For Immediate Release
January 7, 1998
They helped elect him and pinned hopes on his promises. But rural New York's townspeople, small property owners, farmers, and small businesses are out the window like an old shoe, now that Governor George Pataki has grander constituencies in mind.
One of the biggest of these constituencies, who ardently supported incumbent Governor Mario Cuomo when Pataki squeaked into office in 1995, is the environmental lobby. This means groups in New York like the Albany-based Environmental Advocates and the Adirondack Council and national groups like the Sierra Club, National Parks and Conservation Association and National Audubon Society, who control millions of votes and use their tax-exempt wealth to mobilize their members for political purposes.
The evolution of Pataki's relationship to his new constituency was only briefly delayed. Remember the Pataki Transition Team and its scathing report about the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), hitting the needless obstruction of business, the excesses of the previous administration's rural land acquisition program and the questionable ethics of third-party land acquisition groups working with DEC? Remember the hopefulness of Bob King's Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform? Remember the proposed cutbacks to the locally hated, wasteful Adirondack Park Agency (APA) and the appointment of a new chairman, local businessman Greg Campbell, to replace the eccentric environmentalist Woody Cole?
Because of Pataki's good faith with rural New York's political leaders, his associate Mike Finnegan was able to negotiate a contract with local governments in the Catskills where they conceded decades of differences with New York City, gave the City control over prime private land and agreed to an unprecedented City watershed land acquisition program.
The watershed deal, when many ordinary Catskill residents and property owners lost faith in Pataki, was a turning point. But earlier in this administration the honeymoon reforms were emasculated. Regulatory reform is long dead. DEC bleeds businesses and landowners as badly as during the previous, avowedly liberal, administration. The Governor's Adirondack Park Agency nominations shifted; there was never to be a property owner of, say, Pieter Litchfield's ability to match the sophistication of Peter Paine, who was on the APA Commission from Governor Nelson Rockefeller's Temporary Study Commission days until Pataki's tenure. And APA cutbacks were restored.
Under Pataki, a carefully calculated environmental bond act passed in place of Cuomo's $2 billion environmental referendum defeated by upstate voters. A big feature of the new bond issue was that it was to relieve Long Island Pine Barrens property owners of holding and paying taxes on land made worthless by the non-development mandate of the State Legislature's 1993 Pine Barrens Act. But 3,400 small property owners are still uncompensated, with many in court on "takings" claims.
Productive New York forestry is being especially hard hit by Pataki. In 1995 he promised that a catastrophic 1,000,000-acre Adirondack blowdown could be cleared away before the trees rotted or burned but, contrary to the precedent of an earlier administration (unencumbered by the environmental movement), he changed his mind and left the mass of trees on State land to rot. The following year, he changed the purpose of the Allegany State Park to non-productive wilderness by eliminating all logging in reaction to an emotionalistic campaign, in this case disallowing an established, environmentally sustainable source of income for the State's parks.
Along the same lines, more land, especially in the lower Hudson and Adirondacks, is continually being acquired by DEC and the State Office of Parks for little if any use by the public and very commonly under unscrutinized, questionable arrangements with the powerful land conservancies. The DEC's issuance of the 1997 revised Open Space Conservation Plan epitomizes the regression of the Pataki Administration into the environmentalist camp allied to the earlier governor. Not only does the Open Space Plan continue the nebulous banquet list of properties to be acquired at undefined cost to taxpayer and the economy, it also still conceals DEC's relationship with the third party acquisition agencies. It even changes policy to add new affronts to private property owners, most notably by dropping the Cuomo Administration's renunciation of eminent domain for rural land acquisition.
But the final weeks of 1997 were Pataki's farewell slap at Northern New York. First, he concealed from the northern counties his inclusion of the upper reaches of the Hudson in his "American Heritage River" application to President Clinton until it was too late to protest. Then he consummated the "wilderness" acquisition from the Whitneys of 15,000 acres of productive timberland that fed mills in the Adirondacks, under the pretext that a proposed environmentally sensitive development of 300-acre average "Great Camps" was a threat to forest preservation. And just before Christmas, under pressure from the Sierra Club and extreme Adirondack Park preservationists, he cancelled the only significant new construction that would have taken place in the Adirondacks in over two decades - a prison that the Village of Tupper Lake had spent eleven years negotiating.
Whenever there was a choice to be made since the early months of his administration, Pataki has not made one important decision contrary to the announced interests of the environmental lobby. This is a mistake. Loyalty, principle and the people who elected him still matter.