Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dan Crane:
Pssst, I Got A Couple Adirondack Propositions For Ya

The View from the new Jay Mountain Trail (DEC Photo)This time of the year marks a period of change. With the falling leaves, the coming of cold temperatures and their accompanying snowfall, the change is literally in the air. Along with these natural changes, comes the possibility of political change as well, brought about on the high-holy day of any democracy, voting day. In New York State, voting day often includes a number of propositions to amend the state constitution, two of which just happen to involve the Adirondack Park this time around.

Politics often lacking any semblance of imagination, the two propositions are simply names Proposal #4 and #5. Both of these proposals involve land exchanges in the Adirondacks, although under vastly different circumstances.

Proposition #4 involves settling a 100-year old dispute between the State and some private parties over the ownership of properties in the town of Long Lake in Hamilton County. If the proposal passes, the State would relinquish all claims to the properties in exchange for another parcel (or number of parcels) of equal or more value to be incorporated into the Forest Preserve.

Apparently, the 216 lots, covering approximately 1,000 acres, in the hamlet of Raquette Lake, include private homes, businesses, a school, a firehouse, a waste transfer station and a marina. In exchange for a clear title to the parcels, the landowners would pay a fee into a fund held by the town of Long Lake, which would be used to acquire undeveloped property with the intention of incorporating it into the Forest Preserve at zero cost to the taxpayer. The landowners could reduce their fee by entering into conservation easements with the town or by conveying a portion of their land to the state.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has targeted the historic Marion River Carry for acquisition if this proposal passes, which includes forested areas along the Marion River, portions of Utowana Lake shoreline, and a canoe portage connecting Raquette Lake with both Utowana and Blue Mountain Lakes. Recreationally, these properties are probably more valuable than the disputed parcels on Raquette Lake, especially those currently developed.

Information on Proposition #4 is readily available from the League of Women Voters, Ballotpedia or from the actual text of the proposal.

If the previous proposed amendment sounds somewhat complicated, then you should find Proposition #5 downright convoluted. This land exchange involves NYCO Minerals, Inc., a private company, which would receive 200-forested acres of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area in Essex County in exchange for a 1500 parcel that the company already owns.

NYCO Minerals currently operates an open wollastonite ore mine just east of the Jay Mountain Wilderness in the town of Lewis, Essex County, which it wants to expand into the wilderness area. In addition, after mining the 200 acres (estimated at 8 years), it would be reclaimed (i.e. filled in) and replanted before being handed back to the state for re-inclusion into the Forest Preserve.

Proposition #5 has been discussed in depth at the Adirondack Almanack, with both Pete Nelson and Bill Ingersoll doing an excellent job of covering the proposal’s ins and outs. It is impossible for me to discuss the issues surrounding this proposal as skillfully and eloquently as the aforementioned dynamic duo, but at the risk of beating a dead horse, I thought I might add my two cents from a bushwhacking backcountry adventurer’s perspective.

Information on Proposition #5 is readily available from the League of Women Voters, Ballotpedia or from the actual text of the proposal.

Unfortunately, my exposure to both these areas is limited, making my own voting decisions that more difficult. A more intimate knowledge of these parcels would make it vastly easier to decide on their ultimate fates.

As most of my recent backcountry adventures involve exploring the northwestern portions of the Park, the west-central parts where Raquette Lake is located has largely been neglected since my early backpacker-in-training days, long before I ever thought about wandering too far from the trail. Despite the passage of time, I have fond memories of my single exposure to the Utowana Lake, the Marion River and Raquette Lake, although these memories remain dusty and cobweb covered, seemingly appropriate for the Halloween season.

This single exposure to the Raquette Lake and the Marion River Carry involved a three-day canoe trip with a couple classmates from State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry and their friends back in the mid-1990’s. Starting at Blue Mountain Lake, we canoed down through Eagle, Utowana and Raquette Lakes before finally finishing at Forked Lake.

Much of the trip details have been lost within the dark recesses of my addled middle-aged mind, but I do remember camping near a carry on the Marion River the first night and at a campsite on the shore of Raquette Lake the second night, with the Marion River portion being particularly pleasant.

Sadly, my experience with the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area is almost non-existent, with sighting the mountain range while driving north on 9N during my quest to become an Adirondack 46er being my closest encounter. As far as backcountry intimacy is concerned, a two-day trip to Weston Mountain in the Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area is about as near as I ever got. I regret not seeing the proposed land exchange area, as if the proposal passes, I will never get the opportunity to do so in this lifetime.

Making up my own mind on these two proposals has not been an easy task. Both of them involve exchanging known properties for ultimately unknown ones, since no specific parcels are specified in the actual amendments, such decisions are left up to the Legislature, which is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Before researching the issue, I planned to vote in favor of proposal #4, but I am not quite as sure now. The image of little children standing nearby as their school is demolished, while volunteer firefighters mill around knowing their firehouse next, almost guarantees passage of this proposal. Combined with the prospect of saving tax dollars by avoiding a lengthy court battle, fighting this proposal is probably a Sisyphean task.

Despite how these contested areas are characterized in the news media, a cursory Google Earth tour of these parcels reveals much of the disputed area to be forestlands, with the rare human habitations mainly being near the shoreline of Raquette Lake. This gives the landowners ample opportunities to avoid paying anything to the State by merely entering into conservation easements, thus resulting in little funds for the acquisition of any of the more valuable properties along the Marion River.

My concerns with the NYCO proposal are much more plentiful, many of which have already been articulated elsewhere and need not be repeated here. Proponents trot out the old horse of jobs, jobs and more jobs to rationalize what amounts to a selling of forest preserve to a private company. I definitely feel for anyone losing a job if this proposal is not passed (although maybe not for the lawyers involved), but if jobs trump the forever wild clause of the constitution then would not all public lands be at risk within the Blue Line. Why not allow timber companies the use of the Five Ponds Wilderness? I am sure they will return the land to the state after extracting the trees.

In addition, what happens at the end of the eight years when NYCO wants another 200 acres of the Jay Mountain Wilderness? Will they return to the trough for some more? Will it be granted again? How many times? This proposal merely puts off the inevitable, and for only eight years. Or does it?

Ultimately, I have ended up where I started before researching the two proposals, reluctantly supporting Proposal #4, and opposing Proposal #5, although I reserve the right to change my mind while filling out my ballot on Tuesday.

Happy Voting!

Photo: View from Jay Mountain, courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

15 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    I find it interesting that the state is able to outright sell 90 acres of land they own in Gabriels to a private entity yet here a constitutional amendment is required along with a land swap? There does not appear to be any size exclusion in article 14. Can anyone explain?

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      The former prison property is not considered part of the Forest Preserve. While some might question that point, that is nevertheless that property’s official status.

      • Paul says:

        Bill, When and how did it get that status? Is there already some kind of precedent here that we have not yet considered?

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        Status would have been made at the time of purchase, when the state acquired the property for “non-forest preserve purposes.” It’s questionable whether the state has the authority to do this, but nevertheless that is the reasoning.

        The state prison in Dannemora are specifically exempted from Article XIV.

        • Paul says:

          Thanks. It makes no sense to me. If the state has the authority to do this then there are things about Article 14 that we don’t understand and probably have some bearing on the discussion regarding the amendments and any precedent that they may or may not set.

          • Steve says:

            Though I’m not familiar with the intricacies of the relevant law, I’m pretty sure it’s very simple. Just because the state buys or acquires land, even if undeveloped, within the boundaries of the Adirondack or Catskill Parks, that land isn’t required to become part of the forest preserve. Such a requirement would make it impossible for the state to accept a gift of 10,000 acres and cut a few trees to create a parking lot for a dozen cars, as well as prevent a host of other legitimate state endeavors.

            A simple reading of the prohibition against removing or destroying timber could be read as prohibiting highway maintenance in the form of cutting branches along some roads, or even removing the entirety of a tree that falls in the road. The vast amount of what’s actually in article 14 is the many exemptions to the forever wild clause, and, as always happens, the real meaning of the two important sentences has been interpreted over the years by the courts. “Forever wild” isn’t nearly the absolute that it sounds like.

        • Paul says:

          What it appears happened here is that the state did something that appeared unprecedented and deemed a parcel of Adirondack land it had acquired NOT to be part of the forest preserve. It then later sold the land to some guy from Brooklyn with the apparent benefit to the state of making a few hundred thousand dollars. If it set a precedent everyone seems to have forgotten it already. That is why I think that the precedent that folks are worried about here with prop 5 seem to be totally exaggerated.

          • dave says:

            That prison sale just happened. Most people are just hearing about it.

            So how would everyone have forgotten about it already?

            • Paul says:

              Dave, I am talking about when the state first acquired the land and did not add it to the forest preserve.

              • Avon says:

                I, for one, am glad that the State does not acquire land in Gabriels or anywhere else as part of a prison property and call it part of the Forest Preserve. If they had done it upon acquisition, it would’ve flunked the laugh test.
                Let’s stay real, here!

  2. Paul says:

    Also on prop 4:

    This one also benefits private interests as well as having a benefit for the state as a whole. In fact some of these many parcels might be owned by corporations already (many Adirondack land owners own their land through a corporation (LLCs etc)) Perhaps at some point they may want to mine the land they are getting a clean title to. They can do whatever they want to do with it unless they opt for the easement deal.

    Is this really different than 5 when you think about it?

    • Avon says:

      The difference is that the cloud on the title of the Prop 4 lands was created by a state error in the 19th century, which the courts recognized almost 100 years ago but never actually fixed. If Prop 4 fails, there will have to be either litigation, legislation or chaos.

      At least, with the Prop 5 lands everyone knows what rights exist now, and the only issue is whether to sell/trade those rights. If Prop 5 fails, the company will mine wollastonite somewhere less ideal for them, and we’ll avoid the skin-crawling precedent saying “Forever Wild” lands have no assurance of Forever.

  3. Smitty says:

    Geeze I just don’t get the opposition to Prop 5. To my thinking, it’s not about jobs jobs jobs or corporate interest. It’s about getting 1500 acres in exchange for 200 acres with lower recreation potential. Pragmatism trumps idealism.

  4. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Up to 1500 acres of theoretical new lands are irrelevant in light of the fact that NYCO intends to destroy up to 200 acres of existing state land.

    One will never excuse the other.

    • Bill Ott says:

      Tampering with “forever wild” for economic benefit reduces the meaning of “forever wild”.