Tuesday, November 3, 2020

IT’S DEBATABLE: Whitney Park

Editor’s note: This “It’s Debatable” column is running in the Nov/Dec issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe to the digital magazine for only $10/year.

The Question: Should the state pursue buying the Whitney Park estate?  
YES By Peter Bauer 

The 36,000-acre Whitney Park is up for sale. With 22 lakes and ponds and  over 100 miles of undeveloped shore line, this extraordinary tract has been at the  top of New York’s land protection priority list  for 50 years. This sale raises serious issues  for all who are concerned about the future of  the Adirondack Park. First, the state of New  York must buy Whitney Park and add it to  the public forest preserve. Second, we should  not heed the calls of those who want to cap the forest preserve and give up on the 125- year bipartisan and multi-generational success of the forest preserve. 

The dramatic increase in public use over the  last six months in the High Peaks Wilderness,  and most other places in the Adirondacks,  shows that the forest preserve is indispensable. In our hour of need, the forest preserve  was there to shower us in beauty, safety and  emotional relief, at a time when everything else seemed like it was falling apart. 

The last six months have shown us all that  we need more forest preserve, not less. The forest preserve in the Adirondack Park  underwrites our local quality of life and economy. The forest preserve keeps the waters in  our many world-class lakes clean. The forest  preserve has inspired and made memories  for millions. It would be a profound mistake  to give up on the dream of the forest preserve  because some people who hike there are  poorly educated about how to use it, because Gov. Cuomo hasn’t learned how to properly  manage and staff it, or because local governments (the Town of Keene being the notable  exception) and nonprofits haven’t organized to  help meet forest preserve management and  staffing shortfalls. 

Opponents of purchasing Whitney Park  point to the loss of the native fishery in Little Tupper Lake, where bass were introduced  after the state bought the lake in 1998. The  introduction of bass was sabotage, not an error of state management. This was aggrieved  people who opposed the wilderness classification and spiked Little Tupper Lake with  bass in retaliation, and did so even though  the Whitney family supported wilderness. The bass flourished in the lake, and connected waterways, such as Rock Pond and Round Lake,  and a 4,500-acre native fishery was lost. 

Don’t give up on the dream of the forest  preserve and let those who sabotaged the native fishery on Little Tupper Lake win. 

Here’s the reality: The forest preserve is the people’s land. Despite the many current  management challenges, most people are  generally thrilled with their opportunity to  hike and explore these marvelous public lands.  They came in droves all summer! Yes, we need  to improve public education, and we need  more forest rangers, wilderness managers,  trail crews, and a visitors center for the High  Peaks, but it would be a mistake to give up on  the forest preserve. The fact is that we need more forest preserve. 

Thankfully, shortsighted thinking was resisted by past governors. Thankfully, the forest preserve has been strengthened generation after generation. 

Gov. Charles Evans Hughes bought Mount Marcy, Redfield, Allen and Skylight mountains. Al Smith bought Lake Colden. Nelson  Rockefeller bought the Moose River Plains.  Hugh Carey (and DEC Commissioner Peter Berle) bought Lake Lila and Armstrong  Mountain, Basin, Blake, Colvin, Dial, Gothics, Haystack, Saddleback, Saw Teeth, Upper  Wolf Jaw, Lower Wolf Jaw and Noonmark Mountain. Mario Cuomo bought Low’s Lake  and the Watson’s East Triangle, and George  Pataki bought Little Tupper Lake, Round Lake, Lyon Mountain and Madawaska Flow.  Each governor had acute budget and policy  challenges, but each strengthened the forest preserve. What would the Adirondacks be like  today without these, and other, vital parts of  the forest preserve? 

Don’t give up on the dream of the forest  preserve. Save Whitney Park by purchasing it  for the public forest preserve. Sign a petition  to buy Whitney Park at savewhitneypark.com  and help make these lands forest preserve. ■ 

Peter Bauer is executive director of  Protect the Adirondacks.

NO Scott van Laer 

As I sit here typing this, I really can’t believe my answer to this question; it is both sad and surreal. As much as I love  public land, particularly our forest preserve, after spending more than a quarter century working in the agency tasked with the mandate of  Article XIV, I can’t in good conscience say that  transferring the ownership of Whitney Park to  the state will provide sufficient environmental  protection for those lands. Sadly, it will be best  protected if another organization or person  purchases the tract, one who is more equipped  to undertake care, custody, and control of the  magnificent natural resources contained within  those lands.  

While the Department of Environmental Conservation is filled with tremendous,  hard-working, qualified personnel, the staffing  ratio to the amount of land the DEC is responsible for managing and patrolling is such that  good management becomes all but impossible.  

In the last few decades a million acres of land  have been added to DEC management responsibility, stretching the DEC’s resources far too  much. For example, in the 1970s the average  acreage a forest ranger was responsible for  patrolling was 28,516 acres. Today that number  has ballooned to a whopping 53,752 acres!  National parks have significantly better staffing ratios. 

While the state has added land, we have also  experienced an explosion in outdoor recreation,  straining available resources intensely. Many  more people are hiking than ever before, further exacerbating the problem and continuing  and accelerating the trend of resource degradation. The increased use pulls field staff farther  away from stewardship and trail maintenance  work. Forest rangers now respond to more than 350 search-and-rescue incidents a year.  That is hundreds more than a few decades ago. 

A recent peer-reviewed study of Adirondack  search-and-rescue incidents in the Adirondack  Journal of Environmental Studies mentioned the following, “The increase in SAR incidents and larger ratio of incidents to personnel may add strain to already fatigued personnel, intensify potential for personnel injury, and result in a greater chance of victim morbidity.” In addition to exhausting personnel, the in creased frequency of these incidents results  in fewer rangers being available to address in creasing incidents of graffiti, litter, dangerous parking, and illegal camping, fires and motor vehicle use on state lands, to name just a few  of the issues that have been highlighted in re cent popular press.  

The state has always had an interest in adding new lands, campgrounds and other projects  but has lagged tremendously in maintaining or  managing what we have. The department is  required by law to develop comprehensive unit  management plans for each designated tract of  land. For the most part, these are excellent documents written by professional land managers  and developed from strategic planning and  considerable public input. They are, however,  rarely implemented in full and a lack of needed  data to quantify issues and possible impacts to  the environment and surrounding communities are often cited for reasons why UMPs have  not been implemented. We need continued assessment and adaptive management for each and every UMP. 

The best laid plans lose all utility without the staff or funding to put them in place. We budget hundreds of millions of dollars for  new projects for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, tens of millions for a  singular campground at Frontier Town, but no funds for a single forest ranger, trail crew or additional staff to collect and analyze the information needed to support management.  

The forest preserve may very well be the best legally protected public land in the country but the reality on the ground falls far short  of what it looks like in the language of its legal protections and intended management. I cannot in good conscience say that adding the 36,000-acre Whitney Park is a good idea. We must be better stewards of what we already have before we can expand. ■ 

Scott van Laer is the union director for the  forest rangers within the Police Benevolent Association of New York State. His views do not reflect those of the DEC.

Photo courtesy of John Hendrickson.

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Guest Contributor

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at [email protected]




36 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    If the seller says he will not sell the land to the state, what is the point of the YES part? And even if you could surmount this there is no way the state could pay the ridiculous price it is offered at. There is no debate.

    • Tim-Brunswick says:

      Hat’s off to you Paul…you hit the nail on the head!

    • Steve B. says:

      John Hendrickson is a smart lawyer. The “I don’t want to sell to the State and I want $180 million” is the opening gambit to all that follows. He likely knows a private buyer is unlikely and certainly not at that price, given that the property is essentially unable to be developed in a manner that would see a return on the purchase. It would have to be a private individual who has a billion sitting around and can afford to purchase for the sole reason of keeping the property essentially unchanged. It might happen but I think unlikely.

      The next hope will be a prolonged negotiation with the State for a fair price and in my view, there is no possibility JH is not going to take an offer from the State, or possibly a combination of non-profits and the State. He wants to unload the property, is the bottom line, it has zero sentimental or business value to him.

  2. I understand Scott’s point of view, and I can’t argue with his facts. However, 36,000 acres is less than one Forest Ranger’s territory. Add those acres and one more Ranger and the average acres per Ranger decreases.

    I side with Peter, for Peter’s reasons.

    That all said, the State is cutting back on all expenses as it continues spending on COVID solutions. I don’t think that Albany will step up to the plate all by itself. Might it be possible for us to privately raise at least a portion of the required funds to make the purchase ?

    This is one of those unique, one time opportunities. I say, let’s help the State do the right thing.

  3. James M Schaefer says:

    Expand the Forest Preserve and EXPAND the management team. There is no debate.

    Simple but political.

    We need to revisit the grassroots coalition of hunters, garden clubs, coffee klatches, local historians, preservationists, environmental activists, movers and shakers and groups that were conjoled, chatted up, and arm-twisted by my late uncle Paul Schaefer. Fireside chats, coffee, adult beverages …. He saw to it, following the principles of his mentor John Apperson that it took a diverse, motivated and principled people to get the attention of the elected. A convincing political force dedicated to long hours of jaw-boning about the priceless value of wilderness AND NOW the need to professionally manage our lands.

    Who is ready to lead this? Paul and Appy are waiting.

  4. toofargone says:

    Unfortunately, Peter Bauer has lost touch with reality. While he invokes the mantra that “the forest preserve is the people’s land,” we all know that the State, AMR and others, have increasingly restricted public access to the People’s land, and can’t even provide basic parking for the People who, according to Mr. Bauer, “came in droves all summer” for an “opportunity to hike and explore these marvelous public lands.” DEC can’t even be trusted to restore a simple road to Boreas Ponds that washed out over a year ago, and there is no firm date for completion that continues to get pushed out. If Mr. Bauer’s idea of the People’s land is to effectively shut out the public from reasonable access, what is the point except that it can just be added to the preserve and lorded over by DEC? When public access is minimized, then cost-benefit is sorely lacking. Seems to me the funds would be better spent repairing Gulf Brook Road to Boreas Ponds, building some parking, and maintaining access to the vast lands already owned by the State for the benefit of the People. That’s the reality that I see, and I can only hope that Mr. Hendrickson is a man of his word and never sells it to the State.

    • Tim-Brunswick says:

      Congratulations…you hit a BINGO “tootfargone” …thanks for telling it like it is and…. would be should the State acquire it.

      A lotta good it would do the average person in this state when it would be locked up by the “wilderness only” crowd!!

    • Steve B says:

      Your concept of “reasonable access” is what ?, ATV’s, motorcycles, snowmobiles everywhere and anywhere ?, motorboats on every lake ?.

      Those are the restrictions for some areas, not all and there are no restrictions to the public if you hike, ski, canoe, kayak, or even ride a horse in many areas.

      So what are you talking about ?

  5. John Wells says:

    Scott is absolutely correct!

  6. Good Camp Owner says:

    Please….no more Peter Bauer re-runs. Bauer wants the State to purchase the property because he wants to use it and remind everyone else to keep out. Keep 911 on speed dial Bauer we are all coming to use NY State land and don’t care what you think or say, as a matter of fact no one ever has.

  7. Boreas says:

    I have to agree with Scott. While I am a fan of increasing state owned public lands, if the DEC is going to be the “caretaker”, best leave it in private hands until NYS citizens, Albany, APA, and DEC get their act together and come up with a realistic plan and dedicated funds for management of the Forest Preserve.

    • A resident adk'er says:

      “…The best laid plans lose all utility without the staff and funding to put them in place”. What more to say…?

  8. William J Underwood says:

    Good morning great article, I was unable to find the link to the petition to purchase Whitney Park? Perhaps the state can consider granting the Native Abenaki which called this area home long ago a cultural homeland to preserve their history, culture and language somewhere in this large land tract?

  9. Barry Hewitt says:

    No the State is 13 billion dollars in debt. This is stupid.

  10. Tom Leustek says:

    Peter is right, Scott is a naysayer. Look, the issue with proper staffing of the Adirondack Park is a budget problem. But, this great natural resource is the only place in the U.S. (correct me if I am wrong) where people can park their car, go out into spectacular forest for many days at a time, then return to car and go home, nothing asked, nothing given. At what National Park is this possible? Why not start slowly, and ask for voluntary donations for the pleasure of enjoying the park. Use the revenue stream to buy the Whitney property and staff the park properly. To my knowledge, there is no where for vacationers to make a voluntary contribution (guaranteed to be used to enlarge and maintain the resource), other than buying a fishing/hunting license or using state campgrounds. This is a mistake. There are probably more out-of-staters using the Adirondacks, then there are NY residents. Everyone should pay their fair share to use this world treasure. And I don’t think there would be many who would cry about the expense. Yes, buy the Whitney property, and plan how to fund this spectacular place for all to treasure.

    • JohnL says:

      Donate money to the State if the state ‘promises’ to use that money for a specific purpose? Yeah, right!!

      • Tom Leustek says:

        If everyone thought like you JohnL, there would be a Pocono where the Adirondack Park is now. Better than nothing, but absolutely not a world class experience. Luckily, NY has had a long history of visionary leadership. My point was, with growing population and popularity of the Adirondacks, similar to the National Park System, NY should begin charging for the expansion and maintenance of its natural resource. Those who love the place, wont mind making the donation. I’ll be first in line, because I want to canoe and hike in the Whitney property.

    • Boreas says:

      Proper staffing is currently not a budget problem. It is a management problem. Basil Seggos states every year that the Ranger force is sufficient. HE is the problem with staffing. NYS certainly isn’t going to give the DEC more money for Rangers if the Commissioner repeatedly says they have sufficient staff! We have so many Rangers we can afford to send many of them west to fight wildfires! Get a grip Comissioner!

      • Scott van Laer Scott van laer says:

        Thank You. Given the budget I know and all the rangers know we are not getting more staff next year. All We ask is that the commissioner acknowledges the lack of staffing and agrees to take it up in the future. We are tired of the rhetoric and hearing him say he “cares more about rangers then any one.” We want him to be honest and actually speak to us and our concerns instead of media talking points.

  11. Richard Stevens says:

    Just because the state is short of funds and DEC personnel at the present time and the pandemic is leading to over use does not mean that it will always be like this. If these lands end up in private hands, who’s to say that these lands might not become inaccessible for generations if sold to a private entity?

    While it would be great if these land ended up in possession of a reputable conservation organization that was friendly to some degree of use public recreational use, this is a gamble. Maybe the state could partner with such an organization.

    If management is the major issue, buy the land and keep it closed to the public until it can be properly managed.

  12. Eric says:

    Tom is correct. This great resource needs protecting and it is only natural to ask all the users to help towards that end.

  13. gabe susice says:

    the owner will not sell to the state.
    why write this story?
    the state cant take care of the land they have..

  14. Ben says:

    There are many land use organizations with experience and success in managing conservation lands. This should be a wake up call to all who love the Adirondacks. Couldn’t there be a public-private partnership to manage this property and convince the property owner that a new and effective management plan could be created if the state were to prevail in purchasing it? From reading prior comments, it doesn’t sound like it would require a large number of rangers. I read that Jack Ma purchased a large tract of land in the area. Maybe he and other business leaders with an interest could be approached about creating such a partnership?

  15. In this thread and a couple of others over the past months some people have posted personal attacks on others whom they disagree with. To me, this demeans the Almanack. Let’s vent in private before posting. Please.

  16. I like Ben’s thinking, At one time Sigourney Weaver had a place by Blue Mountain Lake and Shania Twain briefly owned a large parcel near St. Regis Falls. Taylor Swift has purchased a string of historic houses.

    I am not a big follower of the super rich, but the idea of soliciting them to contribute to a responsible ADK organization sounds good to me.

    On the other hand, I would be very reluctant to trust individual ownership. My wife’s family learned that lesson the hard way with the Larkin Shops at Watch Hill, RI.

  17. James M Schaefer says:

    A bigger question might better be — what would Mary Lou have wanted? Anyone knowing her Whitney – Vanderbilt pedigree with a long list of charitable causes and generous donations to her name, one wonders why her priceless Adirondack property ends up with a price tag and “a preferred buyer” status! Not in character with the rest of her legacy.

    This could be a gift that keeps on giving. And a decent tax write-off, to boot. We have been discussing crumbs here. Interesting….but so are atoms.

    • Steve B. says:

      Jack Ma purchased at about $800 an acre. Hendrickson wants $5,000 an acre. This is all about posturing. JH throws this out there as his top dollar figure and then negotiates downward. There is zero likelihood that he will ever see that kind of price for this property. JH is also aware that the the threat to develop which he pulled back when Little Tupper got sold, is not going to work a 2nd time. Pataki got bluffed, Cuomo or whomever follows won’t let him go that route, they’ll simply tell the APA to say no and it’ll end up in the courts, which JH does not want. That’ll put off potential buyers, the state included.

  18. gabe susice says:

    jack ma isnt about conservation he is building a golf course, lots of new trails, roads
    \ cutting down alot of trees. he wont give a dime.
    N.Y. is broke they cant maintain what they now.
    N.Y. has so many problems with the trail system.
    until. these problems are fixed. they should stop creating more.

  19. Jeanne says:

    Boreas and Scott are correct. It is definately a Management problem!

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