Saturday, April 4, 2009

Conservation Easements And The Adirondack Forest

I received this week from John Sheehan, Director of Communications for The Adirondack Council, the following interesting history and analysis of the recent Nature Conservancy sale and what it means to the history of logging in the backcountry. I’m reprinting it here in its entirety for the information of Adirondack Almanack readers:

When the ATP Group, a private investment company that handles pension funds for the Danish government, made its first major investment in the United States Monday, its purchase of 92,000 acres of commercial forestlands from The Nature Conservancy brought to an end the era of the industrial ownership of the Adirondack Park’s vast, private backcountry.

The $32.88-million purchase closed the book on a massive transition in land ownership that could have been a disaster for both the economy and environment of New York’s beloved wilderness reserve. Thanks to New York State’s Environmental Protection Fund and a few visionary individuals and organizations, the Adirondack timber industry is still strong, and greener than ever.

The Adirondack Park is the largest intact deciduous forest in the world. Unlike most American parks, it is partly public and partly private. The park’s public lands are protected by the state constitution’s “forever wild” clause, which bans logging and development.

Private forest lands may be harvested and developed. About 130,000 people live in the Park year-round. Another eight to 10 million visit, mostly in the summer.

It is less well known than most national parks, but at 9,300-square miles, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon national parks would all fit inside the Adirondack Park with room to spare. It contains nearly all of the unbroken wilderness and old-growth forest east of the Mississippi River. Its mountain forests are the source of five major river systems, fed by thousands of cold lakes, and 30,000 miles of brooks and streams.

History of Conflict

Some of the nation’s first and fiercest battles between conservationists and loggers occurred in the Adirondacks. From the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, ecologists used photography to bring images of irresponsible logging to the State Legislature. New laws and oversight helped stem the damage. But the 1980s brought new dangers.

“The giant papermakers and timber companies started moving their mills overseas, leaving them with thousands of acres of Adirondack forest and no local mill that needed the wood. That depressed land values and the developers and land speculators started circling like vultures,” said Brian L. Houseal, Executive Director of the Adirondack Council, a private environmental advocacy organization based in the park.

“Environmentalists felt a sense of doom,” Houseal explained. “We didn’t like bad timber harvesting, but development was worse. Private timberlands were being bought up and chopped into building lots at an alarming rate. It was lost forever to timber production and useless to native wildlife.”

At the time, conservative leaders of the NYS Senate would not pass new laws to protect the park’s remote, private backcountry from development. The Adirondack Park Agency, the state’s regulatory hand in the park, could only slow down and pare-back major projects, not stop them.

A New Plan Takes Shape

“It was Gov. George Pataki, his chief environmental advisor John Cahill, who first moved the state in the direction of using conservation easements to save the big timber companies’ lands,” Houseal said. “Under Cahill’s guidance, the state continued its practice of purchasing (for addition to the “forever wild” Forest Preserve) the most ecologically significant areas of major timber holdings. Rather than allowing the remaining lands to be sold off piecemeal, they started buying up the development rights.”

This solved two problems at once. It protected the lands from being fragmented, developed and ecologically degraded. At the same time, it prevented the lands from being lost to timber production. In most cases, the acreage protected by easements was larger than the area purchased as new Forest Preserve by a ratio of 7 to 1 or more.

Pataki and Cahill leaned heavily on land-saving organizations such as the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Open Space Institute and the Conservation Fund as partners in these conservation agreements.

One by one, the timber companies left the state, replaced by new owners. Instead building of sprawling resorts and new homes, the new owners were long-term investors, seeking a stable investment in timberlands. Thanks to the conservation agreements in place, the state was buying up all the development rights. This reduced the purchase price for the new buyers, as well as the local property tax burden, making the investment more attractive.

Buying development rights was cheaper for the state than buying the land. Since the land remained in private hands, selective, sustainable timber harvesting was still possible and profitable.

The Last Domino to Fall

Monday’s agreement follows the same pattern, and closes the final chapter on the era of the major timber companies. In 1980, Diamond International, Champion International, Domtar Industries, Yorkshire Timber, and a handful of others once owned more than 1.1 million acres of the Adirondack Park. All have left. Finch, Pruyn & Co., which sold its 161,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy last year, was the last domino to fall.

In all, the state has agreed to buy the development rights to more than 700,000 acres of former timber company lands. Large portions of the remainder have been added to the public Forest Preserve. Today, DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis is the architect and overseer of the state’s conservation easement program. He intends to purchase the 92,000 acre easement from the conservancy later this year and the remaining 56,000 acres for the Forest Preserve by 2010.

“The deal with ATP is typical in that the participation of each of the three parties made this deal more attractive for the other two,” Houseal explained. “In the end, the public is the big winner. The land is preserved as an intact forest. Local loggers and mill workers keep their good jobs. New York residents get an amazing addition to the park’s recreational opportunities.

“At the same time, the Danish government gets the environment-friendly investment it wanted for its pension fund managers. They want to help curb greenhouse gases and climate change,” Houseal said. “A well-managed Adirondack forest absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Its leafy canopy helps to keep the Park’s lands and waters cool.”

The loss of development rights on the property doesn’t mean lower tax revenues for the town and school district, however. The state is obligated to pay the difference in the taxes to the 34 towns and two-dozen school districts. The timber-supply agreement for the Finch, Pruyn & Co. papermill in Glens Falls will continue as before, for at least 20 years.

“The Conservancy tells us that the folks from Denmark were very interested in finding the most ecologically friendly commercial timberland investment they could arrange,” Houseal explained. “This is the perfect capstone to a job well done. The park’s backcountry could be an absolute mess right now. There are 70 million people living within a day’s drive of this place. The pressure to chop it into tiny pieces is never-ending.”

Thanks in part to the Adirondack Council’s advocacy, this year’s state budget contains $60 million for land acquisition and conservation easements (in the NYS Environmental Protection Fund).

The Adirondack Council is a privately funded not-for-profit organization dedicated to ensuring the ecological integrity and wild character of New York’s 9,300-square-mile Adirondack Park. The Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action. More information at: www.adirondackcouncil.org.

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2 Responses

  1. Alan Gregory says:

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