched to place temporary ‘wildlife’ signs so people are aware of the cause of the delay and manage the road side areas.

What Might be Helpful to the Adirondacks?

There dominance of car touring to designated places with something to see and appropriate facilities (bathrooms, photo op pull outs, etc) suggested to me the Adirondacks could do a lot more with simple roadside vistas and pull outs.  Simple things like a sign saying “pull out ahead gave drivers time to pull safely off the road to enjoy the location.  Encouraging activity other than hiking protects the back country.

Since no one lives in the Parks, staff housing has to be provided.  It would see like summer staff housing in the Adirondacks would be a way to add more people and thereby improve the visitor experience.

Park Staff (Rangers and Naturalists) were visible and approachable in many locations.  There were trained well and able to answer most questions.  Visitor centers have staffed desks with people who knew the most recent road conditions, closures, etc.  In Yellowstone there was a Park newspaper.  The point is we found information available all over the place from staff in many locations.  Here in the Adirondacks, information is harder to find unless you know where to look.

The story of the Parks and their surrounding area is quite similar to the Adirondacks.  The core Park areas were easy for almost everyone to support from the beginning.  It was only when the Park boundaries were expanded into neighboring ranch land next to the Tetons that locals began to object.  The land was purchased in a hidden manner (like the TNC purchase of Finch) and later it became part of the Park by Presidential Executive Order.  In the case of Yellowstone, the Park has not grown in acres, but the Yellowstone ecosystem designation was expanded to some 22.2 million acres surrounding the 2.2 million acre Park and this was a root of classic conservation conflicts there.  The 22.2 million acres includes small towns and tracts of private ranch land plus other Federal land.  The Adirondack Forest Preserve included lots of scattered tracts while the two western Parks are in contiguous blocks of land.  Someday, people will come to see that the Adirondack ecosystem will be better served if our Forest Preserve was consolidated into larger blocks and the smaller disassociated scattered parcels were sold to fund contiguous land.

The Jackson airport had a new terminal with 9 gates and is served by a couple of airlines.  It makes visiting very easy.  We have the Saranac Lake Airport in the Park but it is poorly served by Cape Air to the point that mostly it exists for private aircraft of the uber rich.  However we also have Plattsburgh airport which is about to open its expanded terminal with 9 gates plus be able to handle international arrivals and departures.  There is potential to use it as a major entry point for air travel to our Park.

 

Next Diversity Symposium is Saturday August 13 at ESF Newcomb

The third symposium on diversity will be held from 9-4 on August 13.  You must register to attend using this link.

From the press release…

“The opening speech, remarks on the intersection of diversity, economics and social justice, will be given by Professor Wallace Ford.  Professor Ford is Chair of the Public Administration Department at Medgar Evers College”

“The keynote speech will be given by Aaron Mair, President of the National Sierra Club.  Mr. Mair is the first African American to lead the United States’ largest environmental organization.”

This is a huge issue for the Adirondack Park.  Our State becomes more diverse on a daily basis. Somehow we need to foster a shift in the demographics of our Park residents and visitors to better reflect the whole of New York State.  Not doing so will be a long term risk for the Park. This annual symposium is a place to start the many conversations to come.

CGA 2016 Forum in Old Forge, the 10th Anniversary!

The 2016 CGA Forum was held July 19 in Old Forge.  It was, remarkably, the 10th annual meeting.  It attracted about 200 people again, with much stronger local government representation than in recent years.

I presented slides that reviewed actual events of the last four years compared to the plans developed during the 2011-12 ADK Futures Project.  I’ve been matching up the plan vs the real world since 2012 in this online database.  This past February I wrote a paper that provides links to all the source information.  The resulting profile of our progress is rooted in this data, not just my opinion.

The result is surprising forward movement on many fronts, far better progress than most people know. Wow, we don’t need another plan, we need continuing work in the directions we are already headed.  And we need to avoid getting swept up into negative emotional stuff arising from continuing lawsuits and controversy related to APA decisions.  One person’s proper APA ruling is another person’s disaster – this just seems to be the fate of regulatory agencies – but these battles of words and lawyers are no longer the central force defining the future of our park.  The actual future is in the active forward moving hands of thousands people doing their everyday work to improve the place, not with our regional advocacy groups, and it is working.

One major step ahead (thanks to Betty Little, Dan Stec, DEC, Ross Whaley and others too) is the first passage of the utility amendment, from work that originated in the 2102 CGA Forum in a work group run by Neil Woodworth and Karyn Richards.  Here is the version of the utility amendment that achieved first passage.

S8027 is the related implementation language, providing definitions of the terms and other details.  This did not pass the Assembly and is up next year along with second passage.

The amendment does some important things, noted in the points that follow:

  • Allows pipes and cables to be buried under roads that pass through Forest Preserve, which happened all the time until 1996 when the practice was halted
  • It legalizes power and communications lines that exist along roads passing through Forest Preserve.  New lines can be co-located or, if nothing exists, they can be buried. It allows power poles to be moved when needed for road projects – currently no poles are allowed to be moved, ever.
  • It allows bike paths associated with roads where they pass through Forest Preserve
  • It sets up a 250 acre land bank for town about county roads like the one set up in 1956 for State roads.
  • The land bank can also be used for water wells.

It might not be perfect, but it is a major step forward.  Our thanks to the many people who have made this possible so far.  We encourage everyone to support this as it proceeds through second passage on on to the ballot in November for NYS voters to approve.

10th CGA Forum Tuesday July 19

This year’s Common Ground Alliance Forum is a week from today at View in Old Forge.  Once again the day is focused on smaller group discussions of key issues facing the region.  You can find out more and register at: http://www.adirondack.org/CGA

Jim will be the emcee for the day and will lead a work group discussion on adapting to climate change.  Dave will give a talk on how the ADKfutures framework allows us to track what’s been happening in the past 4 years on progress toward desired futures.  It’s a pretty optimistic picture.

Please come and participate in the day.

What I’ve Learned About Community Solar Farms

Community solar farms became legal in NYS in May.  I had imagined building such a facility at the Keene Transfer Station for a long time.  It is our long-closed and capped landfill, now a mowed field with a fabulous view, the garbage/recycling place and town highway operations center. Capped dumps are used for solar farms in many places so I wanted to look into doing this sort of thing here as a model for other towns to follow.  The town owns the land, it can’t be used for much else and it must remain open, mowed annually to keep trees from growing.  These solar sites need 3-phase power lines in place and Keene has this at the nearby highway department building.

Technically, there is no problem.  After all, panels are on often roof tops without creating leaks, and the problem is similar.  Like a roof, you cannot perforate the liner covering the capped area, so instead the panels are attached to racks that are held down with heavy pre-cast pieces of concrete laid on the ground.  In urban areas where this is done all the time there is no cost penalty.  Out here in the sticks, this is not normal, and equipment has to be brought in to do the work.  There is an extra DEC permit involved in using a landfill.   But with little open land owned by towns in the Park, this could be a viable option.

The problem for the Keene site is that it is too small.  These solar farms are allowed be 2mw, but we only have space for about 40% of that.  The town needs 1/3 of the site’s capacity for municipal power.  What is left can only serve about 50 homes which raises the question of who gets to use it.  A full scale site would serve 3-400 homes.

What is happening state-wide is that businesses are organizing to build such projects in all 10 power distribution regions.  They will spread the fixed costs of operations across thousands of customers. So our old landfill would be a high cost site serving a small number of residents. That is not a recipe for success.

The people who loan money for these projects are hesitant about using dumps. So we spent some time looking for alternate sites.  The town-owned open fields are all in the flood plain, and the financing people won’t fund flood-plain projects because you cannot buy insurance for them.  Other town owned land is forested and more remote.  The cost of removing a forest, and building 3-phase power lines kill the economics of using most forested land.  So businesses are leasing private open fields where power lines already in place.  These large multi-site operators will strive to offer solar PV to everyone.

Your best, cheapest, option will be panels on your own land, or roof.  Adding the cost of someone else’s land will always make community solar more expensive.  It will still be desirable for people with homes in the forest (many in our region), and it may even be 100% financed, but the cheapest option will be using your own land.

The closed, capped, Keene dump is likely still be a good site for a municipal solar PV farm.  It is being looked into.  The town uses power for various buildings, the drinking water systems (we have two), street lighting, and so on.  It may be small enough that it doesn’t need to be on the capped area. But the site is not large enough to use for a 2mw residential solar PV farm.

Other Adirondack towns may have town owned open fields to use, or larger landfills but most will find it hard to come up with a decent site.

The utility amendment to Article 14 that recently achieved first passage had all the ideas about green power stripped out of the early proposal.  Given the threats of climate change, actually giving 10 acres to each of our 102 towns for a solar site would be a wise thing to encourage. This would have needed 1020 acres out of 3 million.  It could have moved the whole Park into the fight to mitigate climate change, fostering a new sense of active environmentalism, participating in solving environmental problems larger than our own.  We have done it before with our successful fight against acid rain.  But not-in-my-backyard wisdom prevailed and our region’s leading environmental advocates decided to oppose any green power at all.    It is odd to live in a place so protected that we can’t actually participate in the great quest to save the planet.  Bill McKibben ran into the same issue years ago when vocally supported building windmills at an old mine site in Johnstown.  They were ultimately denied permits.  He left the region, and moved to Vermont.

 

Project Update – Are We Getting the Desired Future Or?

You know this pattern:  Lots of people spend tons of time and money developing a plan.  It finishes with a fanfare, then as times passed it is spoken about less frequently.  Eventually people forget about the plan.  Then work begins on a new plan, because, well, we don’t have one. So, with this post we are trying to add something different to the ADK Futures Project, a review of how we are doing vs the 2011-12 vision – remember the vision?

In 2011-12, the ADK Futures Project ran a series of scenario planning workshops.  The desired future was called the Sustainable Life, mixed with tourism and supported by the Forest Preserve.  This also turned out to be most attainable among the scenarios, largely because much of it was already underway.  The broad alignment supporting the vision was what surprised people.  Now it is February 2016.  What has happened since July 2012?  How does it compare to the desired vision?

We have been collecting data, news items, press releases, reports and such since July 2013 and now have roughly 1000 items. We associate each item to its related event(s).  Over time one begins to see trends suggesting what is getting done, and what is not. Some events have lots of news, on other events nothing has happened, and some are clearly never going to happen.

The short conclusion is, wow, we sure are making a lot of progress on a broad range of fronts. Historic expansions of the Forest Preserve have been made.  Realignment of the health care system has been done.  Building out broadband and cell service is ongoing, making progress each day.  The renewal of Champlain Valley farming is gaining momentum.  The State and private sector have invested a lot of new money in recreation and tourism facilities.  And on and on.  It is very impressive, especially given the fact that no one is organizing, coordinating, or leading all this work.   It is happening, it seems, with the willing collaboration and distributed effort of many people to get where they collectively want to go.  Maybe this is democracy in action in the most positive sense of the word.   It is actually quite incredible.

There is too much information for a post.  We have written an update that organizes recent developments by theme.  For example, Agriculture, Recreation, Energy, Transportation, Arts and Heritage, Healthcare, and more, are each separate topics, where news related to the events used in the 2011-12 workshops has been aggregated and written as a short narrative.

The update is based on data collected, organized and posted here.  You can check on the data, follow the links and find out more about the progress we have made. We try to keep ‘evidence’ to things that actually happen; not ongoing debates but how the debates conclude.  We try to keep it complete.  A grant is made.  A project is started, finished or abandoned.  The APA makes a decision.  Voters pass something.  You get the idea.  Even with this approach, we already have about 1000 items of evidence.   Let us know via email of missing data, including a link to the evidence we should cite.  Thanks!

Click here for the PDF file of the update document.

 

 

2015 REDC Awards Summary

The Adirondack Park is split between three REDCs.  The 2015 grants from all three that have an impact on the Park are quickly summarized in this post.

The largest grant was $2 million to Adirondack Health to partially fund it’s new Medical Fitness Center in Lake Placid.

Three hamlets get ‘downtown’ revitalization funds:  Saranac Lake, Ticonderoga and Indian Lake.

There are quite a lot of tourism related grants.  2 hotel projects, one in Schroon Lake and one in Speculator on Lake Pleasant.  Funds for work at Great Camp Sagamore, the ADK Museum and The Wild Center. A marketing push for skiers.  Snowmobile trail groomers(2).  More work on two byway projects:  the First Wilderness Heritage Corridor and the Lakes-to-Locks Passage.

2 theaters will see feasibility studies for replacements:  Pendragon in Saranac Lake and  Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake.  4 smaller arts organizations received funds to expand programming: Adirondack Center for Writing, Bluseed Studio, both in Saranac Lake and Lake George Music Festival and the Akwesasne Cultural Center.

Funding went to a brewery expansion in Keeseville, a new sawmill in Messena, and organizing financing for energy conservation and renewable energy projects.  A new venture will build robotic year-round greenhouses in the agriculture areas.

More mundane, sewer work and engineering continue around Lake Champlain in Crown Point, Port Henry, Willlsboro, Moriah. A sewer extension in Tupper Lake was funded.  A septic inspection program for Lake George was funded.  Clifton-Fine has a drinking water project in Newton Falls.

There are significant storm water projects in Lake Placid (around Mirror Lake), in Lake George, Bolton and Chestertown.  Also a Queensbury Lake George watershed plan was funded. Four new larger culverts for fish passage and storm water in Jay, Keene, Chestertown and Hague.

Renovation of water front parks in Tupper Lake, Bolton and Clifton-Fine were funded.

These are the December 2105 awards.  Most projects get built but not all of them.  There are other major projects funded via other means.  All the main NYS Route 73 bridges, for example, will be replaced next year with Federal funds.

It was not one of the more successful REDC rounds for the region, but, still, I would summarize it by noting that  water quality, tourism, arts/heritage, plus a bit of local food and local energy financing are all very much in line with the sustainable life and sustainable tourism vision derived from the ADK Futures work. Things are really coming along.