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Conservationist and ORDA president Joe Martens
Conservationist and ORDA president Joe Martens

Martens choice for DEC will shape key decisions in Adirondack-North Country

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Governor Andrew Cuomo has named a top conservationist with deep ties in the North Country to head the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Joe Martens is president of the Open Space Institute, which has brokered some of the biggest land preservation deals in the Adirondack Park.

Martens is also head of the state's Olympic Regional Development Authority's board of directors - helping to operate sports venues in Lake Placid, Johnsburgh, and Wilmington.

As Brian Mann reports, Martens' nomination is drawing praise from across the political spectrum.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Last May, Joe Martens told North Country Public Radio that the Department of Environmental Conservation was in tough shape – facing deep staff cuts and struggling to maintain basic programs.

"The state is in terrible, terrible shape," Martens said.  "A lot of us are going to have to take a fresh look at how the Department does it's business.  How it addresses its core mission of protecting the state's air and water and land.  I think a lot of the old assumptions are going to have to be rewritten."

 Martens’ organization, the Open Space Institute, engineered massive land deals over the last decade – including the Finch, Pruyn deal and the deal to protect the area around Tahawus in the southern High Peaks. 

But Martens has also led the Olympic Regional Development Authority – which serves as an economic engine for much of the Park.

And Martens signaled last year that given the state’s fiscal crisis he wants local communities to play a bigger role managing the Adirondacks.

 "We are going to have to rely on the communities themselves more," he argued.  "I think there is going to have to be more of an emphasis on communities getting involved in management of the Park and maybe more deference to some of the communities in the Park."

In naming Martens to head the DEC, Governor Cuomo issued a statement praising him for his work fighting to protect and preserve the state’s environment. 

The governor added, "Joe knows how to strike the critical balance between defending our natural resources…while at the same time fostering a climate of economic renewal and growth."  

 The nomination – which will need confirmation by the state Senate – drew quick praise from a wide range of leaders in the Park.  Assemblywomen Teresa Sayward from Willsboro and Janet Duprey from Peru both called it a great pick.

“He’ll certainly have good awareness of the balance we need between the environment and economic development,” Sawyard said.  “Joe will do a good job.”

“When we talk to him about issues facing Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, AuSable Forks, or Newcomb, he’s going to know what we’re talking about,” Duprey said. “I think that’s a plus.”

Green groups also praised the choice.  John Sheehan is a spokesman for the Adirondack Council. 

“He’s been a positive influence on ORDA as chairman," Sheehan said.  "We’re confident that his experience with the Open Space Institute will only enhance his capabilities and that he’ll make a fine commissioner.”

Fred Monroe, with the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board was more cautious in his assessment .  He said Martens term will be defined by the environmental agenda sent by the new Governor in Albany.

“If that direction is positive, I think we can find creative solutions for the many issues we’re faced with,” he said. “It’s all going to depend on the governor’s policy direction.”

Martens will be faced almost immediately with some tough choices in the Adirondcks.  Over the last year, the DEC has closed campgrounds and threatened to close access roads into some of the Park’s most popular backcountry areas, including the Moose River Plains.  Finding new stewardship dollars won’t be easy.

Local government leaders will also watch closely to see Martens plans for roughly 65,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands – which green groups want added to the forest preserve.  Many local leaders, including Assemblywoman Duprey, want future land acquisitions suspended.

“With the cuts in personnel that DEC has taken over the past year – they’re not going to be able to do much more in terms of open space,” Duprey said.

Martens has been a strong advocate of land purchases in the Park.  But speaking last May, he indicated that adding Finch, Pruyn land to the state’s forest preserve may have to wait.

"I'm still hopeful Finch, Pruyn again is going to happen," he said.  

"Finch, Pruyn was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I think the Nature Conservancy did the right thing.  Obviously, they took on enormous risk.  It will get resolved.  It just will take longer than expected and it will take more help from the private sector than TNC anticipated because the state isn't going to be ready to buy that land any time soon."

Just last week, the DEC announced that it would spend $30 million to buy easement rights to tens of thousands of acres of Finch, Pruyn land.  Finishing the deal with more outright land purchases will cost tens of millions of dollar more.

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