It was like old times in the Adirondacks. Earlier this summer, an editorial in the Glens Falls Post-Star, reprinted in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise July 22, denounced Chairman Curt Stiles and the Adirondack Park Agency for being too keen on environmental protection. This, along with a renewed attack by traditional APA foes, brings back memories of the anti-APA hostility so rampant four decades ago, in the earliest years of this new state entity.
"Who are they to come here and tell us what we can or can't do with our land?" was a frequently heard sentiment. "We've always taken good care of the Adirondacks and don't need outside interference!" was another. "The APA is destroying our economy!" was also a favorite.
The fact is that outside intervention was urgently needed. A number of ambitious land developers had zeroed in on the Adirondacks. The projects they envisioned - one of them consisting of 10,000 homes on 18,000 acres - could have significantly degraded this region of forests, wetlands, lakes, rivers and scattered villages. The Park had virtually no development controls. The private lands, which are all mixed up with our public Forest Preserve, were wide open to whatever the developers wanted to do.
A strong message about the state Adirondack Park Agency is painted on a van in 1974 outside the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake. Inside, a “speak-out” rally is being held against the then-new APA.
(Photo — Gary Randorf)
In response, the APA was created by the state in 1971 to regulate activities that could have a regional impact. Its job was and is to protect the natural environment and scenic splendor of the Park. In so doing, it also helps to protect the Adirondack economy, which is largely based on the wildness and beauty that attracts residents and visitors to the region. And yet, for the chairman of the APA Board of Commissioners to acknowledge, as he has done, that environmental protection is the agency's primary purpose is to incur the wrath of local officials and the real estate industry, two powerful and often interwoven interests.
This helps to explain why Stiles, who has just retired as chairman following the expiration of his four-year term, has been pilloried in some quarters as unfit for the job. Here, for example, is what the Post-Star had to say:
"Curt Stiles doesn't talk to us anymore. That's understandable. If you headed up an agency with a well earned reputation for overzealous enforcement of state regulations and an unwavering support of restrictive environmentalist policies over reasonable economic growth and development in the Adirondacks, you'd be press-shy, too."
The Post-Star goes on to inform readers that "horror stories about the agency's actions are still frighteningly prevalent." This reference recalled the colorful campaigns of the 1970s, when APA opponents staged "Speak Outs" around the Park. Their purpose was to impress the outside world, including the state Legislature and governor, that there was a full-scale rebellion under way in the Adirondacks. The same three or four "victims" were paraded out at each meeting to regale audiences with horror stories about how they had been mistreated by the agency.
The idea was to stir up fear and loathing among the populace, and in this they were remarkably successful. To dispel some of myths on which their campaign was based, I wrote an article (as the APA's first public-relations officer) that appeared in Adirondack Life in 1974. It was entitled "32 common misconceptions about the APA." The misconceptions ranged from the outlandish ("The APA wants to run residents out of the Park and turn it all into a wilderness playground for the rich") to the more plausible but equally bogus ("Local governments no longer have any control over land-use decisions.") Despite all evidence to the contrary, many of these same misconceptions are still bandied about today, more than a generation later.
"In its zeal to crack down on every potential encroachment of civilization," the Post-Star claimed, "the agency has tipped the balance against the interests of individual rights and against economic development. Outside a few scattered hamlet areas, the Adirondack Park has become a virtual wilderness area."
So the nonsensical claims continue, even though the private lands of the Park become more developed every year, and the shorelines of private lakes become increasingly crowded with homes, boathouses, docks and lawns. Residential construction has averaged close to a thousand new houses annually, the same rate of development that occurred in the boom years prior to the APA. Today there are half again as many residences in the Park as when the APA came along four decades ago.
Those who seek to weaken or subvert the agency also claim that new businesses have a hard time getting started in the Adirondacks because the agency prevents economic activity. Never mind that there is no evidence to back this up. What studies have shown, in fact, is that the Adirondack economy, as shaky as it may be, is doing better than the economies of other northern rural areas in this state and across the rest of the country.
It's pretty clear what the APA critics have in mind. They hope to convince Governor Cuomo that the APA is an oppressive, abusive, overzealous state agency that is stifling free enterprise. They hope the governor will respond by appointing a new chairman who does not see environmental protection as the APA's primary mission. Their goal is to convert the Adirondack Park Agency into a regional chamber of commerce that will actively promote (rather than seriously regulate) subdivision and development.
Whether or not they succeed remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain: They'll never stop trying.
This is a version of an editorial that will appear in the September-October issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine, of which Dick Beamish is founder and chairman. He lives in Saranac Lake.