Finding Common Ground in the Adirondacks

by Brian Mann | December 2023, Nature and Environment

Photograph by Johnathan Esper

Last summer, when Gerry Delaney spoke at a public forum about the future of the Adirondack Park, the conservative councilman from the town of Saranac laid out a vision that’s become a startling new normal. He acknowledged deep policy divides while insisting that all the park’s factions embrace neighborliness and civility.

“There are different interests between the environmental groups and local governments,” Delaney said. “But we all have to live together. When there’s a flood, a fire, a bad accident, we all come together.”

The crowd in Elizabethtown applauded and the discussion quickly turned to a debate over wastewater treatment and regional planning. There was no name-calling. There were no threats. No one shouted or voiced conspiracy theories or stormed out of the room. 

To understand how remarkable that moment was, it’s important to look back to the first troubled chapter of the Adirondack Park’s modern history.

Beginning in the 1970s, strict land-use regulations approved by New York’s legislature and implemented by the newly-formed Adirondack Park Agency (APA) raised local people’s hackles. The rules limited many landowners’ property rights and gave unprecedented power to state bureaucrats.

“I remember being 10 years old and hearing about this,” Delaney told me. “My father was a councilman on the Saranac town board at the time and there was a lot of concern about it.”

Battle lines were drawn so starkly that harsh words and deep ideological divides sometimes gave way to violence. “There was an attempt to set the Park Agency headquarters on fire,” said Phil Terrie, a regional historian and a seasonal resident of Long Lake.

“One of the [APA] staff members had bullets flying around his car one day.”

Tensions simmered for years and reached a fever pitch again in the early 1990s, when a CBS cameraman captured a standoff over a plan to close a popular road into the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. In the footage, Warrensburg town supervisor Maynard Baker can be seen assaulting an environmental activist.

“Go back wherever you came from!” Baker shouted. “Get out of here, out of our lives, out of our business!”

Ross Whaley, from Tupper Lake, who served as APA chair from 2003 to 2007, recalled attending a public hearing in the park during that turbulent era and being warned of physical danger by a New York State trooper. “He said, ‘I want to show you where to park your car in case we need to escape quickly.’”

In many ways, the Adirondack Park then resembled much of America today. It was a powder keg, a place where—as Whaley described it—“people would rather fight than win.”

So how did we move from that toxic, volatile era to the current climate, where civility, dialogue and neighborliness seem to be the norm, at least when it comes to environmental debates?

More than a dozen people interviewed for this story pointed to the role of one person, former New York State Governor George Pataki, a moderate Republican who took office in 1995. 

“I had protesters and pickets all over the Adirondacks,” Pataki told me. At first people in the park met him with open hostility, with many local government leaders and business owners convinced that outsiders like himself were trying to “impose their will on us.”

Pataki, age 78, now lives much of the year on his farm in the town of Essex, in the eastern Adirondacks. He said his message back then to furious locals was simple: “Give me a chance and I think we can make this work, both for the environment and for the economy.”

In the years that followed, Pataki set about appointing a new generation of park officials, including Whaley, committed to easing tensions. “We asked how could we develop communication so maybe we could find common ground on issues,” Whaley recalled. “It turns out the idea was powerful.”

By most accounts the top-down change sparked by Pataki created an opening for grassroots efforts aimed at gradually de-escalating tensions and building bridges between warring factions. In 2007 that effort coalesced into a new ad-hoc group called the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), made up of environmentalists, local government leaders and community organizers.

“There were a lot of long conversations, phone calls after hours,” said Zoe Smith, a veteran environmentalist who currently serves as one of CGA’s leaders and sits on the APA board. “Our agenda is simply to have civil discourse, to have collaboration, to change the tenor of the conversation and build trust.”

The CGA often worked quietly, behind the scenes, but it also began holding annual public meetings designed to have the feel of community get-togethers. People shared food. They talked about their hopes for the park’s towns. They set aside the thorniest problems and looked for issues where everyone could agree and work together.

One early CGA success was helping lobby against a plan, first proposed in 2008, that would have limited the state’s property tax payments on Forest Preserve land. Those payments are a vital source of revenue for towns and for the first time the park’s factions formed a united front in Albany to defeat the measure. Later, the CGA helped pass a state constitutional amendment, finalized in 2019, creating a “land bank” that Adirondack Park communities could use for infrastructure projects.

According to Smith, who lives in Saranac Lake, environmentalists like herself learned to balance ambitious goals for the Adirondacks’ wild lands with community needs. “I’ve been on the ledge,” she said, describing moments when compromise seemed “too difficult,” relationships “too broken,” issues “too hard to face.”

Complicating the dialogue was the fact that there were major challenges facing the park. One of the most controversial involved big tracts of commercial timberland that began coming on the market in the late 1990s. Developers were interested in buying up chunks of backcountry and converting open space into vacation homes and resorts.

Some of the wildest places in the Adirondacks, including the upper Hudson River, Boreas Ponds and the Essex Chain Lakes, were threatened. Pataki responded by unveiling a plan to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on big conservation land deals that would block most development while expanding public recreation.

Many local government leaders hated the idea, but in his 2005 State of the State speech, Pataki doubled down, promising to conserve “over 900,000 acres, an area bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island.” It was the kind of sweeping environmental vision for the park that would have once reignited the powder keg.

But Pataki says he worked to avoid that kind of explosion, making deals with local leaders and offering support for development projects in exchange for their backing land conservation. Environmental groups including the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy also negotiated behind the scenes.

According to Pataki, those negotiations were often difficult and sometimes required playing hardball. “The ones who just try to blow up any effort to find common ground, you do your best to marginalize them,” he said.

In the end, it worked. There were plenty of arguments, but no meltdowns. No one threatened violence or blockaded roads. During Pataki’s era and later, when Governor Andrew Cuomo was in office, most local government leaders supported land deals that reshaped the Adirondack Park. Townspeople and green activists worked together, creating vast new areas of Forest Preserve and expanding the High Peaks Wilderness.

“I think there’s been a lot of good faith effort on the part of people on both sides to try to talk things out, don’t yell at each other, try to talk to each other,” said Terrie, the Adirondack historian.

But if the park’s experiment in civility has weathered some big challenges inside the Blue Line, people interviewed for this story say they now face growing pressure from outside, as bitter political and cultural forces tear at the wider American society.

Smith acknowledged that “there are glimpses of the national dialogue that show up on social media and turn up in the local press [in the Adirondacks].”

Much of rural America has grown more fervently right-wing and the Adirondack Park’s small towns are no exception. Voters inside the Blue Line backed Donald Trump twice and have given landslide victories to Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21), a divisive Trump ally who frequently amplifies conspiracy theories.

In other parts of the U.S., culture war conflicts—over Trump, gender issues, environmental rules, among others—have divided towns into feuding factions. Church congregations have unraveled. School boards have ruptured. Leaders who once promised bipartisanship and dialogue now launch savage attacks on social media.

But so far, the Adirondack Park has remained a rare success story, a landscape where respect and dialogue endure.

“It does no good to tear our communities apart,” said town councilman Delaney, who heads the pro-development Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and describes himself as a Trump voter. “We’re not going to win by fighting. We have to come together and find a path forward that everyone can accept.”

Even activists who once took part in the park’s most bitter feuds say they’ve embraced the new less confrontational ethos. “I’m often perceived publicly as the guy local government [leaders] love to hate and that’s accurate,” said Peter Bauer, head of the green group Protect the Adirondacks.

But in recent years, according to Bauer, town officials often welcome him when he visits. They engage in good-natured dialogue even when they disagree on park policies such as motorized recreation or rules for building snowmobile trails. “The town supervisor invariably pulls up a chair and just chews the fat for two or three hours,” said Bauer.

He remains wary of what he describes as the new “period of calm” in the Adirondacks. He noted that Protect the Adirondacks still regularly files lawsuits when the group feels that management decisions made by state officials violate the park’s environmental rules. But he also acknowledged the era of dialogue and negotiations produced big wins.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on land protection,” he said. “Nobody thought that could be done.”

All of those interviewed for this story agreed that the park’s experiment in civility remains fragile. They voiced worry about the challenges that lie ahead—climate change, diversity, affordable housing, political polarization—and about the toxic influence of social media.

But Smith, the APA board member who helps lead the CGA, said Adirondackers appear committed to the process, not least because they know how bad things get when neighbors turn against neighbors.

“When you hear people talk about the Adirondack wars, the Adirondack battles, there are very few people who want to engage in that again,” she said.

Whaley, too, believes the common ground model has gained enough support in the Adirondacks that it has a good chance of continuing to help solve problems.

“My only concern is, am I naïve?” he said. “I’m optimistic about this place, but am I living in a dream world?”    

Brian Mann is a correspondent for National Public Radio who lives in Westport.  

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