KIM SMITH DEDAM
RAY BROOK — Joe Martens seemed a bit humbled by the breadth of North Country support for his nomination as Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner.
"I hope I live up to their expectations," he said.
But his track record is marked with Adirondack achievement.
In his role at the Open Space Institute, Martens helped craft several unique land-use agreements, one on the historic Tahawus tract in Newcomb and another in portions of 161,000 acres of former Finch Pryn & Co. land purchased by the Nature Conservancy nearly three years ago.
Each allow for both preservation of and public access to previously privately owned areas in the Adirondack wilderness.
Martens, whose nomination by Gov. Andrew Cuomo still needs state Senate approval, is also chairman of the Olympic Regional Development Authority Board of Directors, an appointment made by then Gov. Eliot Spitzer in July 2007.
During his tenure, new trails at Gore and Whiteface Mountain ski centers have expanded to increase economic opportunity with attention to environmental concerns.
Martens did not know how or when his role at ORDA would change.
"It's a good question, and I'm going to figure it out shortly," he said on Wednesday.
"But the DEC commissioner is an ex-officio member of the ORDA Board by statute."
He would take the helm at a critical point amid enormous economic challenges.
In an internal memo widely published in the press last October, former DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis expressed real concern that conservation and regulatory programs at DEC are "hanging by a thread" due to staff cuts and budget constraints made in the past few years.
Grannis calculated a 21 percent reduction in the department's workforce since 2008 and suggested "all the meat has been stripped from the bones, and some of the bones have disappeared."
"It is a real challenge, and DEC is not alone," Martens told the Press-Republican.
"Virtually all state agencies are the subject of dramatic reductions in staff and budget allocations. The role of DEC in managing state property and its regulatory role is critical. Things are just going to have to be done differently. Building staff at DEC is not going to build solutions in the short term."
Look at overlaps
The analysis, he said, will include looking at points of overlap in state regulation.
"Whether it's the air program, the solid-waste program or forestry management, we have to look at it all. The state has been responding to new laws passed every year, and those regulations have to be met. But we have to look at the whole big picture and see if there's an easier way to do it."
The task, however enormous, is not impossible, he said.
"I'm confident that I'm up to the task, and I'm going to work with everybody to figure that out — work with the business community, local government and environmental folks. Let's face it, everybody's focus is to have a clean and healthy environment."
Local Government Review Board Chairman Fred Monroe said local government's biggest concern with a bare bones DEC is keeping enough manpower in place to carry out the mission.
"A big part of our economy is based on visitors who come to the Adirondacks. It would have been a real blow to us if they hadn't opened the campgrounds last summer," he said. "Another example is in the trails and other state facilities. If they're not maintained, visitors aren't going to come here.
"On the regulatory side, the local government view is that regulations are too burdensome.
"It would be more efficient to streamline and eliminate overlapping regulation between the Adirondack Park Agency, towns, the Army Corps (of Engineers), Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health, to name a few. The worst thing is that there are conflicts: To satisfy one agency, you can't satisfy another because they have opposing rules."
Bill Farber is chairman of the Adirondack Partnership, an organization cooperating with local governments to coordinate state agency rules that are often different in the Adirondack Park from other areas of the state.
Farber suggested Martens's nomination signals a move by the governor toward reducing regulatory overlap.
"I think the Cuomo camp is looking at the need to make structural changes at DEC in order to make these cuts more livable. But I think there's a huge opportunity here. Sometimes a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."
The Adirondack Council is watching, too.
"That is something that Joe (Martens) is going to have to take up if he hasn't started already," spokesman John Sheehan said.
The council has long called for a combined Region 5 and Region 6 DEC inside the Adirondack Park, he said.
"We've also suggested that DEC, the Park Agency and Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation functions be combined into a single entity called the Adirondack Park Service. There would be one regulatory agency people have to apply to, but most of the smaller development and zoning decisions would be handled by local governments."
E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: firstname.lastname@example.org