Tag Archives: conservation

Feels Like Progress

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.

Adirondack Day

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.

Jim and dave with Cuomo and Little

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.

Ecotourism

We spent the month of February traveling in Central America, mainly Costa Rica.  When we left Keene we joked that we were doing “research on ecotourism” but, in fact, we did learn a lot about the subject.  Here are a few observations.

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A Mix of Public and Private Reserves plus a Wide Spread Eco Ethics

In Costa Rica, there are national parks (25% of the total area of the country) and also private reserves (8%).  Overall, the country is about double the size of the Adirondack Park.  So its national parks are about equal to our Forest Preserve which is about half of the total Adirondack Park.  This is pretty good in terms of land set aside for conservation.  Costa Rica is frequently cited for its high level of commitment to environmental sustainability.  They have set a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021.  Something like 95% of its energy is derived from renewable sources, mainly hydro, wind and geothermal (they have a lot of volcanoes).  More than any other country in the world they have branded themselves an ecotourism destination.

Admission Fees for Foreigners

Both Parks and private reserves charge admission with different rates for citizens vs. visitors.  They all have gates with attendants and posted hours of operation and a formal sense of the area as a Park.  The national parks charge $10 per person for foreigners.  Fees at private parks vary from $15-$25.  The all have bathrooms at the entrances.  The private preserves also tend to have small shops selling things like hats, sun screen, insect repellent, bird identification cards.  Some have small simple restaurants offering light food and drinks.

Excellent Guides Everywhere

In every case the guides make it clear that the funds from tourist traffic support more conservation and jobs in the region. An important point is that the private preserves are set up so only a small part (2%) of the land is accessible by visitors with the rest devoted to preservation of natural habitat and protection of wildlife.  This often meant that a hotel had as small a footprint as possible.  Some have highly developed trails.  Most walks are short, maybe 2 hours.  The funds go to research programs, typically on other parts of the property.   The government provides small financial incentives for private land owners to turn their properties into preserves rather than farms, plantations or pastures.

Guides point out basic flora and fauna as well as local exotic stuff, if any.  They carry scopes for birding, take photos with visitors’ cameras, and they carry laser pointers that are great for pointing to birds.  The guides work as teams; each guide has only 2-5 people with them, but if they find something of special interest they use smart phones to text each other in order to share sightings. Most excursions are half-day programs.  There are also early morning (dawn) and early evening (sunset + 2 hours) walks.

Guides are very well trained, certified and licensed.  Schooling appears to be 2-3 years of work at a community college level or higher.  They are expert bird spotters, and explain plants, tree types, canopy fungi, soils…lots of facts about how the ecosystems work.  They are deeply enthusiastic in explaining things to people of all types from many countries.  They are cross-trained so one day they are walking guides while the next day they are raft drivers.  Most are employed by tour operators, although some are independent.

Transportation Problems Similar to the Adirondacks

The primary tourist towns are a few hours apart, and 2-3 hours from the larger airport (there are some smaller airstrips).  The tour companies use small comfortable vans for airport pickups and to take people from town to town.  The drivers who run these transfers make the trips interesting, stopping at good view spots or to see a random animal.  In effect, the transport becomes another excursion. They talk happily with passengers about anything using either English or Spanish.  Many visitors rent cars as well.

Regionally, they leverage the variability of the country….the fact that it is really different in each region is made to be of interest and a reason to travel around.

Other Tourist Activity

It’s not all about birding and species identification.  There are lots of visitor-related recreation and entertainment attractions:  zip lines, rappelling, balloon rides, horses, boat trips, rafting, coffee farm tours, mangrove swamp tours, chocolate plantation tours, artist coop visits, butterfly gardens, orchid farms, beach towns, etc.  The main focus is wildlife and understanding the complex and varied ecosystems of this diverse country.

Hunting is illegal in all of Costa Rica.  Animals with behavior issues (e.g. crocodiles) are captured and released where they are not dangerous to people

Recycling is ubiquitous in the country and they are always looking for markets for recycled materials.  They explained that now they make all decks and walkways in the parks out of recycled plastic rather than wood.  In the tropical climate the wood rots in as little as 5 years whereas the plastic will last essentially forever.  Hotel gift shops offered a range of things made from recycled materials.

It wasn’t just professional guides and tour operators who seemed to get the idea of conservation and ecotourism.  The attitudes about protecting the environment and being proud of the environmental achievements seemed universal.  We heard that the private reserves are better protected than the National Parks, where budget limitations make enforcement personnel scarce.  Mostly this creates problems with timber poachers coming in from bordering Nicaragua, not with local  people, we were told.

There are still conflicts here between the needs of development and the goals of environmental protection.  A recent project to widen and modernize a key highway going to the southeast of the country met with some resistance because long stretches of it ran through a major preserve.

Thoughts on Ecotourism in the Adirondacks

Older ADK ‘attractions’ like Ausable Chasm, High Falls Gorge, Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, could be marketed as ecotourism.  There are already farms tours and farm stays.  Many hotels and restaurants are tied to sustainable operations and local food.  The Wild Center is an obvious center piece. We would benefit from more study the special natural ecosystems that support birds and wildlife – they are a tourist attraction.  Some way of using tourism (fees) to generate a funding stream for environmental research and protection  (e.g., programs against invasives) could be made attractive to tourists here as it is in Costa Rica.  Eco-tourists feel good when they know that they are contributing to protecting the wild environment.  Spending a few dollars as a contribution to the good work going on there feels like a good thing, not a burden.

North Country Sustainability Plan

On January 23 we attended the summary presentation of the North Country Regional Sustainability Plan at the Wild Center.  This is an effort out of NYSERDA, modeled after the Regional Economic Council process, to create an overarching plan for improving the economic and environmental health of the State.  Like the broader economic councils, this effort was organized at the level of 10 regions across the State.  The North Country effort was led by Essex County and included Hamilton, Clinton, Franklin, Lewis, St. Lawrence, and Jefferson counties.

The place to start is with that over-used word sustainability.  The key idea is that our communities, economy and Park lands are managed and used in such a way that finite resources are conserved and reused so that they will be available to future generations. This includes finding ways to be more efficient, i.e. using fewer resources, as well as using more renewable resources like the sun. Implicit in this definition is the need to limit green house gas (GHG) emissions which are the root cause of climate change and tied to non-sustainable use of fossil fuels.

But sustainable, especially when applied to our communities and economic systems, also carries the connotation of strong, resilient and self-reliant.  When it feels like many of our Adirondack towns are shrinking, sliding into oblivion and need regular infusions of aid from Government, the economy doesn’t feel very sustainable.  One professor from Paul Smiths, Brett McLeod, suggested we talk about creating durable communities.  We like that and suspect it will go over much better with many North Country residents than sustainable, which unfortunately is also associated in some people’s minds with liberalism, climate change and a plot by the UN to take over all private property.

The sustainability plan, whose development was led by the team of ANCA and the consulting firm Ecology and Environment (E&E), was based on two main pieces of input.  The first was a detailed inventory of current green house gas emissions in our region.  This will serve as a baseline for both prioritizing future efforts and for measuring success at reducing our use of fossil fuels.  The second input came from a fairly large-scale public outreach and stakeholder engagement effort.  We participated in a couple of working group sessions as well as a major input session that brought all seven working groups together in an information sharing day.

The GHG inventory has lots of interesting data and some good news for our efforts to become a greener economy.  Because of the large amount of hydro and wind based generation of electricity, primarily in the St. Lawrence river valley, 94% of the electricity that flows through the power grid is generated from renewable sources.  This doesn’t include the electricity that is generated by small-scale solar, wind or geothermal.  This is a great place to start on a sustainability plan.  Looking at our non-transportation energy use, 30% of the energy is produced by wood for heating, but this only contributes 1% of the GHG emissions.  Meanwhile, fuel oil represents 35% of our energy use but contributes 48% of our GHG emissions.  Similarly natural gas is 30% of energy use and 40% of emissions.  Thus, a major strategy is to substitute biomass heating systems for those based on fuel oil and to some extent natural gas.  At the residential level, there is a lot to be gained by converting the 39% of homes heating with fuel oil to high-efficiency wood burners, and this is a centerpiece of the ADK Futures strategy.

The real problem is in energy use for transportation, which accounts for 40% of our GHG emissions (residential energy use accounts for only 17% of the total) and 42% of per capita energy consumption.  Three quarters of this is for basic cars and trucks on the road.  Farming, forestry, snowmobiles, ATVs and recreational boating account for 21% of transportation-related emissions.  Strategies for reducing emissions due to transportation are much less clear as our large distances in the North Country require a lot of driving.  Long-term efforts to encourage clustering of both businesses and residences in towns can help to promote walking, biking and use of electric carts.  Unfortunately, the data says that in our region, the number of people living in a city or town center went down from 53% in 2000 to 46% in 2010.

The real key will be getting people to use alternatives to single occupant vehicle traffic by building up bus systems and creating support systems for ride sharing. Surprisingly, the study estimated that 18.5% of commuters in the North Country travel via car pool, public transit, biking or walking. Presumably most of this is in the larger towns and cities outside the Blue Line.

In our view, the GHG emissions due to transportation within the Blue Line can only come down significantly when we have affordable electric vehicles that have sufficient range to meet the needs of our dispersed region.  Since our electricity is almost entirely based on renewables, this can be an effective long-term strategy.  Use of biofuels may also be significant if technical breakthroughs increase the efficiency of their production.

The stakeholder input effort was organized into seven working groups with overlapping and inter-related issues:

  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Livable communities and land use
  • Economic development
  • Materials management (i.e., recycling as much waste as possible in an energy efficient  way)
  • Water management
  • Working landscapes (agriculture, forests, recreation)

The proposals in these groups are very similar to those developed through the ADK Futures process:  encourage more local food and local energy production, cluster development in town centers, use the land productively but in a sustainable manner for farming, forestry and recreation, protect the quality of our water, plan at the larger level of watersheds, use new technologies for water treatment that are energy efficient, and increase reuse and recycling of waste, especially for organic waste through composting and digesters.

The data again has some interesting points.  Energy usage by farms has not been a focus before and there is great potential to make them more efficient as only 1% of farms have ever done an energy audit.  Although our solid waste disposal per person is 22% less than the State average, we are 4x less effective at recovering materials from the waste stream.  DEC currently estimates that a quarter of the water bodies in the North Country are impaired in some way with pollution, invasives, acid rain, etc.  34% of North Country communities are considered “food deserts” by the USDA, i.e., you have to travel over an hour to get to a supermarket.

We certainly applaud this major effort and look forward to seeing it refined into more concrete proposals for new investment, education and incentives from the State.

A New Blog on the Future of the Adirondack Park

We have been engaged in a scenario planning project about the future of the Adirondack Park in upstate New York under the auspices of the Common Ground Alliance (CGA).  The work has proceeded to the point where there is a vision and strategy for the region and now we are beginning to work through various implementation efforts.  With so much going on we are going to use this blog as a way to keep everyone informed and up to date.  We’ll be posting regularly on efforts we know of or discussions we are having with people throughout the Park.

Since the 2012 CGA Forum, we have prepared a document which summarizes the vision and strategy implied by the results of the workshop series.  We have also been starting to track and coordination the various implementation efforts underway.  The blog will report regularly and we will maintain the Implementation Status section of this site as well.