Despite deep cuts to other parts of the budget, the Environmental Protection Fund will have more than 130 million dollars to spend statewide.
Green groups say they now hope to expand the forest preserve this year. But as Brian Mann reports, opponents of the plan say this is the wrong time to invest in new park land.
The last couple of years have been tough for environmental groups hoping to add tens of thousands of acres of backcountry to the "forever wild" state Forest Preserve.
The Adirondack Nature Conservancy is sitting on roughly 75,000 acres of land – including Follensby Park near Tupper Lake and parts of the old Finch, Pruyn timberlands which are scattered across the Park.
The Conservancy’s Mike Carr wants the state to buy that land outright. But after 2008, the project ran smack into the state’s dismal budget crisis.
“These are very, very difficult economic times and people are struggling,” Carr acknowledged.
The Paterson administration was cool to the idea of big land deals and stripped so much money from the Department of Environmental Conservation that serious questions were raised about the state’s ability to are for new land.
“Over the last two years of Governor Paterson’s term, the environment had been cut disproportionately compared to other state agencies,” Woodworth argued the Adirondack Mountain Club's Neil Woodworth.
Paterson even established a moratorium on new land deals and the land purchases were de-emphasized in the state's Open Space Plan. That energized opponents of big land deals like Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward from Willsboro.
“I wouldn’t outright say there should be a moratorium throughout the entire state,” Sayward said.
“But I would think we would at least pause and say, ‘Hey I think we have enough [state land] in the Adirondacks. Let’s take a breath and rethink what we’re doing.’”
But in the last couple of months, the Cuomo administration has signaled that big land deals are back on the table.
In the final days before Governor Paterson left office, state officials closed a deal that bought recreation and conservation easement rights on 85,000 acres of Adirondack land.
That angered Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board, who also wants a moratorium on new land deals.
“We just paid $30 million for a conservation easement on portions of the former Finch land,” he said.
“And that’s the same day that Governor Cuomo reaffirmed the layoff of 900 employees that was announced by Governor Paterson. So it just seems like the wrong time to spend another $40 million-plus to put people out of work.”
But green groups say land purchases are a good investment, good for the environment and good for tourism.
And they think that easement deal wouldn’t have happened without Cuomo’s approval. They also point to the new governor’s choice of Joe Martens as DEC commissioner.
Martens had been head of the Open Space Institute, a green group that helped orchestrate some of the biggest land deals in Adirondack history.
“I know from my own discussions with the governor’s senior staff that certainly the environment is a priority for him," said ADK's Neil Woodworth.
"Joe Martens with his great background in land preservation is someone who will support continuing open space protection."
And then there’s this decision to maintain the 134-million dollar Environmental Protection Fund, which drew praise this week from the Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr.
“Well, it’s great news obviously. We’re grateful to the governor and to his staff for protecting the Environmental Protection Fund and having the vision to see the link between the environment and New York’s economy.”
Carr says he now thinks that some pieces of the Finch Pruyn lands will be added to the forest preserve as early as this year, a timeline that would have seemed unlikely just a few months ago.
“I actually do expect some pieces to move this year, we’re not sure which ones. We’ll have to see what funding is ultimately available. That’s a statewide fund and there are lots of projects around the state that need doing. In fact, there’s a big backlog.”
Opponents of these deals haven’t given up the fight. Tomorrow we’ll look at a new push by the Park’s Local Government Review Board to try to block the Finch and Follensby deals.