"I'm here today for one purpose and one purpose only and that's to sit at that table and sign the check on today's [land] acquisition and it's going to be my pleasure," Cuomo said.
The price tag for the deal is just over $47 million. The preservation effort, engineered by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, is being described as the largest single expansion of the Park's protected lands in a century. Brian Mann was in Lake Placid for the signing ceremony and has our story.
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The Finch Pruyn deal was first unveiled in 2007, but as recently as last winter, the Cuomo administration was signaling that the massive conservation project – more than six times larger than the Whitney Wilderness Area — would be on hold, possibly for as long as five years.
With the state still clawing its way out of a deep budget hole, there seemed to be little appetite in Albany for big land deals in the North Country.
But Saturday evening, word began to spread among local government leaders and environmentalists that the governor was making a surprise trip to Lake Placid.
And Sunday afternoon at the Olympic conference center, Cuomo signed a contract that locks the state into a series of land purchases totaling 69,000 acres.
"We inherited a gift from our parents with the Adirondacks, [by expanding the forest preserve] we enhanced that gift when we gave it to our kids, and that gives me a special pride," Cuomo said.
Conservation commissioner Joe Martens, who himself helped preserve vast parcels of the Adirondacks – once worked for the Open Space Institute, which helped finance this deal.
He described this expansion of the forest preserve as historic.
"There will be new snowmobile trails in North Hudson, Newcomb, Long Lake, Minerva and Indian Lake," Martens promised, arguing that the deal would boost the region's winter tourism economy.
Mike Carr is executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and he’s widely seen as the architect of one of the largest preservation deals ever in New York state.
His organization borrowed more than 100 million dollars in 2007 to begin this process – a huge risk that ran smack into the national recession and the state’s economic downturn.
On Sunday he looked overjoyed and relieved.
"These are the jewels. These are lands surrounded by existing forest preserve. Places like Boreas Ponds, OK Slip Falls, the Essex Chain of Lakes, miles of the Hudson River. These are places people will come to discover from around the world."
Not so long ago, it would have been politically risky for Governor Cuomo to make this deal. The state budget was in free fall.
Also, his father, Governor Mario Cuomo, paid a big political price for his entanglement in trying to reform the Adirondack Park in the 1990s.
But Andrew Cuomo has been building popularity steadily in the North Country – vacationing here, responding skillfully to tropical storm Irene last August, and funneling more than 100 million dollars in grants to North Country towns through the Regional Economic Development Council program.
On Sunday, even long-time critics of conservation land deals, like Republican state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, gave the state and the environmental community high marks for their handling of this project.
"I think I'd have to give them at least an 85%. I think they did a good job with what they were working with," Sayward said.
Town governments in the Park initially supported the project, and we’re given the opportunity to acquire parcels of land for community needs.
Despite those arrangements, some communities later passed resolution urging the Cuomo administration to leave more of the land outside the forest preserve so that logging could continue and private hunting clubs could remain.
But Sue Montgomery Corey, the Democratic town supervisor from Minerva, said she’s pleased to see the forest preserve expand in her town.
"For the first time in 150 years, the people of Minerva and the people who come to Minerva will be able to see these places," she said. "These places will be accessible.
The deal unveiled Sunday is actually part of a much larger preservation effort.
Two years ago, New York state agreed to pay another $30 million dollars for conservation easements on a larger section of former Finch, Pruyn lands.
Under that deal, roughly 89,000 acres of conservation easements have been put in place, keeping the land open to timber harvesting while also allowing recreation and preventing real estate development.
But under this deal, 69,000 acres will have additional protections, remaining forever wild.
DEC commissioner Joe Martens said a public process will begin to determine what kind of recreation will be allowed – everything from hiking and paddling to snowmobiling.
But one traditional use will no longer be allowed, as historic hunt clubs are evicted. "They will be phased out over time," Martens acknowledged.
On Sunday, Martens also committed New York state to paying full property taxes on all the land added to the forest preserve.
It’s still unclear why Governor Cuomo moved to seal this deal now.
But his agenda over the next year does include another big decision that environmentalists are watching closely: whether or not to allow hydrofracking for natural gas in central New York.
If Cuomo does allow fracking to go forward, this Adirondack deal might soften his image among green activists.