News comes this week that the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad (Iowa Pacific Holdings) has gotten federal go-ahead to extend commercial rail uses to and from the former mine at Tahawus, Newcomb. I extend the company and the towns through which the spur line passes a thumbs-up and good luck, not just for its rail rehabilitation and future commercial success, but for its educational success.
That said, the State of New York, by failing to hold public hearings to share information and hear opinion about the complicated issues behind re-extending the line from North Creek to Newcomb, failed its responsibilities for the Forest Preserve.
Thanks to the railroad, passengers can now gain greater appreciation for the Adirondack Park heading to North Creek from Saratoga Springs. North Creek anticipated and organized at many levels to receive these passengers and enhance their total experience. I know much more could be done to interpret the Adirondack experience along the way, and Adirondack Wild stands ready to help.
While the company seems only interested at present in hauling out the waste rock left at the mine to the north, the passenger experience to North Creek should eventually extend to the geographic heart of the Adirondacks in Newcomb where a significant nucleus of educational activity awaits potential rail passengers, whatever their age and inclinations, such as:
• the Historic Area at the former village of Adirondac, where one of the nation’s earliest blast furnaces for smelting of iron (c. 1854) is interpreted;
• stunning Henderson Lake and Mt. Adams at the southern entrance to the High Peaks Wilderness Area, a part of the Forest Preserve;
• a lovely small wayside museum that interprets the former log drives on the upper Hudson River;
• the magnificent vista of the entire High Peaks Wilderness from the nearby Town park;
• moving west, access to the restored Great Camp Santanoni, which has National Historic Landmark status (as does the entire Forest Preserve);
• trail or highway access from there to the Adirondack Interpretive Center operated by the State University’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
I haven’t even mentioned the country’s longest-running wildlife research station at SUNY’s Huntington Wildlife Forest and Adirondack Ecological Center; Masten House, where we hope SUNY will operate a wilderness training center; and exciting future bicycling, canoeing and kayaking opportunities, and related guiding services on the Upper Hudson and Essex Chain of Lakes (former Finch Pruyn lands) which we hope will soon become part of the Forest Preserve.
Suffice it to say, there is plenty of wild land, as well as cultural experience to attract visitors to Newcomb from North Creek by rail, as well as by state highway and bus if the rail company, Town of Newcomb, State, County and private sectors work together in common purpose.
As the company begins to restore the track north of North Creek, it should be very careful about not introducing invasive species of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals. State Legislation was just significantly strengthened in this area that should cause the railroad to use great care and best practices. Along the Boreas River, a designated State Scenic River, the company also needs to observe very strict standards.
To the State of New York, I say “job not well done” in the way the State failed to defend the public’s interest along 13 miles of rail that runs through the Forest Preserve in Essex County, and failed to hold hearings to share information and discuss the issues openly.
Initially, the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation raised its concerns in writing to the federal Surface Transportation Board about the validity of the rail’s right of way (ROW). Then, after Governor Cuomo, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, and Congressman Owens applied pressure, DEC swept those concerns, in fact the entire history of these issues, under the rug, and allowed the State Department of Transportation to, in effect, speak for it. Here’s that history. Charles C. Morrison, Jr., kindly provided me with documentation, but any errors in description and interpretation are mine.
The issues of extending commercial rail uses from North Creek to Tahawus revolve around the 1942 condemnation by the United States of a 100-foot right-of-way easement “for the transportation of strategic materials vital to the successful prosecution of the War,” meaning World War II. That strategic mineral was ilmenite, or titanium dioxide. The United States built the spur line to Tahawus for $3 million. Condemned property included 13 miles of NYS Forest Preserve (middle and northern spur), along with 17 miles through lands of various private owners (southern spur). The easement over the many private property owners was deemed permanent. The easement over the Forest Preserve was deemed “temporary” for fifteen years after the war ended.
After WW II ended, NYS sought to have the 13 miles revert to NYS ownership citing violation of Article 14, Section 1 of the NYS Constitution. NYS lost in the US Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear its case. National Lead leased the line to transport the strategic materials out of Tahawus mine starting in 1942.
By 1962, titanium no longer “strategic” to a war and widely available in the world, the US General Services Administration, not content with annual lease income from NL, sought to surplus the ROW and rails. To buy time for this surplus sale, the GSA asked a federal court to extend the eminent domain and ROW easement for 100 years. NYS Conservation Department, in a dereliction of its responsibilities for the Forest Preserve, no longer contested this 100-year extension of a federal taking.
The 100-year easement was “for the same purposes” as in 1942 but then, inconsistently, it also states “for the location, relocation, construction, maintenance, operation and removal of railroad facilities.” The easement was thus extended to 2062, with NL Industries now transporting only the waste magnetite ore out of Tahawus. In 1989, the GSA auctioned off the rolling stock, rails and ROW to NL Industries for under $1 million. NYS did not bid. The last load of ilmenite, the strategic material and stated purpose of the ROW, left Tahawus in 1982. Mining for that mineral ceased. Waste rock for use as road fill left the mine by rail until 1989, when the rail spur ceased operation. Waste rock and magnetite ore was then transported by truck.
Given that the ROW was no longer used to transport strategic materials vital to a war that ended in 1945, the State in 2011 or 2012 should at least have held public hearings on the question of whether or not the 1962, 100-year easement was null and void. It should have held public comment on whether or not NYS should remove unconstitutional rail occupancy along 13 miles of Forest Preserve.
Not that these questions are unambiguous. Saratoga & North Creek Railroad (Iowa Pacific Holdings) would have argued in a hearing that the 1962 ROW easement remains valid for another 50 years “for the location, relocation, construction, maintenance, operation and removal of railroad facilities.” Furthermore, the DOT rail abandonment regulation is also highly ambiguous, giving the DOT commissioner all sorts of leeway to exempt certain lines.
There is another ambiguous legal issue. The NYS Wild, Scenic and Recreational River regulations overseen by DEC disallow new railroad uses along Wild and Scenic rivers (1/2 mile river corridor on either side of the river). The Tahawus spur runs along the Boreas River, a designated Scenic river. Arguments could well be made that rail restoration and use, defunct since 1989, is a new use, and hence prohibited by regulation, or that the rail spur and ROW were pre-existing. In addition, there are very important points to be made about what types and extent of recreation should be allowed within the ROW.
Again, DEC should have insisted to the Surface Transportation Board that public hearings be held so that historic and contemporary information would come forward, and public opinions heard. Ambiguities might abound, and decisions would still have to be made, but informed arguments could be weighed. If the hearing were adjudicatory, evidence would be presented. Perhaps, in considering all the evidence or arguments the decision would be to extend the line; perhaps it would be to subject the extension of rail use to a constitutional amendment, and a public vote. After all, the Forest Preserve is the public’s business, whether you live on Long Island, Newcomb, or in Buffalo. Instead, without consulting the public, our custodian for the Forest Preserve, the NYS DEC, ceded its responsibilities to the federal government and “hit the delete button” on 60 years of history about a rail line through an Adirondack wilderness.
Photo courtesy Enid Mastrianni.