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Commissioner's Speeches

New York State Conservation Summit Speech - April 10, 2014

Thank you. It is great to be here. Actually, you have no idea how great it is to be here. My life in the land conservation community seems like ages ago - like a former life. Since I've been immersed in my job at DEC, protecting open space seems so pure, so good, and so wholesome. Now, that's not to say that what I do at DEC is not, but I do look back, very fondly, and say - what was I thinking???

Let me start by saying thank you. You do God's work. Seriously. Policies, regulations, and consent orders come and go so there is nothing better in my mind than permanently protecting something that is beautiful - and land and landscapes are beautiful. Whether it is a forest, farm, historic site or community garden in the middle of an urban jungle - it's beautiful, and precious, and worth all the hours, days, months and sometimes years it takes to put a deal together and protect something permanently, so that people can enjoy it today and their children can enjoy it tomorrow and their children's children can enjoy it generations from now.

So thank you for everything you do to save special places. You are the best partners a commissioner could ever have. You're smart, nimble and creative. And you enable DEC and other state agencies to fulfill their missions. Keep up the good work.

Speaking of good work, I want to take a few minutes to talk about what my boss, Governor Cuomo, has been up to on the open space and environmental front for the past few years. His environmental record, in my opinion, should be receiving much more public attention. Frankly, the Governor has focused his attention on economic growth and stabilizing the state's budget. He instituted successful regional economic development councils that encourage both competition and regional cooperation at the same time. He's eliminated a ten billion dollar deficit, gotten four on-time budgets, attacked high taxes and gotten the state back in the black. And quietly, he's tackled some huge environmental issues. Here are the highlights:

  • First, on climate change, arguably the biggest problem we face collectively as a society, the Governor led the 9 state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) by announcing in his 2013 State of the State that he was going to urge the adoption of a dramatically reduced green house gas emission cap. The nine other RGGI states shortly followed suit;
  • The Governor signed an MOU with 7 other states to promote the use of zero emission vehicles and he's committed to expanding charging stations throughout the state. His New York Sun initiative is expanding the use of solar around the state and his Cleaner, Greener NY Program is fostering regional sustainability plans;
  • He's increased the EPF by more than 20% over the last three years, eliminated the annual ritual of sweeping unspent balances and this year, he raised the appropriation for the Conservation Partnership Program to $2 million which will give all of you the opportunity to build your organizations and accelerate the pace of land conservation - creating parks, protecting working landscapes, establishing community gardens and more;
  • He committed to the largest fee acquisition in the Adirondack Park in more than a century when he gave me the ok to sign a five year contract to buy about 69,000 acres of the former Finch Pruyn Land from The Nature Conservancy to add some of the most spectacular land in the park to the forest preserve. And after keeping Mike Carr in suspended animation for years, we've already closed on 41,800 acres and are on schedule to complete this historic deal ahead of schedule;
  • Finch is big, but it's not the only deal we've closed. We've protected 78,000 acres since 2011, including a conservation easement on Pouch Camp on Staten Island (Thank You TPL);
  • We've protected part of Lake George's valuable watershed with the help of the Lake George Land Conservancy;
  • We created a brand new wildlife management area protecting short-eared owls and other endangered species in the Washington County grasslands with the help of The Nature Conservancy;
  • We've protected valuable-and vulnerable- Hudson River shoreline pieces through our partnership with Scenic Hudson, opening up public access as our efforts to clean up the river expand;
  • The Open Space Institute and the New York\New Jersey Trail Conference have teamed up with us to protect and enhance the Long Path and the Catskill Park;
  • We're working with the Columbia County Land Trust to protect valuable recreational lands in that county;
  • We've encouraged the growth of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance and the Rensselaer Land trust to conserve the outstanding resources of this 5th largest intact forest in the state;
  • We've worked with the Finger Lakes Land Trust to add to our state forests and the Finger Lakes Trail in the Finger Lakes, part of the "Emerald Necklace" that graces this beautiful part of the state;
  • Further west we've been working with the western chapter of TNC to protect lands along Lake Ontario, expand the Montezuma Refuge and add acreage to our Zoar Valley Unique Area;
  • On the Tug Hill, we're working with the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust and the Conservation Fund to protect the forests, streams and wetlands of this outdoor recreational Mecca;

In short, we're working all over the state with our Land Trust Partners-and The Conservation Partnership has helped cement this relationship and increase the capacity of all of us to do more conservation work.

Along the way, we've also leveraged our Environmental Protection Fund resources with the tremendous private support that the members of the Land Trust Alliance bring to the table and through our federal partners at the US Fish And Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

I have to mention two other milestones: passage of two constitutional amendments, one authorizing a settlement for over 200 properties in Township 40 on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks whose title was contested for the past one hundred years and another authorizing a land swap with a private mining company. Most thought the Township 40 century-long problem was unsolvable; The NYCO amendment has been kicking around for more than 25 years and similarly, many thought it would never get before the voters. But DEC secured legislative approval, with the help of the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, and NY voters approved both amendments last November, creating enormous good will in the park and both, I predict, will end up richly enhancing the forest preserve.

The Governor, as many of you know, loves outdoor recreation. In this respect, he is not exactly his father's son. Mario Cuomo waxed eloquently about nature and the environment but was seldom seen out of a suit. Andrew, on the other hand loves to fish, salt and freshwater. He hosted the Whitewater Challenge last summer and the Winter Challenge in Lake Placid in February. He's hosting a fishing tournament this summer on Owasco Lake. Partly he's motivated by his passion for the outdoors, and partly he knows that outdoor recreation is big business, generating some $49 billion in economic activity annually in New York. In his case, there's nothing wrong with mixing business with pleasure.

For the last three years, the Governor has included something called "NY Works" funds in his budget for State Parks and DEC. These funds have been critical in addressing our infrastructure needs, enabling DEC to address long standing deferred maintenance on flood control structures, fix high hazard dams and engage in a variety of coastal protection projects.

This year, the Governor included $40 million for DEC and $90 million for State Parks, including $6 million for 50 new access projects across the state that will connect hunters, anglers, bird watchers and others who enjoy the outdoors to more than 380,000 acres of state land and easements.

The Governor also included major reforms to the state's Brownfield Program in his executive budget and extended funding for State Superfund, two extremely important programs that encourage the reuse and development of many inner city sites. Unfortunately, the legislature did not act on these measures but did agree to keep working on them when they return at the end of April. I could use your help getting brownfields passed. The program expires in 2015 and no one will enter the program now with the uncertainty surrounding expiration of the law. Let your local legislators know that redeveloping brownfields is an important component of smart growth and relieves pressure to develop greenfields.

One last topic or several rather lumped together. Climate change adaptation, sea level rise and community resiliency.

Many of you, TNC, OSI, Scenic Hudson and others have been exploring these topics and factoring them into your conservation planning. So have we. We've all learned from painful recent experiences that where and how we build really matters. And, what we protect and preserve is equally critical. Maintaining and restoring natural systems to the fullest extent possible - on our coasts, along our streams and in our cities - protects us.

Unfortunately, we have destroyed natural processes or greatly disrupted the fundamentals, like the hydrologic cycle we learned about in grade school. So when people like my Assistant Commissioner Jim Tierney use the phrase "slow it down, spread it out and soak it in"... what they are saying is that we should foster and mimic natural systems that operate to protect us in so many ways. Many of you are building natural infrastructure into projects you are doing and I thank you.

Natural infrastructure, by definition, requires open space to function. A recent partnership with a Land Trust on Long Island illustrates how this works. A 4.5 acre parcel on a peninsula at the mouth of the forge river on narrows bay in Suffolk county was put up for sale and, of course, plans were made to develop it. But thankfully the Peconic Land Trust has stepped in, working with DEC's Heather Amster, and has an agreement to purchase the property, and will sell a conservation easement to the federal government through the NRCS's hurricane sandy emergency watershed protection - floodplain easements program.

The federal government will demolish storm-damaged structures, soften the shoreline by removing a bulkhead, and restore the property to its natural condition. Not only will the land be protected from development, but this project will enhance storm resiliency and protect against sea level rise - two major goals of this administration. Are John Halsey and Kim Quarty here? We should give them a round of applause.

DEC has also been working hard to promote and incorporate natural infrastructure into every project we can along the coast. We've worked with the Army Corp to rebuild more than 150 acres of marsh islands in Jamaica Bay. We successfully proposed a $50 million project off Jamaica Bay coast - known as Spring Creek - that will help protect more than 3,000 homes in Howard Beach. The project involves the creation of natural wetlands, dunes and maritime forests at increasing elevations to establish a natural levee against future storm surges. I understand that it is the first of its kind in the nation to win hazard mitigation grant funding. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for their technical and advocacy support for this project.

The same principles that we apply to coastal projects are being applied to river and stream corridors. Scenic Hudson and others are working with our Hudson River Estuary Program to apply cutting edge science to show how we can use natural systems to serve as the first line of defense against climate change. It's being applied community-by-community along the Hudson.

Closing
One of my biggest challenges as Commissioner, putting fracking and oil trains aside for the moment, is making the land we manage, all 4.5 million acres of it, accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds and ability. In addition to making it accessible, we have to make it meaningful. We have to reach into the state's population centers and let them know about the wonders that are within their reach and those that lie beyond. This can start in schools, environmental education centers, on the web and on the land.

Every spring, for example, DEC's Hudson River Estuary Program hosts "A Day on the River" where we turn the Hudson River into an outdoor classroom for dozens of schools from one end of the Hudson to the other. I've attended every year since I've been Commissioner because I love to see the look on those kids faces when they look into the nets that they drag through the Hudson and see a world that they never knew existed. Whenever we design or rebuild our facilities like campgrounds and fishing access sites, my universal access coordinator Carol Frasier makes sure that they are welcoming to persons with disabilities.

Working with many of you, we published a Watchable Wildlife Guide last April that is a handy tool for exploring all the great places that we've protected and opened to the public.

The Land Trust Movement has come a long, long way since I first got involved. I think back to 1993, when Andrew's father, Governor Mario Cuomo signed the Environmental Protection Fund on the shores of Lake Champlain (by the way, I still have that suit). The EPF was born out of the failure of the 1990 Environmental Bond Act and it started a whole new era of open space protection in NYS. That law required the creation of an open space plan and involvement of regional land acquisition committees. It started a whole new level of involvement by citizens and local governments in land conservation.

It's still a great process but collectively we need to do more to find ways to connect people with nature and their salvation. I know it's mine. Thank you again for all you do, thanks for inviting me and keep saving land.


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