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Assemblyman Dan Stec says the Adirondack Park's dialogue has "evolved."  Photo: Brian Mann
Assemblyman Dan Stec says the Adirondack Park's dialogue has "evolved." Photo: Brian Mann

In Adirondacks, maybe we really can get along

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When the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance formed seven years ago, it seemed like a rare, small voice calling for a better dialogue.

Former Adirondack Park Agency chairman Ross Whaley once said that the political culture inside the blue line was so combative that people "would rather fight than win."

But even many skeptics now say the Common Ground Alliance -- which held their annual meeting Thursday in Newcomb -- has helped shift the conversation and even produced some tangible victories.

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Maybe you can begin to look at economic development here [in the Adirondacks] that neither destroys nor impoverishes the place. -Ross Whaley
The last couple of decades, before he moved to the state Assemblyman Dan Stec from Queensbury was a local government official working in the southeastern corner of the Adirondacks. 

Over that time, he says, the tone of the conversation began to change.

"I've seen an evolution over the years," he says.  "I think it's fair to say ten years ago, it was very cantankerous and an us-versus-them mentality between local government, environmental groups, and state government."

Participants in this week's Common Ground meeting chart their optimism about future collaborations.  The blue dots show that people think there will be more partnering in the future. (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Participants in this week's Common Ground meeting chart their optimism about future collaborations. The blue dots show that people think there will be more partnering in the future. (Photo: Brian Mann)
You hear this a lot from people who’ve navigated the Park’s fractious political landscape, the idea that a lot of the tension, a lot of the venom, has eased. 

"Trust was a yawning chasm between different stakeholder groups," says Paul Hai who heads the Northern Forest Institute, part of the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb. 

"We've made significant strides on that, and I think that's huge."

Not so long ago, it was common for different sides in the Park debate to accuse each other of outright criminality. 

Enviromentalists were blamed for trying to deliberately depopulate the Park’s towns.  Local government leaders were accused of trying to strip-mine or log the “forever wild” forest preserve.

Jim Herman from Keene is part of a project called Adirondack Futures that has sort of merged with the Common Ground effort. 

He says behind all that fierce, take-no-prisoners rhetoric there was actually kind of a shared vision waiting to be discovered, an idea that towns and Park land could co-exist more productively.

"Communities are in fact as important as the forest preserve in this experiment we call the Adirondack Park," Herman says.

That may sound a little soft and fuzzy.  But Dave Mason, who partners on the Adirondack Futures effort, says it’s actually a big deal to have something positive to aim for.

"Because there's a vision out there now that's agreed upon, it's a substitute to get attention that used to go to the next defeat, or the next time people felt stepped on."

This new tone has meant some serious compromise on both sides. 

On the green side, two of the Park’s biggest environmental groups embraced a land swap that could allow a mining company in Essex County to move its operations onto forest preserve land.

The Adirondack Nature Conservancy also worked hard to make sure local communities got big benefits from the massive Finch Pruyn conservation deal.

Meanwhile, many local government leaders have abandoned old hard-line rhetoric against the APA, environmental groups.

"Tremendous amount of change and the Park is better for that," says Peter Bauer who heads a green group called Protect the Adirondacks. 

He says a lot of the shift in tone reflects the fact that many of the biggest environmental questions have been largely settled in the Park – thanks in large part to huge land conservation deals.

On many of the remaining environmental issues – such as invasive species – local government leaders and green groups have actually found themselves working in close alignment.

But Bauer also praises the Common Ground Alliance group for taking some big risks, working to turn cooperation and dialogue into a political necessity for groups that used to toss grenades at each other.

"Key people stepped forward to bring a vital group together.  A lot of other people on all sides have shown up because this is the forum that has the attention.  This is the forum that is really getting the ear of Albany.  You participate or you don't at your own peril."

Ross Whaley addresses a packed room in Newcomb's school.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Ross Whaley addresses a packed room in Newcomb's school. (Photo: Brian Mann)
Former APA chairman Ross Whaley – now head of the Adirondack Landowners Association – chaired yesterday’s meeting in Newcomb.  He says even where controversies remain, the dialogue has gotten better.

"In the last four or five years, there is a tone of civility. The issues still exist, people still feel strongly about them, but I think we've moved a long way."

Whaley says part of the success is that more leaders in the Park – state officials, green groups, and local politicians – realize that they’re all fighting a common enemy.

Not each other, but the economic and social malaise that has wrecked much of rural America. 

Whaley says the shared question now is how state forest preserve land can be leveraged not just to protect ecosystems but to protect small towns.  "And I think maybe that's caught on that the forest preserve is no longer a liability, but it's our asset," he says.

This spirit of cooperation will be tested again and again, as debates surface over things like the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake or the displacement of hunting clubs from the former Finch timberlands. 

But Assemblyman Dan Stec says even at those flashpoints, the goal is to keep the tone dialed down.

"Just want everybody to be reasonable," he says.  "That doesn't mean we're always going to agree on ev everything 100 percent of the time."

People gathered here say there is one other tangible benefit to all this new cooperation. 

They say the state of New York’s decision to award the North Country’s Regional Economic Development Council $100 million in extra funding for development projects was, in large measure, a reward for embracing partnership over open warfare.

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