The current New York State Forester at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that he is retiring in April. This position doubles as the Director of the Division of Lands and Forests, and as such is the top public lands manager in the state, supervising the management of the 3-million-acre Forest Preserve, more than 750,000 acres of conservation easements, over 700,000 acre of State Forests, and thousands of acres of Wildlife Refuges and various other properties.
The current state Forester has held this position for a quarter-century, since being appointed during the Pataki years in the late 1990s. The Division of Lands and Forests at the DEC includes, among other things, the Forest Preserve Bureau, the center point for setting Forest Preserve policy and administering public use. Given the importance of this position at the DEC, the Hochul Administration and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos must conduct a nationwide search for a new State Forester and bring in somebody with broad experience and a strong track record in public lands management.
Over the last decade, New York State has been in an untenable situation where our State Forester violated Article 14, Section 1 of the State Constitution, the famed forever wild clause. A string of DEC Commissioners also helped him subvert the State Constitution and use Forest Preserve management decisions as bargaining chips as they pursued various political objectives. As a result, obeying Forest Preserve law has been a secondary consideration at the DEC in recent years. (Click here to read the decision by the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, that found that the DEC-APA violated the State Constitution. Click here to read the Appellate Division, Third Department decision, the state’s mid-level court, against the DEC-APA.)
New York State needs to make a clean break from this moment where the DEC (with the help of the Adirondack Park Agency) has trampled on forever wild. The DEC desperately needs a new leader with high levels of experience in public lands management, a proven record of advancing policies and innovative management programs for complicated public lands, who has a demonstrated track record of managing public lands openly and transparently, and who is assiduous in complying with and upholding the law.
The DEC should not follow its standard practice and either promote from within or bring on someone from an allied organization. Public lands management in New York badly needs outside professional help. The stakes for Forest Preserve management, in particular, are too high for business as usual.
The chance of getting a top-tier public lands management professional hired at the DEC is slim and runs against the dominant currents of the new Hochul Administration. Two former top Cuomo aides with years of implementing the priorities of the former disgraced Governor were just hired for top positions at the Adirondack Park Agency. DEC Commissioner Seggos has filled DEC leadership positions with individuals whose loyalty to him is their top management qualification.
The range of issues confronting the 3-million-acre Forest Preserve in the Catskills and Adirondacks in its 137th year is immense. These include developing and implementing a serious Visitor Use Management Program, bringing science to natural resource management and public use decisions, developing new public educational programs, building hundreds of miles of sustainable hiking trails, operating with openness and transparency, completing hundreds of thousands of acres of Forest Preserve Unit Management Plans that remain incomplete 50 years after the process started, developing new partnerships for trails maintenance and construction, honestly and openly accounting for state lands stewardship funding, diversifying the staffing ranks at the DEC, and getting back on the right side of forever wild.
The current administration at the DEC has been slow to act on many of these issues. The DEC needs to leaven its Forest Preserve management program. This could start with dynamic new leadership at its Division of Lands and Forests and a State Forester who upholds and defends forever wild and is an expert in public lands management.