Category Archives: Economic Development

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.

 

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.

 

743 Items of Evidence, and Counting

If you have not seen it, please note we have been monitoring what our region is actually doing vs the ADK Futures scenarios.  You can see what progress is being made here where more than 734 items of evidence show substantial progress toward realizing the vision laid out for our sustainable future.  More evidence is added all the time.

Recall that we were surprised by the strength and depth of the aligned intentions of most people in the region?  Well, if you were surprised by that, the progress since then is actually astonishing, and I encourage you to take a look at the breadth and depth of actions already taken.  Encouragingly, no single person is organizing and driving all this activity.  The progress is made by by hundreds of people in a distributed fashion.  It is clear that the region is making real progress toward what it identified as its desirable and attainable goals.

It is a good news reading, you’ll enjoy it. Look here and click on the header called ‘category’. Then you can look through each category and see what’s been going on.

Why is minimizing our carbon footprint so difficult?

Near the end of the December 2014 workshop on Adirondack region responses to climate change, someone asked a really good question.  Why was the “(C)Sustainable Life” scenario in the ADK Futures workshops of 2011 and 2012 considered most desirable AND most attainable while the “(A)Minimize our Carbon Footprint” scenario in this new workshop was considered most desirable but LEAST attainable?

A big difference between the two scenarios was the level of government, especially Federal government, intervention required.  The new scenario explicitly requires that governments put a price on carbon to create the necessary economic incentives to spur rapid adoption of clean energy.  Participants had already expressed their lack of faith in the top-down government led approach to capping emissions and thus it was consistent to believe that this regional scenario would be unattainable – Federal government is not functioning well today and no improvement is expected.

Another factor in our view is that the new scenario explicitly called for solving the harder parts of actually getting emissions in the region down by 80% of 2005 levels by 2040.  The older “Sustainable Life” scenario was much vaguer about doing good things to reduce our carbon footprint.  In the new scenario we focus on how to move away significantly from dependence on fossil fuels for transportation using a combination of electric and hydrogen vehicles coupled with efforts to reduce the total number of miles driven, a much more demanding scenario.

The new scenario posits that, over the next 25 years, regulations are enacted that put a price on GHG emissions all over the world.  The logic goes that the perception of the seriousness of threat of destructive climate change later in the century will increase during this period as the science will improve and impacts on the climate system begin to manifest themselves.  Large-scale change in the energy system requires engaging market forces by making energy sources that emits GHGs expensive relative to those that don’t.  As carbon prices increase, the rural northern lifestyle would be penalized because it consumes more transportation and heating energy than urban living.  Seeing this coming, the region can work proactively to minimize our fossil fuel use so are not impacted much as GHG prices increase.

Clearly the Adirondack region would not be the only part of the country hurt by placing a price on GHG emissions.  States that are big suppliers of fossil fuels (e.g., Wyoming, West Virginia, Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, etc.) would see their economies hurt as their markets shrink.  It seems clear that to get a carbon tax adopted, those hurt by it will have to be compensated in some way.  This is how our political system works.  One idea, for example, is to grant most of these funds collected back to individuals and small businesses as a ‘carbon dividend’.  Thus, rural life might not be as hurt as thought at first glance, and adoption of such a tax might not be impossible after all.  It depends how the revenues are used.  Still, global adoption of carbon taxes in some form is hard to imagine as easily attainable.

Other aspects of this new scenario minimizing our carbon footprint that might be difficult to imagine are an almost complete abandonment of heating oil in favor of biomass, solar thermal, geothermal or electric heat.  Biomass for thermal is a competitive option vs heating oil in our region. In its Renewable Heat initiative, NY State is targeting replacement of old wood stoves largely for health reasons.  But soot and other black carbon particles are also a driver of climate change as they settle on arctic snow fields and cause them to absorb more solar energy.  The State will pay you to remove and dispose of your old wood furnace, AND give you a grant to buy a new state-of-the-art unit.

Lastly, the new low carbon scenario called for more clustering of our residents in fewer towns where people walked and biked more.  By living closer together, and closer to work, we drive less.  Clustered homes and businesses could share a district heating system.  Also, as storms worsen, we can better fortify and upgrade key community infrastructure (communications, water, power, fire, EMT, etc.) in the larger towns, not in every town.  Communities where people know each other and see each other daily are stronger, more cohesive than communities where most people live outside of town, isolated from each other.  Once again this raises the specter of smaller remote, more marginal, Adirondack towns fading away, a possibility that was raised before in the ADK Futures workshops and something that is widely rejected.

This new low carbon scenario is primarily about efforts to mitigate the impact of our emissions.  One certain contribution we make is keeping our forests healthy and functioning as a major carbon storage system.  Assuming a push to reduce emissions gets into gear nationally, we can benefit from cost reductions in new technologies as they are adopted widely, just like everyone else, e.g. electric and hydrogen vehicles.  But developing and testing new technologies will happen elsewhere.

To expect the Adirondack region will be a leader in mitigation is almost certainly a stretch, except for maintaining our forest carbon storage.  But we can do our part. A common argument against aggressively mitigating our region’s GHG emissions is that we have a negligible impact on the global situation.  But most regions could say the same – no place matters much, but everywhere matters – and therein lies the conundrum.  Creating a global economy that doesn’t depend on wrecking the atmosphere and the oceans requires everyone, everywhere, to make changes, including us.   To have these changes in energy use adopted widely in the region, we will need to get more people to see the consequences of not acting.  At the State level, there is recognition of the need to act.  At the county and local level less so, but talk about storms and you find support.  Getting local leaders, citizens and youth to the point of being aware of the problem, and participating in sensible changes, remains our biggest opportunity.

Summary of Results of First Adirondack Regional Responses to Climate Change Workshop

On December 11 and 12, 2014 a diverse set of 32 scientists, policy makers, government officials, non-profit leaders and concerned citizens mapped out different ways in which our region might respond to the threat of disruptive climate change. As we did for the ADK Futures project, we are using a scenario planning approach in which we consider multiple plausible outcomes for 25 years from now and map out pathways to get to them using events that could happen between now and the outcome horizon.  The full documentation of the workshop is available.  Here we present a summary of results.  Future posts will explore some of the issues raised.

The issues and options with regard to climate change are notoriously complex and because what we do will be affected by what happens elsewhere, we can’t just consider scenarios at the regional level.  Therefore, we set the context for our regional thinking with two sets of global scenarios.  First, we presented 5 scenarios for how the global climate system might evolve over the next 25 years.  These global climate scenarios are labeled:

  • C1: Gradual Change
  • C2: Faster Change
  • C3: Pause Ends
  • C4: Non-Linear
  • C5: Unpredictable

After some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global climate ranking table result

The result is pretty clear:  the most difficult to deal with climate possibilities (C4 Non-Linear and C5 Unpredictable) are the most likely (tied for first) and the most benign ones are the least likely.  Get ready for more bad weather.

Next, we presented 5 scenarios for the human race might respond to the threat of climate change at the global level.  Climate change is a problem whose worst consequences can only be prevented by global action.  These global response scenarios are labeled:

  • G1: Governments in Gear
  • G2: Bottom Up Progress
  • G3: Private Sector Leads
  • G4: The Oblique Path to Progress
  • G5: Panic!

Again, after some discussion, we asked the participants to rank order these climate scenarios from most probable over the next 25 years to least probable.  Here are the results:

global response ranking table result

This result puts most faith in the private sector(G3) and bottom up efforts (G2) and has the lowest expectations of success for top-down, national government-led efforts (G1).  This is realistic but it isn’t clear that we can avert damaging climate change without G1 and a truly global solution.

With this as context, the workshop focused on 6 scenarios about how the Adirondack Region responds over the next 25 years. These regional responses are labeled:

  • A: Minimize Our Carbon Footprint
  • B: Prepare for the Worst
  • C: Hyper-Green Human Refuge
  • D: Climate Change Laboratory
  • E: Don’t Panic
  • F: Reaching a Regional Tipping Point

After almost a full day of analysis and then a spirited half-day of plenary debate, we asked the participants to rank order these six regional response scenarios on desirability and attainability, just as we did with the Adirondack Futures endstates in 2011 and 2012.  Here are the results:

regional after ranking result

Unlike in the Adirondack Futures result (which we said at the time was highly unusual), the most desirable outcome here A, where we lower our carbon footprint, is the least attainable. Why this is so will be the subject of a future post. The scenario that got the most endorsement for action in the workshop is B, the one focused on proactive adaptation with the expectation of serious climate change in the future.  Scenario C, which says the region will be a winner on balance because of climate change, was viewed skeptically. The narrowly focused science and research scenario D was viewed as difficult to pull off and didn’t address enough of the region’s needs.   Scenario E that took a pragmatic, measured approach was seen as easy to do but undesirable.  Scenario F in which the region is badly wrecked by climate change was obviously undesirable but received a fairly high attainability score.

The end of the workshop was devoted to sketching out ways in which multiple endstates and layers of endstates might be integrated into a more complete roadmap for the next 25 years and beyond. One synthesis depicted change over time at both the global climate level (top), global response level (x-axis) and regional level (bottom).

adk cc synthesis diagram

The climate will worsen, eventually changing non-linearly.  The G2 (Bottom Up) and G3 (Private Sector) global responses predominate at first followed by more of a G4 (Oblique) approach and then finally as the climate worsens still, G1 (Top-Down) kicks in.  Regionally there is a lot of focus on mitigation and clean energy (A) especially as the private sector brings the costs down.  The intensity of our regional efforts will follow the triggers of the global scenarios with B (Adaptation) and C (Human Refuge) dominating over time. Seems likely that B and C will end up dwarfing everything else as the climate gets bad. In their view, D (Laboratory) is flat over time and so is E (Don’t Panic).  You continue to do smart, practical things (E) and you do great science although funding might be tighter in the future as money goes to adaptation.

In future posts we will dig into specific scenarios and their implications.