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All these towns were effectively trying to negotiate the best deal they could, knowing that they had in effect a gun to their head...

Some Adirondack towns say they were pressured to support Finch conservation deal

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Yesterday, NCPR reported that local governments in the Adirondack Park are deeply divided over the future of the Finch conservation project.

That land deal would add roughly 60,000 acres to the "forever wild" forest preserve.

One reason that the project is still so controversial, four years after it was unveiled, is that many community leaders feel that they were strong-armed into accepting it.

Other town supervisors say they felt the negotiations were fair and productive.

In part two of his special report, Brian Mann looks at the politics and the backroom talks that shaped the Finch deal.

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CORRECTION:  The amount of Nature Conservancy land in the Follensby Pond tract which is located in the town of Tupper Lake is approximately 1,500 acres, not 3,000 acres as originally reported.

In 2007, after the Finch land deal was unveiled by state officials and the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the two organizations set out together to meet with local leaders in the Park. 

The used the DEC’s Open Space Planning process as well as one-on-one talks with dozens of town supervisors, hammering out details of one of the biggest land conservation projects in New York history. 

After Months of intense negotiations, local government leaders signed on. 

"I think the Consevancy worked very hard in terms of trying to hear the needs of the various communities,"said Gregg Wallace, then town supervisor in Long Lake, speaking in 2008.

"In my opinion it’s going to be a win-win for Long Lake, when you compare it to some of the alternatives that could have been out there."

In the end, not a single community opposed the project – and eleven towns, including Long Lake, passed resolutions supporting it. 

But critics of the project have long maintained that all those town leaders accepted the project against their will. 

"The resolutions of support were passed under duress," said Fred Monroe, town supervisor in Chester.

Monroe, who also heads the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, acknowledges that his own town passed a resolution supporting the Finch project.

He now argues that community leaders like himself felt that if they didn’t negotiate to get the best deal possible, they would have been steamrollered by the state and by environmentalists.

"So all these towns were effectively trying to negotiate the best deal they could, knowing that they had in effect a gun to their head with this duress that they could circumvent their vetoes," he argued.

Under state law, the DEC can only use the Environmental Protection Fund to buy land in a town if local officials agree.  In theory, town boards can simply veto any project they don’t like. 

But in 2005, when the Pataki administration wanted to buy a chunk of land owned by International Paper, the DEC infuriated local government leaders by doing an end-run on that veto. 

Instead of using Protection Fund money, they financed part of the project using other pools of cash. 

Gerry Delaney, a board member in the town of Saranac and now president of the Local Government Review Board, says that decision haunts all negotiations.

"If the town refuses and they don’t accept what the state wants to purchase, are they only going to get to refuse so many times before the state says, ‘Okay, you don’t want it, okay we won’t spend Environmental Protection Funds.’  And then goes finds another method to purchase the land."

[Clarification:  The Nature Conservancy played no role in the IP land deal, which was brokered by another environmental organization.]

State officials and the Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr say no threats of that kind were ever issued during the Finch negotiations. 

"I think that’s a gross mischaracterization of what was a very productive and open discussion with twenty-seven towns," Carr said.

He argues that the Conservancy and the state made major concessions – concessions which his organization viewed as painful – in order to reach a final deal that would avoid any vetoes.

"The towns had the power to veto this acquisition and we listened hard and we crafted a plan that we felt struck a balance," he said.  "There was absolutely no implication of anything other than an open and frank discussion of the future of our lands.

As part of the settlement, the Nature Conservancy promised to help build snowmobile connector trails and agreed to let towns purchase chunks of land for special projects. 

Carr points out that hey also canceled plans to expand the forest preserve in two communities, Fort Ann and Long Lake, because town boards there objected.

"I think that’s great evidence of just how hard we listened to what their dreams were for the property.  We tried to balance that out with our ecological objectives and the state’s recreational and economic objectives."

 There is plenty of evidence that towns got a lot out of these talks.  And even now, many town supervisors describe relations with the state and the DEC over the Finch lands as productive and collegial. 

"We have in the last year had a meeting with the Nature Conservancy and the snowmobile clubs in the area," said Minerva town supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey. 

"They are, of course, very interested in the potential for strengthening the trail system in the area.  So I think that’s a real positive."

Indeed, when you talk to local government leaders about the Finch project, you find two very different views.  Some see it as an unstoppable juggernaut that swept communities up in its momentum. 

Others see it as a model for how these kinds of projects should be done.

Brian Towers is town supervisor in Wells.  He also heads the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and he sits on the state’s Open Space Adivsory Committee.

He says there are truths to both sides of the story.  He praises the Nature Conservancy, but says these talks to place in the context of a long history of distrust.

"I think this was a new way.  And I think that Mike [Carr with the Nature Conservancy] went way out of his way to try and negotiate a deal with these towns and bring everybody on board as best he could.  That was a whole new tactic that none of the towns were used to.  We had up to that point simply been told, this was going to happen, whether you liked it or didn’t like it."

This tension, and this debate among local government leaders over the credibility of the Finch negotiations, is typified by the attitude of Barry Hutchins, town supervisor in Indian Lake. 

Hutchens says he too was convinced that the overall land conservation project was unstoppable.

"We felt here in Indian Lake that you know even if we did object to that that there would be other monies available to make this project happen," he recalled.

But Hutchins is now a supporter of the overall deal and says the talks with the Nature Conservancy produced tangible results for his town.

"We were brought in on the ground level of this project and I believe that we did get good product out of the project.  We’re not happy with everything, of course.  But all in all, we got what we were looking for."

 The window of time for towns to use their vetos on the Finch project has passed and state officials have signaled that they plan to move forward with buying some of the land as early as this year. 

But these questions about the state and the environmental community’s willingness to negotiate in good faith with local communities could be tested again very soon.

On Monday, Tupper Lake officials passed a resolution opposing another big conservation deal, the Follensby tract, which involves about 1,500 acres of land within that town’s borders.

 That deal too is being brokered by the Nature Conservancy and environmentalists have been urging the state to add the property to the forest preserve for decades.

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