20 Questions: Preserving A Unique Landscape

DAYTONA NILES / NNY BUSINESS
Tug Hill Director Katie Maliniowski stands in her office in the State Office Building.

Katie Malinowski is the executive director of the New York State Tug Hill Commission and works with dozens of municipalities to ensure that the developmental needs of the region are balanced with the need to preserve its ecology and natural resources.


NNYB: What is the commission’s primary purpose?

Malinowski: Our primary mission is to work with local governments and other organizations to help them shape the future of the Tug Hill region. Really, with home-rule, local control, a grass-roots sort of approach.

NNYB: Roughly, what is the area that the commission serves?

Malinowski: It’s 2,100 square miles. Basically, Oneida Lake is the southern border, up all the way to Watertown, (Interstate) 81 on the west and the Black River on the east. It’s larger than the size of Delaware, the third largest forested region in the state behind the Adirondack Park and the Catskills.

NNYB: What types of assistance does the commission offer?

Malinowski: We generally categorize our assistance into three areas: One being land use planning, which includes zoning, subdivision review, anything along those lines. The second is community development, things like parks and trails and sewer and water infrastructure. And the third is natural resources, which is kind of a catch-all. It could be aquifers, Tug Hill aquifer information, it could be forestry issues, watershed planning. We also do a lot that doesn’t really fit very well; we’re kind of jacks-of-all-trades to some extent because whatever a municipality asks us for, we try to find the answer or connect them to the right resource to give them the information they need. Our focus is always: give the community the best information available so then they can make the decisions they need to make, well-informed decisions at the local level.

NNYB: What are circuit riders and how do they help municipalities?

Malinowski: That’s the other part of our program. We have four circuit riders, who are also called municipal management consultants – circuit riders is kind of our more local term for them – and they live and work in the communities. They are each assigned to a Council of Governments; a Council of Governments is a group of towns and villages who decide to work together cooperatively. They have an intermunicipal agreement in place and they do a variety of things together. They all are a little bit different depending on their focus, but each circuit rider serves one of those  COGs, for short, and attends their board meetings, gets them together to do joint projects and just works cooperatively, a lot of shared services and that sort of work, with a Council of Governments.

NNYB: The commission works with five Tug Hill Councils of Governments serving more than 50 municipalities. How does this collaboration help these municipalities achieve better efficiency?

Malinowski: We have 59 communities in the region; 53 of those belong to a Council of Governments, which is really high. I don’t know if we’ve ever had that many that chose to belong to a COG. As far as the shared efficiencies, it’s easier to give an example: We have a lot of communities that are small in population and they may have a challenge filling some position that is required; specifically, justice courts, we’ve been doing a lot of work the last few years. The town of Boylston didn’t have enough people to run, or they didn’t have anyone interested in running for justice, so they were interested in some state legislation to broaden the pool, if you will, of the people who would be qualified to run for that position in the town. We were able to help work with the state legislators to get that legislation through and now they are kind of sharing a justice. Harrisburg, Montague, Pinckney, those three towns, they share a justice; that was something we helped them figure out. They actually also share a court building facility and the justice.  There’s different ways to do that. But that’s an example of an efficiency we’ve helped them achieve. Other things are maybe doing planning work together. When you have like communities, they can do a lot of the leg work and things together and then make specific recommendations that are more pertinent to each individual municipality, but they’ve done a lot of the work starting out together. We have shared Zoning Boards of Appeal; we have IMAs (intermunicipal agreements) for highway maintenance, all kinds of things.

NNYB: Several towns, most notably West Turin, are wrestling with the issue of ATV access on public roads. Does the commission have a role in these discussions?

Malinowski: We just had a board meeting (recently) in the town of Wilna and this topic came up there, too. Many years ago, about 15 years ago, we actually were asked by the Cooperative Tug Hill Council to bring together all the ATV interests – we called it the ATV Interest Group – we did a number of public meetings at that time. We identified all these issues around ATVs and put together an issue paper on that topic. Because that’s one of the things we do to try to gather all the different viewpoints and the different information so it’s easily understood. We had a lot of things in that regarding the way ATVs are dealt with in state legislation, enforcement issues, those different things. I think 15 years later, a lot of those things are still pertinent. A lot of things haven’t changed. (Carthage village President) Wayne McIlroy actually asked the question of us: “Do we have a position on ATVs?” And we don’t have a position; we don’t take positions on things. We try to understand the issue’s pros and cons and give that information. And he asked if we would be willing to do some kind of bringing people together again. Of course we would, if we thought there was a good reason to do it and there would be a better outcome, or some kind of action items that would come out of that. I did send him that issue paper from 15 years ago and said, “Read it over and give me a call again and we can talk about it some more.” It’s something we definitely pay attention to because it’s a big deal on Tug Hill. We try to keep on top of it, give municipalities good recommendations and models if they ask us for them. It’s one of those issues that is not easily solved.

NNYB: There are multiple wind farm projects proposed or in the works within the Tug Hill region. The commission is an advocate of renewable energy, but are there concerns that the farms, if all are built, could affect the overall nature of the region?

Malinowski: First, again, I wouldn’t call us an advocate of renewable energy, but where communities want it, we try to help them navigate the process. We did, many years ago with the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, help those towns at the time figure it out. Of course, it was a different landscape then; you didn’t have Article 10, which is a very state-driven process. At the time of Maple Ridge, it was all local; it was a coordinated SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) review and we helped them through that process. Now, it’s different. We’ve done some training, first of all, because Article 10 is pretty complicated and legalistic, if you will. We had Paul Agresta from the Public Service Commission – he’s the general counsel; he was really kind of the architect of the current Article 10 law –at JCC (Jefferson Community College) November of 2016 to do a presentation which was very good. Since then, we have reached out to them when there have been questions. We have been responding to requests; for example, the town of Redfield didn’t have any zoning on the books when their wind farm came to them, so we worked with them to draft a zoning law and it has been adopted. The town of Worth, same wind farm, they have a zoning law on the books, so they’re sticking with that one and putting that one in as something to reference during the Article 10 process. The one thing we obviously understand is the importance of Fort Drum, as well. We are part of Fort Drum Day every year that Senator (Patty) Ritchie sponsors. So there is definitely a balancing that has to be done here. The Montague (weather) radar issues have really caught us by surprise, because we did not realize that when Maple Ridge was built there was going to be the effect on the radar that we’ve seen. And then with all these new wind farms, we were surprised when all the sudden the National Weather Service was coming out with pretty strong concerns. So, we’ve actually drafted, again, an issue paper to try to understand exactly what the concerns are. There’s these different zones around the radar and the National Weather Service wants different things in different zones. All of our towns were caught by surprise; nobody knew that those existed and they’ve been asking us, “What does this mean?” So, we have a draft paper; I just actually gave it out at the commission meeting (recently) for my board to look at before we release it (soon.) It’s not anything controversial; it’s just, again, what do these mean, why is it an issue? We’re trying to get at some of the technical issues without getting too overwhelming for the average person. That was surprising and that’s got some bigger issues. Tug Hill is all about snow, right? So those weather forecasts, everyone would say they’re very important. Lake effect is such a unique thing that you need very detailed, local information to be able to accurately forecast it. That added a whole different level to the conversations about the wind farms. Before that, it had been mainly Fort Drum concerns and the airfield concerns, and the Montague radar really adds another element. We’ll see how all that plays out. I know there’s a lot of conversations going on between various parties to see what kind of curtailment, or mitigation, can take place, because I don’t think anyone really wants to put that radar out of commission.

NNYB: How does the commission balance the needs of private property owners with the need to preserve the ecology and landscape of the Tug Hill region?

Malinowski: When we work with towns on zoning laws, Phil Street, our director of planning, is such an expert in this kind of thing. I think we do a really good job. Most of our towns are very aware and sensitive to landowners’ concerns. Obviously, they all live there, they’re elected by those people and they know if they do something that’s too out of bounds, they’re not going to get re-elected. So there’s always that home-rule; it’s easy for that to be corrected pretty short-term. I think most of our towns are sensitive to that already and certainly anything that we are providing them as examples have been used in other places and seem to work. I don’t think we would like private landowners to feel like they were somehow really limited unfairly with what they can do to their property. I think we’re sensitive to that and I certainly think our towns are sensitive to that.

NNYB: The commission is helping towns manage networks of low-volume, or minimum maintenance roads. Why is that important?

Malinowski: For about 30 years, there’ve been various pieces of legislation at the state level to try to give state authority to the designation of minimum maintenance roads. Back when Tug Hill was in its hey-day and developed, and farms and cheese factories were everywhere, there was a huge system of roads that kind of just developed naturally. They weren’t laid out, there were roads by easement. They were needed at the time, because there was a lot more population, a lot more development. But, of course, everyone left; the snow was too much, the agriculture was hard to make a living off. So the towns found themselves with this road network they really didn’t need any more. There’s now this attempt to kind of try to scale back, to still allow appropriate access without bankrupting towns and maintaining roads in an area where we get so much snow – you see Redfield got almost 400 inches of snow this year. So there’s: How do we maintain access, not bankrupt ourselves and give people what they need? Minimum maintenance roads are kind of seen as a tool to meet both needs. It seems, in most places on Tug Hill, it’s been a good way to try to do that. Of course, you know that there have been court challenges to that and right now the town of West Turin is on appeal. I know that was just heard at the appellate court (recently.) We’re all waiting to see what that decision is going to be. While we wait for that, there’s still a real effort to try and get some legislation through at the state level. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen or not, but certainly our towns, our Councils of Governments, have continued to ask us to monitor the situation. Again, we did another issue paper on that last year to try to explain to people who maybe aren’t from rural areas of New York state what this means. To some people, the idea of not plowing a road year-round, they just can’t imagine it. So, we’re trying to describe it; we’ve got pictures in there that show these roads. It’s a real problem. We’ve mapped all the minimum maintenance roads that have been adopted by towns to date. A lot of them have either state land on one side or both sides of the road. If a town find itself in a situation where they’re going to have to widen it so they can do the improvements, get the plows down there, they’re going to have a problem because they’ve got to get state land. And when they’re in Lewis County or in Oneida County, they’re in a forest preserve county. So now, you have a whole other set of issues. We’ll see how it all plays out. I know our towns are worried about it. It’s our councils’ and our region’s number one concern right now. Those roads form the backbone of the snowmobile trail in the winter.

NNYB: The commission also assists with managing several watersheds across the region. What is the goal of this planning?

Malinowski: We’ve been involved in several different watershed planning efforts. All of them are a little different and are spearheaded by different organizations. The one we’re most involved with on a regular basis is the Black River watershed. That was something we got involved with 10-plus years ago with the Lewis County Soil and Water Conservation District and several towns in the area. It was right around the time of the Marks Farm incident (a manure spillage into the river) so there was a heightened interest on water quality. It’s a beautiful river; it’s the drinking water supply for the city of Watertown. So we did a plan and we’ve been doing a lot of implementation since then. The Black River watershed is a huge part of the Tug Hill area. Then we have the Salmon River watershed, which is also a very high-profile water body with a huge fishing economy attached to it, and the whole Lake Ontario connection. We got involved in some planning efforts there years ago that were spearheaded by the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) fish hatchery in Altmar. They have a vested investment in the Salmon River. That didn’t go to a full-blown watershed plan in the way that the Black River did, but it has a natural resources assessment that really quantified what all the different sub-watersheds have and some ideas for keeping it intact, because it’s pretty intact as watersheds go. Then you have the Oneida Lake watershed, which includes the east branch of Fish Creek project. The east branch of Fish Creek is a sub-watershed of the Oneida Lake watershed. The Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board is kind of the leader on the Oneida Lake watershed plan. They just got funded to do some additional work in that watershed, so that’ll be coming up in the next year or so. We’ll be participating in that. The east branch of Fish Creek was part of the whole situation when Lyons Falls Pulp and Paper was closing and they wanted to divest of all their 45,000 acres on the east side of the core of Tug Hill. We got asked by the sportsmen’s association to bring all the parties together, just like the ATVs, and discuss what could happen to those lands. Ultimately, after about 10 years the whole conservation project came together where the state bought a conservation easement, the Nature Conservancy bought a big portion of those properties in fee and that project continues. It’s kind of settled because the easement and all that’s done, but there are little things that go on and we try to organize meetings once a year, again, to get all the parties together and just kind of compare notes on how things are going, are there any issues that are coming up that we need to address. We don’t lead them, but we try to keep them facilitated and keep them moving forward. Like a lot of things, we try to play a background role, because it’s not about us, it’s about our partners, and doing everything we can to support them.

NNYB: There is an initiative under way to protect and restore the Black River. Why was that put in place and what improvements have been noted?

Malinowski: As I mentioned, it didn’t happen because of the Marks Farm manure situation; it was kind of around the same time. Some of the positive things I think have happened: there’s been a lot of investment. For example, Lewis County, a huge agricultural area for the Black River watershed, the Soil and Water Conservation District has been successful in getting on-farm best management practices funded and installed. I think that’s a really big bonus for the Black River. There’s obviously the Jefferson County Stormwater Coalition, so you’re going farther downstream. The 2010 population census numbers drove the designation of a Metropolitan Statistical Area, which then created more stormwater requirements for the local municipalities. We are part of the organizing of the stormwater coalition, which is nine municipalities working together through an IMA (intermunicipal agreement) on stormwater things together, working closely with the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District with that. So there’s been a lot of stormwater education and best management practices going on because of that.

NNYB: Fort Drum is in the midst of updating its land use plan. Does the commission have a role in this planning?

Malinowski: Yes. The Development Authority of the North Country had asked us to sit on the technical working group, so we participated in that for the 18 months that they were putting together the joint land use study.  That’s final now.  Now, they have an implementation group to take the action items related to land use and start to implement them. Phil Street just attended a meeting on that (recently); it was the kick-off meeting, so we will continue to be involved in that. We were involved in Fort Drum things way back when Fort Drum expanded and so we have a long history with that. We have our circuit riders on the ground in part of the area over there. We just finished helping the town of Champion through a really thorough comprehensive planning process. That will be adopted in the next month or two and then there will be implementation on that.

NNYB: Why is it important to have consistent land use laws across all areas of the Tug Hill region?

Malinowski: It helps communities and developers and land owners if there’s just some kind of consistency. We don’t promote consistency, but if we’re working with people we’re going to be giving them the same advice. It creates a level of knowledge. For example, a lot of time communities might have a joint code enforcement officer or a zoning enforcement officer and if he’s moving between municipality and municipality, there’s some standardization and it’s just a lot easier for people to get their heads around and follow things if they’re consistent. If you’re going across the town line and things change drastically, it just creates a lot of confusion.

NNYB: When a municipality reaches out to the commission for assistance on land uses, does the municipality cede any control to the commission as to how its lands can be used?

Malinowski: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It’s all about what they want. We’ll meet with them right from the beginning, listen to what they’re looking for, give them information, and then we’ll pull from best examples that we’re aware of and give them to a community, let them chew on it for a while, give us feedback. It’s a very back-and-forth process and we are certainly not in control at any point. We try to give our expert advice and then it’s up to the towns whether they want to implement it or not.

NNYB: The commission has been a leader in the north country in Geographic Information Systems utilization since the early 1990s. Why is GIS such an integral part of the commission’s support for municipalities?

Malinowski: You’re right. We were one of the first ones in the region that had GIS. I wasn’t here at that time, but at the time it was new, and people were used to doing paper maps, and all of a sudden you could do all this on a computer. You didn’t have to have mylars, you could just turn things off with the click of a button. It just kind of became integrated into the everyday operations of things. Everybody wants to look at a map. It’s so much easier to understand where you are, what adjacent things might be affecting you, if it’s on a piece of paper and you can look at it. I think with the proliferation of Google Maps and Bing Maps people, just average people, are just much more comfortable with maps and understanding them. So, we’ve actually seen a big uptick lately of communities wanting to get their data captured and put on a map so they can use it in their community. A lot of towns and villages, the highway superintendent, or the DPW superintendent, has all that information in their head, or maybe on some old maps back in the office. As those people retire out and you have younger people coming in, there’s got to be this transfer of information, and if you can get it on a map in a database, it just helps everyone. And smartphones. People are very comfortable with their phones out in the field. Now, you can bring things up on your phone and try to find whatever it might be – the culvert, the curb stop – and if you can see it on your phone, it helps. I think people are so much more comfortable with technology; GIS has flourished because of that. Now to just keep on top of that. It all changes just so fast that it’s a constant “Let’s keep on top of what the new thing is.” And we try not to overwhelm communities, because you can overwhelm them. Just try to give it to them where they are.

NNYB: Overall, recreation and tourism are a big part of the Tug Hill economy. What is being done to promote these industries?

Malinowski: The commission doesn’t get too much into the economic development promotion, but I think we see a lot of our Chambers of Commerces, the industrial development agencies, doing things to try to get that word out there. App development: Lewis County has some apps now that they have for snowmobile trails and ATV trails. They’ve got their Naturally Lewis branding, and that’s just Lewis County. They’re always trying to find the newest angle; how do you get information out to people? I think with social media, everybody’s trying to learn how to bring people in using Facebook or Instagram, or whatever the next new one is. We don’t play a super-active role, other than hopefully the things we’re doing with our communities help bolster the whole effort, because they’re better places to live, better places to visit if you have the amenities, if you have communities that have the infrastructure to support that kind of growth. That’s where I see our role.

NNYB: What does the commission do to ensure that tourism land uses do not conflict with the preservation of natural resources in the region?

Malinowski: We have so many people out in the field and on the ground, hearing what’s being talked about at town boards and that kind of thing, they start to hear about potential problems or conflicts. We have so many connections to other organizations, so if we hear of something – there’s state land and there’s some issue– we know the people so, it’s much easier to give a call and say, “Hey, we’re hearing something might be going on.” And that way, maybe we can help people get on top of something before it becomes a real issue. Knowing the lay of the land and knowing the people to talk to when we hear about something, that might be one of the best ways we try to help prevent conflicts from happening. If there is a real issue, say a town comes to us and says,” There’s something going on,” then we can be more formal about trying to organize a meeting and getting the right people around the table. We’ve done that. For example, about a year ago in Redfield there was the Kendall Tract, the large piece of property north of the reservoir that was being sold, and there was concern about who was going to buy that, and what was going to happen to the recreation that was already happening on that property. Again, it’s in the Salmon River watershed, so there was that concern as well. We had a meeting at the Redfield fire hall, had everyone around the table. These meetings are sometimes a little tense to start, because you’ve got to have everyone in the room and get your issues out on the table and hopefully, by the end of the day, you at least find some kind of common ground to move forward with. That was an example of where we did find common ground and it ended up being a great project. The state ended up buying it and the town was happy and the sportsmen were happy and it was a good project. It’s those kinds of things that are satisfying, when you get something that everybody was happy with.

NNYB: Who or what is a “Tug Hill Sage?”

Malinowski: Tug Hill Sages are people who are salt-of-the-earth Tug Hill folks that have done a lot to support their communities, have had some involvement in some of the bigger regional things – like are maybe really into forestry or they were part of some unique activity on Tug Hill. The commission asks for nominations for those, every so often. The last time we did Sages was in 2015; we’re debating whether we are going to do it in 2018. People can nominate them and our board reviews the applications and says, “We think this person is deserving.” So we do a ceremony at one of our annual meetings and give them a plaque. People like it; it’s kind of an honor. There are a lot of characters on Tug Hill, and people that have done a lot of really neat things that a lot of people don’t know about, so it’s a way to kind of recognize that. It’s one our favorite things to do, actually.

NNYB:  In the north country, we’re surrounded by forests, waterways and other natural wonders. What makes the Tug Hill region unique?

Malinowski: The snow is the primary difference of Tug Hill versus everywhere else. You hear “Tug Hill” and people immediately know “snow,” and not just people in Upstate New York. You can go all over this country and say “Tug Hill” and people will usually recognize the name. There’s always snow, which means there’s always a lot of water, and we have some very beautiful remote areas. But it’s still a working landscape at the same time. It’s not like the Adirondacks where you have a lot of land that’s just kind of set aside. Tug Hill is for the most part still a working landscape; there’s still working farms, there’s working forests, there’s people who make their living off the land and that’s really important to the natural features of the region and also to the character of the region. I think that’s what really makes us unique; there’s a certain mindset, a certain sense of place you get when you’re up on Tug Hill that you don’t really get, in my opinion, anywhere else.

NNYB: What is your vision for the Tug Hill 25 years from now?

Malinowski: I would hope that it would be a lot like it is today. That’s what we heard back when we did forums in the early days, it was “Keep it the way it is.” I think we try to stay true to that. There are always outside forces and there are always changes going on in the world that you have to adapt to and address. But at the core of it, I would hope that it would be a lot like it is today, with those working landscapes, people that are still able to make their livings, still enjoy the trail systems and be out there experiencing Tug Hill. But we don’t have a plan, so it’s all in the hands of our local towns and villages, and we’re just here to help them along. 

~Interview by Brian Kelly. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.