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The bill would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve (Photo: NYCO Minerals)
The bill would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve (Photo: NYCO Minerals)

Cuomo, legislature back two land swaps in Adirondack forest preserve

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In the final hours of the session yesterday, lawmakers in Albany pushed through two bills that would amend the state constitution for the Adirondack forest preserve. The bills will allow land swaps in Raquette Lake and Willsboro. As Brian Mann reports, green groups are supporting the Raquette Lake amendment. However, they hope to derail a plan to expand a mining operation onto state Park land in Willsboro.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The state forest preserve in the Adirondacks is covered by Article 14 of the state constitution, which requires that the land remain 'forever wild.' For years, the North Country's delegation in Albany has been pushing for amendments to the constitution to allow two land swaps, one in Raquette Lake in Hamilton County, and the other in Willsboro in Essex County.

The Raquette Lake project would sort out a property rights dispute that has simmered for decades, with the state disputing title to more than 200 properties. State Senator Bettle Little said, "This resolution is very, very good.  We'll save the state of New York a lot of money in litigation.  And we'll save the people involved in those parcels of land a lot of money in litigation as well."

In exchange for clear title to their property, landowners will pay the state roughly $600,000 to acquire a new piece of forest preserve land. Jim Blanchard is one of the landowners on Raquette Lake and said, "We're not getting something for nothing here.  This is our land, and this is just a way to get it solved."

Lawmakers also pushed through an amendment that would allow a company called NYCO in Willsboro to expand its mining operation to explore for a mineral called wollastonite on land that is now part of the forest preserve. Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward supported the measure and said, "NYCO minerals employs 120 people.  It's in my home town, so I can tell you they keep the schools open, they're good neighbors."

While environmental groups have supported the land swap in Raquette Lake, a group called Protect the Adirondacks opposes the project in Willsboro. Spokesman John Caffrey says forest preserve land isn't supposed to be used for commercial purposes. "It would also set a bad precedent, because it would be the first time that there's been an amendment for purely financial reasons and we think that's a very slippery slope to start down," said Caffrey.

Under the land swap arrangement, NYCO would pay New York state at least $1 million and possibly more for the property that sits next to its current mining operation. Caffrey acknowledged that the money could be used to purchase a parcel of new park land with higher value for recreation or the environment and said, "You could probably use the money to acquire a larger piece of land certainly, because the value of minerals would determine the value of the land, and would generate quite a bit of moneys.  However, we don't think again that that should be the basis for land swaps. What if someone thought they could put a resort on top of Mount Marcy?"

Because these projects on the forest preserve require an amendment to the state constitution, both bills have to be passed again by the legislature next year. After that, they'll go on the ballot for a statewide vote, likely in 2013. Senator Little says she's confident the land swaps will make it through that lengthy process, in large part because the amendments have the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Environment Commissioner Joe Martens. "It was very important.  it had to have the research and the questions answered.  And looking to see what they're concerns would be so people would be comfortable doing this.  And I think both of these pieces of legislation do that," said Little.

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