Monday, November 22, 2010

Commentary:Camp Gabriels Deal Requires Constitutional Amendment

Of all the recent press about the State’s attempted sale of 92-acre former minimum security prison known as Camp Gabriels in the town of Brighton, nothing has yet been written about the small problem of the NYS Constitution which says that the lands of the state now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve, as now fixed by law…shall not be leased, sold or exchanged” (Article 14, Section 1).

Are the 92-acres of Camp Gabriels, in fact, Forest Preserve lands which the State unconstitutionally used for purposes of a minimum security prison? And, despite their developed condition, can the State now simply dispose of them like any other “surplus” property?

There are many developed properties owned by the State of New York which state officials down through the years have never considered, much less treated as Forest Preserve. Camp Gabriels is surely one of those. So are the crowded campuses of State Police, DEC, APA and the federal prison at Ray Brook. So are many parcels at Mt. Van Hoevenberg. So is the Indian Lake Dam, pictured here. The list is a long one. Man of these lands (but not all) are classified (under the State Land Master Plan) as Administrative Use. For more about “Non-Forest Preserve: Inconsistent Use” see the paper of the same name by Robert C. Glennon in Volume 1, Technical Report 5 of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the 21st Century (1990).

The State Legislatures and many Attorneys General have often succeeded in attempting or justifying removal of lands from the Forest Preserve which the Constitution clearly says can not be removed. In September, 1894 the framers of Article 14 consciously inserted the words “as now fixed by law” after the words “forest preserve” to prevent the legislature or anybody else from redefining or diminishing the Forest Preserve as defined in the 1893 statute. That statute defined Forest Preserve as all the lands owned or hereafter acquired by NYS in the counties of Clinton (except the towns of Altona and Dannemora), Delaware, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Lewis, Oneida, Saratoga, St. Lawrence, Warren, Washington, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan except: a. lands within the limits of any village or city, and b. Lands, not wild lands, acquired by the state on foreclosure of mortgages made to the commissioners for loaning certain monies of the United States usually called the United States deposit fund. I doubt that Camp Gabriels, or any of the other “non-Forest Preserve state parcels named here fall within those constitutional exceptions to Forest Preserve.

Nonetheless, I wish the Town of Brighton the very best of luck in finding a new, economically advantageous use and owner for this extensively developed campus. These are hardly wild forest lands. The inmates at Camp Gabriels contributed to the building of the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Centers, and many other projects in this region of the Park. Now, Town leaders understandably want compatible owners who can assist the town’s community development.

Still, it is disquieting to see the State Office of General Services improperly lump Camp Gabriels in with other “surplus” “nonproductive” state holdings elsewhere in the State. The OGS should be treating Adirondack state facilities differently than it treats some armory on Long Island simply because the Constitution demands that they do.

In the 20th century, the Environmental Conservation Law 9-0101 broadened the number of exceptions to Forest Preserve in two ways. It carried forward the 1893 definition of the Forest Preserve as all lands owned or hereafter acquired in the sixteen named Adirondack and Catskill counties except lands within the limits of any village or city, and except lands acquired under two provisions of state law devised in the early 20th century known as the Silvicultural gift and Reforestation laws.

The first, ECL 9-0107, gives the State the ability to accept gift of lands for park purposes, open to the public for enjoyment of the scenic and natural beauties of the premises, or for purposes of silvicultural research and experimentation in the science of forestry. The second law applies to reforestation lands outside of the Adirondack Park blue line. Like the first, this provision requires the deed to specify this purpose, and then the lands do not become forest preserve.

I believe both of these laws are themselves unconstitutional, but they have been on the books for many decades, and no one has challenged them in court. I believe that the last time that the State has abused the Constitution by accepting lands under the Silvicultural gift provision was 1962 from Finch, Pruyn and Co.

Still, the facts remain that Camp Cabriels is owned by the State of NY, lies within a Forest Preserve county and was not, I believe, acquired under the aforementioned provisions of the ECL. By definition, therefore, it is Forest Preserve, notwithstanding the dozens of buildings and large amount of infrastructure. Has it been fully taxable for all these years, as Forest Preserve is supposed to be? The Brighton Supervisor surely would know that. If the State wishes to sell or lease Camp Gabriels, than the Governor or a member of the Legislature should propose an amendment to Article 14 expressly for this purpose.

If properly worded and limited in scope to Camp Gabriels, I am sure an amendment like this would ultimately receive statewide support. In the time needed to consider and ratify an amendment, more intensive study and consideration can be given to plan a future for Camp Gabriels. That planning would inform the amendment, and give the public confidence in voting for it.

Indian Lake Dam is another property which many in state and local government wish was not Forest Preserve. Although the State wanted to classify it Administrative Use this year, it was decided not to do so. It remains Wild Forest. Yet, it is vulnerable, like Camp Gabriels and so many others, to being sold off unless a vigilant public objects and reminds our State officials that their power to dispose of lands in Forest Preserve counties outside of the limits of a village or city, whether in good economic times or in bad, is limited by the NYS Constitution and a vote of “we the people.”

Photo: Indian Lake Dam lies on a small piece of Forest Preserve classified Wild Forest.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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