Leading with Principles

Friday, March 5, 2021

Dear AWA Supporter:

Earlier this afternoon, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released the long-awaited Final Report from the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG).  The HPAG was convened in November 2019 to address critical issues for the High Peaks Wilderness in the face of increasing use and visitor impact.  This report represents the HPAG’s consensus recommendations intended to ensure that this world-class wild treasure has the world-class protection and management it deserves.

AWA is proud to have played a vital role in the development of this report.  As an AWA co-founder and wilderness advocate, I was asked by DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to serve on the HPAG at its inception.  I was “in the room” for every meeting, had the privilege of applying AWA’s interests when discussing and developing proposed actions, and ultimately carried forward AWA’s values when co-writing a significant portion of the final document.  The result is a report with a set of guiding principles and recommendations that, while not perfect, should please everyone who supports knowledge, enjoyment, expansion and protection of Wilderness.  This report is good news for the High Peaks Wilderness and for the Adirondack Park.

In the weeks ahead I will be posting columns that take a deeper dive into the important details.  But with its release today, I wanted to describe a few elements of this report that illustrate why Wilderness lovers should be pleased. 

First and foremost, the HPAG made an unequivocal statement that the highest guiding principle in management of the High Peaks is protection of wilderness.  It is not enhanced recreation, access, or balance; it is protection of wilderness.  This guiding principle, along with public safety, is described as “inviolate.”  That is an extremely strong statement. 

Second, the Final Report leads not with recommendations, but with a set of guiding principles that shaped our work, but that also establish lofty aspirations for those who will carry the work forward.  Given the urgency to respond to massive increases in use, and with the COVID pandemic intensifying that use, it would have been easy for the report to be organized around a laundry list of proposed actions, much like the interim report that was released last summer.  Instead, the HPAG recognized that lofty aspirations matter most.  We have a generational opportunity to shape the protection of one of the world’s great natural treasures.  We need to meet this moment with a call to our best principles, not just an inventory of tactics.

Third, the Final Report places science and data at the center of an adaptive management strategy.  World-class protection of the High Peaks is a complicated, challenging and uncertain undertaking.  We can’t do it with rhetoric, anecdotal information, loaded terminology and assumptions.  We need to test, measure, learn, and ultimately understand better what we are doing so that we can adapt to the dramatic changes we face in visitor use, ecology and climate.  Policy debates in the Adirondacks are too often superficial and political.  We need real science and meaningful data, and we need to adapt based upon what we learn.

“We need to test, measure, learn, and ultimately understand better what we are doing so that we can adapt to the dramatic changes we face in visitor use, ecology and climate.”

There is much more to like in the Final Report than just these three elements, and I will be writing about many of them in the future.  But as strong as it is, if this report merely sits on shelves, it will have no value.  That’s where AWA’s supporters come in.  Over the coming days we will be soliciting your input on a variety of difficult issues that come with these recommendations, along with some difficult problems that have not been addressed by these recommendations.  

More than that, we will be calling you to action: AWA is a grass-roots advocacy group and your collective voice has made a huge difference in the Boreas campaign and in our other work.  Commissioner Seggos wrote a thoughtful, supportive letter to HPAG members to accompany the release of the report.  Having been part of a State process that was uniformly positive, committed and done with integrity, I have no doubt of the Commissioner’s sincerity.  Nonetheless, in this difficult time, with challenging budgets and mixed priorities, I can assure you that grass-roots activism will be needed, to urge the State to adopt these recommendations, to fund them and to follow through.

For now, the report is yours to review, comment, critique and make suggestions.  AWA welcomes your engagement in protecting the High Peaks.

With anticipation for the good work ahead,

Pete Nelson

AWA Secretary

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