Tale of a Public Hearing on Wildlife Planning
DEC'S REAL PRIORITY: RESTORATION OF LARGE PREDATORS
Wolves and Cougars are the Secret Heart of the State's Wildlife Plan
By Carol W. LaGrasse
A routine announcement of an official hearing about the state's wildlife plan caught my eye. This was new and compelled my attention. However, I never expected to discover that a concealed plot was at the heart of the plan.
Days later, we admired exquisitely projected photographs and graphic illustrations of population trends and the influences of factors from climate change to human interaction on fragile birds, wetland habitats, boreal habitats, wildlife linkages from New York to Nova Scotia. But, in spite of the sheer beauty and detail that we viewed, some of the trends seemed inconclusive.
This was the Department of Environmental Conservation's second of two official public hearings on its ten-year New York State Wildlife Action Plan (known as SWAP). It was held on June 29 at the agency's far northern Adirondack headquarters in Ray Brook, near Lake Placid. But where was the public? What was the plan?
When my husband Peter and I arrived at the DEC Region 5 office, the receptionist told us that the meeting was not open to the public. However, at my lengthy insistence that the meeting was a public hearing, she opened the door to the meeting room and went inside. When she came out, she told us that the meeting would not begin until we took two seats that they now had waiting for us.
We were obviously loners among the thirty-odd government officials and leaders of environmental organizations in attendance. If it weren't for Dick Nelson's sports column in the weekly Hamilton County Express, I'd never have heard of the hearing.
As usual for DEC hearings, the ever-courteous official David Winchell introduced the meeting. But it was another high-level DEC official, Joe Racette, who headed production of the Ten Year Wildlife Action Plan and chaired the meeting. The presentations related to 167 species the DEC identified as high priority from the full list of 366 "Species of Greatest Conservation Need" (SGCN) in New York.
The star was Machele Glennon, the daughter of Robert Glennon, the cutting edge environmentalist who was the Adirondack Park Agency's executive director during the contentious early 1990s. Her report about the Wildlife Conservation Society's Boreal Bog and Loon Monitoring Project discussed bird counts and habitats for the selected species. She illustrated references to factors such as area, connectivity, climate change, and human impact with photography and vivid, easily understood charts.
Her agenda was to provide information to protect the beautiful birds and aquatic species in her report, but she buffered this theme with remarks to the effect that particular species were at the edge of their range or that the Adirondack region was between two areas where the species flourished, but that the species were historically unsuited to the conditions here. Her report drew no significant questions.
Audience Participation Squelched
But, when Mr. Racette, who was the third and final speaker, presented his report, a question from me was not well-received. Amid the great concern that was expressed about habitat and wetland loss, I suggested to him that DEC use a more respectful approach toward landowners. I remarked that DEC is mixing wetlands jurisdiction with habitat protection, to the landowner's confusion. Last year, the DEC remapped wetlands in Wilton without the owners' participation, to preserve Blanding's Turtle habitat. The landowners were environmentally conscious people, I pointed out, who had chosen to purchase new homes adjacent to a preserve. However, at a packed meeting on September 3, 2014, Tim Post, the DEC official leading the meeting, simply told the property owners that the agency can legally remap wetland boundaries at its discretion.
I asked Mr. Racette, wouldn't it be better to separate the designation of wetlands from habitat preservation so that the property owners could have a clearer set of rules to deal with, and, also, for DEC to work with the landowners rather than just hand down new wetland maps?
His response was forceful: "You forget that DEC is both a rule-making and regulatory agency!" The wetland remapping and the habitat protection on private property are well within the DEC's power, he said.
I mused silently: DEC does the studies to develop the rules, they make the rules, and then they enforce the rules. And, what kind of a hearing is this, where I get smacked down for making a courteous suggestion for a change of policy?
Mr. Racette added, "You can go to the legislature if you want to change the law." I felt obligated to reply, and said that it is very difficult to counter the influence of DEC's years of lobbying, which it has used successfully to change the law on remapping wetlands. (The legislature eliminated the original procedure to revise wetlands maps, which mandated that new maps be formally promulgated through the rule-making process.)
He was totally certain of this thinking. This contrasted with Ms. Glennon, who, in spite of all her valuable data and conclusions, had pointed out areas requiring more study, and areas where study yielded inclusive or surprise results, such as where the influence of human interaction on particular species did not cause negative effects.
When the official presentations were over, Mr. Racette brought the wildlife plan meeting to a close. However, the most interesting incident came at the very end.
There had been almost zero audience participation. Mr. Winchell spoke from where he sat. He asked Mr. Racette to pose questions to the audience.
Instead, rather than asking for participation from the audience, Mr. Racette directed his attention again to the audience to express himself with conviction: His statement came completely by surprise.
"In the Department, our priority is restoration of large carnivores," he pronounced. "But this quest is not socially acceptable."
To accomplish this goal, we are able "to instead work on habitat connectivity," he said. "Restoration of corridors is connected, also."
"Climate change is connected," he added, emphasizing that when the DEC works on issues related to climate change, they are also supporting restoration of large carnivores.
So, we had already driven more than two hours, and sat in the room for another two hours, to hear a top secret official revelation that we never would have known otherwise. This made our time, travel and frustration worthwhile. I had not imagined that the DEC's work for restoration of wolves, about which I have been writing, was the department's singular priority, along with cougars.
Furthermore, the priority was disjointed from the formal ten-year plan. After enduring the entire so-called hearing, we had mainly witnessed discussion and visuals of birds and aquatic species, followed by some ideas on how to protect habitat, but not one mention of the elements of the ten-year wildlife plan for the "large carnivores," except for that final pronouncement.
I doubt that there was information presented that was too subtle for a non-specialist to sift out from the information conveyed in the room. Why was the central goal of "restoration of large carnivores" left hanging until the end? How can the lack of social acceptance of the singular priority goal be an acceptable reason for concealing that goal?
The occasion was a supposed hearing on the ten-year wildlife plan. And the most important goal, the priority, was not explained! Yet, DEC was indeed taking specific action to accomplish that priority, but keeping it from the public.
DEC's Hidden Agenda
The Property Rights Foundation of America has deciphered certain unnoticed DEC publications and actions that clearly present the agency's work for the restoration of large carnivores, namely wolves.
The most important concealed element that PRFA uncovered is former Assistant Commissioner Christopher A. Amato's lengthy June 30, 2011 letter with over 100 pages of attachments to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to persuade the agency to declare the wolves that slip into New York as a federally protected species. (1) This letter was brought to public attention three years ago in PRFA's New York Property Rights Clearinghouse. (2)
"Chris" Amato, as he was identified a few weeks after he had stepped down from his DEC position, continued his theme of wolf restoration, as reported in an Associated Press article on New Year's Eve 2011. Sympathetic journalists John Flesher and Matthew Brown wrote, "Vast new territories in the southern Rockies and Northeast are ripe for wolves but unoccupied."
They then quoted Mr. Amato, who had taken a hardline green, anti-access position at DEC: "The habitat is there. The prey is there. Why not give them the chance?" (3)
The next year, PRFA devoted an entire issue of the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse to the significance of "enormous wilderness corridors masquerading as land management" (4) to explain key parts of DEC's forest connectivity analysis in their August 2010 400-plus-page draft "Strategic Plan for State Forest Management" (available only on the DEC web site) (5) (6) (7), and how this plan relates to the perverse vision of wolf migration across the St Lawrence Valley from Canada, over the Adirondacks, and finally down to Georgia.
I've written that connectivity, the establishment of wildlife corridors between deep forest areas, is considered by the environmentalists, including those at DEC, essential to migration of large predators to survive climate change. Furthermore, the environmental literature widely advocates wildlife corridors in their own right, for restored landscape grids as a precursor to widespread reversion of vast land masses to wilderness without human habitation. This is sometimes spoken of as establishing a grid to lead to broader "landscape restoration." It is important to understand the extent of these goals to fathom the necessity for such micromanaging of the protection of habitats and species.
For the purpose of complying with state environmental law, Joe Racette's statement in his official position heading the ten-year wildlife plan, that "The Department's priority is restoration of large carnivores" is a formal announcement representing top policy makers at DEC.
For major DEC actions, such as the ten-year Wildlife Action Plan, the state law requires an environmental impact statement. This requires social and economic analysis and more extensive public participation than DEC structured. Yet no environmental analysis was available. Furthermore, DEC did not provide an analysis to determine whether it could even be possible to restore wolves in New York State. The question arises as to whether DEC intends to restore a hybridized "wolf"a mix of wolf, coyote and dog, considering that the state's environment has so fundamentally changed since a century ago that it may now be impossible to restore the wolf. (8)
General Lack in Clarity of DEC's Ten-year Goals and How They Would be Accomplished
The issue of restoration of large predators was not the only weak area of the June 29 presentations. It was indeed a peculiar "hearing," if, indeed that Ray Brook session could qualify as a hearing.
First of all, the rules, or goals, on Mr. Racette's pertinent powerpoint that were apparently the overall subject of the hearing were overly broad, therefore unclear.
Secondly, the meeting, or "hearing," was a combination of two types of statements: studies and discussion mixed with planning or rule-making. Mr. Racette seemed to speak of rules and discuss them to a certain extent, but mainly he discoursed philosophically on the importance of habitat research and protection. He and the second speaker Dick Bryant, Director of Conservation Programs of The Nature Conservancy, were apparently, in part, discussing the Natural Heritage Program, a two-decades-long Nature Conservancy habitat study program, located within a DEC office and under a continually renewed contract with DEC.
An observer could see where the speakers' interests lie, but, for two speakers of the three, an observer could not discern how they planned to expend DEC's resources to get to whatever goals they had, which were so broad and so extensive as to leave a listener confused. One powerpoint showed "conservation actions" as one of eight required elements of the SWAP, but the actions are not listed. Mr. Racette's overly broad SWAP goals on his powerpoint ranged from "Protect adequate and viable habitats for SGCN" to "Effectively communicate with all audiences regarding conservation of SGCN." When he discussed the need for timely intervention to save the 167 High Priority species, he made a remark similar to a few of Ms. Glennon's, "Some may just be hard to find."
He felt that the process of analyzing habitats was most important, and spoke of fresh water habitats, stream classification and lake classification, and the use of GIS mapping of New York State freshwater habitats. His discussion of habitat analysis seemed more practical and of more interest to him than the listing of the ten-year goals he announced initially. His remarks generated discussion of sources of funds for habitat protection with a couple of environmental leaders in the audience.
The Nature Conservancy's Mr. Bryant, spoke about terrestrial and aquatic habitat connectivity. He was rather specific in discussing his goals and tactics. However, he did not discernibly address the DEC ten-year plan, but discussed some of the Conservancy's expertise and work, beginning with habitat connectivity related to Tug Hill. He spoke of tactics that would be effective, such as "habitat stepping stones." He advocated land use planning and county engagement for good "return on investment." Examples he gave included helping local county highway superintendents with information about effective construction to preserve wildlife and making available the latest 25-year maximum storm surge information for any stream in the state.
In addition, DEC's publication on forest connectivity as part of the "New York State Strategic Plan for State Forest Management" referred to above already exists since 2010, albeit so broad and far-reaching as to be less than fully informative in the context of ten years. But it should be considered a general guide and explanation for some of the goals Mr. Bryant could be working toward.
Missing Elements of the "SWAP"
In addition, the chart of "elements" of the SWAP fails to list the regulatory and legislative approaches, and various efforts that may be coordinated with environmental groups to reach out to the public:
Regulatory approach. One recent DEC regulatory approach was the remapping of wetlands in the town of Wilton in 2014 to protect the habitat of Blandings's Turtle. This regulatory approach has impact similar to eminent domain being imposed on private property owners, but, because it is considered a "partial taking" or "regulatory taking," compensation is routinely denied.
Contacting federal enforcement agencies as did Assistant Commissioner Amato, as explained above in contacting the US. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the goal of restoration of wolves.
Making backhanded appeals to the public (as did just-retired Assistant Commissioner Amato to perhaps generate outside pressure on DEC by giving an interview that touted wolf restoration). At present, environmental groups are exerting pressure on DEC through the press to restore large carnivores (wolves), as did "Protect" quoted in a recent Associated Press article in the Glens Falls Post-Star (9) The sympathetic newspaper printed an editorial in favor of considering the restoration of wolves shortly afterwards. (10)
Confusing Commingling of Speeches
It was actually impossible to concoct a fair or clear public hearing about DEC's Wildlife Action Plan out of the disparate presentations: One style of presentation was roughly in the mode of delivering a scientific study (Ms. Glennon), another in the mode of a loose study paper involving personal observations (Mr. Bryant). The other style of presentation was in a disjointed mode of presenting rules, observations, and goals (Mr. Racette).
Because the technical observations and theories were unexamined in the context of a technical symposium, these presentations cannot pass as scientific presentations, and therefore must be questioned as unsound. Because the "elements" or goals that must have been the ultimate subject of the hearing are overly broad, they do not pass either to be material subject to the public's evaluation at a hearing. Not even one species of SGCN was explained and evaluated through all of the elements of the SWAP and SWAP goals.
Thus there was a complete break, a blank area of missing information which needed to be filled in to complete various of the "elements" between Ms. Glennon's fascinating quasi-scientific study and Mr. Racette's speech theoretically dealing with the State Wildlife Action Plan, while Mr. Bryant's talk shared valuable information from here and there that was of use in various applications to protect wildlife.
The commingling of the two speeches that were technical in nature, but misplaced in the context of the SWAP with the presentation of its overly broad elements and goals resulted in the so-called "hearing" for theoretical planning purposes on New York State's Ten-Year Wildlife Action Plan being utter confusion.
Disciple of Large Predator Restoration Promoted
The deception and camouflage continues.
On October 21, 2015, Patricia Riexinger, Director of DEC's Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, announced the promotion of Joe Racette to become chief of the Bureau of Wildlife. She cited his diverse background working with sportsmen, game species, wildlife diversity, endangered species, and habitat protection, as well as his wide experience from Alaska to Kenya.
Most of all, she emphasized his accomplishments with the State Wildlife Action Plan (without saying what they were). She failed to mentioned that he must have faced challenges in attempting to accomplish the DEC's singular priority of "restoration of large carnivores" in the context of it being "socially unacceptable."
It is a pity that the agenda-driven experts that delivered their addresses at the June 29 "hearing" and their environmental organization cohorts in the audience cannot drop their fixation on restoring wolves and work on habitat protection and restoration of the many species that are of concern and could prosper in various degrees of proximity to people and a range of other wildlife. The inescapable conclusion is that habitat protection is not the real goal, but that, instead, like the radical leadership of today's environmental movement, they yearn to turn over vast additional expanses of rural land to wilderness dominated by large predators.
View Photos for DEC's Real Priority
(1) Christopher A. Amato, Assistant Commissioner, DEC, to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, June 20, 2011, "Re: Proposed Rule to Revise the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife for the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) in the Eastern United States, Initiation of Status Reviews for the Gray Wolf and Eastern Wolf (Canis lycuon)," 8-page letter, attaching a 100-plus page specialized paper written to accompany the letter, including appendices.
(2) "DEC's Wolf Scheming" by Carol W. LaGrasse, New York Property Rights Clearinghouse (Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 2012, p. 7), Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.
(3) "US Gray Wolves Rebound but Face Uncertain Future" by John Flesher and Matthew Brown, Associated Press, Lancaster Farming, Saturday, December 31, 2011, p. A44.
(4) "Enormous Wilderness Corridors Masquerading as Land Management Refinements," by Carol W. LaGrasse, New York Property Rights Clearinghouse (Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2011, p. 1ff).
(5) "Executive Summary: New York State Strategic Plan for State Forest Management," New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Lands and Forests, Bureau of State Land Management (11 pp.): http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/spsfmsummary.pdf
(6) "New York State Forest Matrix Blocks and State Forest Connectivity," New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, August 2010 (1 page colored map): http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/sfconnectivity.pdf
(7) See the 400-plus page full final plan (2010) for the full discussion of the matrix system of forest connectivity and all other aspects of the plan (PDF 14.4 MB):
"New York State Strategic Plan for State Forest Management": http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/64567.html
(8) "New York State Museum Scientist Co-Authors Study on Wolves, Coyotes" Albany, New York, May 20, 2011, New York State Museum, web press release.
"A State Museum scientist has co-authored a new research article, representing the first detailed genomic study of its kind, which shows that wolves and coyotes in the eastern United States are hybrids between gray wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs.
"Dr. Roland Kays, the Museum's curator of mammals, one of 15 other and international scientists who collaborated in the study that used unprecedented technology, developed from the dog genome, to survey the global genetic diversity of wolves and coyotes. The study used over 48,000 genetic markers, making it the first detailed genomic study of any wild vertebrate species."
(9) "Group: Consider wolves, cougars," Mary Esch, Associated Press, The Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York, July 16, 2015, p. 1. "The group Protect the Adirondacks says the state's updated Wildlife Action Plan contains no mention of possible reintroduction of the big predators."
(10) "Times are changing in Adirondacks," Editorial, The Post-Star, Glens Falls, New York, July 16, 2015, p. A4