In the past few weeks we have attended Local Government Day, Adirondack Day in the Capital, and the Adirondack Research Consortium. In each case, we were left with the feeling that the Adirondacks is moving forward on many fronts. There is a sense of optimism and progress. Most importantly, collaboration and Park-wide thinking are the rules of the day.
Local Government Day
This is an annual event co-sponsored by the APA and AATV (Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages). Usually this event happens in March when we are away but they moved it into late April this year and we were pleased to be able to attend. The senior management from both DEC and APA were there listening hard to the large number of local government reps who came. The Adirondack Partnership and its Director, Bill Farber, were front and center touting their new Economic Strategies development project that has been awarded to a group of consulting firms led by River Street Planning and Development of Troy. This project will take the work of the ADK Futures project as a starting point to develop much more detailed strategies for economic development in the region and test them against market data.
The main focus of the day we attended was the economic potential of tourism. There was a presentation by Jim McKenna on the about-to-be-released Adirondack Park Outdoor Recreation Strategy, which is the product of a 25 person volunteer team comprised of public, private and non-profit leaders. This effort has characterized the main factors that hold back better development of the Park’s resources to provide more economic opportunity to the towns and villages of the region. The group made it’s initial priority the development of a web portal to bring together all information about recreational opportunities, facilities and visitor amenities across the entire Park. This is aimed at what the team saw as a key problem: inadequate information available to prospective visitors about the diverse recreational opportunities in the Park and the poor distribution of activities and events across the entire area. This web portal was recently funded in this years Regional Economic Development grants and its development has already started.
Next we heard about the potential economic benefits of better developing the recreational opportunities of the Park. Most importantly, we learned how the five towns (Newcomb, Minerva, Indian Lake, North Hudson and Long Lake) affected most by the new NYS acquisition of Finch Pruyn lands are working together to come up with plans for developing recreational and visitor facilities to capture some local economic benefit. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has included a half million dollar grant to the towns to help in this effort. DEC is working closely with the team, too. This kind of partnership is a major step in the right direction and TNC, in particular, should be commended for their efforts to insure that all benefit from the biggest addition to the Forest Preserve in 100 years.
Overall we heard that there is great potential if we diversify the offerings to visitors, most of whom only want a 1 to 2 hour hike. This means diversifying access and making it possible for the less fit or elderly to enjoy a portion of the outdoors. Others want something other than hiking, such as biking, boating, etc. Visitors also consider sight seeing, relaxing, dining and shopping an important part of their vacation. Grassroots efforts to develop new activities are also key, such as the Cranberry 50 development of hiking trails. In the end though, there needs to be investment in lodging if we are to unlock the economic potential of the region. We need to think hard about the kinds of incentives and grants that can be put together to attract the necessary private investment. Our relatively short visitor seasons and increasingly iffy winter weather make these kinds of investments very risky and they won’t happen if local and State government don’t sweeten the pot.
What struck us overall about the event was the lack of griping and pointing fingers. Instead there was a refreshing sense of optimism and cooperation. The ADK Futures project was cited repeatedly as one more sign that we are in a new era in the Park, one in which we are moving forward.
April 29 was the first Adirondack Day in the “well” of the State Legislative Office building in Albany. Groups around the State use this space to promote their region or cause to legislators, their staff, and executive branch staff. With an incredible outpouring of volunteer support, our region pulled together rich displays about conservation, fighting invasives, recreation, culture, history, and our successes on the economic development front. Most prominent, though, were the displays and samples of our burgeoning local food movement. It was great to see so many of our key organizations working together to promote the entire region.
It turns out that this very day the Governor announced his White Water Canoe Challenge. The effort clearly paid off in terms of greater awareness in Albany to the many ways the Adirondacks are moving ahead these days. At one point, Mr. Cuomo did make an appearance accompanied by Senator Betty Little and visited a number of the displays. Betty spotted us and steered the Governor our way for a brief introduction.
Adirondack Research Consortium
Last week we participated in the Adirondack Research Consortium (ARC) conference in Lake Placid. The opening keynote speakers were Andrew Revkin author of “Dot Earth” blog on the New York Times, and Stephen Jackson, Director of the Southwest Climate Center. Both held balanced views on climate change that emphasized the adaptability of nature and avoidance of extreme points of view. Dr. Jackson showed fossil data that indicated fast and major swings in climate have hit the planet before and had nothing to do with humans. Although we are clearly the major factor driving climate change now, we are not the only part of the system that can do so. Mr. Revkin introduced the idea that all environmental thinking must now include humans as part of the system, part of the solution and he pointed to the Adirondacks as an example. Getting to a pre-human wild state is simply not possible. For better or worse we are like gods, but as Stewart Brand said, “we better get good at it”. He made the point that climate change is a big messy problem with humans right in the middle of it and the Adirondacks are a big messy problem with humans in the middle of it. Dr. Jackson also talked about the need for researchers to learn how to better communicate and engage with the public. Scientists need to understand the public doesn’t react to data the way they do. In general, data never changes anyone’s mind. We need more people and organizations that are boundary spanners, that can bridge gaps between researchers and stakeholders. The Adirondack Research Consortium is one of those.
Bob Stegemann, DEC Region 5 Director, next stepped in for Joe Martens, DEC Commissioner, who had to be at a meeting with the Governor that day. Bob’s message was that the Adirondack’s are doing better than they have in many decades. We are completing the largest addition to the Forest Preserve in 100 years and all 26 town boards affected agreed to support it. And in the past 20 years we have added nearly 800,000 acres of easement lands inside the Blue Line. But, he emphasized, the towns and villages now need to thrive as the Forest Preserve has thrived. We need to work harder to ensure that the State land benefits local communities. We need stronger communities if they are going to be able to adapt to climate change and the more severe weather it is going to throw at us.
Bob also pointed out that as the Forest Preserve has grown (it is four times as large as it was when Article XIV was enacted) the issues for towns and villages with regard to the Forest Preserve have grown. He argued for consideration of an expanded transportation land bank to cover county and town roads. The current one only covers State highways, but they are not the only ones with bad curves, utility poles that are hazards, culverts that need upgrading, etc. He also suggested that a utility land bank be considered to enable modernization of existing utilities where Forest Preserve prevents siting of power, communications, water and sewer lines. We, too believe that carefully crafted and vetted versions of these ideas could be effective win-win modifications to the existing regulatory strictures in the Park. He also encouraged passage of the Transferable Development Rights (TDR) bill before the legislature and that more towns use APA map amendments to implement community development proposals. He ended by emphasizing the threat the invasive species pose to our great Park.
Next there was a panel of energy industry executives, but I must admit to not really learning much that was new, except that the big generators are concerned about the “threat” of distributed power production. We are so reminded of the way the Internet threatened the old, stodgy telcos.
Day 2 of the conference was kicked off with a panel of Dave Mason, Steve Englehart of AARCH and Kate Fish of ANCA. In keeping with the theme of the conference, Dave presented the 25 year future vision developed by our project. Then Steve provided the historical perspective on how the vision is rooted in our traditions and out landscape. Kate then talked about all the projects and efforts that are moving us toward the vision, emphasizing the two big wins for the North Country in the Regional Economic Development Council process.
In response to some questions after the talk, the Futures Project with CGA agreed to compile suggestions for a research agenda for the region as input to the Consortium.
This was our third ARC and this one was very different in tone and substance from the first one we went to in May 2011. We were just starting our research about the Adirondacks for the Futures project. The final plenary presentation that year was about the APRAP report, all doom and gloom. That effort provided an important baseline of data, but it didn’t point to a way out of the funk we were in. When we were doing our strategic planning consulting back in the ’90s, we found over and over again that data, by itself, doesn’t usually change people’s minds or lead to action. People use data to support what they already believe. To make progress you need to get people to let go of past beliefs and assumptions, to unlearn them as we used to say. Until you can crack open the current belief system or mental models of people, they can’t look afresh at a situation and see the possibility of positive change. We may be seeing that happen now.