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State conservation officials still at odds with key Adirondack environmental law

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In the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine, our reporter Brian Mann tells the surprising story of the Adirondack Park's State Land Master Plan.

The "SLUMP," as it's known, shapes nearly every activity in the Adirondack forest preserve, from hiking and snowmobile trails to the building of roads and lean-tos.

While researching the story, Brian learned that the regulations developed in the 1960s have been a source of friction and animosity among state officials for decades - often pitting the Department of Environmental Conservation against the Adirondack Park Agency.

Brian spoke about his report with Martha Foley.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When New York's legislature created the Adirondack Park Agency in 1971, it also green-lighted the creation of a sweeping set of wild-lands protection rules known as the State Land Master Plan. 

Approved the next year by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the legal guidelines were quickly eclipsed by a noisier debate over new restrictions on private land development.

But the SLMP (pronounced "slump") grew out of revolutionary new theories of wilderness and open space protection that were evolving fast during the Sixties and early Seventies.  And right from the start, its strict rules clashed with long-accepted practices and philosophies of New York's Conservation Department. 

"That tension has been there from the beginning, and it's still there today," said Peter Paine, a former APA commissioner who authored the Master Plan.

The Master Plan established new rules for recreation and conservation on the Forest Preserve; and for the first time, the Park's public lands were divided into five zones or "areas" -- Wilderness, Primitive, Canoe, Wild Forest, and Intensive Use - with far tighter restrictions on human activity.

The newly-founded APA was charged with interpreting the guidelines and making sure everything that went on in the Forest Preserve complied.  The DEC, meanwhile, drew the job of implementing the Master Plan in the field, developing programs and facilities over thousands of square miles. 

Critics, including Paine, say the Conservation Department never accepted the new wild-lands philosophy laid out by the SLMP.  "They loved bulldozers," he asserted, during an in-depth interview with the Explorer. 

"They got gold stars for getting the money to build the road that got you back to the cabin at Shattuck Clearing or back at the Duck Hole.  In those days, that was kind of the accepted method of backcountry management," he added.

Paine is now an attorney and president of Champlain Bank in the town of Willsboro.  After being appointed to the APA commission by Governor Rockefeller in the early Seventies, he drafted Master Plan almost single-handedly, with little input from DEC officials.

According to Paine, a primary purpose of the guidelines was to rein in state employees within the Conservation Department. "The plan was designed to force the DEC to do things differently," he said.  "There are accepted things you can do in a wilderness.  You can't run around with jeeps and chainsaws."

A wide array of current and former state officials interviewed for this story echoed Paine's claim that senior DEC officials resented the new rules and either ignored them or fought to weaken them.  Moreover, many said that serious tensions linger even now, coloring many of the DEC's actions in the Adirondack Park.

"There was suspicion and resentment [toward the SLMP]," said Bill Kissel, a Lake Placid attorney who served as the APA's first attorney and later as a commissioner until 2005.  "And it's still true at least in part.  There are elements of the DEC's bureaucracy that still harbor those thoughts."

Critics cite controversial actions by the DEC - including the recent proposal to allow floatplanes to continue flying to Lowes Lake - as evidence that the Department still views the SLMP with a coolness amounting to hostility. 

Kissel also points out that Conservation officials have failed to create detailed management plans for wide swaths of the Park, despite a Master Plan mandate that they be completed decades ago. The last new plan was approved in 2006. 

"Is that a result of a foot dragging or a resistance to the SLMP in the DEC? I certainly saw elements of that from time to time," he said.

Paine argued the case more bluntly:  "I think a great disappointment has been the rear-guard action fought by the DEC," he said. "They simply weren't interested in implementing the SLMP."

The DEC's Director of the Division of Lands and Forests, Rob Davies, strongly disputed this account in a lengthy email and argued that there was never significant hostility toward the Master Plan within the Department.

"The DEC has a strong history in development of Forest Preserve policy," he wrote, adding that the SLMP "provides necessary guidance for ensuring these lands are managed within certain parameters."

Davies acknowledged that disagreements often arise between DEC and the Park Agency over interpretation of the Master Plan.  "None of us would be doing our job if we did not periodically have differences of opinion," he said, while praising the SLMP for fostering "a healthy debate and creative ideas."

He pointed out that DEC began a concerted effort to complete more management plans for the Park in 1999.  "More planning has been done in the last ten years with less resources than in the previous thirty years," he argued.

But former top DEC officials interviewed by the Explorer offered a far more combative view. "[The SLMP] was shoved down our throats," recalled Norman Van Valkenburg, who joined the Conservation Department in the 1950s and later served as director of the Division of Lands and Forests.

Van Valkenburg described a meeting with Paine and other drafters of the SLMP in the early Seventies. "I went down and talked to them, but I didn't say a hell of a lot," he said.  "The plan was already written before we got a look at it."

The fact that top Conservation officials were deliberately excluded from the drafting process is astonishing and reflects the deep cultural divisions that existed between the more preservationist-minded APA and DEC officials, many of whom had strong local ties inside the Adirondacks. 

"We'd been there for years," Van Valkenberg said. "We knew how it operated.  Who the hell were these people?  Why were they telling us all this?"

The man who authored many of the Adirondack Park's unit management plans, DEC regional forester Jim Papero, said he too experienced widespread "indifference" and "hostility" toward the SLMP as late as 2002, when he retired.

According to Papero, one senior DEC official called him "a traitor" for working too closely with APA staff on Master Plan issues.  He said others within the Department told him point-blank, "We're not going to work with the Agency.  Why are they telling us this?  We were doing this fine long before they came along?"

To read more, pick up the latest issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.

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