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New Adirondack Council Executive Director discusses his goals for the organization

Adirondack Council Executive Director Raul "Rocci" Aguirre
John Sheehan
Adirondack Council
Adirondack Council Executive Director Raul "Rocci" Aguirre

The Adirondack Council has chosen a new executive director to lead the organization that advocates for the environmental stability of the Park. Following a nationwide search, Deputy Director and Acting Executive Director Raul “Rocci” Aguirre was hired as the group’s seventh, and first Latino, executive director. Aguirre tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley why he wanted the role:

Because I care deeply about the organization and care deeply about the Park. They've been totally interconnected and a core part of the work that I've done for the last 10 years. But even more than that I started my career in the Adirondacks on conservation issues in the early 90s. So to have the opportunity to really be a part of the next decade of discussions around management of the Park, leadership of the Park, how to get our communities as vibrant as we can, this was the right role for that and it's felt the right place to be at the right time. So happy to be stepping into the role.

How will your leadership of the Adirondack Council differ and what changes are you planning, if any, in the activities, in the mission of the Council, compared to previous executive directors?

You know, I think if there's a theme across all executive directors is that you know, and Willie was a champion and exemplified this as someone who cared deeply about the Park, the ecological integrity, the wild character and all those things that make this place unique and a national treasure. I share that same love for the Park, those same values. I don't think the core mission or vision of the Adirondack Council changes under my leadership. I do have a different style of working, a different way of engaging communities. That's all part of what I expect to bring to the next chapter of the Council. It's just digging in and engaging communities a little bit more holistically. I do think that communities are central to the long-term health of the wilderness. And the more you can engage authentically with those groups and stakeholders across the Park, I think the better chance you have of not only protecting the most special places, but building allies and creating partnerships that just will lead to better outcomes over time. So I don't see any immediate changes. I just think part of how I go about doing my work, which is, you know, the result of 30 years of conservation work will probably be the most obvious difference.

Well, Rocci Aguirre that kind of melds into one of the other questions that I have. In the release announcing you'd been hired as Executive Director you're quoted as saying that you are excited and look forward to building on the experience of re-engaging partners and building better relationships and starting new dialogues and strengthening the presence of the Council across the Adirondacks. And I was curious what you meant by re-engaging partners. It sounds like from your previous answer that's along the lines of what you meant by re-engaging partners.

Yeah, I think it's subtle. You know the Council over the years ebbs and flows in terms of where our priorities are. I think for the last few years in particular we've really been Albany focused and really embedded in the community and trying to build relationships with legislators and decision makers that would help us with the work that we do in the North Country. I think part of that is, is we have limited bandwidth and limited resource, limited capacity. So the resources that went there, we've got really strong relationships. The Council is probably the best positioned in terms of our political engagement in Albany than we have been in decades. I hope to sort of return the focus and the lens back into the Adirondacks and make sure that we are as focused on our backyard and being a good partner and full engagement on the issues that are important in the North Country as well. So when I talk about reengagement, the Council has been engaged at all levels between Albany and the North Country, you know, for 50 years. I just under my leadership expect to see a more direct engagement through our program work and program staff within the communities across the entire Park. And I think that's also an important distinction is that I do hope over time, we can really allocate the resources and capacity to a focus on the western side of the Park, which often because of the High Peaks because of the issues at play in terms of recreational and natural resource impacts, that we tend to be eastern Adirondacks focused. I see the Park holistically and want to see the Council engaged at all levels across the entire Park.

What kinds of new dialogues would you want to start across the entire park?

Well, I think it's just being realistic about the threats that are front and center for the Adirondacks. And I think that that's one of the things that we need to be having a new dialogue around. Whether it's climate resiliency, whether it's overuse and recreational impacts, technology shifts. There's a whole host of, you know, changes that are coming to the Adirondacks. And I see the need to really engage communities holistically about the issues that are front and center for them. Without vibrant communities the whole Adirondack landscape suffers. And I think that those are the threats that we really do need to be thinking about and starting to have new conversations about. Really, where non-traditional allies can really sit down and find the common ground on core issues, affordable housing, road salt, those issues that you know, will define the Adirondacks for the next 25 - 50 years. Our ‘Vision 2050’ report, we have 264 recommendations in that and one of our main pillars is fostering vibrant communities. I want to dig into that Vision report. I really want those three pillars and particularly the vibrant communities one to be front and center and for people to feel like the Council is engaging authentically in that space. And I think that's going to be really important in the next three to five years in particular,

Rocci Aguirre, one of the vibrant communities concepts is increasing diversity in the Park. You are Latino. How important do you think your background and your perspective will be as officials and other groups that you work with in the Adirondacks try to improve and increase diversity across the Adirondack region?

I think it's essential, Pat. I think that the more we show that the Adirondacks reflects the larger culture around us, the more welcoming, the more accessible, and most importantly more safe this region becomes for all New Yorkers and for all visitors. Having somebody in the leadership role for one of the primary stakeholders for an Adirondack group, particularly in based on the environment, I think just sends a message that the Adirondacks is moving towards a space where everybody is welcome. And that only happens when you have people that reflect that diversity. And I'm as diverse as it comes. And I proudly wear the different heritages and backgrounds that I have. You know, I have a really unique backstory and that's just part of what bringing that worldview and perspective to this job and why that's so important that you really can bring a different way of thinking and a different way of doing things. I'm very proud of my family. Both my family from Oakland, California and my mom's family that's from the Bronx. I grew up in the Catskills, bicoastal between the Bay Area and the Catskills. All of those pieces shaped who I am and how I look at the world and the work that I want to see accomplished. And that I think is just an essential piece of truly diversifying the Adirondacks. And it's also to just be conscious that not everybody sees this landscape the same. And I think that that's a really important thing to have that background and those touch points in my own personal story and in my own personal family, I think really reflects on both the opportunities that are ahead of us as well as the challenges. And I look forward to engaging in that space and it's a space that I've been particularly active in over the last decade.

You've got a broad ranging work experience, too. I mean, you've been a ranger and a firefighter, a ranger firefighter with the Forest Service. But you've also worked with groups like the Catskill Center and Scenic Hudson. How will that play into your perspective leading the Adirondack Council?

You know Pat, I often do a lot of talks around diversity. And when I lead and start those conversations off and say, you know, I'm not an expert on diversity issues per se. I'm just an expert on being diverse. I don't have a choice in that, right. That's just part of my background. What I like to tell people is that I've done nothing for the last 28 years except direct conservation work. Whether it was resource management work as arranger and a firefighter for the first third of my career, whether it was working in open space and land trust work for the second third or doing policy and advocacy work like I've been doing for the Council. Each one of those sectors in my background play specifically to the work that's involved that the Council does as well as the work that's involved across the region. You know, all of those give me unique technical skills and backgrounds. I think most importantly though it also gives me a great deal of appreciation for the work that's involved with managing a park the size of the Adirondacks. So working with state partners and really understanding both the pressures and the opportunities that they have and face, working with land trusts and other conservation partners the pressures that they're under. So my background not only provides me a technical level of expertise on the most important issues at play in the Adirondacks but it also provides me a great deal of empathy and understanding for the pressures that a lot of the groups that are working on issues here face. And that's also for municipal leaders and communities. And sitting down and trying to help facilitate a different kind of conversation in the Adirondacks is a core part of what I look forward to doing over the next five to 10 years.

Rocci, what's your initial priority as the Adirondack Council's Executive Director?

I mean, immediate priority is what you would expect from a new executive director. And even though I've been a part of the Council for 10 years, I plan to sit down and talk with legislators, municipal leaders, key stakeholders and conservation partners. That will be the first six months of this job because I want people to realize that I am looking to foster a more robust kind of conversation, to be more directly involved in those conversations. I see that listening piece as essential. That doesn't take away from the work that we’ll continue to do like our SCALE work and, you know, trying to pursue funding and getting ready for the next legislative session. You know, those calendars for us, those timeframes for us, in terms of the work that we do in Albany, you know, those are starting now. So to continue to see funding and to secure funding for things that are of top priority for the Council and that includes things like the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. It's been wonderful to see the governor and the DEC and the state agencies support that level of funding that's going into ADI right now. It was great to see our SCALE funding get approved at $2 million. There's still more work to do there. That survey of climate change and Adirondack lake ecosystems is an essential scientific project that needs to happen. We need to see additional funding there. There's broader conversations. I would love to see and look forward to reading and looking at the road salt report that we expect to come out anytime now. There's going to be work there that needs to be done. So there's no immediate shortage of direct conservation advocacy work that we've typically engaged in. I think it's also a chance for the Council to step back, look at the work that we do internally, how we want to function as an organization, and then really just sort of step out and step into that space a little bit more broadly both down in Albany and in the Adirondacks.

The SCALE project that Rocci Aguirre mentioned is the Survey of Climate Change and Adirondack Lake Ecosystems.

Aguirre succeeds Willie Janeway, who retired in February after leading the Council for 10 years.