Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dave Gibson:
Land Sought For Mining Company Is Hardly Ordinary

This Sugar Maple on Lot 8 may be 175 years old or moreBill Ingersoll’s recent post about the November 5 vote on the NYCO Minerals-State Land Exchange (Proposition 5 on the upcoming ballot) makes good reading – as do the comments.

His interpretation, that the land exchange stripped-down to its essence represents a straight commercial transaction that lacks any public need or benefit, is one Adirondack Wild shares, but Bill made an especially articulate case.

One of the interesting comments to Bill’s post comes from my colleague Dan Plumley. Dan notes that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s characterization of “Lot 8,” the 200-acre section of Jay Mountain Wilderness the company wants to mine for wollastonite, is plain wrong. Dan’s opinion is informed by observations he and I made during recent field visits to Lot 8. We were impressed by the forest environment there, which I will get to in a moment.

Forest Preserve advocates once seemed pretty united in opposition to mining on the Forest Preserve by constitutional amendment, but that was in 2008 prior to the proposed amendment’s first passage in the state legislature. Since then, and especially in 2013, DEC aggressively lobbied for this land swap and attempted to change our positions. Adirondack Wild, for one, would not alter its view that this was a bad deal for the Forest Preserve, had negative consequences for the future, and would actually harm the integrity of Article 14, since there was no public benefit.

The idea of a land swap with NYCO has been around since the early 1980s and heretofore DEC had been leery of doing anything more than lending technical support to the company and those legislators endorsing an amendment. By 2013, the governor and local legislators were framing the land swap as essential for job retention and economic well being in Essex County (“The Park is Open for Business,” according to the governor’s office), and the DEC parroted those arguments.

NYCO Minerals is a valuable employer in Essex County, no doubt about that. Yet, NYCO’s president told us in a candid conversation during 2012 that if the land swap fails in the NY State Legislature or at the polls, the company has no intention of shuttering its business, but would eventually move mining operations to its nearby Oak Hill mine, long ago permitted by APA and DEC, and containing at least 20 years worth of mineral reserves.

DEC knew this of course, but chose to claim that jobs were at stake when the pressure was turned-up, presumably from the governor’s office. Yes, the company’s president also told us that Lot 8 would be easier and less costly to mine than Oak Hill, thereby benefiting a company in a competitive global marketplace (partly, the company may be in competition with itself, meaning other mines it owns elsewhere). Whether or not Article 14 should be amended purely for reasons of commercial cost-cutting and convenience is an important issue facing the voters.

Here are excerpts from the NYS DEC position paper on NYCO and the land exchange which played a role in the NYS Assembly’s support for the amendment this spring, as did support from the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club:

“Lot 8 was acquired by the State in the late 1800’s at a tax sale and became part of the Forest Preserve as a result. Lot 8’s current forested character has environmental value consistent with forest land in the region but DEC has not identified any unique ecological or natural resource features on the property…There is no evidence that Lot 8 includes critical wildlife pathways, and it includes no brooks or streams.”

As Dan Plumley points out in his comment to Bill Ingersoll’s post, “DEC’s assessment of the value of these lands ecologically is entirely wrong – as if it was never visited or honestly assessed. Lot 8 includes tremendous old growth northern hardwoods across the site…and is a rich, calcareous site for its soils, diverse terrestrial plants and wildlife. It is indeed a rare forest stand within the whole of the Adirondacks.”

Adirondack Wild has made two field visits to Lot 8, and spent about seven hours in all bushwhacking through parts of these 200 acres. Limited as our investigations have been, I believe we have spent more time there than DEC and even one visit casts doubt on DEC’s assertions. Lot 8 certainly has significant ecological and natural resource features.

We found several small streams coursing through these woods, and majestic stands of old-growth or older trees including Sugar Maple, White Ash, American Beech, American Basswood and Big-toothed Aspen towering above our heads. Some of these trees were well over 20 inches diameter, some Sugar Maple over 30 inches. We estimate that the older Sugar Maples may be 200 years old or more, with tree diameters (DBH) from 15 to 34 inches, tree circumferences reaching 102 inches in size, and tree heights reaching 90 to 100 feet high. This is a very rich, interesting forest judging from its apparently calcium laden soils and duff layer that appears little disturbed. Lot 8 appears to demonstrate the best of northern hardwood ecosystems in the Adirondack Park.

Eastern northern hardwood forests are described variously as “old growth” when they have developed relatively undisturbed, with deep soils, various crown classes (tree tops) and stem sizes with oldest trees above 120 to 150 years in age depending on the citation. With many trees potentially as old as 100 years, with at least one as old as 178 years, Lot 8 appears to have reached an old growth age level for Sugar Maple and White Ash, and approaching old growth for Beech and Basswood.

A few of the beeches had been climbed by black bear, while at our feet grew plants indicative of rich soil: Maidenhair Fern, Christmas Fern, Blue Cohosh, among them. There may be some rare herbaceous plants growing here. We found some large vernal pools, meaning ephemeral ponds which may harbor many amphibians during their spring breeding period, which then disperse through the upland forest. Based on our informal investigations, this site deserves a formal ecological site analysis.

DEC’s position paper goes on to state that:

“As one can see Lot 8, while forested, contains no exceptional natural resource features and contains no formal public access… The land to be received for inclusion in the Forest Preserve would be in the vicinity of Lot 8 and provide greater natural resource, recreational and environmental value than Lot 8. The land to be received would also improve access to the Forest Preserve in the area of the Jay Mountain and Hurricane Mountain wilderness areas and Taylor Pond Wild Forest.”

While public access and recreation values are certainly important, we are not a recreation organization and won’t pretend to address those issues. What I can say is that DEC waxes eloquent about the natural resource and recreational values on the lands which may be received in exchange, yet dismisses Lot 8’s assets without, it would appear, having done much, if any, field work there. Also, none of the exchange parcels are guaranteed to come into the Forest Preserve in exchange for Lot 8. No implementing legislation has yet been approved in the State Legislature. The public has no way of knowing exactly what Forest Preserve and what added value it is getting in return for Lot 8.

Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter have teamed up to create a new website, www.saveforeverwild.org, which contains a number of reasons why voters should turn Prop 5 down flat. In addition to the ecological arguments, here are the additional reasons (refer to the website for more detail):

  • Passage of Proposition 5 will mark the first time that the Forest Preserve is exchanged solely for private commercial benefit. It represents a damaging precedent;
  • NYCO Minerals owns second mine nearby with a 20 year or greater supply of wollastonite, and does not need Forest Preserve Wilderness to remain in business ;
  • Proposition 5 is bad legislative process because no law was passed that detailed the process for land swap or Forest Preserve benefit.

To this list, I add another: Prop 5 suffers from a lack of State credibility. The most visible proponent of Prop 5, our NYS DEC, has been less than candid about its first-hand knowledge of Lot 8, the availability of alternative sources of wollastonite, the findings and facts in the many APA and DEC permits NYCO Minerals has received at its present mine and at Oak Hill Mine, and the public need and benefit of this amendment to Article 14 of our State Constitution.

Photo: A Sugar Maple on Lot 8 that may be 175 years old or more.

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David Gibson

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 Preserve

During 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.




16 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    This debate about if this plot has old growth forest on it is interesting. Barbara McMartin has a great book on this topic. I am trying to remember since that book is at my camp and not where I am. Did she list this as a possible “old growth” stand?

    For now you are just looking back at your partners assessment. It would support your position if you could give a less biased source. Here you are just kind of referencing yourself?

  2. Bill Ingersoll Bill Ingersoll says:

    Barbara McMartin’s book in question is “The Great Forest of the Adirondacks,” and she cites this definition of old growth:

    “… a forest where the average age of the trees over six inches in diameter of all species present is at least half the life expectancy of the species.”

    She estimated there were 500,000 acres of old growth in the Forest Preserve, primarily in areas that had been owned by the state for at least a century, with no documented instances of trespass by loggers, no fires, and no timber salvage after a wind event. She also mentioned that there was an emotional factor in determining whether a forest was old growth or not. But she conceded that the effort to analyze these factors was incomplete.

    Her map of potential old growth sites is found on page 187, and it includes no acreage in the Jay Range. Considering that fires were known to have ravaged the upper slopes of those mountains, she might not have scrutinized the lower slopes. Most of the sites she did identify were located within the original 1892 Adirondack Park boundaries.

    In my own commentary, I did my best to avoid the old growth question, because if that was truly the criteria for determining the value of the Forest Preserve then so little of it could be deemed valuable. According to my own lay understanding of old growth, the presence of large aspen trees in Lot 8 might actually disqualify it from consideration; aspen trees require direct sunlight and flourish in disturbed areas. Hemlock, sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, and red spruce are more typical climax species because they are more shade-tolerant. But then those aspens could be there because of some old windstorm. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

    This was one of Barbara’s concluding statements:

    “While a few stands are truly awe inspiring, the intervening forest is no less old and special.”

    I tend to agree: a stand does not need to be old growth without being considered worthy of protection.

    • John Warren says:

      More about old growth, and first growth here: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/?p=19248

    • Paul says:

      “I did my best to avoid the old growth question, because if that was truly the criteria for determining the value of the Forest Preserve then so little of it could be deemed valuable” True, I was just wondering about this question since in another article I read this was laid out one argument for keeping this 200 acres. The argument was made by Protect. The swap here would add 1500 acres (so a net of 1300, even not considering a reclamation which is probably pretty worthless I agree with that point you made to me earlier Bill). This deal makes the Forest Preserve larger this should be a serious consideration.

  3. adkDreamer says:

    Dave –

    Great read… Thanks to you and Dan for visiting this sensitive site and telling us the truth.

  4. Tony Goodwin Tony Goodwin says:

    While it may not be in the enabling legislation, the parcels that NYCO will acquire to offset their acquisition of Lot 8 have been identified and do contribute to both the Forest Preserve as a whole and to public recreational access.

    For the most part, Forest Preserve lands were acquired rather haphazardly via either tax sales or random sales by individuals. So these additions to the Forest Preserve will be because for some rational reason, whereas Lot 8 just happened to become Forest Preserve because of a tax sale. While those 200 acres do apparently have some interesting ecological value, I am confident in saying that those aren’t the ONLY 200 acres in the Forest Preserve that have those values. Further, NYCO will only use a portion of those 200 acres and will then restore those acres and return them to the Forest Preserve.

    I understand the concern that this is a land swap that benefits a private corporation, but the gain here so far outweighs the loss that it sets a very high bar for any subsequent swaps with private corporations. Although it is a not-for-profit, the Nature Conservancy is a private corporation that is burdened with the obligation to pay significant property taxes while also subject to other ownership costs for the property the Conservancy acquired from Finch Pruyn. I haven’t heard any complaints from environmentalists that NYS buying the Conservancy’s Finch Pruyn holdings is done just to benefit a private corporation.

    • Paul says:

      Tony, in your last sentence you make a very interesting point. Anyone can set up a not-for profit.

  5. Fact is the entire area inside the Blue Line is a target for those with vested interests. I love parks and yes back country wilderness. I know also that Millions love the Road Access and YUP Supermarkets and Computers and all the other Modern Stuff. Personally Lot 8 should be mined and carefully with great sensitivity. On the other hand the 1500 Acre Sludge Bed on the bottom of Lake Champlain should be cleaned up ….. YUP 1500 acres of CRAP from Fort Ti to Crown Point …. Toxic Crap …. Where is the OUTRAGE ?

  6. Avon says:

    As one who follows the NYS Legislature often, I’m distressed to learn that the enabling legislation does not provide for acquiring those many tempting acres intended to offset the loss of Lot 8. That’s the one most likely reason I’d vote against Proposition 5. The Legislature is so dysfunctional that it is literally impossible to predict what they’ll pass, let alone when, no matter how greatly a proposal is desired or despised. It is distressingly likely that if Prop5 passes we will have NEITHER Lot 8 nor any new acquisition. That kind of failure-of-quid-pro-quo happens constantly in Albany.

    I don’t buy the “reclamation” promise either, but that’s due to Mother Nature’s realities.

    Dave Gibson is refreshingly honest in admitting that the recreational value of the planned acquisitions might be ample, but that’s not so important if one’s goal is conservation over recreation.
    My problem is, now I want both. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied unless and until a way is found to both keep Lot 8 and acquire those lowland rivers, forests and trails. I say, let’s aspire!

  7. Paul says:

    Dave, Have the scientists at the Natural Heritage Program analyzed this parcel? (the TNC people doing ecosystems analysis for the DEC)

    http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/29338.html

    I would assume that they are the folks that could determine the true value ecologically of these 200 acres and why they would be better to preserve than some other 1500 acres. With all due respect are you and Dan scientists that should be making this type of determination?? I have a science background (in Biology) and I know quite a bit about ecosystems but I would not pretend to make a call like this. Are you guys really comfortable making this determination based on just looking at the land? Bill’s comments on the fact that there are poplars there really makes my wonder about this land?

    • David says:

      I find it interesting that this is being framed as an either 200 acres or 1500 acres. In reality it should be 1700 acres or 1500 acres. If the amendment passes 200 acres of prime forest preserve land will be ruined. If it doesn’t pass the other land won’t be ruined. If the other land is ecologically valuable, buy the it, don’t make a deal with NYCO Just my thoughts.

      • Paul says:

        David, I see your point. But the state has the opportunity to get it with this deal. Without it the land could be sold, even to a mining company, instead.

  8. Re: Tony Goodwin’s comments – Tony, the comparison of the TNC Finch lands deal to the NYCO deal is absurd – apples to oranges. In fact, it makes our point. The Finch TNC lands went through the NY State Open Space Planning process – fully vetted and purchased appropriately from a willing seller – not as part of a damaging landswap that weakens the Article XIV covenant of “Forever Wild” as in the NYCO case.

    Re: Paul’s good question about poplars on the site – more specifically bigtooth aspens. There are very few on the site – we found one older individual that gain high canopy status by taking advantage 90 years ago or so of a canopy opening. This is not abnormal to see a few older growth big tooth aspens survive in both old growth northern hardwood and boreal forests to reach high canopy while the trees that surround it, as in this case, are over 200 to as much as 300 years old.

    The principle issue is not old growth or not, but in the very fact: shall we as a People believe in “Forever Wild” or shall “forever” be relegated at the whim of corporate desire and self-interest in mineral rights beneath state forest preserve lands. To this, the People of New York State given our long legacy and global model or protected wilderness forests, must say no to proposition 5 on November 5th.

    • Paul says:

      I think that the majority of New Yorkers probably think that a change in the law that requires the Forest Preserve to grow in size is something good for “Forever Wild” not something that is bad for it. I guess we will see. Personally I am going to vote NO since I don’t think that NYS needs more land in the Forest Preserve. I think we have already reached a goods balance of public and private land in the Adirondacks. Right now folks are just arguing over the crumbs left on the table.

    • Paul says:

      I don’t think that the comparison that Tony makes is absurd. Those transactions benefit a private corporation. This transaction benefits a private corporation. Those transactions have a public benefit with the growth of the Forest Preserve. This transaction has public benefits in that it grows the forest preserve. Those transactions were vetted. This transaction was vetted. Those transactions involved a willing seller and willing buyers. This transaction involves willing sellers and buyers.

    • Paul says:

      “The principle issue is not old growth or not”

      Then why do you guys state it this way on your website?

      “destroying 200 acres of dynamic old growth forests”

      It sounds like the facts tell us that this is a false statement?

      You gotta be honest with people no matter which way you want something to go. But this might spin well with some voters.