This November, voters in New York State will be asked to either approve or reject six separate constitutional amendments. Two of them are related to the Adirondack Forest Preserve: Proposal 4, which would provide a legal process to resolve long-standing title disputes on the shores of Raquette Lake; and Proposal 5, which would allow NYCO Minerals, Inc. to acquire a portion of the Forest Preserve in exchange for land elsewhere.
Proposal 4 is largely non-controversial, because it is designed to resolve a situation that has benefited no one. But Proposal 5, the NYCO amendment, has exposed an ideological rift in the Adirondacks—with sides lining up not in the way that you might expect.
The proposed amendment could allow NYCO to acquire 200 acres of the Jay Mountain Wilderness known as Lot 8, for the purpose of extending an existing open-pit wollastonite mine. The company does have other nearby properties it could move to, but it thinks that extending the life of the current mine makes more operational sense. In exchange for Lot 8, NYCO would give a greater amount of land to the state. (The full text of the amendment is available online.)
One might assume at first glance that any proposal to dig an open pit mine in the Adirondack Forest Preserve would be dead on arrival in the eyes of the conservation groups—specifically those with a raison d’être of defending the sanctity of the preserve from things like snowmobile groomers and floatplanes. While they might be willing to entertain a proposal to sacrifice a small piece of the preserve to continue a municipal service, that flexibility would only go so far. Their programmatic idealism would fall short of resource removal—a subject that gets to the heart of why the Forest Preserve was created in the first place.
Indeed these groups did just that 30 years ago, when NYCO last made a constitutional bid to acquire Lot 8. A bill to exchange land with NYCO passed the state legislature in 1981, was reintroduced in 1983, but never reached a vote due to underwhelming support.
There are perfectly valid arguments in favor of supporting the NYCO amendment, but they are all either political or economic in nature. One expects these arguments from some quarters and not others. For instance, it is only natural for local government leaders to support the proposed land swap because this is consistent with their known objectives. Of course a state senator would want to protect jobs in her district. No one can fault her for acting toward that goal. It would be highly unusual if she told her constituents that wilderness was more important than their livelihood.
But less easy to comprehend is why not one but two of the Adirondacks’ major Forest Preserve advocacy groups, the Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council, would choose to endorse the NYCO amendment as well. Whereas a politician is answerable to her constituents, advocacy groups have the luxury of maintaining a certain level of idealism. They are not the decision makers, but merely voices in the decision-making process that speak for a particular cause. So when two of these groups endorse Proposal 5 and two of their peer groups—Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild—oppose it, this lack of unanimity exposes a flaw in the way conservationists measure constitutional amendments.
In the past, successful amendments to the “forever wild clause” have been narrowly defined and limited in scope. Open-ended or vaguely defined proposals tend to go nowhere. For example, the amendment passed a few years ago allowing a power line to Tupper Lake was specific to that project, and it involved only a tiny amount of acreage; it was not a broad statement that allowed power lines everywhere. This has therefore been the test that conservation groups have been using: a proposed amendment must be specific and limited to be considered worthy of approval.
Proposal 5 does satisfy this test for the most part: it establishes specific conditions under which NYCO can conduct test drilling in Lot 8, sets a ceiling of 200 acres of state land that can be mined, and sets a minimum value of $1 million for the new land to be offered in exchange. There are two vagaries in the amendment’s language: it does not define where this new land has to be (hypothetically, the amendment could be used fund an acquisition the state has already been committed to buying); and there is no sunset provision, meaning that the exploratory, extraction, and reclamation processes could be conducted indefinitely.
The question is therefore whether a conservation-minded organization should support such a proposal. What are the values at stake? The “specific and limited” test merely determines whether there are any legal loopholes, but it does not offer guidance on the proposal’s substance. This partly explains why four groups with similar agendas applied the test to Proposal 5 and arrived at two opposing conclusions.
There have been numerous successful amendments in the past authorizing the taking of Forest Preserve land over the 119-year history of the “forever wild clause,” and they read like a list of municipal map adjustments: the Saranac Lake dump (1983), the Piseco Airport runway extension (1965), the highway land bank (1957), the Great Camp Sagamore outbuilding exchange (1983), as examples. Analyzing these past exchanges suggests that the “specific and limited” test addresses only half the equation. All of these past efforts addressed a public need, and they resulted in a public benefit. They were not initiated by private entities or motivated by profit; they were intended to resolve administrative quandaries faced by local and state government agencies. This includes the Perkins Clearing land exchange with International Paper (1979), which eliminated a checkerboard ownership pattern that was cumbersome for both parties to manage. It also includes the more recent effort to secure a water supply for the hamlet of Raquette Lake (2007). And in all these cases, the “public benefit” resulting from the land exchange is the resolution of the original issue as well as the addition of new land to the Forest Preserve.
Therefore it is clear that “specific and limited” is an inadequate test that does not include all of the key factors of past amendments. From an Article XIV perspective the bar should be set higher. For people who believe that the Forest Preserve is one of New York’s finest achievements, the true test should be as follows:
Specific: The amendment should narrowly address a definable quandary.
Limited: The affected Forest Preserve acreage should be explicitly stated.
Necessary: The amendment should be motivated by a public need.
Beneficial: Since a land exchange by definition involves at least two trading partners, there should be as many tangible benefits to the public.
Here is where Proposal 5 falls flat. It fails the third test case because there is no public need being addressed. There would be no Proposal 5 if there was no NYCO, no wollastonite. There is no administrative flaw with Lot 8 that would motivate the state to dispose of it in exchange for something better. There is no title dispute, no checkerboard pattern of public/private ownership, no municipal water or power source at risk, no public issue that can only be resolved by taking the extraordinary step of amending the state’s constitution. There is no public need whatsoever for this exchange.
(Nor for that matter is there even a clear private need for the Lot 8 exchange, since NYCO owns wollastonite deposits elsewhere in Essex County.)
It also fails the fourth test case because the public benefit is one-sided. The only positive outcome for the public is the acquisition of additional lands; most of the state’s voters will have no vested interest in NYCO’s operations.
Without a documented public need for this amendment, and with only a partial public benefit, Proposal 5 stands out as unique in the history of Article XIV amendments. The facts reveal little more than a corporation seeking public land for industrial purposes. This is a transaction, plain and simple. A price has been set for Lot 8, and the fact that the payment is to be made in real estate rather than cash is immaterial.
This brings me back to the fact that two of the Adirondack conservation groups have come out in support for NYCO. What would motivate such groups to be concerned about the state of NYCO’s $6 million payroll? The Jay Mountain Wilderness, of which Lot 8 is a part, is an exceptionally beautiful area with many bald peaks—but it is also relatively small. Attractive peaks extend to the northeast of the state’s holdings, and this is certainly an area where land should be acquired someday. If Bluff Mountain was being offered, you might at least have a valid case that NYCO was giving us something that was more scenic than Lot 8.
However, the lots being considered for acquisition are all primarily lowland areas that would seem to do little to improve access to the Jay Range’s eastern slopes. There are streams here and there, but no wetlands, no new scenic vistas—nothing charismatic that conservationists could rally around. Proponents have stated that Lot 8 is a “plain vanilla” stand of second-growth hardwoods with little to distinguish it recreationally or ecologically. I find it hard to believe that the new lands would be significantly different.
It is more probable that the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council are making a political gambit. Recognizing that jobs are part of the NYCO equation, they are almost certainly hoping that a show of support here might inspire local officials to return the favor elsewhere—such as in not interfering with the Finch Pruyn land acquisitions and the hoped-for wilderness classifications. But as we have witnessed over the summer, this quid pro quo has not been honored. Essex County leaders want NYCO as badly as they want motorized access to the Essex Chain of Lakes.
This is a dangerous gambit, though, because although each constitutional amendment must go through the same rigorous approval process—and therefore do not set “precedents” for one another—they certainly can set examples for future actions. In 1985, the Adirondack Mountain Club published a book called The Forest Preserve of New York State: A Handbook for Conservationists to celebrate the preserve’s centennial. Author Eleanor Brown described a scenario in which the 1927 amendment to allow construction of the Whiteface Memorial Highway had an effect that reverberated for decades to come:
The ripple effect of a single exception to the “forever wild” concept is strikingly apparent in the Whiteface case. The rationale for [Hal] Burton’s seeking a constitutional amendment [to create a downhill ski center] for that particular area was the fact that one amendment affecting the mountain had already been passed. There is much room to doubt whether Gore and Belleayre would have been proposed and constructed without the Whiteface precedent. And it is hard to conceive of a 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid without a major downhill ski area already in place.
DEC commissioner Joe Martens has repeatedly dismissed the threat of the NYCO amendment engendering its own “ripple effect,” citing the uniqueness of the NYCO case. However, the only thing truly unique about NYCO is the ore that they are mining; “wollastonite” isn’t exactly a household name. The truth is that the lands in the Forest Preserve contain quite a few valuable resources: garnets, veneer hardwoods, maybe even some untapped pockets of iron. We all assume that these are permanently off-limits to industry thanks to Article XIV. But Lot 8 is expendable, Martens wrote in the May-June 2013 issue of Adirondac magazine, because DEC “has not identified any unique ecological or natural resource features on the property. Lot 8 has little recreational use: the parcel has no trails or campsites, and public access is limited.” Here we have the commissioner of environmental conservation establishing the criteria under which a part of the preserve might be deemed less valuable than the resources it contains—only to reassure us that no precedent will be set!
So it comes down to the fact that the only valid arguments for Proposal 5 involve calculations of dollars and cents. And while there is no doubt that the Adirondacks would benefit from job growth, should this come at the expense of the Forest Preserve? Shouldn’t the focus be on sustainable industries, not the extraction of non-renewable resources? These are the tough questions at the heart of the proposal, and the ones that its supporters should have asked first.
For these reasons, I find the NYCO amendment unacceptable. It is not necessary, provides an insubstantial benefit to the public, and would do more harm than good to the Forest Preserve. It should be rejected by voters in November.
Photo: View of the NYCO mine from Mt Fay.