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Local residents and seasonals debate the Park's future at a session this week in Long Lake (Photo:  Mark Kurtz)
Local residents and seasonals debate the Park's future at a session this week in Long Lake (Photo: Mark Kurtz)

Is new sustainable life vision for the Adirondack achievable?

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Yesterday, we reported on a new planning effort in the Adirondacks, one that aims to find a common ground approach to environmental protection and economic development. The effort is attracting a broad coalition of groups and leaders who in the past have often been at odds. They've developed a concept for the Park's future that's being described as "the sustainable life."

Supporters hope that a richer balance of economic vitality and preservation will attract a new generation of young people and private investors. But as Brian Mann reports, big hurdles remain and for some small towns and villages, time may be running out.

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Last year, Jim Herman and Dave Mason started holding focus groups with people living around the Adirondacks to talk about what they’d like to see for the future. One of the scenarios people talked about and debated was what the two men see as the scenario we have now. Jim Herman calls it the post big government era, a world where Albany’s wealth and influence and willingness to invest in the Park continue to fade.

"This one is really about each town for themselves, it's about a fragmented approach to planning, it's viewed as the default," he says. Under this scenario, some towns thrive and succeed on their own initiative, but a lot of Park communities would continue to lose population and basic services, according to Herman.

"No one wants that to be the plan.  No one wants a plan that says, well, some towns are going to fade away over the next 25 years," said Herman. He and Mason say the preferred plan, the one that the vast majority of people taking part in these sessions support, is a scenario they call the sustainable life.

Environmentalists, local government leaders, businesses owners: they all seemed to embrace the idea of a Park where things like locally produced food and energy and telecommuting rewire the economy. This idea also drew a lot of support from the young people who took part in the process: college students and young professionals.

David Mason says they found remarkable levels of buy-in across the political spectrum, not just that the sustainable life concept is desirable, but also that it was achievable. He said, "We almost didn't believe it...the thing we want that is most desirable, is also the most attainable."

Anyone who’s studied Adirondack history knows that the Park is littered, sometimes literally, with big ideas and big schemes that didn’t work out. But at the gathering of the Common Ground Alliance this week in Long Lake, where Herman and Mason gave their talk, people seemed to think this plan could really fly. Bill Farber chairs the Hamilton County board of supervisors, and he said, "What we saw over the last ten years is very disturbing, particularly some of the demographic trends with loss of young people.  But the simple reality is they're all things that can be turned can work."

One reason that people are optimistic is that this scenario fits together a lot of building blocks that people are already working on or that are happening organically. The local food movement is already growing rapidly.  Groups like the Adirondack North Country Association and NYSERDA are already investing time and money in local energy. In addition, private companies like the Nicholville Telephone Company are already working aggressively to bring broadband to more and more corners of the Park.

Mark Dzwonczyk is CEO at Nicholville Telephone Company, which developed a broadband network on Upper St. Regis Lake that has higher internet speeds that you’ll find in many parts of Manhattan. He says he's able to conduct business all over the world from his cabin in the Adirondacks, using Skype and other communications technology. He said, "I actually had a start-up in Austin, Texas and I was running it. This is real."

At the meeting in Long Lake, influential state and regional leaders said this sustainable life concept could shape a lot of public investment and policy in the Park. Lani Ulrich heads the Adirondack Park Agency.  She says agencies like hers will respond if Park residents develop a clear path forward and said, "It's then the job of the governmental see which piece can each of us do toward this common end. That's going to be very exciting."

So in theory, there’s a lot of buy-in. But regional leaders also acknowledge a lot of big hurdles remain. The sustainable life plan envisions a lot more flexibility in management of the state forest preserve, an idea that will be controversial in some circles. It also lays out a goal of far more consolidation of government services.  State Senator Betty Little says that won’t be easy.

"You really have to have that trust, and I'll tell you that's an obstacle," Little says.  "I had a village and town meeting one time trying to put them together and the guy told me, 'It's never going to work.'  And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Our people just don't like those people.'"

Dave Mason and Jim Herman say this kind of uncertainty is normal. When they’ve developed plans like this in the past for big corporations, they know at the outset that not all the pieces will work out. But there is a plan, and there’s an opportunity to react strategically when things go wrong.

"So two years from now, you're able to see what's really going on, versus what you wished, and then things happen, big things happen," Mason says. "Because people have thought about this stuff and they see it coming, it's not out of the blue that something occurs.  Historically, that's when big changes have occurred."

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