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A bill that passed the legislature this session would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve. Photo: NYCO Minerals
A bill that passed the legislature this session would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve. Photo: NYCO Minerals

What the legislature got done in the Adirondacks; why it's controversial

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The state legislature left a lot of unfinished business when it wrapped up its session in Albany. But lawmakers also got a lot of things done, including a series of big measures affecting the Adirondack Park.

Martha Foley spoke with Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann about those measures and what they mean.

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Martha Foley: Brian, lawmakers agreed to put not one but two Constitutional amendments on the state ballot, both dealing with land swaps. Let's start with the less controversial one involving the Township 40 dispute around Racquette Lake.

BPM: For decades, the survey lines and property boundaries around Racquette Lake have been in dispute. State officials have claimed that a lot of the community — homes, the local school, the firehall — are actually built on state forest preserve land. That's sparked a lot of litigation and made it tough for people to buy and sell homes in the area. Now, the legislature has approved a plan that would allow property owners to buy into a land swap deal. They'll effectively be able to pay a fee for clear title to their land and the money will go to the town of Long Lake. The town will then buy a chunk of forest land that will go back into the forest preserve.

MF: Okay, so sorting out some old, muddled property boundaries. That's pretty straightforward and most environmental groups are on board with that land swap. But I understand the other project, involving NYCO's mining operation in Essex County, is more controversial?

BPM: Yes, that's right. NYCO minerals is a company that extracts Wollastonite and their main site is running low on ore. So they want the state to allow them to acquire 200 acres of state forest preserve land on an adjacent parcel in the Jay Mountain Wilderness that would allow them to continue operating for the next couple of decades. That would mean jobs being preserved in that area.

In exchange, the company has agreed to purchase roughly 1,500 acres of land that would be added to the Park's state land. This is a big land swap. This project has the backing of Environment Commissioner Joe Martens and two of the Park's biggest green groups, the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

MF: But two other groups, Adirondack Wild and Protect the Adirondacks, aren't on board. Why not?

BPM: Really it boils down to a question of principle. When you talk about the state's public land in the Adirondacks being "forever wild" that's a very important line in the sand to a lot of people. I know this is a little old-school, but I want to read from Article XIV in New York's state constitution that created the Adirondack Park in the 1800s. It says "the lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed."

MF: That sounds pretty clear to me. So if lands are supposed to be "forever wild," how is this process moving forward?

BPM: It seems like a bright line there. But the authors of the Constitution did leave a process in place where the Constitution itself can literally be rewritten to allow Adirondack Park lands to be sold or exchanged. And that's what we're seeing here with both of these land swaps.

The legislature has now passed these measures twice in two consecutive sessions, that was a big step. And now this will go to a vote of people statewide on the ballot in November. That's the final hurdle. I think it may be a real challenge to get both of these measures approved.

Just this week, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, a newspaper here in Saranac Lake, supported the Township 40 project in Raquette Lake but expressed real ambivalence about the NYCO deal. They argued that this constitutional amendment could mean more mining companies trying to gain access to the Park's wild lands.

MF: So voters statewide will decide both of those measures in November. One other bit of business the legislature took up was the confirmation of five members of the Adirondack Park Agency commission. You've been blogging about this. Governor Cuomo's picks for the APA have stirred up a lot of discussion.

BPM: Discussion and maybe even a little controversy. Just a few years ago, the APA commission included a strong voting bloc of members with strong ties to the environmental community — including past chairman Curt Stiles. But with this latest round of picks, Cuomo seems to just not be choosing environmentalists.

There's only one guy still on the commission with deep roots in the green movement, that's Dick Booth, a professor at Cornell. And the governor decided not to re-nominate him in this round. So Booth is serving in an expired seat, while the people confirmed last week by the legislature were businesspeople, landowners, resort operators. This comes at a time when the commission has been giving the green light to projects that make a lot of environmentalists nervous, including the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake. I should say, on the other hand, that while these picks make some environmentalists nervous, more pro-development voices, like state Senator Betty Little, have been delighted with the governor's picks. They say that these new people on the panel have created a better balance in terms of the environment and local communities.

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