Monday, March 8, 2021

Elk Lake: The First Adirondack Conservation Easement

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s website reveals that 777,206 acres of private land in the Adirondack Park are protected by a state-owned conservation easement.  During the Adirondack Park Centennial year of 1992 there were 93,000 acres of private lands under state-owned easement in the Park.

That number jumped to 250,000 acres early in this century as the former pulp and paper companies in the Park, such as International Paper, Champion International and Domtar, all negotiated easements under the state’s program. Lyme Timber acquired many of these eased holdings in the 21st century and is now the largest private forest landowner in the Park.

The Finch, Pruyn Company also sold just under 100,000 acres of private lands under conservation easement in 2007  (plus about 60,000-acres that has become Forest Preserve). The acreage under easement has steadily grown since then. And that doesn’t even count all of the private easements negotiated and acquired by groups such as the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Land Trust, Lake Placid Land Conservancy, Champlain Area Trails, and others.

20th century wilderness coalition leader Paul Schaefer, best known for his wilderness leadership and ardent embrace of the “forever wild” publicly owned Forest Preserve, also believed in private land conservation through agreements of various kinds such as deed covenants or easements. Decades before Finch, Pruyn sold to The Nature Conservancy Paul was urging former Finch, Pruyn president Lyman Beeman and members of the Finch, Pruyn board of directors to consider donating a protective easement on their most spectacular holdings along the Upper Hudson, such as OK Slip Falls. Paul was not averse to private holdings in the Park under active forest management which he viewed as complimentary, both ecologically and aesthetically, to adjacent “forever wild” Forest Preserve.

Until 1984, no statutory tool existed to permit the state to expend public funds and receive specified public rights to private land. Public expenditure for land in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks resulted in the land becoming Forest Preserve throughout most of the 20th century. Conservation easements were only authorized under the common law carried over from the state’s 18th century colonial status.

Under common law, a landowner can grant or sell a scenic conservation easement protecting a piece of property from, say, housing development, only if it is appurtenant or immediately abutting existing protected land, such as adjacent Forest Preserve. An example is the easement agreed to by the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in 1978 allowing public access through this private land to appurtenant Forest Preserve in the High Peaks Wilderness.

The public would not gain a more flexible easement tool until the 1984 easement law, which authorized public expenditure to protect private managed land and gain public rights anywhere, regardless of juxtaposition with Forest Preserve. The 1986 Environmental Quality Bond Act was the first significant funding source for the state’s use of conservation easements under the 1984 law. Its $100 million of land protection funds were commited within four years.

In 1990, Paul Schaefer got behind a proposed 21st Century Environmental Bond Act worth $1.975 billion, endorsed by then Governor Mario Cuomo and approved by the State Legislature. Paul hoped the voters would approve it that fall, in part, to refill the state’s coffers for the purchase of more conservation easements and Forest Preserve. He even created one more organization, one of dozens he created during his lifetime, this one being Sportsmen for the Bond Act. He jawboned many people to support the bond, including me and the organization I worked for (the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks), but we were easy sells. Others? Not so much. People were worried about the state’s indebtedness. The Bond Act lost at the polls that November by a margin of 52-48 percent.

As Paul Schaefer spoke to me about the need for the 1990 Bond Act he wanted me to know about his involvement with the first conservation easement in the Adirondacks. It came about because of a heated conversation in the very room we were sitting in, he said. After hearing his tale, I immediately spoke what I recalled of it into a tape recorder I kept in my car so I would remember the stories Paul told me.

The first easement

As Paul recounted, around 1960 (on that evening Paul was uncertain about the precise year) Samuel Bloomingdale of New York City had acquired the awesome scenery of Elk Lake south of the High Peaks from the Finch, Pruyn paper company. Many people were immediately suspicious about his motivation, Paul said. The Northway, I-87, had been authorized by constitutional amendment and was under construction. Presumably, second home lots around Elk Lake – under ten miles from a planned Northway exit – would be worth a lot of money.

Some of those worriers gathered with Paul in his home’s Adirondack Room to discuss what to do next. They included Regional Director Bill Petty of the State’s Conservation Department, and the department’s Charlie Matteson, in charge of land acquisition. Also attending that day was Richard Pough, president of the board of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. Dick Pough was also a founder of The Nature Conservancy in the mid-1950s. Paul was a vice president of the Association and knew Dick Pough well.

Flying over Elk Lake

All present in Schaefer’s Adirondack Room gave voice to their suspicions that Bloomingdale would develop his property because its value would skyrocket due to the Northway’s construction. With no positive resolution in sight, Dick Pough asked if the group would accompany him to New York City and communicate their concerns directly to Bloomingdale. Samuel Bloomingdale agreed to the appointment.

In his telling of the New York City meeting, Paul recalled that the Conservation Department’s Matteson came right out with their concerns.

“Level with us,” Matteson asked Bloomingdale. “People around the state are very concerned. What are your future plans for Elk Lake?”

Bloomingdale replied: “Nothing, I love the lake and I want it to stay the way it is.”

Matteson and the rest were floored. One of them haltingly asked Bloomingdale: “would there be a possibility of putting an easement on the property to protect it?”

“Great idea,” Bloomingdale answered.

Matteson then admitted that the State was broke but had “scraped together” $65,000 to protect the Elk Lake shoreline.

Bloomingdale broke off the conversation and privately conversed with his lawyers, then came back to tell the group:

“Everything about your plan is great except for one thing: the money.”

Matteson answered gloomily that he thought that would be the problem.

“No,” the owner replied, “I don’t think you should pay us anything. We’ll take $1 for the easement.”

For $1, that original Adirondack easement, acquired under the common law, protected the shoreline and islands of magnificent Elk Lake for more than 50 years until John and Margot Ernst, owners of Elk Lake Lodge, greatly expanded the use of conservation easements here.

In 2013 the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and Land Trust announced that the Ernsts had donated a conservation easement protecting all 12,000 acres around Elk Lake. Writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Chris Knight, reported the news in that newspaper’s January 4, 2013 edition, quoting the Adirondack Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr:

“The Ernst family’s donation of the conservation easement on the 12,000-acre Elk Lake-Clear Pond preserve expands on an easement the family negotiated with the state in 1963. That deal, which Carr said was the first-ever conservation easement in the state at the time, protected a band of the property extending 1,000 feet around the shore of Elk Lake and included its islands.

The rest of the lands were not in easement, but in this transaction, the Ernsts donated a conservation easement over the remainder of the property,” Carr said.

The easement prohibits future development but allows for the continued operation of the Elk Lake Lodge and continued forestry on the property. It also makes permanent public trail access through the preserve to the High Peaks and Dix Mountain wilderness areas. A new trail is also planned to the summit of Boreas Mountain from Elk Lake Road.

It’s very exciting and a tremendously generous gift by John and Margot Ernst, Carr said. It’s a gift to the people of the state of New York. When you look at it on a map and you see the context and the continuity across Elk Lake, Boreas Ponds, the High Peaks Wilderness and the AuSable Club to the north, which is under state conservation easement, it’s astonishing what this assembles in terms of conserved acreage.”

Images: “In the Middle of Everything Wild” – Elk Lake by Ken Rimany. Flying over Elk Lake

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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 PreserveDuring 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.

10 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Great article, David! I’ve always wondered how easements work.
    The story behind Bloomingdale’s and the Ernst’s donations is truly heart-warming. The view from the Elk Lodge lodge is unsurpassed in the Adirondacks.

  2. Boreasfisher says:

    Wonderful story…warms the cockles…New Yorkers
    owe Bloomingdale and the Ernsts a great debt.

  3. Boreas says:


    I have often thought the ELL property the premier property in the Park. Boreas Ponds is almost its twin. I never knew the story of the easement, but find it both fascinating and amazing. Thanks for the article explaining it!

    I have been lucky enough to stay at ELL a few times when finishing my 46 tour and since then just for enjoyment and a base for hiking. The staff have always been very nice and I never noticed much snootiness (at least from the staff) – even when just parking and walking around the lodge for pix. It isn’t cheap, but rooms rates include 2 meals and boat usage (last I knew). I especially loved the few winters they stayed open for lodging. It is a beautiful and important piece of property!

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    In the midst of stories of corporate greed and capitalist selfishness with profit as the prime motive, it’s nice to hear the history of people like Mr. Bloomingdale. Can you imagine how the people in that room felt when he said One dollar!?

  5. Brian says:

    Very well researched and written. It also shows the love of the Adirondacks and contributions from the private sector that is not always acknowledged. It is not always us versus them. Talking helps.

  6. Nice to read about the first conservation easement. Paul Schaefer and Richard Pough may have learned something about this strategy from John Apperson, who donated Dome Island (Lake George) to the Eastern Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, in 1956, and then managed to raise $20,000 as an endowment. Apperson had tried repeatedly to persuade the state to purchase Dome Island from the previous owners, but he never could get them to agree. Apperson purchased the island himself, in 1939, and immediately started trying to devise a strategy to protect the beautiful island. There are several other examples of early conservation easements around Lake George.

  7. Daniel Covey says:

    As a former land owner in the park and having hunted and fished many remote areas in the park the thing I feel is sadly in need of forest management. I know people think logging is evil, but seeing the Forest in Oregon that are well managed I personally think it would make a nice park a perfect park

    • Bob Meyer says:

      Certainly on private lands forest enlightened management is a good thing, but on Forest Preserve land not. If you don’t agree with this I’ll just respectfully say you do not understand the reasoning and importance of why Forever Wild is in the New York State Constitution.
      I have lived on CA & WA State and see both the benefits
      and shortcomings of managed woodlands in National Forests. The history, land use and ownership patterns in the Adirondacks & Catskills are unique and what (sometimes) works in the West is inappropriate in our Forest Preserve.

      • Boreas says:

        I agree Bob. That is the purpose of state and national forests. They typically allow active “management” of timber and wildlife, but some are unique habitat and have different protections. This link leads to a list of many NYS Forests:

  8. Bob Meyer says:

    Thanks for the link Boreas!

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