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South Branch Camp (Photo:  Phil Royce)
South Branch Camp (Photo: Phil Royce)

APA: hunting camps can stay

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The Adirondack Park Agency voted on Friday to allow 220 traditional hunting clubs to keep their cabins on the former Champion timber lands in the northern and western Adirondacks.

That reverses a decade-old decision struck by state officials that would have evicted the clubs, some of them dating back generations.

As Brian Mann reports, the fate of the clubs has been a flashpoint in the Park for years.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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In 1999 when the state of New York crafted a conservation deal on the vast Champion timber lands in Franklin, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, it protected some of the most cherished waterways in the Park, opening them to paddlers and anglers. 

Rick Weber with the Adirondack Park Agency outlined some of the rivers involved in the deal during a meeting last week.

"Including the Deer River, the East and the Main branches of the St. Regis, the SOuth Branch of the Grasse, the West Branch of the Oswegatchie," he said.

It was a landmark project, covering some 110 thousand acres, and it set off a host of other mega-conservation deals that would follow over the next decade – including Domtar, IP and Finch Pruyn. 

But in the fine print of that first deal was a provision that eliminated hundreds of traditional hunting clubs whose cabins had sat on timberland for generations.

"Most of these racks were here before I came," said Wilfred Proulz, speaking with NCPR in 1999. 

He was a member of the Trailz End hunting club that had sat on the bank of the Oswegatchie River since 1944.  Proulz himself joined in the early Seventies.

"They called it good fellowship.  They used to come and they killed a few deers and they played penny-ante poker and nobody got hurt.  That's gone." 

In the years that followed, other conservation easements were drafted differently, so that the vast majority of hunting clubs in other parts of the Park haven’t been disrupted or evicted.

But the fate of the Champion hunting clubs, including the Trailz End, has remained a source of bitterness until now.

On Friday, the APA voted 8-to-1 to revise the land use permit for the private land portion of the deal, so that a total of 220 cabins will be allowed to remain as leaseholders.

"220 aces out of 110,000 that is being allocated for this licensees' exclusion zone," said the APA's Weber.

Each cabin will have a one-acre envelope.  Motorized recreation on the easement lands will be limited, but club members will be allowed to drive in to their cabins.

In exchange, the owner of the timberland, a company called Heartwood Forestland, agreed to give New York state 2100 acres that will be added to the ‘forever wild’ state forest preserve. 

Rob Davies, who heads the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, said it was a good deal for the state.

"That value was actually determined on an acre-by-acre basis, in terms of the value of the retention of the hunting camps and the value of the land that the state will be acquiring," he said.

Club members were mostly pleased by the decision. 

"It's good that the state realizes that it's sort of a North Country heritage," said Dan McDonnell from Canton is part of the South Branch Camp. 

"Deer camps are something that have been part of our culture for a long time."

The agreement with New York state does place sharp restrictions on ATV and other motorized recreation on the property – a provision that irked some club members.

APA commissioner Dede Scozzafava – who represented St. Lawrence County in the state assembly when the Champion deal was struck – said the change was the result of lengthy negotiations that began in 2005.

"I think it's a lot of people coming together to try to find a workable resolution," she said.

Not everyone was satisfied.  Park commissioner Richard Boothe said he supported the idea of the hunting camps remaining, but he wanted a public hearing on the plan first.

"This is a process that's all behind closed doors.  The public has not seen this process," he argued.

Environmental groups agreed.  Dan Plumley, with the group Adirondack Wild, argued that there are still questions about how hunting clubs can use the land.

"You have one of the most significant historical conservation easements purchased with $24.9 million of taxpayer money being changed significantly over 110,000 acres with no public hearing.  That, we don't feel, is good public policy."

One wrinkle here is that many of these clubs have struggled to find new members, especially members who are actually interested in hunting and fishing. 

Phil Royce, another member of the South Branch Camp, says club culture has been evolving for a long time, as people put these traditional cabins to different uses.

"You know, in the past, it was really hunting and fishing and maybe some trapping.  And then the snowmobiling has been going on for a long time also," Royce noted.

"The ATV use has been a new mixture in the use going on up there.  But now, more recently, there's a lot of people go up there to cross-country ski, hike.  People are mountain biking.  There are people using horses now.  I think it will open up sort of a multi-use dimension up there."

Not all the Champion hunting clubs were preserved by this deal.  Some that were located on land purchased outright by the state were torn down and are gone for good.  But this deal will allow as many as twelve new cabins to be rebuilt if clubs show interest.

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