A bi-partisan team of NYS Legislators reached a tentative agreement on an amendment to the “Forever Wild” clause of the State Constitution Wednesday night, but were unable to get the final bills approved before members of both houses returned to their districts.
Sponsors were hopeful today that the final agreement could be approved by both houses before the legislative session ends for the year. Neither house had declared its session to be formally ended when both houses sent their members home shortly before midnight Wednesday.
If approved by the Legislature, the amendment would be presented to the voters in November. The amendment would create a modest land bank to improve public safety and telecommunications in the Adirondack and Catskill parks, while also allowing certain infrastructure such as broadband telecommunications to be installed along existing roads that cross “forever wild” state Forest Preserve lands.
The amendment would be a good outcome for communities in the Adirondack Park. Communities would get the flexibility they need to thrive in the decades ahead, while protecting the legacy and integrity of the Forest Preserve. These are important and complementary goals.
The NYS Constitution’s “forever wild” clause is the strongest forest conservation law on earth. It protects the Forest Preserve of the Adirondack Park (and Catskill Park) from logging, lease, sale or development. It also bans destruction or removal of the timber and requires the state to protect the Forest Preserve’s wild character.
However, the Forest Preserve covers only half of our enormous park, which stands as the largest park in the contiguous United States. At 9,300 square miles, it is roughly the size of Vermont, or more than seven times larger than the state of Rhode Island. The rest of the park is comprised of private forest lands and 120 small villages and hamlets, most with a population less than 1,000.
These rural communities are surrounded by the largest collection of wild lands outside of Alaska. They sometimes have trouble finding room for – or access to – typical municipal services and modern telecommunications. This will help solve that problem without going back to the voters to approve minor changes to the Forest Preserve’s boundaries when a town road needs straightening or a new bridge.
If final agreement is not reached on the constitutional resolution and the accompanying enabling legislation (a law specifying how the amendment would be carried out), other opportunities for Adirondack local communities would be lost.
The amendment would allow new telecommunications/broadband projects on roads that cross Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills, as well as replacement culverts and bridges, including a bridge in Middletown. The amendment also would also ease the development of new municipal water supplies and bike paths.
The 250-acre land bank proposed in the amendment would be used to straighten or realign town and county roads for safety purposes, when the roads cross “forever wild” Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondack or Catskill Parks. This is modeled on a similar 400-acre land bank New York voters approved in 1957 for realigning state highways to make them safer.
Before any land could be removed from the bank, all 250 acres would have to be replaced in the Forest Preserve by the purchase of additional lands. As the 250 acres are used, the project sponsors will make financial contributions to a Forest Preserve expansion account that will be used to purchase additional Forest Preserve.
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Steven Englebright, D-Setauket, Assemblymen Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, and Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and other stakeholders worked in good faith to bridge their differences right up to the moment that the gavels hit the leaders’ desks.
Stakeholders agreed last year that second and final legislative approval of the resolution to amend the Constitution would be accompanied by “enabling legislation,” spelling out how the amendment would be carried out if it is accepted by the voters in November.
Enabling legislation has sometimes been left until after an amendment is voted upon in a statewide election. Environmental organizations including the Adirondack Council felt that voters would be more likely to approve the amendment if they were certain of how its various, complicated provisions would be carried out before they had to cast their ballots.
Ballot language can be confusing and often doesn’t reflect all of the provisions of the amendment being considered. Having all of the details available before Election Day should improve voter confidence.
Photo: New York State Capitol Building.