Monday, June 16, 2014

NYCO Amendment Commentary:
We Need A Regional Memory

NYCO-Minerals-Wollastonite-Mine-Nancie-B-PhotoThis week has seen the most recent amendment to Article XIV of the NY State Constitution, known colloquially as the NYCO Amendment, return to front page news.

Just last Friday the Adirondack Park Agency approved an amendment to the Jay Mountain Wilderness Unit Management Plan (UMP) to allow NYCO Minerals to conduct exploratory drilling on the 200 acre parcel known as Lot 8. This drilling will allow NYCO to determine whether they want to swap Lot 8 for other land to be given to the State, as authorized by the amendment.

The NYCO Amendment was controversial because it proposed a public benefit and gain for the Forest Preserve by compromising Forever Wild land for the benefit of a private commercial interest. Supporters pointed to a net increase in land for the park because of the potential State acquisition of up to 1,500 acres of land in exchanging for allowing mining on the 200 acres of Lot 8, which after it was mined would be required to be restored and returned to the State. They also cited the importance of job preservation and economic benefits to be had by allowing NYCO to continue mining at the site. Opponents saw it as a taking that violated both the letter and spirit of Article XIV. They saw the benefit to a private corporation as establishing a bad precedent and argued that NYCO, with other active Wollastonite mines, did not need the expanded mine on Lot 8 in order to preserve jobs or profits.

Controversial or not, the amendment passed last November by 53% to 47% and became the law of the land.

In the last few weeks the controversy returned, this time over whether the APA could authorize exploratory drilling without following the existing body of law governing Wilderness areas – specifically the State Land Master Plan (SLMP) and Jay UMP – before the State conveyed the parcel to NYCO. With Friday’s unanimous vote the APA has emphatically answered that question in the affirmative.  Barring litigation from a third party, the matter is settled: NYCO will begin exploratory drilling on Wilderness land, probably in late July.

I opposed the NYCO Amendment. I saw it as a compromise of arguably the most powerful act of land protection in history for corporate gain. I saw it as a establishing a precedent on that basis, one that sets the table for future erosions. I saw it, in short, as a Faustian bargain.

Now, as drilling is set to begin, I see the NYCO Amendment as a lesson to be learned. But we can only learn from it if we are vigilant, if we document what happens and how it happens and if we preserve a regional memory about this event. This is a critically important thing to do if we are to prevent future erosions of Forever Wild. Someday there will be people who, in wanting to justify some new amendment, will say that this one did not set a precedent, that there was a net gain for the Forest Preserve, that jobs were saved or created. We must be able to hold these claims accountable with more than anecdotes and rhetoric. We didn’t do so well at it this time and we need to learn from it. It may be that some or all of our fears are unfounded or it may not. Either way the stakes are important for the Adirondacks.

There is no better place to create and archive this regional memory than the Almanack.

The first task in creating a regional memory for the NYCO Amendment should be to establish a baseline to measure its effects against the claims made by its proponents. Others have already been doing an important piece of that work by investigating and reporting on what Lot 8 contains – by inventorying the wild asset, if you will. That work will continue, as well as work to assess the impact of drilling as NYCO moves forward.

I will make a different contribution.  My opposition to the amendment came largely from my experience in seeing how large corporations go about the work of making money. The very idea that we should benefit the corporate world by relinquishing Wilderness that was meant to be forever protected is utterly contrary to that experience. Therefore my interest will be in establishing the corporate side of the baseline. In a column this Saturday I will begin to do that by asking a simple question: who is NYCO?

Many will claim that there is no value in re-fighting the amendment battle with further litigation or continuing opinion pieces. While I am dismayed at the amendment and the precedents I believe it entails – just one illustration being the APA decision Friday – I agree with this view. I would not be supportive of litigation at this point and I have no interest in crafting columns that continue to talk about how awful this is.

But documenting the aftermath of the NYCO Amendment, laying out the facts and creating that regional memory, is not fighting this battle: it is fighting future battles. On that front, I’m all in.

Photo: NYCO’s wollastonite mine which will be extended into Lot 8 of the Forest Preserve. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




22 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Makes perfect sense no matter which side of this issue you are on. If it works out well for the Forest Preserve than it does. If it doesn’t that should be documented as well.

    With that said it requires us to strap in and be willing to wait a long time to see what the final results are.

    The internet will be replaced by something better by then! I assume the Almanack will still be going strong on whatever the new media is!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    You’re right – either way it makes sense.

  3. David says:

    I agree

  4. Dan Crane says:

    Does anyone have a notion of when drilling will start? I assume public access to the property will be prevented before this and I wanted to get up and have a look before there are a network of “roads” on Lot 8.

    • Smitty says:

      I agree that it’s an excellent idea. No more bemoaning what’s already done and dividing groups that support wild lands in the park. Down the road, folks may be surprised to find out that the 1500-acre trade turned out to be a really good deal. Maybe even that NYCO does a good job at reclaiming their current quarry and maintains stable employment. Or maybe not. Time will tell.

    • Paul says:

      Dan, I read somewhere that they will begin work in “July”. Not sure if that is accurate. It sounds like just a few acres for the test drilling so I don’t think they need to rope it all off.

  5. AdkBuddy says:

    You make it sound like amendments to the state constitution are rubber stamp actions by the legislature. They are long drawn out affairs and the fear of dangerous precedent I think is exaggerated.

  6. Frederick Warner says:

    Thank you, Pete Nelson, for all your efforts on our behalf. The corporate oligarchy is alive and well in America, including the Adirondacks.

  7. Joe says:

    I am sure all the advocacy groups are keeping detailed records. Personally, I am bored with this topic, so I’ll be reading other stuff.

    I am not a lawyer, but seems to me that DEC and APA attorneys got it right, or at least logical. The amendment changed the law. Amendments are intended to do that.

    We lost. I’m sure it will serve as fund raising fodder for advocacy groups for a long time. Write about it a year from now and maybe it will be interesting. But spare us more of this right now, I say.

  8. Justin says:

    “The first task in creating a regional memory for the NYCO Amendment should be to establish a baseline to measure its effects against the claims made by its proponents.”

    Hmm… and what about the claims of its opponents?

    The metric that matters most to me is how much more land is protected in the Adirondacks in 10 or 20 years.

    Protecting substantially more of the Adirondacks, especially now when we’ve gained so much, depends on the support of local communities and their representatives. To get them to support the major conservation deals we will want, I think we need to support the initiatives they feel are important once in a while. Yes it is a compromise. And no, I don’t think compromise is a dirty word.

    I’m confident that in 10 or 20 years, we’ll see a lot of more the Adirondacks protected, and the passage of this amendment with the support of prominent environmental groups will have helped make that possible.

    • Peter Bauer says:

      Justin,

      We amended the Constitution twice to make the Piseco airport safer. We amended the Constitution to expand the Keene cemetery, upgrade the Raquette Lake water supply, provide reliable electricity to Tupper Lake, and resolve the Township 40 land dispute.

      All of those actions enjoyed broad environmental group and public support and as one involved in four of these amendments I can attest to the extensive deliberations and, yes, extensive compromises needed to reach agreement.

      But I disagree with the proposition that we need to start selling the Forest Preserve for private commercial gain in order to win the support of Adirondack communities and their representatives for major conservation deals or any other environmental objective for the Adirondacks.

      There are some things that should be off the table and selling the Forest Preserve for private commercial gain is one of them.

      • Paul says:

        But if the Forest Preserve grows as a result of that deal why not? You do what the local communities support, the Forest Preserve gets bigger, everyones happy. This seems like the right approach. If this sets a precedent it seems like a good one.

  9. Phil Brown says:

    DEC needs to finalize the stormwater plan, work plan and temporary revocable permit before drilling can begin. Also, NYCO needs to provide a security bond to cover the cost of reclamation in case such bond is needed. Drill won’t start until mid-July at the earliest.

  10. Charlie S says:

    Joe says: “Personally, I am bored with this topic, so I’ll be reading other stuff.”

    This issue does not concern Joe evidently.

    People like Fred Warner are the smart ones,the ones who realize “The corporate oligarchy is alive and well in America, including the Adirondacks.”

    What will it take to rouse people from their slumber?

  11. Charlie S says:

    To rouse people from their slumber? Hmmm. I know.Take away their televisions.That would be a good first step.

    • Paul says:

      Since this is likely a net gain for the Forest Preserve why do you think it was a bad idea?

      Even if the test drilling shows no reason to mine the land stays in the Forest Preserve. I still have a hard time understanding why doing this amendment and possibly increasing the size of the protected lands by almost 8 times is a bad idea.

      People are talking about precedents and principles when in the end the “the practical” is what matters here the Forest Preserve is in the best case 7.5 times larger and more protected or in the very worst case it is basically unchanged.

      Charlie why do you think this is a bad idea given that it will most likely leave the Forest Preserve more protected?

  12. Charlie S says:

    A net gain in one area a loss in another.It doesn’t balance out in my book Paul.All to favor a corporation whose sole purpose is the earning of profits at the expense of all things else,all living things.At the expense of that vernal pool whose amphibious inhabitants have probably seen scores of generations of a tranquil existence. This one example alone is reason enough to say NO! I’m sensitive to the damage we do an a daily basis Paul,the trees coming down just so another tax write-off concrete structure can go up,fields being bulldozed over so another tax write-off ugly all-houses-look-alike development can be developed….. I hate what I see every day Paul! You want me to write you out a list of what I see? It will take up too much space in this forum. Sometimes I wish I were numb like the majority of this society is.But then NO.I’m better than that.

    What can I say!I’m tired Paul.Maybe i’ll eventually become like you and most of this society and become a Yes man. Yes sir have it your way anything you say I’m all for it I wont put up a fight. People like Pete Nelson are the kind of people I am drawn towards,people who really care,people who have the courage to speak up.Maybe i’ll eventually become mainstream,a prevailing current that flows along with the rest.I dread the thought I hope I die before then.

    In short…this whole deal smells…..but then,you would have to have an awareness of a stench in the first place to pick up on that.

    • Paul says:

      This comment has some interesting points as well as some insults toward me which I will just ignore.

      But I also don’t think it makes sense Charlie if you look at what you are saying. Not if you really want to see more land protected which it sounds like you do.

      Lets take the vernal pool as an example (and it is not clear that anything will happen to this one). If a swap comes to pass we have the opportunity to insist on adding more land to the forest preserve and we can select land that protects other vernal pool if we wish. This would be land that is currently private land where these pools cold face the threat of development in the future.

      In this particular case the choice was simple protect this 200 acre parcel or protect this 200 acre parcel (albeit with a few acres disturbed) AND the additional land that would be added to the forest preserve.

      If the Forest Preserve grows from what it is plus this 200 acres PLUS as much as 1500 acres that is a net gain. The only “loss” is that some land that can now be used for commercial development and the type of exploitation you describe would be protected. Just what you want to see happen right?