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June 2013

Pick a Park

Most sides agree: the future of the Adirondacks looks uncertain. How do you envision this special place in 25 years? Vote for the strategy that takes the park in the right direction

Illustration by Brucie Rosch

How would you rank the following scenarios? Vote for your park of the future here through September 1.

TWO YEARS AGO it dawned on us that we had a way to start a new conversation about the future of the Adirondack Park, a conversation that would include as many voices as possible and look at the whole park: its forests, waters, economy, communities and governance. Prior to retiring to our home in Keene, we had a management consulting business that helped divisive teams of very large, complex corporations come to agreement on strategic direction using the methodology we call Future Mapping. If it worked at Merck and Intel, could it work here in the Adirondack Park?

Looking around this place we saw people in different camps talking past each other or not even talking, just filing lawsuits. They were engaged in narrow, special-interest battles over specific snowmobile trails or stopping some subdivision.

The quote “Adirondackers would rather fight than win” seemed spot-on; fighting had turned into a small industry with full-time employees. Winning or losing had job implications, but continuing to fight meant job security. Trust was ruined, freezing the status quo. While the hired warriors tangled, hurling insults and lawsuits that supplied fodder for news stories, regular people just watched from the sidelines, shut out of the discussion.

Meanwhile, the situation was clearly deteriorating. Population in Hamilton County declined 10 percent in the last census. School districts had lost 550 students a year since 2007. We saw town-versus-town competition for businesses and students. Threats to the environment such as invasive species and water pollution were serious. Governments at all levels were feeling the pain of inexorably rising health-care and pension costs, while at the same time there were more and more strident calls for tax cuts.

Nothing except the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) zoning regulations aligned to the Blue Line. County, town and state-agency boundaries cut across it and fragmented efforts to address parkwide issues.

There was no overarching strategy or plan for the park, or even a forum in which to discuss one. How could we ever hope to lift ourselves out of these myriad problems if we didn’t even talk to each other? How could we find a holistic path forward if we only looked at isolated issues? So we launched this pro bono proj­ect for the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance to stimulate new, creative, integrated thinking and to craft a real strategy for the whole park.

More than 500 people have participated in the 14 workshops we have held using the framework de­scribed here, and over 1,000 have attended talks about it. Each workshop had as diverse a set of participants as we could assemble: full-time, part-time and seasonal residents as well as those who just visit; executive directors from as many organizations as possible; small business owners and the self-em­ployed; plus concerned citizens engaged in this new conversation. Using the scenario-planning methodology, guides, loggers, ecologists, students and Manhattan executives debated the extremes and at the end found a consensus that combined the best of the scenarios. Most participants told us that they left the workshops feeling more optimistic about the future of this magnificent place.

We imagined six divergent “endstates,” or outcomes, for the Adirondack Park 25 years from now. They were written based on 150 interviews with people who had all kinds of backgrounds and roles and responsibilities. We also envisioned the actions that get us from today to one or more of the outcomes. The six outcomes that follow are not mutually exclusive; they represent different points of view on how the park evolves based on the interviews. They fit together in interesting ways to form a plan.

Wild Park
This is the Adirondack Park envisioned by its founders: open, green, wet, deeply silent, with incredible vistas. It is an island of wild, a haven of tranquility located within a day’s drive of 100 million people. New Yorkers are notoriously proud people and, as New York City is the greatest city in the world, this is the world’s greatest achievement in wilderness preservation. Article XIV of the state constitution—the “Forever Wild” philosophy—remains its foundation, and the courts have continued to provide protection against shifting public attitudes and opportunistic politicians. The APA and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are clear that preserving this wild experience is their mission, with economic and even ecosystem health secondary.

This outcome is not about balance. It reaffirms the commitment to limiting human structures, motorized vehicles, large developments and any encroachment on the Forest Preserve. Land-use regulation for the Forest Preserve is designed around a hands-off approach that maximizes old growth forest and natural processes. The Forest Preserve is larger and more contiguous. Private land-use regulation is tighter with fewer exceptions for developers. There has been no major increase in visitors or residents. The park’s diverse ecosystem turns out to be a resilient one, better able to fight off invasives and adapt to climate change than other parts of the state.

The citizens of New York State and those in its government entrusted with this treasure take the long view and won’t exploit it for short-term gain. The people who live here want to live here and love the wild nature of the park. Communities suffer from the same problems as those faced by other northern forest regions: poor infrastructure, difficult transportation, abandonment by ex­tractive industries and an aging population. But the park is not the problem.

Usable Park
The idea is to put PARK back in this place. It is not a well-kept secret or a museum piece. The economy and the environment be­neficially reinforce each other in a region invigorated by growth in recreational tourism and active retirees settling in communities, all living and playing in harmony with nature.

The wild areas have become wilder and the developed places, like hamlets, more developed. An integrated recreation plan spreads out different uses geographically and seasonally. It is still easy for silence seekers to avoid motors, but there is also a large inter-hamlet snowmobile and bike trail system. Hunting, mountain biking and horseback riding areas are well separated from other uses. Some lakes are reserved for canoes and kayaks, while others allow Jet Skis and water skiing. Indoor attractions, ranging from ice rinks to arts complexes to themed shopping centers and even a casino, appeal to visitors who aren’t up for climbing mountains. Professional promotion and branding programs attract visitors, retirees and new residents nationally and internationally. Expanded flights at airports around the Blue Line facilitate access by visitors from afar. There is a major increase in visitor-oriented product, not just souvenirs but places to eat, sleep, shop. Adirondack-branded recreational equipment and outerwear are regional industry clusters. Marquee attractions are protected from overuse by online permitting systems that limit the number of users at any time.

All these investments make living here more attractive too. Retiring boomers move into their vacation homes in the areas with better access to health care, Internet, cell phones, arts and other modern amenities. The active retirees bring money, energy and volunteer time to strengthened nonprofits. Government em­ployment has dropped by half, but tourism-related jobs and services like health care for retired people have grown sufficiently to fill the gap.

The Sustainable Life  
What made this park different from the beginning is the life of the communities inside its boundary. It is not a fenced-in place with no one home. The park is a model of the sustainable, low-carbon footprint rural lifestyle. The region is more self-sufficient with strong local energy and food industries. These provide local jobs by replacing imports such as fuel oil and limit the money that flows out. Eco-friendly recreation and agritourism bring visitors and income. Widespread broadband Internet service enables more people to work from home and/or start small businesses. Land-use regulation encourages clustering in hamlets, where there is more walking, biking and commerce. Fine small, networked schools are positive features, not problems. Improved water treatment systems protect Adirondack lakes and streams. A greatly enriched arts scene thrives.

Construction focuses on reuse of existing structures and energy-efficiency retrofits. Biomass heating systems are widespread in homes, institutions and municipal buildings with sustainable sourcing of fuel from nearby private forests. Community solar farms, retrofitted old hydro dams, home-scale wind, geo­thermal and private solar all round out the renewable energy picture. An upgraded smart grid supports distributed power production and local use. The food industry in the Champlain and St. Lawrence Valleys has scaled up and there are good distribution networks that allow products to reach the park’s interior.

Active management of the forest, even the Forest Preserve, helps it to adapt to climate change and invasive species. Government assists with more flexible regulation and support for di­verse, small-scale agriculture and renewable energy generation. The park is a model of sustainable community and draws in green businesses and a new generation of young people who find the vision attractive.

Adirondack County  
The Blue Line becomes a county line, and state agencies align services to it, enabling more efficient government. This perspective is driven by taxpayer outrage at the overlaps, fragmentation and duplication of layers of government. There is just too much government for only 130,000 residents.

More than money, Adirondack County is about giving residents a parkwide identity and a louder voice in Albany. For the first time the people of the park think of themselves as a group and have stopped fighting town versus town. Instead of playing the victim of rules imposed by an elite population elsewhere, residents have a sense of “us” and take responsibility for sorting out their affairs. There is more regional cooperation in the arts, sports, education and economic development. Government downsizes through privatization of campgrounds, golf courses, ski resorts, nursing homes, road maintenance and other services. These jobs don’t all disappear; many end up in the private sector, but subject to the logic of profit and loss.

Many functions once done town by town are centralized at the county level. Pooling of purchasing draws lower bids from suppliers. Online government delivers many services electronically.
It’s not just smaller government, it’s smarter government that uses information and technology better and puts more emphasis on integrated planning. One result is standardization and simplification of processes and policies across the county (permits, signs, taxes). The Forest Preserve has been unified and rationalized through numerous land swaps.

School system consolidation starts with superintendents and business operations. As benefits become clear, the next step is district consolidation that allows creation of specialized charter schools. By focusing state mandates on fewer schools, it becomes more cost effective to meet them.

Post­–“Big Government” Solutions  
The six-million-acre park is so big and diverse that one size does not fit all. Bottom-up, pragmatic initiatives and can-do attitudes prevail, not top-down grand solutions. Figuring out what works
in each town is largely left to local leaders.

There isn’t much of a “park” identity. Local governments make different bets on economic development tailored to their capabilities. Edge towns build on successes like Global Foundries, in Saratoga County, and Laurentian Aerospace, in Plattsburgh. Other towns capitalize on recreational opportunities or nearby educational institutions. Most common is to leverage the park as an asset. Hallmarks of the successful towns are new private investment in housing, retail and office space and citizen-led initiatives in combating invasives and expanding recreational facilities. Some towns partner on specific projects but there is also competition among towns for employers, public school students and dwindling government resources. More towns have professional planners and have APA­–approved local land-use plans.

In many cases private investment and citizen initiatives are what spark a town’s revival, not big government infusion of money. Landowners and towns voluntarily spend on combating invasives and cleaning up septic systems to protect land values and preserve recreation. Private groups like Adirondack Mountain Club do more to maintain trails and campgrounds as DEC staff is diminished. The gap widens between the areas with better infrastructure like broadband and health care versus those without. Many towns succeed in some fashion, but some, largely in the park’s interior, fail and disappear.

The Adirondack State Forest  
External threats such as climate change and invasive species, along with inexorably rising health-care and pension costs, overwhelm the park and its communities. The winter sports season is much shorter and severe storms and flooding leave infrastructure in tatters. Government employment is drastically cut while political stalemate prevents good solutions to these problems. Lower taxes demanded by voters slash government spending so that campgrounds and other public facilities fall into disrepair while enforcement of environmental regulations becomes impossible with so little staff.

The visitors notice. Sure, these are national and global problems, largely out of our control, but we are not immune to their effects. Although some areas continue to do well, the economy of the Adirondack Park’s interior implodes. Poverty deepens while tourism declines.

To stop the downward spiral, the state proposes that the 50 percent of the Forest Preserve classified as Wilderness remain protected by Article XIV. The remaining Wild Forest and Primitive Areas becomes State Forest under a multiple-use regime. This adds jobs, and towns share in the income from logging and other activities but receive no payment in lieu of taxes on this newly designated public land.

The outcome is a lot like Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, with a wildland preserve in the middle of it. The new demographics of New York, led by urban residents unmotivated by a romantic idea of wilderness, allow passage of a new amendment that overturns “Forever Wild,” despite a desperate campaign by aging environmentalists. These voters looked at the loosely organized “park” to the north and wondered how it ever got so big and cost so much for the benefit of so few.

By 2038 the Adirondack Park will certainly be a mixture of these ideas, and you can join the conversation by learning about the events that influence outcomes and see how the different visions may be combined. How would you rank the scenarios? Vote for your park of the future here through September 1.

For a comprehensive look at the process that created the visions, background on five years of community involvement and details on the next steps that can help shape the park in 25 years, go to www.adkfutures.org. The next Common Ground Alliance forum—open to all—is July 18, in Newcomb.

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