In divided America, one rural area in northern N.Y. struggles to find common ground
Across the U.S., we live in an era when school board meetings often erupt into battlegrounds, where church congregations unravel over flashpoint issues of race and gender.
But a few weeks ago, when a conservative town councilman named Gerry Delaney spoke at a public meeting about environmental issues in New York's Adirondack Park, he sounded a very different tone.
"There's different interests between the environmental groups and local government, but we all have a job to do and we all have to live together," said Delaney. "When there's a flood, a fire, a bad accident, we come together."
The audience in Elizabethtown, New York, which included local residents, environmental activists and government regulators, applauded.
What makes this peaceable moment remarkable is that it's increasingly common here. Once, New York's sprawling 6-million acre state-managed Adirondack Park was a battleground.
Warring interests squared off across familiar fault lines: urban versus rural and development versus the environment, people looking for compromise versus people itching for a fight.
But while much of the U.S. has grown more fractious and divided, communities and interest groups in this conservative-tilting region of small towns have found a way to build bridges.
"I think there's been a lot of good-faith effort on the part of people on both sides to try to talk things out," said historian Phil Terrie, whose book Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks is one of the landmark studies of the Park's politics.
The new message, Terrie said, is "don't yell at each other, try to talk to each other."
To understand how remarkable the civic experiment is that's now underway in northern New York, it's important to remember an era people describe as the "Adirondack Wars."
"An attempt to set the Park headquarters on fire"
Beginning in the 1970s, new environmental regulations raised local people's hackles and tensions rose over the next quarter century. In the early 1990s, a CBS cameraman captured a confrontation when a local government leader named Maynard Baker assaulted an environmental activist.
"Go back wherever you came from," Baker shouted. "Get out of here, out of our lives, out of our business."
In a lot of ways, the Adirondacks then resembled America today.
There were big problems — many involving environmental and economic challenges — that needed tackling, but people were on edge. Conspiracy theories and threats of violence were commonplace.
"There was an attempt to set the park agency headquarters on fire," Terrie said. "One of the park staff members had bullets flying around his car one day."
This was the situation inherited by then-Republican Gov. George Pataki, who took office in 1995.
"I had protesters and pickets all over the Adirondacks," Pataki recalled.
He said people living in the Park met him with a hostile message that outsiders were trying to "impose their will on us while we're trying to make a living."
A big new plan and a call for compromise
Then something happened that raised the environmental stakes and threatened to push tensions even higher.
Vast areas of privately owned timberland in the park started being offered for sale, with developers planning new resorts and waterfront vacation homes.
Some of the wildest places in the eastern U.S., including the upper Hudson River and pristine lakes, were threatened.
Pataki, a Republican, responded by unveiling a plan to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars blocking most development.
In his 2005 state of the state speech, he promised to conserve "over 900,000 acres, an area bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island."
The proposal was ambitious but also controversial, exactly the kind of big idea many people in the park feared might trigger more unrest and violence.
Pataki, who lives now much of each year in Essex, New York, one of the small towns inside the park, said his message to furious locals was simple.
"Give me a chance and I think we can make this work both for the environment and for the economy," he said.
An opening and a struggle for common ground
People here say that moment, and Pataki's leadership, started a gradual shift in the park's culture that's been underway now for nearly 20 years, creating an opening for a new generation of activists.
"Our agenda is simply to have civil discourse, to have collaboration, to change the tenor of the conversation and build trust," said Zoe Smith, an environmental activist who sits now on the board of the Adirondack Park Agency.
Smith is also part of an informal working group called the Common Ground Alliance that formed in the 2000s with one mission: to build bridges between warring factions.
She described the effort as exhausting but broadly successful. "It's been difficult. It's taken a lot of time and relationship building. There's a lot of long conversations that happen, phone calls after hours," Smith said.
Smith lives in Saranac Lake, New York, another small town nestled inside the park's vast boundaries, that now draws much of its vitality from outdoor recreation and tourism.
She said environmentalists like herself had to learn to balance their ambitious goals for the park's wild lands with the needs of communities. That meant compromise and patience.
"I've been on the ledge," Smith said, describing moments when sometimes it felt like the effort at finding common ground "is too difficult, this relationship is broken, this issue is too hard to face."
Dialogue in the age of Trump
People here say this work has been complicated by national forces tearing at America's civil society.
The park's small towns backed Donald Trump twice. Voters here have also given landslide victories to Congresswoman Elise Stefanik — a Trump ally who frequently amplifies conspiracy theories.
In other parts of the U.S., bitter divisions have shattered communities. But here many local government leaders like Gerry Delaney, who describes himself a Trump voter, have chosen to keep talking and negotiating.
"It does no good to tear our communities apart," Delaney said. "We're not going to win by fighting. As long as people are listening to us, we still have a chance."
A former logger and corrections officer, Delaney believes New York state blocked development on too much park land. Despite those concerns, he still works closely with environmentalists and regulatory officials trying to find areas of compromise where deals can be struck.
"We have to come together and find ... a path forward that everyone can accept," Delaney said.
In the end, local government leaders wound up supporting most of the big land conservation deals first proposed by Pataki.
In exchange, small towns in the Adirondacks received big pots of economic development money, funding for infrastructure, and some environmental rules were eased.
A hopeful experiment — and a national model?
Everyone interviewed for this story said the Adirondack experiment has been broadly successful.
The civic dialogue led to real progress. By many measures, the park's towns are more prosperous than they were 20 years ago.
So far, nearly a million acres of wild forest and lakes have been protected here with a lot of local buy-in and input.
But people also say the process is fragile and often messy. There are still regular disagreements and lawsuits and angry flare-ups on social media.
Still, Zoe Smith with the Common Ground Alliance said people here are committed to dialogue. They know how bad things can be when neighbors turn against neighbors.
"When you hear people talk about the Adirondack Wars, the Adirondack battles, there are very few people who want to engage in that again," Smith said. "People don't want to go back there, they remember it."
This effort in northern New York's small towns raises questions about what could be accomplished in other places, now bitterly divided, if people started talking again rather than making threats and shouting each other down.
Former Gov. Pataki, the man widely credited with starting this process, says he believes that's still possible but only with the kind of hard work of rebuilding trust that's happened here.
"I still think the majority of the American people want practical solutions as opposed to partisan or ideological solutions," Pataki said.
"But that's not what the media is feeding us, that's not what our political leadership is giving us and I think that has tragic consequences for the country."
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