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New Adk Council leader looks to get back to Park basics

June 6, 2013

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One of the state's top environmental officials is now leading one of the Adirondack Park's most influential green groups.

Willie Janeway took over as director of the Adirondack Council this spring. He enters the scene at a time when some people see an opening for a new dialogue about the biggest, most controversial questions facing the Park.

Janeway says he wants to reopen some of the basic laws and regulations shaping development inside the blue line.

Governor Cuomo likes to think big, so that creates an opportunity that might not be there with a different governor.

I catch up with Willie Janeway on a gorgeous early summer day on a farm in Essex just over Lake Champlain.

It's National Trails Day and Janeway is being introduced by Chris Maron, head of a group called Champlain Area Trails.

"When we talk about trails, he was the first trails coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain club, so he certainly got a lot of experience working in trails. He was the state director of government relations for the nature conservancy in New York."

Janeway is a tall guy, thin with a dark beard. He says his connection to the Adirondacks began young and continued through college.

"I grew up hiking in these areas. Probably as soon as I was this tall I was trying to climb Haystack and some of the mountains and trying to learn how to fly fish and chase wily little trout around the waters in this area, not with a lot of success. As time went on I went to St. Lawrence and did a lot of Outing Club trips down there."

Janeway spent the last six years working as regional director for the Conservation Department in the Catkills and the Hudson Valley.

He worked for DEC, he says, at a time when the state was cutting staff but also facing new pressure to work more efficiently with businesses and local residents who were applying for environmental permits.

"We were able to increase the speed with which we got permits done by more than 25 percent, but equally important, we raised the bar in all of those permits. We put in new conditions addressing energy use, climate change, wetland protection, and how you can be climate smart, so we improved the quality of the permits. Some people will try to present this false choice between economic progress and environmental protection."

During his talk in Essex, Janeway comes back to this idea again and again – the conviction that there's a way to work past at least some of the deadlocks that have put traditionally pro-development and environmental groups on opposite sides.

"There is the ecological viability of the park. The wilderness, the wild lands, the open space character of the park. That has always been a foundation for the Adirondack council. The second one that we have put more attention to in the last ten years is vibrant communities, sustainable communities, communities that are economically strong, that compliment that open space and wilderness."

In an interview after his talk, I ask Janeway how far this détente goes. What will happen when really thorny issues surface?

He points to the current debate over management of the former Finch Pruyn timerlands, acquired by the state in a deal engineered by the Nature Conservancy.

"We may have a disagreement with the new Finch Pruyn lands and how much motorized recreation should be allowed and how much should be wilderness. We both, the local towns and the groups including the Adirondack Council, are for suggesting some balanced approach, so that tells you things have changed. We understand where the other folks are coming from when we don't disagree with them. We still respect them and they just have a different perspective than we do."

I ask Janeway about the old criticism that green groups often face in the Park: That they have to have controversy and big fights in order to fundraise and build support. He says that's not how the Adirondack Council works.

"The Adirondack Council wants to do conservation and our members, supporters, and donors want to see conservation, they want to see vibrant communities happening. It's those types of results that enable organizations to attract more members and more donors so they can do more. Sometimes it's easier if you are on one extreme or the other to appeal to a base, but the council is very much committed to taking a balanced approach and getting results."

Janeway's only been on the job at Adirondack Council for a month and he says the organization has just launched a new planning process to sort out what issues and what priorities will shape their agenda between now and 2020.

But he says a big item on the list may be trying to modernize the basic laws, the zoning rules and the bureaucracy that govern the Adirondacks.

"There is looking at the state land master plan in the park agency. These systems were put in place forty or more years ago and we have new challenges now, so how do we update those?"

I ask him whether there's really an opening where some of those foundational documents could be looked at, and where people could "think big" on the master plan:

"Governor Cuomo likes to think big, so that creates an opportunity for those concerned with the Adirondack Park to work together and bring to the Governor proposals and ideas as to how we can do that. It's an opportunity that might not be there with a different Governor."

Janeway says as the Council develops its internal plan for the next six years, the group will be talking with people outside its usual environmental constituency. That means meeting with local government leaders, government officials and local residents.

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