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A 200-acre parcel of forest preserve land known as Lot 8 would be mined under a deal that will go before voters in November.  Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild
A 200-acre parcel of forest preserve land known as Lot 8 would be mined under a deal that will go before voters in November. Photo: Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild

Mining company pushes for Adirondack land swap

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Next month, voters across New York will decide the fate of two historic land swaps in the Adirondack Park. One would settle a long-standing property dispute in Raquette Lake.

The other would allow a mining company to extract a mineral called wollastonite from 200 acres of park land in the Champlain Valley town of Lewis. NYCO says the project could help preserve as many as a hundred jobs.

Because both deals involve the state forest preserve, amendments to New York's constitution are needed for the projects to move forward.

This morning, we begin a two-part series looking in-depth at the more controversial of the land swaps - the deal involving NYCO minerals.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Tucked away in the Adirondacks foothills about an hour’s drive from Plattsburgh, a massive pit plunges down eight stories down into the earth. 

The bill that Martens supports would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve. Photo: NYCO Minerals
The bill that Martens supports would allow NYCO to expand its wollastonite mine onto land that is now part of the Adirondack forest preserve. Photo: NYCO Minerals
Trucks the size of small buildings are hauling out chunks of whitish rock – a mineral called wollastonite that’s used in everything from paint to plastics.

Mark Buckley from Willsboro has worked for NYCO for 26 years and is now the company’s environmental safety manager.

"At the bottom of the pit, that grayish white rock where the drills are setting, that’s where they’re drilling ore now," he says.

Just beyond a line of trees above the pit lies a chunk of property known as Lot 8, roughly 200 acres of forest land, acquired by New York state in the 1800s. 

We hike in along an old hunting trail to the boundary between NYCO’s land and official forest preserve.  The company thinks a rich new vein of wollastonite lies just underneath this stand of trees.

"We have drilled along here and we know that there’s ore at depth – not real deep – it’s down there," Buckley says.

It’s a gorgeous stand of forest – big pines and maple and what look like seasonal pools. 

NYCO already owns another property nearby, private land where wollastonite mining could go forward.  But Buckley says gaining access to Lot 8 will help keep the company healthy.

"This is more economically accessible," he says.  "We don’t have all the infrastructure built over there [at the other site].  We don’t have a truck shop, we don’t have electrical."

To gain access to Lot 8, NYCO needs a constitutional amendment.  Working with the state Conservation Department, the company put together a landswap that will trade these 200 acres for roughly 1500 acres of other land that would be added to the forever wild forest preserve.

Supporters of the land swap say more ecologically valuable tracts, including the Deerhead Parcel, would be added to the forest preserve.  Photo: Carl Heilman II, provided by NYCO
Supporters of the land swap say more ecologically valuable tracts, including the Deerhead Parcel, would be added to the forest preserve. Photo: Carl Heilman II, provided by NYCO
The deal has the backing of DEC commissioner Joe Martens, who told North Country Public Radio back in June that the lands being added to the Park under this deal outweigh any environmental damage.

"They are far superior to the 200 acres that NYCO would get," Martens argues.

"[The new lands] have about six miles of trout streams and significant water bodies on them.  I think from every measure, the community and the state of New York benefits from this proposition.

Buckley takes me a couple of miles away to a Spruce Mill Brook – a winding creek that feeds into Lake Champlain.  This is one of the parcels that he says would be added to the state’s park land if the deal goes through.

"We’re working on finalizing the option to purchase that, should the swap take place.  There’s probably 300 acres here and it takes in about a mile and a half of stream frontage on both sides."

Supporters of the deal point out that the new forest preserve parcels would offer new points of access to the Jay Mountain wilderness for hikers, hunters and anglers. 

This deal has the support of the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club, two of the park’s biggest green groups.  But some environmental activists argue that allowing a mining operation on Park land described as “forever wild” would set a dangerous precedent. 

Buckley, with NYCO, counters that the Constitutional amendment process is challenging and each project that's proposed has to "stand on its own merits."

Though some details of the trade remain unclear, the company says parcels added to the Park would offer new access to landlocked portions of the Jay Wilderness.  Source:  NYCO
Though some details of the trade remain unclear, the company says parcels added to the Park would offer new access to landlocked portions of the Jay Wilderness. Source: NYCO
"Other projects might not have as strong an argument, but let them present their argument to the legislature like we did.  That's why the constitution is written the way it is."

A lot of local residents here are convinced that this land swap is crucial to their economy.  Larry Deso from the town of Essex is a heavy equipment operator for NYCO – he’s worked here for forty years.

"There' svery few jobs here that are the same caliber as NYCO unless you're a professional," he points out.

David Blades, town supervisor in Lewis, says he was relieved this summer when the legislature approved the land swap– and he’s confident voters will do the same.

"I'm fairly happy and satisfied and confident that voters are going to be able to make the right decision come election time."

Tomorrow we’ll look at the environmental debate over the NYCO land swap, with some green groups strongly supporting the deal and other activists urging voters to reject it.

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