Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Forest Preserve Advocates Disagree On Mining Amendment

NYCO Land Swap ProposalOrganizations that advocate for the protection of Adirondack Forest Preserve lands disagree over whether to support a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the international wollastonite mining company NYCO Minerals Inc., which has facilities in Willsboro and Lewis, to mine 200 acres of Adirondack Forest Preserve lands in the Jay Mountain Wilderness.

The Adirondack Council has issued a statement in support of the proposal outlining 1,500 acres it says the state will receive if the amendment and additional enabling legislation passes.  The Adirondack Mountain Club has said it supports the proposal and DEC Commissioner Joesph Martens has also lent his weight to the NYCO land swap.  PROTECT’s Executive Director Peter Bauer has called the accommodation of the mining company a bad precedent. He says the process has been riddled with misinformation, and the state will be giving up old growth forests.

NYS Senator Betty Little of Queensbury supports the mining company’s plan. “This balanced approach to add to the forest preserve and help a major employer in Essex County remain viable will benefit the environment and the economy of the Adirondacks for many years to come,” she said in a statement to the press echoed by NYS Assemblyman Dan Stec, also of Queensbury. The company and both legislators have invoked the spectre of job losses as the bills have made their way through their respective chambers.

In May, here at the Adirondack Almanack,  Peter Bauer called those bill justifications overheated rhetoric. “Any statement in this bill that NYCO will leave the state if this Constitutional Amendment is unsuccessful is simply false,” Bauer wrote. “NYCO isn’t going anywhere. In 1998, NYCO received its first permit for a new mine [at Oakhill]. It has built that mine. NYCO’s own 25-Year plan submitted to the APA in 2006 called for a gradual transition to Oakhill where NYCO estimates there enough wollastonite for at least 16-21 years. NYCO also owns 455 acres around the Oak Hill mine, which contains wollastonite reserves, far beyond the current mine pit of 54 acres.”

The Adirondack Council sees the swap as a “victory for wilderness.”  “State officials have now applied the Adirondack Council’s principles to the details of the proposed exchange,” Executive Director of the Adirondack Council William C. Janeway said in statement to the press. “They have modified and expanded the proposal in response to our concerns. The proposed land swap now exceeds our standards for supporting Constitutional Amendments involving the Forever Wild clause.” Janeway’s statement said that the state would receive “at least 1,500 acres of land containing better wildlife habitat and greater recreational opportunities… Over time, those 200 acres will come back into the Forest Preserve [as reclaimed mine land].”

The text of the proposed amendment is available online.  It allows NYCO to conduct test drilling on 200 acres of wilderness land. If the company deems that land productive, its value would be assessed by the state.  The company, with the approval of the state legislature, would then provide the state with lands of equal or greater value, but not less than $1 million.  Although not included in the language of the amendment, proponents say the new state lands, totaling about 1,500 acres would be added to the Forest Preserve, including five parcels adjacent to the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, and a sixth adjoining the Taylor Pond Wild Forest and Boquet River.

NYCO-Map-1John Sheehan, Director of Communications for the Adirondack Council, told the Almanack that Governor Andrew Cuomo has provided details for enabling legislation for the larger swap to the Council and state legislators. That bill, which would require separate legislative action, would include the transfer of  the new state parcels (described below).

Peter Bauer and PROTECT see a larger precedent being set that places corporate interests over the constitutional “Forever Wild” guarantee.  “If this Constitutional Amendment goes through, and is approved by the voters in a public referendum, it means that there is no place in New York beyond the reach of commerce. It means that there is no place beyond the desires of various corporations and their political bidders. It means that there is no place that is truly forever wild,” Peter Bauer said.

“NYCO will receive 200 acres of old growth forests. There is not much old growth, but these lands have been in the Forest Preserve for well over 100 years and are old growth by any definition,” he said. “We should not be giving old growth forests over to a mining company.”

For it’s part, the Council doesn’t see the amendment as precedent setting. “If approved by the voters, this would not be the first time that a private company obtained permission for a mutually beneficial Forest Preserve swap,” Janeway noted. “In 1979, the voters approved a swap with International Paper Co. that brought about 10,000 acres of new Forest Preserve to the public in exchange for 7,000 acres of public land. That deal increased the size of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness and reshaped the ownership patterns to make both state and private lands easier to manage.”

“The NYCO proposal breaks with historic precedent because it would be the first Forest Preserve Constitutional Amendment to be undertaken for private commercial gain rather than for a public municipal purpose,” Bauer said.

The New York State Constitution’s “Forever Wild Clause” states that Forest Preserve lands “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” As a result, NYCO’s proposal requires a constitutional amendment, including affirmative votes in two separate state legislatures and approval of state voters in a statewide referendum. The amendment passed both house of the state legislature last year. It could make it to voters in the fall, provided it passes both houses again before the legislative session ends June 20.

The Adirondack Council provided the following descriptions of the parcels NYCO is expected to acquire for the state in exchange for passage of the amendment and proposed enabling legislation:

Hardwood Hill & Arnold Mountain

These include the 185-acre Hardwood Hill parcel and the 102-acre Arnold Mountain parcel. The 185 acre Hardwood Hill parcel lies on the north edge of the Jay Mountain Wilderness.  Hardwood Hill is quite visible from the hamlet of Jay.  It would become part of the Jay Mountain Wilderness. A stream flows out of the wilderness area through the pass to the East Branch of the AuSable River a few miles to the west. The East Branch of the AuSable River flows north from Jay to the hamlet of AuSable Forks where it meets the West Branch of the AuSable and flows into Lake Champlain.

Spruce Mill Brook

NYCO also has pledged acquire a 260-acre parcel that contains nearly two miles of the Spruce Mill Brook, which will become available for fishing. The property also links the Tom’s Hill and Derby Brook parcels.

Tom’s Hill

The 360-acre Toms Hill tract sits at the junction of the Jay Mountain and Hurricane Mountain wilderness areas. The parcel is bisected by a seasonal town road, the Jay Mountain Road, which separates the two wilderness areas and leads from the Town of Lewis to the Town of Jay.  This road is really rough and virtually useless for cars, but is good for cross country skiing, hiking, access for hunting, and has been used recently for mountain bike racing.  The property contains a mile of the Spruce Mill Brook, which flows into the Boquet River.  Brook trout appear to be self-sustaining.  Salmon are being stocked by DEC.  Moose have been seen in the neighborhood.

Derby Brook

The 360-acre Derby Brook parcel is bordered by Wells Hill road to the south, Derby Brook to the North and the Jay Wilderness Area to the west. Derby Brook runs from west to east for more than a mile through the property, dropping about 380 feet in elevation.  This brook runs into Spruce Mill Brook a few miles to the east and eventually into Lake Champlain.  This water also has brook trout, although this portion of the river is flat-water, so it might not be the best fishing.  The brook has gentler slopes where it flows through NYCO property. Running parallel and south of Derby Brook is an old log road that provides easy access to the Jay Mountain Wilderness on the east side of the range.

Deerhead

This is the only one not adjacent to the Jay Mountain or Hurricane Mountain wilderness areas.  It would instead be added to the Taylor Pond Wild Forest, which it abuts.  The Deerhead Parcel is about 300 acres made up of several parcels that would be consolidated into one.   It is bordered on the east by NYS Rte. 9 for about a mile, on the west by Trout Pond Road (.7 miles), and the south by a private land owner (less than half a mile).  On the north, it is bounded by the Burnt Pond Tract and the Taylor Pond Wild Forest.  The North Branch of the Boquet River flows along the western property line, parallel to the Trout Pond Road. Brook trout and wetlands are the most attractive conservation features.

Map above courtesy DEC; Photo below courtesy PROTECT.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 25 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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11 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    John:

    The Adirondack Council’s descriptions of the parcels to be acquired by the State in the proposed swap detail water routes and sources by have no information about the age and condition of the forest in each parcel. Nor do we have a history of how and when the land was historically managed, mined, reclaimed and generally treated.

    Can we prevail upon them or another source to get this information? This is a tricky issue and more information would make for a better decision by the citizens of New York. For my part, I am pretty sure I know my position on the swap, however answers to these questions would make an important difference.

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  2. We believe this is a “Faustian” bargain that the legislature and the Governor should avoid. Adirondack Wild opposes the proposed land swap because it sets a new, unique and damaging precedent of trading state-held mineral rights from our designated Wilderness lands against constitutionally protected “Forever Wild” lands when NYCO and New York State have far better options to support both the company, the communities involved and the Adirondack Park. Needlessly damaging to the integrity of Article XIV, the proposed amendment should be avoided in lieu of other forms of state business incentives that could help empower NYCO to mine resource lands, like Oak Hill, which it already owns — without swapping Wilderness lands and destroying their ecological integrity.

    As for the swap lands that would be added to the Forest Preserve, these could and should be acquired through the regular regional Open Space Planing process which involves stakeholders who are, at present, cut out of this sort of deal-making.

    If the legislature moves this amendment forward to the People of New York State, we expect that it will be denied. We respect the right of The Adirondack Council as a stakeholder group to promote their own board policy on proposed land swap amendments, however, the State of New York has a far higher criteria to address: the NY State Constitution and the Will of the People of the State who, we believe, will not accept a “pig in a poke” bargain that opens up the Forest Preserve to mineral prospecting for corporate gain.

    By the way, this bears no resemblance to the 1979 Perkins Clearing land swap alluded to as similar in The Adirondack Council’s press release. Complete destruction of the terrestrial forest habitat, natural terrain and underground geo-morphology, watershed character and scenic character of the surrounding area – and the harmful precedent it sets – has nothing in common with an amendment swapping working forest lands to consolidate state holdings 35 years ago.

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  3. mike smith says:

    Seems like a good deal to me. The slippery slope argument is usually given by those taking an extreme position and its a false one. Sort of like those against any form of gun control.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 5 Thumb down 9

  4. Jon Alexander says:

    NYCO amendment garnered second passage by a 59-3 vote Tuesday and was introduced in the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Wednesday morning. It is sponsored by EnCon Chairman Bob Sweeney in the lower house.

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  5. Jon Alexander says:

    *59-3 in the Senate. Sorry

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  6. TiSentinel65 says:

    Dan, although you may be against the precedent. You are still adding net acreage to the preserve. If I were in your shoes, I would take $100 dollar bill in exchange for a fifty any day. When the mine is used up, can not the land be reclaimed? Sounds like a win win to me.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 9

  7. Wally Elton Wally says:

    I respect all opinions expressed in the article but find myself leaning in favor of the swap. I must say that I am uneasy about the way tinkering with the state constitution is becoming almost routine, though.

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  8. Tim says:

    What would the reclaimed land look like? How would they do it? As I understand it, they are required to reclaim their present mine in Lewis when they are (soon?) finished. Right now, it’s an incredible eyesore, visible all the way from Lake Champlain and beyond.

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  9. TiSentinel65 and Tim:

    If it were just a question of trade calculus over swap acreage, I would agree with you, however, it is far more dangerous given that it sets the forest preserve up to support corporate mining interests to gain mineral rights beneath state “forever wild” lands. That the deal is “sweetened” by promised additional land acquisitions does not change the fact that this is seriously damning precedent for the preserve.

    Moreover, Tim’s concern is correct. In the first century of the forest preserve, amendments approved largely held the integrity of forever wild intact. Over the past several years, however, the amendment process appears to be used to turn that on its head on every whim – no more so than this proposed amendment.

    Not to mention we are still waiting for land swaps to be completed and the state has never performed a true assessment on the land swap benefits and facts of past amendments.

    As for the foolish concept of returning once mined lands to forest preserve, the history of reclamation across the US and in NY, much less the Adirondacks (look at NL Industries, JL site and others) and there’s no basis to believe that will ever happen. Mined lands will be totally destroyed ecologically and hydro-geologically, will not return to natural forest in a century or more and will pose hazards for wildlife, water quality and recreationists alike, as well as being an eyesore that will be an anathema to park character.

    Better alternatives — like NYCO using their own Oak Hill — exist without jeopardizing the integrity of forever wild for corporate profit.

    Dan

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    • Paul says:

      So the “dangerous” precedent is that corporate entities could create or save jobs in the Adirondacks and at the same time make the Forest Preserve larger and larger? If you are a group that really supports vibrant communities in the Adirondacks why is this so dangerous?

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  10. Charlie Baudinet says:

    Past news on this subject had mentioned that DEC was negotiating on a 2,000 acre parcel adjacent to the Jay area. What parcel is this, and is DEC still interested in it?

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