The Adirondack Park Agency should manage reform of the State Land Master Plan

August 21, 2014

The Common Ground Alliance (CGA) recently met in Long Lake. One of the break-out sessions focused on reform of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), which is the policy document for management of the Forest Preserve. The Common Ground Alliance effort is one of a handful of organizing efforts around the Adirondacks where ideas are being collected to detail potential changes to the SLMP.

Protect the Adirondacks believes that this should be managed as an open and transparent public process. Click here for PROTECT’s letter to the APA.

In its December 2013 resolution classifying the Essex Chain Lakes/Pine Lake Primitive areas and Hudson Gorge Wilderness area, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) committed to examine several items for possible SLMP revision. Since then, there has been no action by the APA or release of a public memo detailing a schedule for the APA to follow up the December 2013 resolution. In this void, various APA Commissioners have made comments at APA meetings, as has the representative from the Local Government Review Board, that express the desire that the APA undertake a revision of the SLMP well beyond the scope of the December 2013 resolution

The SLMP has worked effectively for 40 years. Though it was written long before wildlands management developed as a professional field, it has served the Adirondack Forest Preserve exceedingly well.

PROTECT recently completed a review of the public hearing records, APA meeting minutes, draft SLMP revisions, and State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) documents for the adoption of the original SLMP in 1973-74, revision in 1978-79, and revision in 1986-87. From our review of the record, land classification concerns by the public and conservation groups dominated these proceedings, rather than SLMP policy issues. The APA amends the SLMP in two ways. First, each classification of new Forest Preserve lands, or reclassification of existing lands, is a technical amendment of the SLMP as various Forest Preserve units are expanded or new ones are created. The second way is through changes to the text of the SLMP that is the guiding policy for Forest Preserve management.

The APA Act states that the SLMP will be amended from time to time and the SLMP guidelines call for revision every five years to keep it current. While the APA has moved expeditiously on classification of new Forest Preserve lands at regular intervals over the years, there has been no SLMP policy revision since 1987, and the intervening 25 years of inaction have created a pent-up demand for revision of numerous SLMP policy issues.

When the APA does undertake a comprehensive reform of the SLMP, policy changes will dominate this effort.

The APA Act states that the APA is the lead agency for Park planning. There is no issue more important to the Adirondack Park than the management of the Forest Preserve. It is vital that the APA assert its authority and manages the SLMP revision process.

The APA needs to develop and publicize a schedule for SLMP reform. As mentioned above, the APA identified various SLMP revision efforts for a small suite of policy items in its December 2013 Forest Preserve classification resolution, but has not prepared a public time frame for when it will start this process. Nor has the APA stated how it will manage this effort.

The various reserved rights for leaseholders in the Essex Chain Lakes tract continue until the end of 2018, which allows leaseholders to continue to operate motor vehicles within the area and many roads to remain open. This provides plenty of time for the APA to undertake comprehensive SLMP reform in a methodical, open and transparent process in the meantime.

The APA does not operate in a vacuum, and we all know that Governor Cuomo exerts considerable authority over APA actions – just as he does over all state agencies. Independence is a commodity in short supply at the APA. In the wake of the APA’s December 2013 Forest Preserve classification action, Governor Cuomo came to Saranac Lake, where he talked about the success of that effort by stating that a group of people got together to negotiate an agreement for classification of these Forest Preserve lands and then this agreement was sent to the APA for approval.

The classification process for the Essex Chain Lakes and other lands was neither open nor transparent. Decisions were made in secret and critical materials were withheld from public scrutiny.

The APA should go to great lengths to avoid a secretive process around SLMP reform. State agencies know how to manage public process, but sometimes state agencies make a deliberate decision for a closed process.

A closed process was evident in the recent decision by the APA to approve the Jay Mountain Wilderness Unit Management Plan revision. The APA received 4,000 comments opposed to its action with nary a comment in support. The APA disregarded the comments and went ahead without any modification whatsoever to its action. In this issue, public participation was simply a box to be checked: comments were collected, acknowledged, and disregarded with no meaningful impact on the APA’s action. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had much the same reaction to comments it collected on its Temporary Revocable Permit for the Jay Mountain Wilderness.

Revision of the SLMP needs to be a much more open and transparent process.

It can be done. Both the APA and the DEC have administered successful public participation processes in the past. Both agencies effectively manage public participation when they chose to do so.

The DEC successfully managed the High Peaks Citizens Advisory Committee in the 1990s and the regional Open Space Plan Advisory Committees starting in 1991. For its part, the APA has also effectively managed controversial and complicated policy matters with long-term impacts for the Adirondack Park.

The APA Rules and Regulations reform effort that stretched from the mid-1990s until 2008 or so serves as a model for how the APA should undertake SLMP revision. The process used for APA rules reform followed several crucial steps that are worth replicating in a SLMP revision effort:

1. APA Commissioners, senior staff, and appropriate program staff managed the rules and regulation revision effort. An extensive public input forum was managed in compliance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) and the State Administrative Procedures Act (SAPA).

2. Public input was widely solicited to scope out concerns and ideas for where APA rules and regulations were outdated or ineffective. A record was made of this public input. APA staff and Commissioners used these concerns and to help identify reform issues.

3. The APA formed the Technical Advisory List (TAL) to help solicit public input from a wide variety of stakeholders. This group, referred to as a list, included local government, the business community, the environmental community, other watchdog groups, and other state agencies, among others. The important thing about the TAL is that it was open to any entity that wished to participate.

4. The APA legal team and appropriate policy staff worked to frame issues of public concern and identify problems in the APA’s rules and regulations. The APA distributed statements to the TAL and general public concerning problem areas as well as the applicable current rules and regulations. Public comment was solicited from the TAL as well as the public at large.

5. TAL participants submitted comments to the APA about the identified issues. These were compiled and organized. The APA used these comments to draft revised rules and regulations for an identified issue. These often involved more than one option. These materials were then provided to the TAL and the public at large.

6. The APA then convened a meeting of the TAL to discuss the set of revised regulations. These meetings focused on a specific area of concern. These meetings were lengthy and the APA provided ample opportunity for questions and comments from all participants. These meetings were instrumental in shaping the final revisions.

7. The APA next brought these draft final revisions to the full Board, which reviewed and acted on them in a public forum in compliance with state requirements for rule changes. The APA did not accept the TAL’s work word-for-word, and at times the TAL was divided. In these instances the APA Board made the final calls.

The basis for the start of the TAL was the APA’s response to a task force that studied APA rules and regulations and drafted a report. I’m not suggesting that the APA go to this length for revision of the SLMP, but I have urged the APA to undertake SLMP revision in a similar methodical, open, and transparent process. The APA should move through the SLMP section-by-section, bit-by-bit, and not try a massive free-for-all revision. A methodical, open, and transparent SLMP revision process will likely take several years, but it will be worth it.

What the TAL process shows is that the APA has successfully managed a complicated and controversial regulatory reform effort. The APA’s rules and regulations reform is a useful model for how the APA should embark upon and manage SLMP revision.

It’s all the more important that the APA manage SLMP reform in an open and transparent forum because some APA Commissioners function as advocates as well as regulators. APA Commissioners are leaders in the Common Ground Alliance effort, which now advocates for a variety of issues in the Adirondacks, some of which could come before the APA for action. APA Board Commissioners should separate their advocacy efforts from their roles as regulators. They should do one or the other, but not both.

The APA has managed open and transparent public processes in the past. It should do so again for SLMP reform.

The Adirondack Forest Preserve is the greatest ecological asset in New York. It is a protected natural resource area known the world around. Decisions on its management should be made in open and transparent forums.

A version of this article was published on the Adirondack Almanack.

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