Two years ago, when Governor Andrew Cuomo revived the massive Finch, Pruyn land deal, first engineered by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in 2007, he shifted the terms of a long-running debate over big land-conservation projects in the Park. Funding for open-space conservation had been under attack in Albany for years, including a moratorium on new spending. Even many Democrats were questioning the value to taxpayers of protecting more “forever wild” land in the Park.
The governor turned that debate on its head, arguing that vast tracts of new public lands would be a boon to the state’s tourism economy—rather than a costly burden—and would give struggling Adirondack towns a long-needed boost. “Today’s agreement will make the Adirondack Park one of the most sought-after destinations for paddlers, hikers, hunters, sportspeople, and snowmobilers,” Cuomo declared in August 2012 as he committed the state to spending $47 million on sixty-nine thousand acres of timberlands over five years.
Cuomo pointed to “extraordinary new outdoor recreational opportunities” that he asserted would spark investment and help revitalize the tourism economy in struggling mountain towns.
Later that year, while paddling on Boreas Ponds—one of the jewels of the Finch deal—Cuomo said the conservation deal would be “a great economic opportunity for the state. We can preserve it, but we can also make it accessible for people.”
In the months since, the governor has moved aggressively to make good on that pledge, using his bully pulpit to promote the upper Hudson region of the Adirondacks where most of the Finch lands are located. He lured then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Indian Lake for a whitewater paddling challenge last summer, which drew headlines around the nation.
He also backed a state-funded advertising campaign that splashed Adirondack scenery on city buses downstate, and he set aside $4.7 million for loans to help tourism entrepreneurs in the region.
In December, the Adirondack Park Agency approved a management plan for twenty-two thousand acres of newly acquired lands that, if certain regulatory hurdles can be overcome, will allow for a snowmobile trail, floatplane access to two lakes, and mountain biking on old logging roads. It also will keep some dirt roads open for vehicles.
Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said the snowmobile trail and floatplane use could be game-changers. “Newcomb could become a snowmobile hub not dissimilar to Old Forge,” he said. “Once you connect the towns with new trails and a snowmobile bridge across the Cedar River, I could see that being a huge, huge economic benefit.”
But Canon and other local leaders and tourism experts say big questions and challenges remain. The five towns most directly affected by the Finch deal—Indian Lake, Long Lake, Minerva, North Hudson, and Newcomb—have been losing population and businesses for decades. “Newcomb has limited dining and lodging facilities,” Canon said. “But it’s difficult getting people to invest.”
Protect it, and they will come
At first blush, it may seem like a no-brainer that the Finch lands would spark a new wave of tourism in the Park. The historic deal aims to protect a sprawling region of mountains and lakes, including the Essex Chain Lakes south of Newcomb and long stretches of the upper Hudson. It will open up to hikers, paddlers, snowmobile riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts places that have been off limits to the public for 150 years.
The deal also created vast new tracts of motor-free open space, including some of the wildest stretches of the Hudson River. “For the towns, particularly Indian Lake and Newcomb, I think there will be an increase in financial activity,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). For example, he said the Essex Chain Primitive Area’s network of dirt roads is likely to attract a good number of horseback riders and mountain bikers.
But even some supporters of the deal—who praise it on environmental grounds—say they doubt large numbers of jobs or new businesses will be created. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Wayne Failing, a guide from Lake Placid who has led rafting and fishing trips on the upper Hudson for decades. He noted that the new lands, while gorgeous, are located near existing public lands that in some cases are less remote and easier to access.
“I think it’s more of a good thing,” Failing said of the acquisition of the Finch lands. He said he would likely bring clients to some of the new destinations—such as OK Slip Falls and the floatplane lakes—but added that he could never find the time to hike all the trails or fish all the ponds in the Forest Preserve. “We’re already the largest wilderness east of the Rockies,” he remarked.
Ruth Olbert, who co-owns Cloud-Splitter Outfitters, one of the few tourism businesses in Newcomb, said she thinks the project will initially produce only a handful of jobs, but that can make a difference in a small community. “I think even if there were two or three new full-time jobs, it would move the needle. The jobs here are slim,” she said.
These questions about the real-world economic impact of open space reflect a gap in research. For years, studies have shown that land conservation is a major boon for communities. A 2012 report by the Trust for Public Land suggested that such efforts contribute “billions of dollars” to New York State’s economy in the form of jobs, taxes, and other revenue. A study by the state comptroller put the total at $54.3 billion annually.
In March, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway cited that data in arguing that the Finch lands “will be a tourism magnet” for Adirondack communities. “We know from recent studies that such investments return $7 to the economy for every $1 the state spends,” he said in a news release.
But it turns out most of the research about the economic impact of public land is based on data from urban and suburban areas. Many of those case studies involve communities where open space is scarce and where other benefits—such as the protection of water supplies and the preservation of agricultural and logging jobs—factor heavily in the return on investment.
Jessica Sargent, an economist with the Trust for Public Land, acknowledged that little is known about the impact of projects like Finch, Pruyn that involve rural towns where large tracts of protected land already exist for public recreation. Sargent said her organization, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, is working on a study to fill the information gap, but those findings are not yet available.
Colin Beier, a scientist at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, has begun looking at the economic impact of Adirondack land deals, including Finch, Pruyn’s, but so far data about the Park is practically non-existent. “We simply don’t have the information. The work hasn’t been done, and it should be done,” he said.
In a report in December, APA staff said more market research would be needed to predict the Finch deal’s economic impacts. But the report also said the deal presented an opportunity that “communities, local business, and the state can market and program to attract new visitors.”
If they come, will they spend?
Leveraging that opportunity won’t be easy. The biggest concern with the Finch, Pruyn project, expressed by local leaders, business owners, academics, and environmental leaders, is that the tiny communities hoping to benefit lack the hotels, restaurants, guide services, stores, and other amenities needed to attract and cater to visitors—and thus give a boost to the local economy. “It’s not just going to happen because you open the lands. That does not happen without thought and planning and probably some luck,” Beier said.
That view was echoed by Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, which helps promote tourism in much of the Adirondacks. McKenna, a supporter of the Finch project, described it as a big opportunity. But he noted that communities such as Minerva and Newcomb have few gas stations or cafes, let alone the hotels and resorts that many travelers seek.
“We need appropriately sized destinations. Not necessarily big hotels, but bed-and-breakfasts and small lodges,” McKenna said. Without such facilities, he warned, “it’s going to be very hard for us to be competitive in the global marketplace.”
This concern surfaced at the APA’s meeting in December when board members discussed the Finch project’s economic potential. Sherman Craig, a board member from Wanakena, noted that remote communities across the Adirondacks have struggled to attract new investment, despite bordering large tracts of wild land. He said the towns near the Finch lands will find it difficult to capitalize on the acquisitions.
Dan Kelleher, the APA’s economic expert, said the new Finch lands might “cannibalize” visitors who would otherwise visit other parts of the Adirondacks. “To bring new money to the Park, not just reallocate it across the Park, we need to actually go out into places surrounding the Park and try to bring in new dollars by marketing,” Kelleher told the APA board.
Is this deal different?
The governor has moved to address these concerns head-on, in part by pumping more money into advertising and offering aid to new businesses, but also by visiting the Park himself and talking it up. For example, Cuomo came north in March for the Adirondack Winter Challenge, taking a snowmobile tour in Lake Clear and hosting a gala for state lawmakers at Lake Placid’s convention center. “It’s not just about fun; it’s about economic development and jobs,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy is also taking new steps to make this conservation deal a boon for the economy: it created a $500,000 fund for recreation-based economic development in towns bordering the Finch lands. “We feel an obligation to continue our stakeholder outreach with the communities involved in the transaction, because of its scale,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the conservancy’s Adirondack chapter. So far, roughly $250,000 of the fund has been raised from private donors.
Those efforts are reassuring to Olbert, co-owner of Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb. “We hope to put up a small lodge of some sort here,” she said. “It’s a leap of faith on our part, but having the Essex Chain and Boreas Ponds open on both sides of us, something’s going to happen.”
Olbert said her business grew last year, in part because of publicity surrounding the Finch lands. She speculated that it might take as many as five years before the region as a whole sees a significant boost. “It’s going to be tough without having some infrastructure for visitors once they get here,” she said.
Are other priorities shortchanged?
Some green groups have voiced concern that the state is putting too much emphasis on dollars and public access at the expense of environmental protection. They are especially upset that the APA voted to allow a snowmobile trail through the heart of an otherwise motor-free region.
“The motorized Wild Forest corridor sets a dangerous precedent whereby lines will be drawn solely to facilitate motor-vehicle uses in the forever-wild Forest Preserve,” Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said in a news release after the decision.
Another concern—shared by green groups and local officials alike—is that New York State won’t spend the money on stewardship and amenities such as trails, footbridges, and signs that are needed to make the Finch lands attractive to tourists. In recent years, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been forced to close campgrounds and even temporarily gate the access road to the Moose River Plains, an area near Inlet popular with campers, hunters, and anglers.
The latest budget for DEC, approved in April, includes nearly a five percent cut in total funding, though state budget officials say that funding loss affects only capital projects and won’t mean additional cutbacks in field staff or in construction of backcountry facilities. Those assurances weren’t enough for Willie Janeway, head of the Adirondack Council, who complained that the DEC “has been stretched beyond the breaking point, and further cuts mean that things will not get done.”
That view was shared by state Senator Betty Little, who said big land purchases like Finch, Pruyn require more stewardship funds. “We need to have more people, more DEC people in the field. We’re hoping to be able to correct that,” she said.
Photos, from above: Boreas Ponds, with its view of the High Peaks (photo by Nancie Battaglia); Governor Andrew Cuomo at Boreas Ponds (Nancie Battaglia); paddlers on the Essex Chain Lakes last spring (by Susan Bibeau); OK Slip Falls (by Carl Heilman II); paddlers at the Hudson River south of Newcomb (Nancie Battaglia); Governor Cuomo rides a snowmobile during the Adirondack Winter Challenge in 2014 (photo provided).