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Placid is not peaceful

Environmentalists have a wary eye on Lake Placid's Olympic plans for 1980; nevertheless the Games should go on

The battle of the 1980 Winter Olympics vs. the environment has been joined, and not a moment too soon. Before anybody runs up the flags in Lake Placid, N.Y., someone must settle the issue of what impact the Games will have on the wilderness surrounding that Adirondack hamlet, and right now the best one can expect is a draw.

The area involved is particularly sensitive: all of the proposed Olympic sites lie inside New York's Adirondack State Park, six million acres with huge sections blocked off as "forever wild." This means exactly what the law says—no tree can be cut or rock moved, and only emergency vehicles are allowed to enter. It is not surprising that environmentalists have turned out in force to challenge plans proposed by the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, that doughty group of merchants, tradesmen and general all-round civic boosters who have been dreaming since 1932 of a Winter Olympics revisited in their tiny (population 3,000) mountain village.

The first forum for the confrontation was a series of hearings held by the U.S. Department of Commerce to get comments on the draft of the environmental impact statement. These sessions are required before anyone can cash in any of the $49 million in federal funds already authorized to pay for Olympic construction. Because the Lake Placid area is one of the most miserably depressed in the country—unemployment is close to 17%—the Olympic program is being handled through the department's Economic Development Administration, the idea being that jobs will be created both before and after the Games. The impact statement, a huge document almost six inches thick, was compiled for Lake Placid by the consulting firm of Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass. It deals with everything from the impact of the Olympic Village on rare ferns and mosses to sewage flow caused by throngs of spectators, to the "esthetic pollution" that might result from the proposed 260-foot-high ski jump that could mar the view of hikers on nearby peaks.

Several environmentalists praised the thoroughness of the draft, among them Peter A. A. Berle, commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, who said it was "very well done, not just a pile of paper like a lot of them." Still, the so-called "environmental community" was not about to accept it on faith. A statement endorsed by 37 New York state organizations and 10 national groups declared at least a modified form of war, saying. "We seriously question the adequacy of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in addressing the issues, and its completeness in considering the alternatives."

This instantly drew blood, for many of the Lake Placid organizers view almost any criticism as a profound personal insult. Some of them even speak of being under attack by the "nut fringe" of conservationists. Committee members were particularly angered by a young member of the Sierra Club, James Dumont, who declared. "The beauty and isolated atmosphere of the high-peak area of the Adirondack Park may be lost forever if present Olympic plans go unchecked." He went on to say that the new ski jump would be the "visual equivalent of putting an illuminated 26-story apartment building in the wilderness."

The executive director of the Lake Placid committee is the Rev. J. Bernard Fell, a Methodist minister who is something of a spellbinder when he gets wound up. Fell said, "Anyone who endeavors to portray Lake Placid's Olympic planners as a cadre of unenlightened, unconcerned enthusiasts, with visions that defy good order and common sense, is either an uninformed zealot who prefers rhetoric to research, or a devotee to a cause considered so high that no price is too much to pay, even if that price includes distortion and deceit.... A victory in their empty campaign is a victory that could literally wipe out the Olympic Winter Games and the viability of the United States as an Olympic host for a generation to come."

There is bound to be a certain amount of hyperbole and emotion in such proceedings. Nevertheless, the memory of Denver's humiliating non-Olympics of 1976 is still fresh, and the Lake Placid committee members are worried that their Games could also be aborted by litigation or other delaying tactics brought by environmentalists. One target for legal action could be the impact statement itself: unless it satisfies the requirements of an assortment of federal and state laws, it is an easy ground on which to bring suit. Says Marilyn DuBois of the Environmental Planning Lobby, "One thing that we are most interested in is the contractors' responsibility to the environment—will they be required to post a bond to be certain they do the job with minimum damage and clean up the flotsam afterward? There are dozens of other questions, and one of the problems is that we don't know what the impact of the Olympics will be because they don't have final designs or plans for a lot of their projects. They're asking us to approve things when we really don't know what is actually going to happen."

It is true that many specific details are vague or nonexistent: there is no design yet for the 90-meter ski jump, no detailed plan for transportation and road construction and no definite plan for the Olympic Village. It now seems likely that a former tuberculosis sanatorium outside Lake Placid will be purchased by the government and redesigned as a minimum-security federal prison. In the interim it could serve as an Olympic Village in this age of terrorism. Some critics claim that desirable economic gains in the area will be negligible, that taxes and prices may go up because of the Olympics. Others say that the Games will cause such an influx of visitors for years after they are held that the wilderness character of the area will be ruined.

Richard Persico, executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency, says, "This is not your classic environmental situation in which erosion or water quality or air pollution is the issue. There is some of that, sure, but mostly the environmentalists here are worried about esthetics and about preserving the character of the region against any violent change brought in by the Olympics."

Persico's agency is also holding hearings because it must issue permits for Olympic facilities under the land-use plan of the park. The new ski jump is the subject of bitter discussion, and later this winter there will be sessions on construction of a new field house. The park agency's decisions could also be grounds for Olympic-killing litigation.

The big question is whether the Lake Placid Olympics will go the way of Denver. At this point, it seems unlikely that another American Olympics will abort. One reason is that both state and federal governments have promised money and moral support. Another is that Lake Placid's plans are infinitely better conceived and more clearly presented than the helter-skelter concoction Denver tried to pass off. Still another is that the environmentalists are not against the Olympics per se. As Courtney Jones, chairman of the Adirondack Council, says, "To oppose the Olympics for their own sake would be the height of irresponsibility. We simply want to be certain that all the questions are asked and all the issues tested."

Another reason why crippling litigation is less than likely is that the economic plight of the Lake Placid region is so bleak that any organization responsible for killing the Olympics would also be at least symbolically responsible for cutting off hundreds of jobs and $70 million in state and federal funds from several thousand people who are now close to a bare-bones poverty level.

All these elements are working to clear the way for the 1980 Games at Lake Placid. Indeed, if the environmentalists continue to be tough, and the Lake Placid committee decides to take their criticisms as a potential force for good, instead of as an attack on something sacred, this might be a battle in which both sides win.

On the other hand, let it be known that when the International Olympic Committee met in Barcelona last fall, the word was passed—confidentially and with due subtlety—that all Innsbruck needs is 12 months' notice to be ready to step in for Lake Placid, just as it did so beautifully for Denver.