Monday, July 5, 2021

From Perkins Clearing to Cathead Mountain

cathead firetower

I was hiking in Hamilton County recently when one of my companions spoke of the days of the Perkins Clearing land exchange (1979), a publicly supported amendment to Article 14 of the NYS Constitution which led to a significant land exchange between the State of New York and International Paper Corporation north of the village of Speculator.

We spoke of that land exchange as not only highly sensible and pragmatic for both sides, but also a classic Adirondack “win: win” result for the public’s Forest Preserve and for private forest industry.

Perkins Clearing Exchange: The confusing checkerboard pattern of state-private land evolved over many decades around Perkins Clearing (named after Isaiah Perkins, who owned a deer hunting camp here in the late 19th century). It was finally ended after 1979. Ownerships were consolidated, clearer boundaries established. Unbroken ownership blocks facilitated better land management. Both parties gained roughly the same acreage. The state’s Forest Preserve gained a little over 10,300 contiguous acres, International Paper gained just over 7,100 contiguous acres.

The Vote in 1979: It was only after I got home from the hike that I found out that the public vote whether to authorize this land exchange was remarkably close – 50.7% for the exchange, 49.3% opposed. Over 1.1 million voters that year were not persuaded this was a win: win scenario.

While the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club urged the measure’s passage, the Sierra Club urged its defeat.  Perhaps many of the “no” votes were opposed to amending Article 14 – on principal. Perhaps it was felt the amendment was a boon or gift to private forest industry that was cutting down trees for fiber in the Adirondacks. Perhaps it was simply a lack of trust in the process needed to amend the State Constitution. Erosion of public trust in our public institutions had been fading for years before that.

I was not a NYS resident then, so I am merely guessing about possible reasons this 1979 vote was so close. But New Yorkers did decide, by slim margins, “yes.”

The Aftermath: Today, it is apparent that the Perkins Clearing amendment was sensible and highly beneficial. Important public benefits and broad community needs for the public and private Adirondack sectors were achieved that could not have been obtained in any other way but through a constitutional amendment. The net benefit to the Adirondack Forest Preserve has been positive.

The fact of the land swap’s authorization by the voters led to several years of ensuing controversy over how the consolidated Forest Preserve lands adjacent to the West Canada Lake Wilderness would be classified by the Adirondack Park Agency.

Passions ran hot in 1983-84 over the Perkins Clearing land classification decision in Ray Brook, much as they did over the Essex Chain of Lakes and Boreas Ponds more than thirty years later. Some sporting interests from Hamilton County and across New York wanted more motorized access. Forever Wild advocates were strongly in favor of it all being included within the West Canada Wilderness, and there were many shades of gray.

Compromise over the land’s classification was reached. Most of the Forest Preserve acreage obtained in the exchange was classified Wilderness, about 2800 acres classified Wild Forest on and surrounding Pillsbury Mountain, and motorized access on the roads terminated there, not extended to Cedar Lake – as many desired. Today, Lyme Timber manages the forestry and recreation on the consolidated former IP tract, now covered by a conservation easement. DEC has yet to advance a Draft West Canada Lakes Wilderness Unit Management Plan, which is vitally important work to do so that all management activities are conducted in a coordinated way consistent with Wilderness guidelines. A lot of potential exists for new recreational opportunities and linkages to Speculator that do not interfere with Lyme’s forest management and the terms of the easement.

In summary, many years ago New York’s voters supported a complicated Adirondack land swap in Hamilton County that has had, overall, positive benefits for the public and private partnerships of the Adirondack Park – and with potential for many more recreational, business and climate-related benefits to come.

View from Cathead summit down to Hatch Brook Club Lot

View from Cathead Mountain during a visit with the private landowner

Another Potential Win: Win : Today, there is another land swap in the southern portion of Hamilton County with the same potential to be welcomed by future generations. This potential land swap is also a complicated. The voters may or may not give their ultimate blessing. But, like Perkins Clearing the problems and potential benefits are significant and the only viable solution is through a land swap amendment to Article 14.

Cathead Mountain: Cathead Mountain in the Town of Benson is split between private and public ownership. On three sides, the mountain is surrounded by Silver Lake Wilderness. The summit is private where the old firetower is strung with wires and a microwave dish. From there, weak, unreliable signals are directed into the Rt. 30 valley communities of Benson, Hope and Wells. State Police and County Sheriff attest to gaps in communication resulting from such an outdated system powered by propane tanks, old solar panels, and a small wind turbine. State Police helicopter landings on Cathead’s summit are necessary to resupply the propane tanks. These flights are dangerous, noisy, and out of place in the Wilderness just beyond the summit. Meanwhile, accidents or fires down in the valley may receive slow or no emergency response.

Hamilton County’s studies have convinced Adirondack Wild that only a constitutional land exchange can solve the pressing public safety problems while providing benefits for the Forest Preserve and Cathead Mountain. Specific in purpose and narrow in scope, this land exchange could serve a well-documented, pressing need for reliable emergency communication.  Through the exchange, about 480 acres of the private ownership would greatly expand and round out the Forest Preserve’s Silver Lake Wilderness at this location. In addition, a conservation easement on Cathead’s summit could restore public recreational access to magnificent mountain views in all directions, while all the equipment cluttering the summit would be removed and moved to a more reliable location. Currently, public access to Cathead’s private summit is not permitted.

In exchange, 46 acres along a half-mile of Forest Preserve below the mountain could allow grid power to reach the new microwave tower on private land. That reliable power source could lead to far more reliable emergency communications for people down in the valley and at the same time provide the private owner with motorized access to their property. For decades, the private owners have had to bring their supplies in on foot or horse and wagon.  The entire private property could be conserved through a conservation easement.

The net benefit in terms of acreage exchanged could be about 10:1 in favor of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, in addition to the conservation easement protecting Cathead Mountain summit and the entire private property. A right of first refusal could be granted the state should the private owner ever desire to sell.

As at Perkins Clearing, here lies potential to achieve a pragmatic, mutually beneficial solution for the Forest Preserve, the adjacent private owner and, in this instance, emergency service providers and the many people they serve, both residents and visitors, in southern Hamilton County. In the decades to come, with support from all environmental groups, from lawmakers in Albany and from the voters, it might be hailed as a classic win: win for the Adirondack Park. Right now, I cannot think of a more important public-private initiative to advance than this one at Cathead Mountain.

(References relied upon for this post include Land Acquisition for New York State: An Historical Perspective by Norman J. VanValkenburgh; Forever Wild: A Cultural History of Wilderness in the Adirondacks by Philip G. Terrie; and Perspectives on the Adirondacks: A Thirty-Year Struggle by People Protecting their Treasure by Barbara McMartin)

Photo on top: Tower and microwave equipment on Cathead Mountain. Photos provided by Dave Gibson.

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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.

11 Responses

  1. Bill D. says:

    A pragmatic solution!

  2. Alan West says:

    I’m not against acquiring more private land into the forest preserve, but I am very much opposed to classifying everything as wilderness.

  3. Steve B. says:

    While I support this land swap, I think a missing part not mentioned and partly controversial, is that a new access road will need to be carved out of the woods to install the new power lines and well as provide access to the new equipment on the mountain. Many seem to reject the idea of a new road.

    • Susan says:

      The equipment would be removed from the mountain to land below? And might the road not be on the 46 private acres?

      • Steve B. says:

        No, I thought I had read in early posts about this that the summit would retain the towers and an equipment shed, electrical service would be brought up to the summit and that a new road would be needed for access. This plan maybe has changed ?

  4. David Gibson says:

    Thanks for the comments and questions. Based on past visits to the site, one option would be to utilize the private land north of the current tower, at the north end of the same Cathead ridgeline, where a new tower and shed would be constructed on the private land. The present equipment clutter on Cathead’s former firetower could be removed. Below ground grid power could run up to that new microwave tower location through the privately owned woodlands below the ridge, requiring a relatively narrow, switchbacked, ATV accessible route up to the ridge. Grid power would be supplied to that point via an undergrounded line buried along one-half mile of what is now Forest Preserve, but at one time was an old wagon road, still used by the private landowner to get supplies to their landlocked property beyond the Forest Preserve. Estimates are that 46 acres of Forest Preserve would be required to widen and harden that old wagon road and bring power along it. In exchange for the 46 or so acres along the old wagon road, the private landowner would provide the Forest Preserve’s Silver Lake Wilderness with more than 450 of their private acres contiguous to the Wilderness on the other side of the ridge, as well as a conservation and public access easement to Cathead’s summit, and a no development easement on the remainder of their private land. This summary is based on my understanding from one year ago.

  5. Marla Healy says:

    David, all though all is said and done!!! My family had a camp with walking distance to Pillsbury Lake for 5 generations. I recall how it effected the entire family. But I guess some would say ” that’s progress”.

  6. Tony Goodwin says:

    I’m glad to learn that such a “win-win” land swap is in the works. I agree that the Perkins Clearing land swap was also such a “win-win” initiative. I do remember the Sierra Club’s strong opposition to that great land exchange, and suspect that the narrow margin of victory would have been wider without that opposition.

    I would also be interested to see how current Sierra Club members view that exchange and whether any have regretted their opposition to that “win-win” initiative.

  7. Mac says:

    Old solar panels, clunky wind generators. Hire a competent alternative energy engineer and fix it.

  8. Tom Paine says:

    After the recent NYS court ruling I highly doubt any local government or private landowners in the park will want any part of this or any other proposed swaps.