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Environmental activists like Richard Brummel suffered a major defeat last week. Photos: Brian Mann
Environmental activists like Richard Brummel suffered a major defeat last week. Photos: Brian Mann

Disarray in Adirondack environmental community, defeat on Tupper resort

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Last week's decision by the Adirondack Park Agency to allow construction of a massive new resort in Tupper Lake was a major defeat for environmental groups. Developers of the Adirondack Club and Resort won permission to build more than 700 luxury homes and condos, much of it on timberland that borders the High Peaks Wilderness.

Green activists spent much of the last decade opposing the project, insisting that it would set dangerous precedents for future development. But debate over the resort came at a time when once-powerful environmental groups were disintegrating, faltering under financial strain and deeply divided over the movement's agenda.

As Brian Mann reports, last week's vote could signal a balance of power in Park debates as environmentalists scramble to regroup.

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But green leaders like Brian Houseal with the Adirondack Council are adopting a different message.

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Just minutes after APA commissioners voted 10-to-1 to allow the Big Tupper resort, veteran Park activist Dan Plumley with the group Adirondack Wild stepped to the podium looking somber.

"This is a big change for open space projects that have come before you historically and that is a great concern," he said. 

The Park’s environmental activists spent years fundraising and organizing to oppose the Adirondack Club and Resort. 

They fought the developers in court and ran op-ed pieces in downstate newspapers, hoping to rally political opposition to the project in Albany and New York City. 

Bob Glennon, an attorney who now volunteers for Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks, says last week’s vote was a clear defeat for the movement.

"Well, I'd say so. [Approval of] seven hundred units? The whack-up of the APA's most restrictive land-use category? Yeah. I predicted maybe we'd get three votes. We got one. I'm shocked, I'm devastated, but I'm not the least bit surprised," Glennon said.

Just a few years ago, it seemed like the outcome might be very different. Green groups were well-funded and organized and influential. 

In 2006, two years after the Big Tupper project was proposed, green activist Peter Bauer was appointed to Governor Eliot Spitzer’s transition team.

"It's only reasonable that when a new governor comes in, especially one with a mandate, they're going to want to bring in their own team, and their ideas, and their vision."

Bauer, who was then head of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, said confronting the Park’s second home and resort development boom was one of the green movement’s big priorities.

"The biggest development boom really in the past fifty years that we're still in the midst of, that has brought forward a number of very controversial and very large development projects, has also made our work here controversial and confrontational," said Bauer in 2006.

That confidence was echoed in 2007, when the Adirondack Council’s John Sheehan predicted that the Big Tupper project as proposed by developer Michael Foxman would never be built.

"I think it gets less likely every day," Sheehan said. "Frankly, we're a little concerned that Foxman may have given up already."

That confidence grew as the housing market imploded in 2008 and the country descended into a deep recession. 

But then something unexpected happened. The same market forces that were hitting the real estate market broadsided the Park's environmental movement.

"In early December of 2008, we started to see the signs of the recession," said Michael Washburn, who at the time was head of the Residents Committee, speaking in 2009, just before that organization ceased to exist.

"I remember the day. I was at my desk and I received two letters in the same day's mail from different donors whose support we typically received and whose support I espected. And the letters said, due to financial changes I will not be able to provide the Residents support this year. And I thought, this can only be the beginning," Washburn recalled.

What followed was a period of intense turmoil for the green movement in the Park. The Residents Committee soon merged with another green group, the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks.

Then the new organization, called Protect the Adirondacks laid off its entire staff, citing financial woes. 

That led to creation of a another new group called Adirondack Wild led by veteran activist David Gibson.

"You need a diversity of organizations coming at [environmentalism] from different directions," Gibson said in 2010. "And we're going to be a goad, we're going to be a provocateur, if you will.  But we're going to do it through dialogue and education."

But green groups were in disarray, struggling with internal differences and scrambling to raise money.  Momentum in the resort debate had begun to shift. 

That year, a volunteer group called ARISE reopened the Big Tupper ski area. Former APA commissioner Bill Kissell was one of the first skiers to hit the slopes.

"It's just so great that it's back," he said. "It was real effort by the whole community."

Big Tupper provided a powerful symbol for the project’s supporters. They also drew clout from a new report called the APRAP study, which seemed to suggest that Park communities like Tupper Lake were in crisis. 

Here’s Bill Towers, head of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages.

"The real concern out of this is when you look in the heart of the Park, some of these communities are seriously stressed. If we don't really see some private investment and an economic plan for some of these interior communities, we're probably going to start losing some of these communities," he argued.

The narrative surrounding the Big Tupper resort project had clearly shifted.

Green groups did their best to stay active in the Big Tupper debate. During adjudicatory hearings last summer, they pushed the Adirondack Park Agency to focus more closely on big issues like forest fragmentation and wildlife impacts.

Those efforts led to some modifications of the resort and some stricter limitations on development.

But efforts to stop or dramatically reshape the project unraveled when the Park’s biggest and most stable green group, the Adirondack Council, broke ranks.

The Council’s leader, Brian Houseal, signaled that he and his influential board of directors would support a permit for the project.

"Although the Adironack Council is an environmental advocacy group, I believe we are becoming and Adirondack advocacy group to find those common ground solutions," Houseal said.

Other environmental leaders say the lack of unity and a united front on the Adirondack Club and Resort issue hurt their cause.

"I did not expect this out of the Adirondack Council and I don't know what it's all about," Glennon said.

"We find it odd that the Council's viewpoints now don't jive with the pressure and very good legal points they made during the adjudicatory hearing," added Plumley.

The Council’s Brian Houseal acknowledge that other groups were angered by his decision to support Big Tupper, and by the new philosophical approach that his organization has adopted.

"The environmental community is not of a uniform opinion concerning economic development in the Adirondacks," he said. "We believe that Tupper Lake does need economic development."

In the end, a project that was once the number one target for green groups passed overwhelmingly, and even drew support from some of the Park Agency commission’s most environmentally friendly board-members. 

That outcome, and new divisions within the environmental movement, raise real questions about their ability to rally political support for other controversial causes in the Park.

Activist Bob Glennon says he hopes this moment of defeat will spark a revival.

"I think this approval by the APA will quickly bring [the movement] back to life. Let's get the word out. What are we doing up here?" Glennon said.

Green groups in the Adirondacks now have two months to decide whether or not to challenge the APA’s Big Tupper decision in court.

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