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An economic engine, or a boondoggle?  Photo: Brian Mann
An economic engine, or a boondoggle? Photo: Brian Mann

Local governments blast, praise Adirondack land deal

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Governor Andrew Cuomo made headlines across New York this week after his trip to the Adirondacks. He traveled to Essex County on Sunday to paddle and fish for trout. But Cuomo's main mission in the North Country was promoting the $50 million conservation project that will add nearly 70,000 acres to the Park's forest preserve.

Here in the North Country, that historic deal is still drawing fierce criticism from some local government leaders, and from groups that represent the Park's towns and villages. But other local government leaders are embracing the land deal and say it will be good for their communities and the Park economy.

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The tension between those differing views was thrown into sharp focus last August, when Governor Andrew Cuomo surprised everyone with a hastily arranged ceremony in Lake Placid. "We all have a role in life," the governor joked. "I'm here for one purpose and one purpose only.

Governor Cuomo says the land deal struck a balance between the economy and conservation. Photo: Brian Mann
Governor Cuomo says the land deal struck a balance between the economy and conservation. Photo: Brian Mann
I'm here to sign the check on today's acquisition."

Cuomo signed a contract with the Nature Conservancy, agreeing to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next five years, locking in vast new parcels for the "forever wild" forest preserve.
Local governments had a say in this deal. Historically I don't think that that was necessarily the case...So this is the model going forward.
At the time, DEC commissioner Joe Martens argued that the deal would be a boost to struggling towns in the heart of the Adirondacks. "There will be new snowmobile trails," Martens argued, insisting that the public land would boost the winter economy of the Adirondacks.

But after the ceremony, two prominent local government groups in the Park, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and the Local Government Review Board, fired back at the governor. The state-funded Review Board, which has a non-voting seat on the Adirondack Park Agency, issued a statement calling the deal "unprecedented in its utter disregard for the Adirondack economy" and "unprecedented in its overall fiscal irresponsibility."

The AATV, meanwhile, argued that the deal "continues a long history of questionable land acquisition supported by extreme environmentalists and ignorance of the fragile Adirondack Park economy."

Fred Monroe, executive director of the Local Government Review Board. Photo: LinkedIn
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Local Government Review Board. Photo: LinkedIn
A few days after the governor's announcement, the leaders of those groups, Brian Towers from Wells and Fred Monroe from Chester, appeared together on YNN television. "Many of the communities in the Adirondacks are really struggling to survive," Monroe said. "And we see this as a move that is going to hurt our economy."

"This could have been structured in a different way," Towers added, suggesting that the state could have preserved the land and opened recreation access using less costly conservation easements.

That's an arrangement where the land stays in private hands, but development rights and recreation rights are purchased by New York state or by environment groups. In the weeks since, opposition from the AATV and the Review Board has continued.

This month at the Adirondack Park Agency meeting, Monroe argued again that the deal would hurt local economies. And on Monday, after the governor's latest visit to the Adirondacks, Monroe put out another statement, criticizing the state for locking up thousands of residential development rights. "Affected communities will have to raise additional taxes from remaining taxpayers to make up for that loss," he argued.

This resistance to land deals that expand the forest preserve is deeply rooted among local government officials in the Park. But missing from those statements issued by Monroe and Towers is the fact that a growing number of local leaders view land conservation in a more nuanced way.

Some town officials directly affected by the Finch conservation deal have actually embraced it. Sue Montgomery Corey is town supervisor in Minerva. "I think it's very exciting that for the first time in 150 years the people of Minerva and the people who come to visit Minerva will be able to see these places," she said.

In part this shift reflects a growing conviction among Park leaders that tourism and recreation will play a bigger role in the economy going forward. Ronald Moore is town supervisor in North Hudson — which includes the biggest chunk of new forest preserve land, the 22,000 acres around Boreas Ponds. "Both as a board when we first discussed [the deal] and now, we're excited about it. We actually feel that the proposed snowmobile trail system...we just see it as a great opportunity."

Mike Carr is head of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, based in Keene Valley. He says his organization work hard to win support from local leaders, spending hours poring over maps, negotiating side deals that would allow towns to buy land for community projects and development. "The first day we reached out to all the town supervisors in 27 towns and six counties," Carr said.

Carr points as the Finch conservation deal was being negotiated, the towns directly affected had the right to exercise a veto over land acquisitions in their towns. Not a single town exercised that power.

[Clarification:  Fred Monroe points out that his town, Chester, initially exercised the veto, then withdrew it after negotiating with the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.]

In the years since, some local governments have reversed themselves, passing resolutions asking for the deal to be renegotiated. But Conservation commissioner Joe Martens says he thinks the process worked. "Local governments had a say in this deal," he argues. "Historically I don't think that that was necessarily the case. I know it wasn't necessarily the case. So this is the model going forward."

Martens points out that the lion's share of former Finch Pruyn lands were kept as private parcels that will be logged under conservation easements. Also, all the private hunting camps affected by this deal were given the opportunity to relocate. Those efforts at compromise and dialogue did win over some long-time opponents of land conservation deals.

The editorial board of the Glens Falls Post Star newspaper, which is often critical of the state's management of the Park, praised this expansion of the forest preserve, describing the land as "invaluable."

"A century from now, no one will carp over New York’s purchase this week of 69,000 acres of beautiful backcountry land in the Adirondacks," the Post Star argued. "No one will be saying then, as some are now, that the state couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on the land, or was short on cash and should have held onto the $50 million it cost to buy it."

The deal also drew accolades from Republican Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, whose district includes a big chunk of the land that will now be "forever wild." "I think it has to be a model moving forward where we look at what lands would be suitable for snowmobile trails, what lands would be suitable for sustainable forestry. And I think that's basically what the Nature Consevancy did with this parcel," Sayward said.

Local government leaders who oppose the Finch deal generally acknowledge that it was handled far better than past conservation efforts, with more local input and more dialogue.

This evolving and complicated conversation between local leaders, state officials and environmental groups will shape future land deals that are already waiting in the wings, including the big Follensby Pond tract near Tupper Lake.

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