There is no question about it, outdoor recreation and tourism are key elements in the Adirondack economy. The local woods and waters and fields and streams have long been the backbone of our communities.
Over the years, these natural resources have been utilized by industry and the public for recreational and commercial purposes. At times, they have been alternately exploited and abused, cherished and protected.
Fortunately, the vast public lands of the Adirondacks are currently in better shape than they have been in more than a century. Our rivers run clean, fish and game are plentiful, and vast tracts of wild lands and forests have been protected for future generations.
The fishing experience may be diminished if the state Department of Environmental Conservation continues to lose funding.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
That wasn't always the case. Over the years, the Adirondack region has experienced a number of boom and bust cycles in terms of both human and industrial interests.
By 1900, the Adirondacks morphed from exploitation to recreation to conservation in the span of less than 50 years. The vitality of our environmental heritage is preserved today due to the foresight of forebears, who, as early as 1864, envisioned the Adirondacks as a "Central Park for the World."
Today, the region is home to some of the wildest and most remote lands in the eastern United States. Landmark species such as bald eagles, moose and loons - which were nearly extirpated - have been restored.
On the ropes
The state agency charged with the protection, maintenance, operation and oversight of New York's vast outdoor recreational resources is currently in serious jeopardy.
The threat does not come from the exploitation of natural resources, rather it comes from the lack of funding. The Department of Environmental Conservation is in serious financial difficulty, as are many state agencies.
The DEC is in jeopardy of being gutted. In recent months, the agency has lost a large number of experienced staff due to early retirement incentives. Many of these staff vacancies have been left unfilled.
Current staffing at state fish hatcheries is at the lowest levels in over 20 years. The hatcheries may be, in the words of Jason Kemper, chairman of the Conservation Fund Advisory Board, "insufficient to maintain production for stocking of fish into the streams and lakes of New York."
The situation may not mean too much to the general public. Who cares if there are a few less fish in our lakes and streams?
However, the agency is responsible for far more than simply the state's fish and game and woods and waters. It is responsible for law enforcement, environmental education, trail construction and maintenance, search and rescue, chemical and air pollution control, pesticides, chemical and petroleum storage, radiation. Waste management, recycling, dam safety, coastal and flood protection, water supply, mining, oil exploration and much more.
Due to the state's fiscal problems, the current administration has essentially gutted the department in an attempt to balance the state budget. The department has taken a much larger share of staff reductions than any other state agency, dropping current staffing levels to their lowest point in nearly 40 years.
Of even greater concern to sportsmen and women is the possibility that the current administration may be eyeing the Conservation Fund as a cash cow capable of restoring the state's fiscal boondoggle.
Supported by license sales and a federal excise tax imposed on all sporting equipment, the Conservation Fund pays for most fish and wildlife management in the state.
In the more urban environments of downstate New York, residents may not recognize the work that the DEC accomplishes. For many, the department is often out of sight and out of mind.
But in rural areas, especially the Catskills and the Adirondacks, the department is the equivalent of the Port Authority, the Thruway Authority or the Public Housing Authority.
The current reality is that the department is taking a disproportional hit in terms of staff than any other state agency.
It is a shame because most of people working for the DEC are there because they enjoy what they do. They take their work seriously and truly care about the job they do because they have a vested interest.
DEC staffers get to enjoy the benefits of their labor: they fish, hunt, camp and hike. Not many folks in other New York Authorities can make that claim.
In recent years, I have listened to a lot of DEC bashing, regarding everything from the increased enforcement of personal floatation devices to the prohibition of storing personal equipment on state land.
However, those complaints hold little water as I fish for heritage strain brook trout that have been restored to a secluded pond. Nor do such complaints ring loud when I drag my wet and tired behind into a clean and comfortable lean-to after a long hump into Duck Hole.
I know it's only human to complain, but it's time we begin to appreciate the people who make such experiences possible. If we don't work together to support DEC, who will?