by Kenneth A. Strike


Below I discuss both the process and the results of the Adirondack Futures Project. I suggest that the process has promoted a well reasoned discussion about the future of the Adirondack Park. Moreover, it has broadened the range of participants engaged in discussions about our future, and it has begun to change the narrative about the Park in a progressive way. I also distinguish this process from an opinion poll and a plebiscite, and I take note of voices that may have been muted in the discussion. Finally, I discuss whether this new narrative has staying power.

Concerning results, I suggest that the Vision which emphasizes sustainable communities in a well protected but also well used Park should generally be welcomed by environmentalists, but that the broad agreement secured for it is in part due to the fact that no stand is taken on many of the issues that have divided Adirondackers. Generally I view the work of Mason and Herman with optimism, and we should thank them for their effort. The devil will be in the details. Environmentalists should welcome this work, participate in its further development, and watch it with a cautious eye.

Mapping the Future of the Adirondack Park, a project launched by Dave Mason and Jim Herman at the annual meeting of the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance in July 2011, is intended to change the conversation among stakeholders concerned with the Adirondack Park and its future direction. The results of this yearlong study were presented at the Common Ground Alliance meeting in July 2012 and the August 2012 meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency. (See details and reports.)

The organizers employed six scenarios to characterize what the Park might look like in 25 years, encouraging participation in refining these scenarios through a series of 2-day and ½ day workshops. They conducted 120 interviews and held 14 workshops involving over 500 people. This process ended up affirming a Vision that was rooted in the scenario entitled The Sustainable Life, with significant elements added from two other scenarios: Wild Park and Usable Park. Mason and Herman have also provided a 5 page statement of this Vision entitled “The Adirondack Park: The Next Twenty-five Years.”

Below I will first discuss a few things about the process. I will then discuss the results.

Process: I greeted this enterprise with skepticism. I was concerned that it would be a variation on the theme of “facilitation,” a process that often has no quality control over the ideas considered, no opportunity for serious critique or discussion, mysterious ways to turn disparate comments into a collective opinion, and facilitator bias.

I found something different. There was a coherent structure. Mason and Herman focused discussion on six possible Adirondack futures. These scenarios had their roots in the viewpoints of knowledgeable people who had written thoughtfully about the Adirondacks. The scenarios were used to structure extensive discussions held over a year. They were sliced, diced, debated, ranked and synthesized. Participants were asked which was most desirable and which was most attainable. Scenario C: The Sustainable Life was viewed by the majority of participants as both most desirable and most attainable. Strategies for implementation were discussed. There was ample opportunity to refine, critique, and reflect. The participants were knowledgeable and intelligent. The process was well thought through and competently executed. I found no hint of hidden agendas in the way in which the project was conducted.

Nevertheless, the process does aim to aggregate considered opinions into a shared vision. Dave Gibson of Adirondack Wild commented, “I think there are things being thrown around that are much too casual and not well researched.” This is a plausible worry, but it would have greater force if we viewed the Vision as a “to-do” list. But the main point seemed to be to generate a narrative emphasizing broadly defined and accepted goals and values and to provide a “to-consider” list embedded in this narrative. We should not, however, forget Gibson’s concern. Having a plausible “to-consider” list is not the same as having a well researched agenda.

Whose considered opinions are being aggregated? While the participants in this enterprise were a diverse group, they were not a scientifically selected representative sample of Adirondack residents. While I am told that there were people there who held various blue collar jobs, and there were sessions for students, almost everyone I talked with had a college degree. Many held professional positions. It is worth asking whether participants have interests as a class that distinguish them from working class Adirondackers.

There were a significant number of participants who lived outside of the Blue Line and there was a session held in NYC. However, at the end of the day, I did not hear a strong voice speaking for the citizens of New York, to whom, in theory, the Adirondacks belong. And the environmental voice, while strong, tended to be anthropocentric. While the value of ecological services and of peace and tranquility were duly noted, the emphasis was on sustainability and the value of wilderness to local economies.

Thus, for the most part the ADK Futures project was a conversation among Adirondack leaders about how we can live well in our Park. This is a useful, perhaps even a necessary, conversation. It was not, however, a scientific opinion poll or a plebiscite, nor were all voices and values equally represented. These comments are not complaints. They do suggest caution about drawing conclusions about what we Adirondackers want or should want.

Adirondack debates sometimes seem as though they are between green groups such as PROTECT and the more pro-development views often expressed by some people in local government. While these voices were there and had their say, there were lots of people from other places – museums, art centers, colleges and universities, community development groups, small business people. (There is data on the demographics of the participants on the web site.) This suggests some evolution of the constituency of the Common Ground Alliance. CGA began as an attempt to get people from local government and from environmentalist groups to see if they could find common ground. The Adirondack Futures participants are a more inclusive group, and this has perhaps helped to steer the narrative away from a debate around land use. The resulting narrative emphasizes an economic and environmental agenda that seeks to broaden the economic base by e.g. using expanded broadband to attract entrepreneurs, teleworkers, and the newly retired. It seeks localization of more of our food and energy sectors, and it emphasizes ecotourism. This expansion of participants in the Adirondack dialogue and the accompanying new narrative seems to me to be all to the good.

Will it last? There are reasons for concern. The participants in the old debate may have more staying power, and they have a legitimate and important role to play. Environmentalist groups such as PROTECT have paid staffs and smart lawyers. We know how to litigate and get out press releases. Many of our usual antagonists are elected representatives or their appointees. They have the resources of government to pursue their agendas and the legitimacy of elections to warrant their authority. When Brian Mann and NCPR turn their gaze away from Adirondack Futures, and when small business people or NGO leaders go home, these new voices may be lost.

Moreover, to some degree the Adirondack Futures Vision achieved a high level of consensus by skirting hard cases that, nevertheless, have not gone away or been resolved. When they reemerge, the debate about them will be carried forth by old protagonists. Hard decisions in democratic societies are made by legislatures, courts, and public agencies. Advocacy groups function to inform, influence, and watch them. Despite the contentiousness this squabbling generates, this is a part of the democratic process and is mostly a good thing. Whether the new narrative can productively coexist with these old arguments and the voices of new participants continue to be heard remains to be seen. One can be hopeful. Optimism will take longer.

The Vision statement says, “Local government, the State, the NGOs, lake-owner and land-owner associations, and community groups talking, listening, moving forward and cooperating are the path forward, not lawsuits.” Well, ideally yes. But when have we lived in an ideal world? And lawsuits can be tools of progress. Brown v Board of Education is one example. Or consider the campaign against smoking. Lawsuits are an important mechanism whereby people keep public officials and public agencies honest and compel their attention to the law. We do not live in a world without conflicting interests where everyone is reasonable, and we do not live in a world where public agencies scrupulously follow the law. Talk and trust are good. Lawsuits are a necessary tool of good government in the real world. A Vision can help here because it can help people gain perspective, but, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, it can lack staying power.

An additional reason for concern about staying power is that Scenario C: The Sustainable Life that won the day seems far more conducive to environmentalists than it is to the views of the more aggressive pro-development people in the Park.

Scenario A: Wild Park was developed to characterize the views of environmentalists.  Mason and Herman note that it is concerned only with the “forever wild” Forest Preserve and that it is “fully compatible” with C. Moreover, environmentalist groups have a long standing commitment to sustainable communities and sustainable development. Protect the Adirondacks’ Mission Statement says “Protect the Adirondacks! is a grassroots, membership organization dedicated to the protection, stewardship and sustainability of the natural environment and human communities of the Adirondack Park and the New York State Forest Preserve for current and future generations.” Its vision statement includes these items “• That growth in the Adirondack Park is planned and sustainable • That private forest and farm lands in the Adirondacks are sustainably managed • That Adirondack communities enable healthy and diverse human activities and economic opportunities.” I will suggest below that so far as the Vision is concerned, much of the devil is in the details, but as it stands C + A is quite consistent with PROTECT’s outlook. (More of C + B below.) Pro-development people may think so too and, once the Kumbaya moment of significant agreement passes, opposition or cooption may grow from this quarter.

Results: Here is an abbreviated version of Scenario C prefaced by comments from Mason and Herman. I have italicized a few passages because I want to take note of them.

Whenever we present and debate the end states, we ask the participants to rank order them on desirability and attainability.… The main message is that C (The Sustainable Life) is most desirable, by a wide margin, across all workshops. B (Usable Park) is second. D (Adirondack County) is also viewed as desirable. A (Wild Park) only speaks to the Forest Preserve, which is fully compatible with C and B.

In addition, C (The Sustainable Life) is first in attainability, although B (Usable Park) is a close second….The fact that there has been such strong agreement across such diverse groups is an important result. There is a real common ground!

Scenario C: The Sustainable Life  What made this Park different from the beginning is the life of the communities inside it…. Our cultural human values are just as important as our natural values. A healthy diverse economy supports a healthy environment. A sense of community is important here, living close to the land respectfully, not separately; living better without big growth…. 

The diversity of employment and the shortening of supply chains have made the Park more sustainable and resilient. Local food and local renewable energy create a more closed-loop economy, keeping money in the Park. Eco-friendly recreation and agro-tourism bring in people and income. The other new sector is telework…. Overall these strategies reduce our population’s carbon footprint significantly. 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.

Widespread broadband, cell phone and global delivery services make it easy to live here and stay connected.… People who already know the Park move here… Fine small, networked schools are a feature, not a problem. Hamlet life has more walking and biking, more local stores, and, in general, healthier people…. Construction focuses on reuse of existing structures and energy efficiency retrofits.

Most of the money spent on fossil fuel-based heat used to leave the Park. With widespread installation of biomass… that money now stays here. Agricultural and private forestlands hold plenty of fuel stock resources that are sustainably harvested. The forests also yield enough saw logs that new small saw mills have popped up. Community solar farms, retrofitted old hydro dams, home-scale wind, geo and solar thermal, and private solar all round out the renewable energy picture….

The local food industry in the Champlain and St Lawrence Valleys adds a lot to existing commercial farms. Regional cooperatives allow scaling up and bring prices to an affordable level, often in year-round CSA arrangements….

The State helped with more flexible regulation and investment in key infrastructure. It avoided crashing small town economies by gradually reducing employment and at times shifting government jobs from prisons to information processing centers. Land use regulations have been updated to encourage clustering in expanded hamlets…. Climate change has reset priorities for environmental non-profits. It is stressing the forest and more active management is helping it to adapt. Invasives require clearing of dead trees even in the Forest Preserve. The forest is changing gradually but we have kept it healthy.

When I participated in this process, I, like most participants, chose Scenario C over the A: Wild Park Scenario. Why? Well, if what is envisioned is a well protected Park with sustainable communities and appropriate recreational use, what’s not to like? After all the vision of PROTECT and most other environmental groups affirms the importance of sustainable communities.

Note, however, that Scenario A claims that “It is not about balance.” But when B: Usable Park is added to C, it is all about balance. “Balance” is a slippery word. It suggests sweet reasonableness, but it can cover a multitude of sins. Moreover, “balance” can easily be a formula for the long time erosion of sustainability. Sometimes it is important to draw lines in the sand. Scenario B speaks with some enthusiasm of “a very large interconnected snowmobile trail system.” (What happened to that reduced carbon footprint?) Environmentalist groups have mostly come to terms with snowmobiles. (I have yet to notice much enthusiasm.) And a plan that connects trails while moving them to the periphery of wild areas has support. But there’s no support for more trails in the interior of Forest Preserve land or for wide new trails designed to accommodate large groomers. Perhaps Scenarios A and B can be interpreted so as to be compatible, but there are many opportunities for people to agree in theory, but fight over the details. Right now Scenario C and the Vision are to some extent Rorschach Blots. They are vague enough that one can project one’s own views onto them, but only if some thorny issues are deferred. But these hard issues won’t go away. Either there will be more trails on state land or there will not be. And these trails will be widened beyond “having the character of a footpath” to accommodate groomers or they will not be. Agreeing to the Vision will not produce agreement on the ground. Looking for balance may mean a few more trials in the Forest Preserve and then a few more and then…. Will balance require that we expand these trails to accommodate larger and faster machines? “Balance” draws no lines.

I am told that within the fabric of current law it would be possible to build nearly 250,000 new houses outside of Hamlet areas within the Blue Line. (Research by PROTECT staff.) I am also told that in recent years about 90% of new houses in the Adirondacks have been built outside of Hamlets (I don’t know where this comes from, so I will not vouch for its truth.). This kind of development is not what Mason and Herman have in mind. They want flexible land use regulations that (among other things) promote clustering in or around Hamlet areas. Me too. Clustering is good; sprawl is bad. But, I don’t want more houses on the undeveloped shoreline of the Moose River even if they are close to the center of Old Forge, and I don’t want clustering that will increase development on lakes. Given recent Adirondack populations trends, there is not great demand for more resident housing. Demand will be for second homes. Where will people want them built? Aspirant purchasers will want waterfront or a house deep in the woods. Thus this is where realtors and builders will want expanded access. They will have a strong voice with local government. To what extent will flexible land use regulation permit this? So shall we support more flexible regulation? One suspects that it will depend on the details and these will turn on who gets to write the policies. And will those who agree with the importance of clustering in or near hamlets join PROTECT in resisting exurban development in Resource Management lands such as ACR? Perhaps they should, but I would not bet the farm (or the forest) on this.

And what shall we think about Article 14, the APA Act, or the State Land Master Plan? Flawed as they are, these citadels of restricted development are what will need to be flexed if we are to be more flexible. My confidence that I would like the results of increased flexibility is not high.

Should we support a Constitutional amendment that would create a land bank so that we need not amend Article 14 to warrant land swaps whenever we need to dig a well, run a wire, or expand a cemetery on Forest Preserve land? In theory I think this is a fine idea. There is something wrong with a Constitution that needs to be amended to drill a well when everyone favors drilling said well. But the details and the decision making process are crucial. Groups with competing interests will want to mold these details to their taste. Support for the land bank concept is likely to diminish as details emerge.

Mason and Herman use as their lead example the absurdity of needing a Constitutional amendment to allow burial of utilities under already paved roads in Forest Preserve. And this is indeed absurd. But a Constitutional amendment setting up a land bank might also be used to swap land for commercial endeavors. One of the two recently proposed amendments to Article 14 does exactly this – a dangerous precedent. In addition to a utility land bank Mason and Herman want to “Allow land swaps to consolidate the currently fragmented Forest Preserve which does not ideally serve the needs of our communities, visitors or ecosystems.” Fine. So long as no one specifies what land is to be swapped, agreement will be easy. So a Constitutional amendment creating a land bank is, in theory, a good idea. In practice it will be a very contentious idea. And suppose that this consolidation requires the purchase of additional land for the Forest Preserve. Environmentalists will applaud. Will AATV? One doubts. The devil is in the details.

The C+A/B Vision pictures a different Adirondack economy. There will be more eco-tourism. A major growth area will be telework. Broadband will be everywhere. Retirees will be attracted, and Mason and Herman take note of the importance of commuters – people who live in the Park, but work outside of it. And we will depend more on local food and local energy. So we will alter the Park’s balance of payments with the external world. More money will be imported, less exported.

There is much here for an environmentalist to love. In fact, environmentalists have loved most of this for some time. There are details to be worked out and not everything will work everywhere. (Local food in Old Forge is venison and bark. The food sold at our farmer’s market is grown outside the Blue Line.) Here too we need a clearer picture of how the Vision will work out. Increased energy independence may mean more saw mills, but also more tree cutting. Mason and Herman have not suggested that any of the trees for this local energy will come from the Forest Preserve. In fact they disavow this. But this thought has occurred to others and will occur again. Could a land bank amendment or some other piece of regulatory flexibility abet this? And the suggestion that there should be no more purchases of land for the Forest Preserve in order to have enough land for logging and biofuels is asserted constantly. Flexibility? Flexibility sounds great. But much depends on its character. Seeking agreement on what we should and shouldn’t be flexible about will not be a task for the faint hearted. Once the genie of regulatory flexibility is out of the bottle, Mason and Herman should not assume that their Vision about its character will prevail.

A different kind of concern: Will the Vision work as well for everyone and every place in the Park?  A few months ago the Glen Falls Post Star carried an article discussing the demographics of Hamilton County. The article took its facts from a database created by Cornell’s Program for Applied Demographics. This database projects significant population decline for Hamilton County. The article then turned to a discussion of a few quotes from local politicians about the decline of logging jobs. The implication apparently was the decline in population of Hamilton County was largely due to locking up so much forest in the Forest Preserve. And Hamilton County again was represented as the Park in microcosm.

This is just warmed over “blame the Park” rhetoric, but there is no doubt that Hamilton County’s population is declining and aging. One possible reading of the Park-wide demographics is that we are becoming a kind of population donut with reasonably healthy and sustainable towns and villages on the periphery and declining towns and villages in the interior, far from the various commuter corridors and destinations. Will Mason and Herman’s vision for the Park arrest the decline of Hamilton County’s towns? They hope that extending broadband to Hamilton County will bring new populations there. Maybe. But there are reasons to worry. It is quality of life that will bring in these new residents. But teleworkers, commuters, and retirees are likely to want to be near airports and good highways. And most of us want access to art, music, museums, and good restaurants. These are disproportionately available in the larger of our small towns. And there is evidence from other areas that one of the things that attract college educated people to an area is other college educated people. This suggests that the larger and more peripheral of our small towns, Lake Placid, Old Forge, Saranac Lake, or Lake George, will disproportionately benefit from an economy that seeks to grow the number of teleworkers, retirees, and commuters. A Park that pursues the Vision may not do much for the very small and more remote towns.

And there is education. I am much in favor of small schools. (Indeed, I have written a book extolling their virtues.) But there is such a thing as too small. The Town of Webb seems able to offer a good education even though the district had only around 290 students in 2010. How about 153 (Indian Lake) or 59 (Long Lake) or 24 (Piseco – whose citizens just voted to close their school)? Our hoped for newcomers will want good schools for their children. “Good” will mean AP and honors courses, music and art classes, and diverse and high aspiring peers. Here is another factor that will attract newcomers to the larger small towns of the periphery.

Mason and Herman suggest that consolidation of services is necessary in an era of declining resources. Some austerity may be required by New York’s tax cap. Optimistically, they hope this will occur slowly enough that communities can adapt. It’s not clear that this will be possible for many towns or that the lost population can be recovered by other in migrating workers. According to the American Community Survey, Hamilton County has 61 people working in forestry, fishing, and agriculture. It has 395 in construction. But it has 884 government employees who are largely employed in education and social services. When local officials consider their budgets and contemplate consolidation and austerity, they should envision the families of teachers and social and health workers moving away; they should envision older retirees moving where there is better health care; they should recall that the incomes of these families are spent in ways that create or sustain jobs for others; and they should consider the lost tax revenues that will result from these out-migrations. There is nothing more likely to accelerate population decline and aging in the Adirondacks than governmental austerity. When we think of what to do with the possible tax dollars that lower school enrollments or school closing or consolidation should eventually free up, we should think of expanded services, services that build the attractiveness of our communities for adults as well as children, rather than of lower tax bills. When we must close schools, we should find productive ways to use the skills of the teachers.

So I am generally positive about the work that Mason and Herman have done. They have done good work in changing the Adirondack conversation and engaging a widened constituency. I find their community centered commitments very attractive. They have provided a framework for a new narrative that is forward looking and progressive. Their Vision has a worthy list of things to consider. For the most part it is well aligned with the views of environmentalists. And there’s a lot there to bring environmentalists across the Park to the table. This Vision builds on a protected landscape, a great Forest Preserve, the necessity of regulation to protect the Park, and a sustainable economy. In this way, it’s a very healthy alternative to the calls of the last 35 years for abolishing the APA and Land Use and Development Plan, logging or motoring the Forest Preserve, and building anything anywhere. But the devil is in the details. As we begin to discuss these details there is considerable potential for old arguments and old agendas to resurface.

This Vision, if it is to succeed over time will have to durably change the conversation. It will also have to change the politics. And it will have to build trust. There’s a steep hill to climb here to get Scenario C (plus A and B) and the Vision past the Rorschach blot stage and into reality without distortion.


[1] These reflections have been discussed with members, staff, and the Board of Directors of Protect the Adirondacks! and with David Mason. The views expressed, however, are my own.