Monday, January 3, 2011

Elk Lake: The First Adirondack Conservation Easement

The signing of an important conservation easement last week protecting a large percentage of the former Finch, Pruyn lands reminds me of a visit I paid to Paul Schaefer in March, 1990. At that time, Governor Mario Cuomo had proposed an Environmental Bond Act, which required legislative approval before going to the voters (it was ultimately voted down). How was the bond act being received in the legislature, Paul asked. I gave him the news that it was having a rough reception politically. Paul remained optimistic. The bond act was important because it would permit the purchase of conservation easements in the Adirondacks, and that should be enough to tip public support in its favor, he felt.

Later that year, Paul formed Sportsmen for the Bond Act. It was one of many highly focused organizations he created in his lifetime. This effort, one of the last he personally led, revealed an evolution in Schaefer’s approach to Park conservation. Since 1930, Paul had fought for any appropriation that would add more Forest Preserve, public land protected as “forever wild” by Article 14 of the NYS Constitution that would eventually be classified wild forest or wilderness. He persuaded many organized hunters to support his wilderness philosophy. But he also came to believe that many private holdings in the Park should be available for active forest management, which he viewed as complimentary, both ecologically and aesthetically, to adjacent “forever wild” Forest Preserve.

Until 1984, no statutory tool had existed to permit the state to expend public funds and receive specified public rights to land otherwise engaged in active forest management in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. Public expenditure for land in the Parks resulted in the land becoming Forest Preserve. In most of the 20th century, conservation easements were only authorized under the common law carried over from the state’s 18th century colonial status. Under common law, a landowner could grant or sell a scenic conservation easement protecting a piece of property from, say, housing development only if it were appurtenant to existing protected land, such as adjacent Forest Preserve. The public could not gain a more flexible easement until the 1984 easement law, which authorized public expenditure to protect private managed land and gain public rights anywhere it could be negotiated with a private owner. By 1990 the easement law – Article 49 of the Environmental Conservation Law – was still pretty new. There was no annual environmental appropriation at the time. The Environmental Protection Fund had not yet been created.

Paul urged me to continue to fight for the bond act, then sat back and told me about the first conservation easement in the Adirondacks, under common law. It was about protecting forest scenery and preventing development adjacent to the publicly-owned High Peaks, and it came about as a result of a heated conversation in the very room we were sitting in.

The time is circa 1959. Samuel Bloomingdale of New York City had just bought Elk Lake south of the High Peaks from the Finch, Pruyn paper company. Many people were worried about his motivation. The Northway, I-87, had been authorized and second home lots on Elk Lake – under ten miles from a planned Northway exit – would be worth a lot of money. Some of those worriers gathered in Paul Schaefer’s Adirondack Room to discuss what to do. They included Regional Director Bill Petty of the State Conservation Department, and that agency’s Charlie Matteson who was in charge of land acquisition.

Also attending was Richard Pough, President of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. All present believed that Bloomingdale would develop his property because its value would skyrocket due to the Northway’s construction. With no positive resolution in sight, Dick Pough asked if the group would travel to New York City and communicate their concerns directly to Bloomingdale, which they subsequently did.

Samuel Bloomingdale sat with the group, and his lawyers. “Level with us,” asked the Conservation Department representatives. “People around the state are very concerned. What are your plans for Elk Lake?” Bloomingdale replied, “nothing, I love it and I want it to stay the way it is.” Matteson and the rest were floored. They haltingly asked him “would there be a possibility of putting an easement on the property to protect it?” Great idea, Bloomingdale answered. Matteson then admitted that the State was broke, but had “scraped together” $65,000 to protect the Elk Lake shoreline.

Bloomingdale broke off the conversation and privately conversed with his lawyers, then came back. “Everything about your plan is great except for one thing: the money.” Matteson answered gloomily that he thought that would be the problem. “No, the owner replied, I don’t think you should pay us anything. We’ll take $1 for the easement.” This same easement exists today to protect the shoreline and islands of magnificent Elk Lake.

Photo: Elk Lake, from the north, during a flight provided courtesy of the organization LightHawk.

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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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