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The Tug Hill Plateau is actually a "cuesta" in geological terms, rising gently from Lake Ontario in the west then diving steeply into the Black River valley in the East. This shot looks east.
The Tug Hill Plateau is actually a "cuesta" in geological terms, rising gently from Lake Ontario in the west then diving steeply into the Black River valley in the East. This shot looks east.

Fighting for its life, Tug Hill agency takes to the air

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Yesterday, we heard about a not-for-profit called LightHawk, which offers environmental groups private flights to help them give an aerial perspective to their "green" issues.

Today we focus on one group using that service to fight for its survival - the Tug Hill Commission. The Commission isn't exactly an environmental group. It's a state agency, and it's facing elimination in Governor Andrew Cuomo's effort to streamline government.

But the communities of the Tug Hill Plateau see the Commission as indispensable to balancing the economy and the environment in a "working forest". And more than that, they see the Commission as a potential model for other state agencies.

David Sommerstein was invited for a flight recently and has this story.

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Our flying group meets in the coffee lounge of the Griffis airfield in Rome.

“Hi, Arnie, good to see you again.”

 “Same.”

 “Bill Helmer. Nice to meet you.”

“Bob Keller.”

Keller's our pilot who volunteers with Light Hawk. There’s also Bill Helmer, a blogger with the Albany Times-Union, and our host for the day, Arnie Talgo, a commissioner and former chairman of the Tug Hill Commission.

Talgo hands us each a thick, multi-colored packet; “a summary of the talking points of the Commission," Talgo said. "Background information, the maps."

Talgo’s invited us reporters to fly over the Tug Hill Plateau to see why the region needs its own agency, and to use us, really, to help make his case.

"We’re not going to sit back," Talgo said. "We want to see the Commission continue."

Area leaders were blindsided back in January when Governor Cuomo proposed to eliminate the Tug Hill Commission altogether in his executive budget.  He said in his State of the State speech, it was part of a plan to streamline state government.

"We’re going to have to reorganize the agencies, we’re going to have to redesign our approach, because the old way wasn’t working anyway. Let’s be honest," Cuomo said to applause. 

Yet out of 600 state entities, the Tug Hill Commission was the only one singled out to disappear.  No one seems to know why.

"Just slide forward a little bit. You good in the back there, David?" the pilot asked from the Cessna's cockpit.

“Yup.” 

"OK."

We pack the four of us into the single engine Cessna. Pilot Bob Keller preps us for what we’re about to see.

"When you fly over the area, you’ll see how small the communities are and how interdependent they are with the environment in which they live and the importance of local control and local planning," Keller said. 

Keller chattered to the control tower for take off and up we went.

Some things you may already know about the Tug Hill Plateau. It has most snowfall in the East. It hosts the biggest wind farm in the East.  Its 41 towns are isolated and remote, a world apart, really, even compared to other parts of the North Country.

We take off North and buzz over a blue lake. "This is Delta reservoir here. And most of the watershed is in the Tug Hill," comes through my headset.

What you may not know is that the Tug Hill has the largest contiguous forest in New York outside the Adirondacks and Catskills.  In other words, this is wilderness that’s 90 percent privately owned.

We soar over villages, paper and sawmills, and sprawling dairy farms until I look down on a thick forest pockmarked with wetlands and little ponds.

"Right now, I’m looking out over this carpet of green.  I can’t see a structure or a road. Well, there’s one little house right there, but it’s pretty much completely forested for miles, it looks like," I said.

“Yeah, we’re going along the southern boundary of the core forest," Keller said before diving into more pilot chatter.

The core forest is critical wildlife habitat; 200,000 acres of wetlands and streams provide water for the cities of Rome and Oneida and many other villages.

Yet the forest is also shared by anglers, snowmobilers, timber companies, and conservationists.  Unlike the Adirondack Park, there are no special regulations and no Adirondack Park Agency to oversee and enforce rules.  And as the Tug Hill Commission’s Arnie Talgo sees it, there’s less divisiveness and conflict.

"More congenial. Much more positive attitude and approach to resource issues.  It just doesn’t occur anywhere else like that," Talgo said. 

Talgo says the Tug Hill Commission is responsible for that. He said it uses a bottom-up approach through local councils, "which go out to attend all the meetings and talk to folks and bring it back to the staff at Tug Hill, who help do the research and say 'Oh what a minute, there’s something we can do here’ or ‘Why don’t you get together with the folks in Rodman and share your experience or Boonville,' or whatever."

The Commission offers grant writers, zoning and planning assistance to those small, isolated towns.

Here’s where fiscal conservatives may squirm. Sure, those things are nice, they say, but with taxes soaring and state government bloated, they’re extras. Even though the Commission’s $1 million budget is a drop in New York $132 billion spending plan, every cut counts.

"I think everything should be cut in state government and in fact the Tug Hill Commission did receive a cut," said Mark Schedleman, supervisor of the Tug Hill town of Trenton in Oneida County.  Though the Commission was spared this year, it did take a 10% cut like other agencies.

Schedleman, like most people on the Tug Hill, is conservative and wants smaller government, but he says the Tug Hill Commission should be the future of government not the past.

"This is a Commission that ought to be emulated and copied throughout the state as examples of cost sharing and cost savings to the taxpayers," Schedleman said.

In the coming months, the Tug Hill Commission will be judged by another bigger and more influential Commission, the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, or SAGE.  According to Governor Cuomo, SAGE will determine which state entities should merge or be eliminated altogether.

So far, the Tug Hill Commission hasn’t been granted an audience before SAGE to make its case.  Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush and other North Country lawmakers have written SAGE members asking for just that.

"All they want to do is present that to the SAGE Commission," Schedleman said. "Give them an opportunity to stand on their merit."

We land back at Griffis airfield in Rome. Pilot Bob Keller sinks into a lazy boy in the lounge and munches on some popcorn. Keller does these flights all over the Northeast, but this one’s personal. He lives in Boonville and he’s been to the local meetings.

Keller says the Tug Hill Commission is a different animal than what’s typical in Albany "because it’s a bottom up agency that doesn’t regulate. It facilitates. And if the state government would do more facilitating perhaps, and less top-down regulating, we could save some of that money, the taxpayers’ money and you might get better appreciation of that role by the taxpayers."

At a time when people across America are complaining about big government, Keller says, the Tug Hill Commission is one agency local residents are not complaining about.

David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, Griffis airfield, Rome.

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