Monday, May 5, 2014

The New State Lands And Tourism

Boreas-600x343Two years ago, when Governor Andrew Cuomo revived the massive Finch, Pruyn land deal, first engineered by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in 2007, he shifted the terms of a long-running debate over big land-conservation projects in the Park. Funding for open-space conservation had been under attack in Albany for years, including a moratorium on new spending. Even many Democrats were questioning the value to taxpayers of protecting more “forever wild” land in the Park.

The governor turned that debate on its head, arguing that vast tracts of new public lands would be a boon to the state’s tourism economy—rather than a costly burden—and would give struggling Adirondack towns a long-needed boost. “Today’s agreement will make the Adirondack Park one of the most sought-after destinations for paddlers, hikers, hunters, sportspeople, and snowmobilers,” Cuomo declared in August 2012 as he committed the state to spending $47 million on sixty-nine thousand acres of timberlands over five years.

Cuomo pointed to “extraordinary new outdoor recreational opportunities” that he asserted would spark investment and help revitalize the tourism economy in struggling mountain towns.

Later that year, while paddling on Boreas Ponds—one of the jewels of the Finch deal—Cuomo said the conservation deal would be “a great economic opportunity for the state. We can preserve it, but we can also make it accessible for people.”

Cuomo_paddleIn the months since, the governor has moved aggressively to make good on that pledge, using his bully pulpit to promote the upper Hudson region of the Adirondacks where most of the Finch lands are located. He lured then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Indian Lake for a whitewater paddling challenge last summer, which drew headlines around the nation.

He also backed a state-funded advertising campaign that splashed Adirondack scenery on city buses downstate, and he set aside $4.7 million for loans to help tourism entrepreneurs in the region.

In December, the Adirondack Park Agency approved a management plan for twenty-two thousand acres of newly acquired lands that, if certain regulatory hurdles can be overcome, will allow for a snowmobile trail, floatplane access to two lakes, and mountain biking on old logging roads. It also will keep some dirt roads open for vehicles.

Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said the snowmobile trail and floatplane use could be game-changers. “Newcomb could become a snowmobile hub not dissimilar to Old Forge,” he said. “Once you connect the towns with new trails and a snowmobile bridge across the Cedar River, I could see that being a huge, huge economic benefit.”

But Canon and other local leaders and tourism experts say big questions and challenges remain. The five towns most directly affected by the Finch deal—Indian Lake, Long Lake, Minerva, North Hudson, and Newcomb—have been losing population and businesses for decades. “Newcomb has limited dining and lodging facilities,” Canon said. “But it’s difficult getting people to invest.”

Protect it, and they will come

At first blush, it may seem like a no-brainer that the Finch lands would spark a new wave of tourism in the Park. The historic deal aims to protect a sprawling region of mountains and lakes, including the Essex Chain Lakes south of Newcomb and long stretches of the upper Hudson. It will open up to hikers, paddlers, snowmobile riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts places that have been off limits to the public for 150 years.

The deal also created vast new tracts of motor-free open space, including some of the wildest stretches of the Hudson River. “For the towns, particularly Indian Lake and Newcomb, I think there will be an increase in financial activity,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). For example, he said the Essex Chain Primitive Area’s network of dirt roads is likely to attract a good number of horseback riders and mountain bikers.

Essex-Chain-Lakes-600x344But even some supporters of the deal—who praise it on environmental grounds—say they doubt large numbers of jobs or new businesses will be created. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Wayne Failing, a guide from Lake Placid who has led rafting and fishing trips on the upper Hudson for decades. He noted that the new lands, while gorgeous, are located near existing public lands that in some cases are less remote and easier to access.

“I think it’s more of a good thing,” Failing said of the acquisition of the Finch lands. He said he would likely bring clients to some of the new destinations—such as OK Slip Falls and the floatplane lakes—but added that he could never find the time to hike all the trails or fish all the ponds in the Forest Preserve. “We’re already the largest wilderness east of the Rockies,” he remarked.

Ruth Olbert, who co-owns Cloud-Splitter Outfitters, one of the few tourism businesses in Newcomb, said she thinks the project will initially produce only a handful of jobs, but that can make a difference in a small community. “I think even if there were two or three new full-time jobs, it would move the needle. The jobs here are slim,” she said.

These questions about the real-world economic impact of open space reflect a gap in research. For years, studies have shown that land conservation is a major boon for communities. A 2012 report by the Trust for Public Land suggested that such efforts contribute “billions of dollars” to New York State’s economy in the form of jobs, taxes, and other revenue. A study by the state comptroller put the total at $54.3 billion annually.

In March, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway cited that data in arguing that the Finch lands “will be a tourism magnet” for Adirondack communities. “We know from recent studies that such investments return $7 to the economy for every $1 the state spends,” he said in a news release.

OKSlip-600x719But it turns out most of the research about the economic impact of public land is based on data from urban and suburban areas. Many of those case studies involve communities where open space is scarce and where other benefits—such as the protection of water supplies and the preservation of agricultural and logging jobs—factor heavily in the return on investment.

Jessica Sargent, an economist with the Trust for Public Land, acknowledged that little is known about the impact of projects like Finch, Pruyn that involve rural towns where large tracts of protected land already exist for public recreation. Sargent said her organization, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, is working on a study to fill the information gap, but those findings are not yet available.

Colin Beier, a scientist at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, has begun looking at the economic impact of Adirondack land deals, including Finch, Pruyn’s, but so far data about the Park is practically non-existent. “We simply don’t have the information. The work hasn’t been done, and it should be done,” he said.

In a report in December, APA staff said more market research would be needed to predict the Finch deal’s economic impacts. But the report also said the deal presented an opportunity that “communities, local business, and the state can market and program to attract new visitors.”

If they come, will they spend?

Leveraging that opportunity won’t be easy. The biggest concern with the Finch, Pruyn project, expressed by local leaders, business owners, academics, and environmental leaders, is that the tiny communities hoping to benefit lack the hotels, restaurants, guide services, stores, and other amenities needed to attract and cater to visitors—and thus give a boost to the local economy. “It’s not just going to happen because you open the lands. That does not happen without thought and planning and probably some luck,” Beier said.

Hudson-River-600x376That view was echoed by Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, which helps promote tourism in much of the Adirondacks. McKenna, a supporter of the Finch project, described it as a big opportunity. But he noted that communities such as Minerva and Newcomb have few gas stations or cafes, let alone the hotels and resorts that many travelers seek.

“We need appropriately sized destinations. Not necessarily big hotels, but bed-and-breakfasts and small lodges,” McKenna said. Without such facilities, he warned, “it’s going to be very hard for us to be competitive in the global marketplace.”

This concern surfaced at the APA’s meeting in December when board members discussed the Finch project’s economic potential. Sherman Craig, a board member from Wanakena, noted that remote communities across the Adirondacks have struggled to attract new investment, despite bordering large tracts of wild land. He said the towns near the Finch lands will find it difficult to capitalize on the acquisitions.

Dan Kelleher, the APA’s economic expert, said the new Finch lands might “cannibalize” visitors who would otherwise visit other parts of the Adirondacks. “To bring new money to the Park, not just reallocate it across the Park, we need to actually go out into places surrounding the Park and try to bring in new dollars by marketing,” Kelleher told the APA board.

Is this deal different?

The governor has moved to address these concerns head-on, in part by pumping more money into advertising and offering aid to new businesses, but also by visiting the Park himself and talking it up. For example, Cuomo came north in March for the Adirondack Winter Challenge, taking a snowmobile tour in Lake Clear and hosting a gala for state lawmakers at Lake Placid’s convention center. “It’s not just about fun; it’s about economic development and jobs,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy is also taking new steps to make this conservation deal a boon for the economy: it created a $500,000 fund for recreation-based economic development in towns bordering the Finch lands. “We feel an obligation to continue our stakeholder outreach with the communities involved in the transaction, because of its scale,” said Michael Carr, executive director of the conservancy’s Adirondack chapter. So far, roughly $250,000 of the fund has been raised from private donors.

Those efforts are reassuring to Olbert, co-owner of Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb. “We hope to put up a small lodge of some sort here,” she said. “It’s a leap of faith on our part, but having the Essex Chain and Boreas Ponds open on both sides of us, something’s going to happen.”

Olbert said her business grew last year, in part because of publicity surrounding the Finch lands. She speculated that it might take as many as five years before the region as a whole sees a significant boost. “It’s going to be tough without having some infrastructure for visitors once they get here,” she said.

Are other priorities shortchanged?

Some green groups have voiced concern that the state is putting too much emphasis on dollars and public access at the expense of environmental protection. They are especially upset that the APA voted to allow a snowmobile trail through the heart of an otherwise motor-free region.

“The motorized Wild Forest corridor sets a dangerous precedent whereby lines will be drawn solely to facilitate motor-vehicle uses in the forever-wild Forest Preserve,” Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said in a news release after the decision.

Snowmobile-600x376Another concern—shared by green groups and local officials alike—is that New York State won’t spend the money on stewardship and amenities such as trails, footbridges, and signs that are needed to make the Finch lands attractive to tourists. In recent years, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has been forced to close campgrounds and even temporarily gate the access road to the Moose River Plains, an area near Inlet popular with campers, hunters, and anglers.

The latest budget for DEC, approved in April, includes nearly a five percent cut in total funding, though state budget officials say that funding loss affects only capital projects and won’t mean additional cutbacks in field staff or in construction of backcountry facilities. Those assurances weren’t enough for Willie Janeway, head of the Adirondack Council, who complained that the DEC “has been stretched beyond the breaking point, and further cuts mean that things will not get done.”

That view was shared by state Senator Betty Little, who said big land purchases like Finch, Pruyn require more stewardship funds. “We need to have more people, more DEC people in the field. We’re hoping to be able to correct that,” she said.

Photos, from above: Boreas Ponds, with its view of the High Peaks (photo by Nancie Battaglia); Governor Andrew Cuomo at Boreas Ponds (Nancie Battaglia); paddlers on the Essex Chain Lakes last spring (by Susan Bibeau); OK Slip Falls (by Carl Heilman II); paddlers at the Hudson River south of Newcomb (Nancie Battaglia); Governor Cuomo rides a snowmobile during the Adirondack Winter Challenge in 2014 (photo provided).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.


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Originally from Alaska, Brian Mann moved to the Adirondacks in 1999 and helped launch the news bureau at North Country Public Radio.

In addition to his work at NCPR, Brian is also a frequent contributor to NPR and writes regularly for regional magazines, including Adirondack Life and the Adirondack Explorer.

22 Responses

  1. JR says:

    Well once my/our cabin is forced to be removed here in the next year or two, I’m not coming back. This sure is drivng all the hunters out. Nowhere to SLEEP.
    Good luck.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    JR –

    I know there’s a lot of anger among some hunting club members in the area, but it’s only fair to note that the Finch deal isn’t forcing “all the hunters” out. In fact, many hunters and anglers who have not been club members will have access to this land for the first time in more than a century.

    Your point about places to sleep is well taken and I think that’s the hurdle that communities face: how to create the kind of amenities that will attract sportsmen and other potential users. Hopefully guide services, outfitters, and some other companies will fill some of these needs.

    –Brian Mann, NCPR

    • Paul says:

      Brian, I think the point is that most hunters want to camp where they are hunting. In a cabin with a wood stove, not in a tent freezing their cahonies off. There is no shortage of public land to hunt on in the Adirondacks, so adding these lands isn’t really a big deal as far as new places to hunt. Sure, there is the initial interest in seeing if the grass is really greener on the other side of the fence effect. But once that wears off it isn’t going to mean much.

      The question here is if the hikers and paddlers can have the economic impact that some suggest.

      • JR says:

        I and many others are not driving up to Schroon Lake
        to stay in a Motel 6 room and then have to drive up further to where I used to hunt in the morning. The allure was the camp, no electricity, wood stove, the comradery and the ability to hunt where your camp is.
        I’d rather stay home and walk out my back door to go
        hunting now.
        All traditions must come to an end I suppose.

        • Brian Mann says:

          Yes, I get the change. One other factual point – and I know this doesn’t answer concerns about the sense of tradition and emotional connection to the land – is that all clubs were offered the opportunity to relocate to a new location on conservation easement lands. I believe some chose to do so.

          I think it’s fair to say that in the big land purchase era of the last 20 years, hunting clubs – and their longstanding relationship with big timber companies – have taken the hardest single hit. Lots of downsides, very few upsides.

          Of course, as many property rights activists would note, these deals all involve willing buyers and willing sellers. Hunting clubs were “traditions” built on land usually leased on short-term contracts. When the private land-owners chose to do something different with their property, a lot of clubs got left behind.

          So…this piece is complicated. I’ve reported a lot on the hunting camp aspect of this and I still don’t feel that I’ve told that story thoroughly enough.

          –Brian, NCPR

          • JR says:

            While that offer to relocate to an easment looked fantastic in the newspapers, sadly is completely untrue for all camps apparently. There was no such offer and when we inquired about it, it was verified that no such offer existed.
            Thanks for your responses though.

            The tough fact is Finch put the land up for sale and someone else bought.

          • Paul says:

            No doubt. At the club I used to belong to (not on these lands) we always understood that it was a business for them and that it was not some sort of charity for hunting clubs.

            I do think that it is fair to argue that if NYS was not such a willing buyer that things could look very different. Even the Nature Conservancy as a private buyer was smart enough to lease that land and continue that revenue stream. The state is probably the only buyer that would not.

            At some point in the not-too-distant future many of these easement lands (now having much of their timber value quickly logged off them) will probably be added to the Forest Preserve as well. But I understand this is a market issue and not the fault of NYS. In my opinion the only way to preserve these type of lands as private working forest is for them to be subdivided into smaller (albeit still large) parcels where entities like private sportsmans (and womens) clubs or other groups (why not a hiking or paddling club?) or individuals could afford to purchase them. But the timber companies are not interested in that they just want to ditch the land and cash in their chips. The NC along with NYS did help to facilitate that.

            I have always seen it as a strange conflict in the fact that NYS had Nature Conservancy staff working with them side-by-side on land acquisition work (Natural Heritage Program in Albany).

            “Our program was established in 1985 and is a contract unit housed within NYSDEC’s Division of Fish, Wildlife, & Marine Resources.”


      • troutstalker says:

        I don’t see where paddlers and hikers can add much to the local economy. As a camping paddler I buy my gas in Rochester before I leave and when I return. I bring my own food and sleep in a tent on a free primitive site. I might buy a cup of joe for the road but that’s it! Maybe day paddlers and hikers might help by basecamping at a motel.

  3. John Sorrenson says:

    The public land suffers from national outdoor recognition from Americans for one reason. It’s not a national park. The Canadians that flock her don’t seem to care but our Forest Preserve just doesn’t generate the interest or garner the recognition from a national audience because of this bureaucratic oddity.

    Newcomb does have great potential for economic boon from the outdoor related tourist industry. They should not hang their helmet on the snowmobile trade. I am rather surprised private industry has not begun to establish amenities there, not at a Lake George or Lake Placid scale but at a Speculator or Keene scale. Previously, state agencies seriously failed with two such opportunities there.

    The Ghost town at upper works could have been a draw if saved. While plentiful in the west, they are rare on this coast. It could have been a draw if marketed properly. Secondly, the Santanoni preserve could have been restored as a Sturbridge village “esque” area recreating life in a late 19th century great camp. The area was also significantly impacted but the closing of frontier town.

    • Buck Jordan says:

      What is needed is a committee made up of people from every interest group, not just preservationists and able hikers.
      There must also be constitutional amendments to allow changes to Forever Wild that would allow some innovation.
      A few lodges run under contract like in the National Parks might be tried in specific locations such as the Upper Works. Bureaucrats in Albany for example designed the usage plan for the Essex Chain and actually refused input from Forest Rangers that patrol the area. The bureaucrats were afraid of beer parties so they made the parking lot further than necessary from the ponds. They also banned campfires at the campsites. Really, it would be a rare occurrence for a wild party to develop that far from anywhere !

  4. Paul says:

    Why is there a lack of data? The state has added almost 1 million acres of conservation easement land over the past decade. If that has not produced a very significant economic impact than I am not confident that this will either. So what do we know now? Has opening up a million acres of land for public recreation made a difference? Are the communities that are close to these lands seen the predicted impact.

    For these lands I would assume that the initial opening would be where we would see a surge in use (the lands being closed to the public as Brian describes now open for the first time). Did a surge take place. How many people were in there hunting and fishing this past fall. Paddling, skiing this winter?

  5. Pete Nelson says:


    I would argue that national park status would help – though on the balance I’m against the idea. But my argument is that national lovers of outdoor recreation overlook the Adirondack region not because it isn’t a national park but because it brings to mind chairs and Vermont-like New England quaintness, not wilderness and grand mountains. In short the Adirondacks have an ineffective iconography. Boy would one paddle on the Boreas Ponds fix that, eh?

    National park status would be one way to help address that but there are other ways too.

    I think you are right on both Adirondac Ghost Town and Santanoni comments, except for your “could have been” tense. It still can be a significant draw. There are good plans for it in progress that will preserve enough of its history to be compelling. It needs marketing and accessibility.

    • AG says:

      The feds have no interest in that… They have enough problems out west and even in Florida with those types of lands.

      • John Sorrenson says:

        I am not suggesting it should or would happen, just that it is the root cause to relatively low outdoor rec tourist #’s compared to similar areas. It’s been half a century since Rocky’s commission suggested it. I don’t believe it would be any better received today than it was then.

  6. John Sorrenson says:

    Pete, I concur. I would be opposed to a National Park being created somewhere in the ADK also but believe the following they have would cause more tourists to come here just by changing “state” to “fed” and the rangers from green shirts to brown.

    I hope you are correct about the “Ghost town”. I wandered around last year and the buildings are bad. They don’t hold up to the Adirondack humidity like the do in the arid west. I agree Santonini has been preserved well enough for a change to occur. People love the outdoors but they like quaint villages and hamlets also.

  7. Paul says:

    Places like the High Peaks are already overused. Other places that are not well used are what draws a small number of people looking for a remote place to get away from places that are overused (ie. places like Boreas Ponds). This really is a catch 22. If you “protect it and they come” thanks to the marketing then it isn’t what you marketed (quite and remote) in the first place.

  8. Paul says:

    It seems pretty clear that the jury is still out on the economic impacts of a purchase like this. That certainly didn’t deter the folks that wanted to spin this as an economic boon?

    Let’s just start being honest. This is an act of preservation not an act of economic stimulation.

  9. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I hiked to OK Slip Falls this past Saturday, and there were indeed plenty of cars parked near the start of the Northern Frontier access road, as well as the Ross Pond trailhead–and by “plenty” I mean more than I would normally expect to find in this region on a rainy weekend in early May. Several cars had out-of-state plates (including at least one Quebec plate, which is a rare sight in the portions of the Adirondack Park south of Tahawus).

    I have been exploring these new state land acquisitions since Little Tupper Lake in 1998, and there is certainly much more public interest in Finch Pruyn than any other that I can recall. I attribute this interest to the heavy media attention that has been focused here, with the “grand opening” and the classification debate that both occurred in the same year. People naturally want to see it, and so I expect that there will be an initial rush to see these new places that will normalize over time.

    But even as a supporter of these acquisitions, it’s hard to envision the lands spawning a growth in tourism for the region in general. For that to happen, these new state lands would need to draw in people who would otherwise not come to the Adirondacks–people intent on seeing OK Slip Falls, but who in the past hadn’t cared to visit the comparable Hanging Spear Falls. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to expect this to happen. Most of the people visiting these places are those who are already familiar with the Adirondacks and are looking for someplace new to explore.

    At the local level, Newcomb probably has the most to gain from any boost in tourism. The addition of the Essex Chain property will give people additional motivation to head up to that part of the Adirondacks, beyond the pull of the High Peaks. Even if one new business opened on NY 28N, that would be a significant increase for a hamlet that currently has few amenities.

    But if the idea is to bring in new people to the Adirondacks based on the intrinsic beauty of these new lands, then what you really need to do is create some Travel Channel documentaries about the region (PBS specials just aren’t quite the same). Otherwise, you’re only reaching the people who already know about the Adirondacks and are planning to come anyway.

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      As a side note to the above, I have been told by a friend of mine (a fellow avid outdoor explorer and NYS resident in his 30s) that the Essex Chain was a let-down in comparison to the hype. Part of this was the choice in road access, which eliminated much of the challenge. He was able to get in, paddle almost the entire chain, and get out in a single day–without the sense that there were additional sights left unseen, which is one of the factors that motivates people to return to wild places.

      • Paul says:

        Part of this was the choice in road access, which eliminated much of the challenge.”

        I climbed Mt. Washington despite the road and the RR to the top. There are plenty of folks (myself included) that climb Whiteface despite the road to the top.

        It seems like in some of these areas maybe we should have alternative (less easy) access? Then everyone could be happy.

        You can always take a helicopter to the top of most low elevation mountains. Doesn’t make them any less fun to climb.

  10. Smitty says:

    I always appreciate Brian’s articles. Well researched, well written, informative, and bringing a balanced perspective while prompting good discussion. Keep up the good work. You’re an asset to the North Country.

  11. Christine says:

    For having visited both the Essex Chain of Lakes and the Boreas Ponds I strongly believe that not only both locations will entice Adirondacks visitors to spend more days every year within the Park but will bring new ones as well as they offer a different atmosphere, easier “challenges” with specially in the case of the Boreas Ponds spectacular views. A number of trailheads were already overflowing for a large numbers of days last year (2013), consequently adding new “destinations” cannot fail to increase one way the number of tourists, which by word of mouth will bring even more. And let’s not forget the number of new access for paddlers to rivers like the Hudson and the Cedar River. Etc.

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