In the News  Archive

Mario Cuomo's Adirondack legacy

January 3, 2015
By Tony Hall , Lake George Mirror

Mario Cuomo, who governed New York from 1983 through 1994 and who died on Jan. 1, made little impression on the Adirondacks, or so it would appear from the surface of things.

"Cuomo was too old, too urban and too ethnic to care about the environment," remarked Peter Berle, a conservation commissioner under Gov. Hugh Carey whom Cuomo appointed to chair an Adirondack Study Commission.

That was, no doubt, unfair. After all, it was Cuomo who signed into law the bill granting new authority to the Lake George Park Commission, which has emerged in the years since then as the most progressive environmental protection agency in the state.

But Berle made that remark in 1990 after realizing that his commission's recommendations would never be translated into law.
Cuomo himself had recognized that weeks earlier, when he distanced his administration from the commission by acknowledging, if not endorsing, Bob Flacke's minority report.

Flacke, the president of the Fort William Henry Corporation and a former Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner himself, stated, "The commission bases its conclusions on the premise that a development crisis exists in the Adirondack Park, when it does not."

For Cuomo, Flacke's report provided cover for a strategic retreat. He lacked the power to move any legislation that would lead to new Park-wide regulations through the state Senate, where Ron Stafford held a virtual veto power over any bills affecting the Adirondacks.

As I recall, Cuomo said something to the effect of, "If there's no crisis, and Bob Flacke says there isn't, what are we fighting about?"

But a strategic retreat is not the same thing as a rout, as Cuomo demonstrated in 1993 when he persuaded the Senate Republicans to agree to the creation of the Environmental Protection Fund, which he signed into law on Lake Champlain on Aug. 17, 1993.

The bill was signed at Split Rock, owned then by Gary Heurich, because New York state's acquisition of that property was made possible by the creation of the fund. In fact, it was to purchase that property, among others, that the fund was originally created.

Pressured by a delegation of state senators from Long Island, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Marino agreed to support it. But up until the final hours of the legislative session of 1993, it was opposed by Stafford.

Marino had won Stafford's support in the race to succeed retiring Majority Leader Warren Anderson a few years earlier by promising him that veto power over the Adirondacks, and most Adirondack officials opposed additional land acquisitions by the state.

In some late-night negotiations, though, Stafford said he would support the measure if certain concessions were made. Among them: Local governments should be given the power to veto the acquisitions of lands within their boundaries, and properties would have to have been identified on an Open Space Plan. The concessions were granted, and Stafford dropped his opposition. He spoke at the ceremony, quoting the Roman poet Ovid to the effect that "the middle way is the best way." (Cuomo was reportedly impressed by the upstate senator's command of Latin.)

Once Republican George Pataki was elected governor and EPF dollars were used to fund economic development projects such as parks and lakefront walkways, local governments dropped their objections.

Since 1993, the EPF has invested more than $2.7 billion to conserve some of the most significant landscapes in New York state - most notably in the the Adirondacks.

"The perfect examples of how the EPF has improved both the economy and the environment are the projects completed over the past 20 years in the Adirondack Park," said Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the creation of the fund last year. "The Environmental Protection Fund has been used to buy and protect tens of thousands of acres of new wilderness, boosting tourism while protecting wildlife and water quality. It has also allowed the state to buy development rights on hundreds of thousands of acres of commercial timberland, ensuring that they will remain healthy forests forever, while providing jobs and wood products for generations to come. And the law was signed by Governor Mario Cuomo right here in the Adirondack Park."

Cuomo once worried that his only legacy after three terms as governor would be the number of prisons built in the state during his tenure.

While those prisons and the jobs they provided continue to influence life in the Adirondacks, the Environmental Protection Fund has, arguably, done more than even the Adirondack Park Agency Act to define the character of the region for generations to come.

For someone "too old, too urban and too ethnic to care about the environment," that's no mean legacy.

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