Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Gore Mountain Ski Center in North Creek after meeting with town and county leaders Thursday, Sept. 26 about the upcoming classification of newly acquired state land, such as the Essex Chain Lakes. Local officials want much of the land classified wild forest, and green groups want it classified wilderness. After the Adirondack Park Agency Board of Commissioners makes its recommendation, the governor will make the final decision on classification.
As reporters waited in the sun for a press conference to begin Thursday, Sept. 26 outside the Gore Mountain Ski Center base lodge, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was meeting inside with local government leaders in a closed-door session to discuss the upcoming classification of newly acquired state land in the Central Adirondacks.
The land in question — including the Essex Chain Lakes — will impact five local towns in Hamilton and Essex counties: Newcomb, Long Lake, Minerva, North Hudson and Indian Lake. The Nature Conservancy sold the former Finch, Pruyn Company land to the state in 2012, and now the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) must decide how to classify it. Yet, even after the APA makes its final decision, there’s one more hurdle for both sides of the issue.
“The governor makes the decision,” Cuomo said. “The APA makes the recommendation to the governor. In a perfect world, the APA’s recommendation would coincide with the judgment of the executive. But, in any event, the governor is responsible legally for the decision and can override the recommendation of the APA if he or she sees fit.”
Earlier in the day, Cuomo spent time with Nature Conservancy staff in Franklin County. An early itinerary from the governor’s office said he was planning to meet with environmental advocacy groups, hosted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), at Follensby Clear Pond. In actuality, he spent time with TNC staff informally at Follensby Pond near Tupper Lake before heading to North Creek, according to an email from TNC Adirondack Chapter Director of Communications Connie Prickett.
“The Nature Conservancy hosted at our Follensby Pond property Governor Cuomo and his guests,” Prickett wrote. “Our staff served as fishing guides and handled logistics. We did not participate in any formal discussions. It was a beautiful day and great to see the Governor in the Adirondacks.”
The names of the guests were not released.
Government leaders met with Cuomo in the late afternoon on Sept. 26 in Warren County with town leaders and state officials such as Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens, Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury). The governor called it a “superb conversation.”
“I wanted to hear from the experts on the matter before I made the decision, and that’s why I came up today,” Cuomo said.
Green groups, such as the Adirondack Council, are in favor of a wilderness classification for the newly acquired land, barring motorized access. Local officials, specifically in the five towns listed above that comprise the Upper Hudson Recreation Hub, are in favor of a wild forest classification for some lands, such as the Essex Chain Lakes, to ensure more access, including mountain bikes and snowmobiles. On wilderness lands in the state Forest Preserve, motorized access is not allowed.
“Everybody understands the same principles,” Cuomo said. “The principle is ‘We need balance.’ We need to preserve the Park. We also need economic development. We need activity. We need revenues. And you have to balance the two.”
Even with that balance, Cuomo communicated the big picture — the Adirondack Park as a state park.
“The Adirondack Park is obviously a great asset and treasure for this state,” Cuomo said. “It’s very important to the entire state economy, and it’s something we’re very proud of on a personal level. It’s part of the heritage of this state. We’ve gone to great lengths over the past couple of years to preserve the Park and work with the communities within the Adirondack Park so they’re stronger and better than before.”
The governor noted recent economic development highlights, specifically in regard to the success of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council in acquiring state grants for projects within its region, which includes Hamilton and Essex counties.
“We’ve had really phenomenal progress over these past couple of years,” Cuomo said. “The Regional Economic Development Council has had unparalleled success. There’s a sense of unity and optimism and an energy and momentum in the North Country that I haven’t felt in my lifetime.”
Minerva Town Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey was in the North Creek session with the governor, pushing for more access to the former Finch lands.
“I think the take-home (message) is that we have a lot more work to do,” Corey said. “It’s great to have the governor here and great to have the opportunity to talk about the things that are important to the five communities in the Finch, Pruyn area. We look forward to continuing that conversation, and we’ll see where that goes.”
The towns of Minerva, North Hudson and Newcomb — all represented at the Sept. 26 meeting — are located in Essex County, and Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas joined the town supervisors.
“I think it was a good meeting with the governor,” Douglas said. “I think the five towns and the two counties told him that we’re willing to compromise, but we need to sit down at the table with the environmental groups and work this out. Compromise, a common ground, can be found. Not everybody will end up totally happy but compromise is the best thing.”
The towns of Long Lake and Indian Lake — both represented at the Sept. 26 meeting — are located in Hamilton County, and Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Farber joined the town supervisors as well.
“I think it’s fantastic that the governor is willing to come up and delve into it to that degree,” Farber said. “It’s very different than historic classifications where the APA would go through the process and basically send the recommendation down to the governor. I think the fact that this governor takes an interest in advance — comes up, talks to the environmental groups, talks to the local communities about their interests, really try to gain an in-depth understanding of the issue — I think shows the right attitude. I’m very impressed.”
Farber also noted that the governor’s due diligence in this state land classification process is unique among state executives he has known.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and they’ve been doing a lot of classifications, and I’ve never had a governor come up and talk to me about a classification and my view of it in advance,” Farber said.
Sen. Little called the governor a “master at listening to people, working things out and getting good results,” and she remarked on his problem-solving approach in this case.
“He was certainly understanding, and I really mean that,” Little said. “He does get it better than anybody else I know of right now that the economy in this part of the state is very, very important ... What we need the most in the Adirondacks is more year-round jobs, more year-round people. And that would take care of all the other issues we’re having and keeping our communities sustainable.”
The senator also commented on the proceedings behind closed doors at Gore Mountain, saying the five town supervisors were able to talk to the governor about their priorities, what they would like to see the most.
“And the (biggest) thing they would like to see is snowmobile trails and connectivity between their communities so we have some really good trails that go from one community to another and they bring business to them,” Little said. “It’s a big business, snowmobiling, and accessibility. We’re talking about not just being able to carry your kayak a couple miles in and walking in. There are a lot of roads there. We want to see a lot of mountain biking ... So I think we need to have that accessibility. That’s number one on that land ... If you allow these other recreational opportunities, it will bring some economic benefit to the people.”
Although there is a clear divide between the pro-wilderness and pro-wild forest groups, Cuomo said there is still common ground when it comes to preservation of the Forest Preserve, what he calls the “asset.” The divide here is finding the balance between preservation and access, which, he said, is “often easier said than done.”
“The local officials understand the need to preserve the asset because the asset is what is driving the economic development,” Cuomo said. “No one wants to devalue the asset. If you were to devalue the asset, it would be counterproductive for everyone. So everyone agrees with the principle. The question is, ‘What is that balance in this situation?’ More specifically, how to spell balance here? This is the parcel. This is the acreage. These are the more sensitive areas. What does balance mean in this specific application. And that’s where you’ll run into differences.”
There will most likely be differences on the APA Board of Commissioners when members take up the classification decision later this fall. First the staff must make a recommendation to the State Lands Committee, which, in turn, makes a recommendation to the full board. A thorough discussion of balance – preservation versus access – is expected, and that could come as early as the November meeting in Ray Brook.
Yet town supervisors in the “five towns” were clearly disappointed at the end of the State Lands Committee meeting Sept. 12 when committee Chairman Richard Booth publicly sated that was in favor of the wilderness classification, even before getting a recommendation from the APA staff. The governor’s visit to the Adirondack Park on Sept. 26 changed the mood among local leaders, according to Supervisor Douglas.
“I think the mood change is a little better today because we were concerned that we weren’t being heard,” Douglas said. “A lot of the environmental groups have a lot of funds behind them to push their message out, and local government officials need to be heard. We’re trying to do that as a group between the five towns and two counties. I think the mood today is, ‘Look. We’re willing to sit down. We’re willing to negotiate. But we’ve got to have cordial conversations and open minds going into them.”
During the Sept. 12 APA meeting, Commissioner Booth asked staff to submit a memo in October clearly stating the ramifications of classification based on the State Land Master Plan (SLMP), which is a set of approved guidelines for using state-owned lands in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park.
Based on Booth’s memo request, it has been perceived that APA commissioners will be making their decision solely on the SLMP guidelines, a black-and-white approach. When asked if the Finch land classification is a black-and-white decision for him, Gov. Cuomo answered with one word — “No.”
The governor said there will be more meetings with stakeholders in this land classification process before he signs any document.
“They’ll be more conversations. They’ll be more discussions. There will be more analysis,” Cuomo said. “But I want to make sure I am as prepared as I can be to make this decision because it’s an important one.”