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Some green groups say valuable forest lands would be lost in the proposed NYCO land swap. Photo:  Brian Mann
Some green groups say valuable forest lands would be lost in the proposed NYCO land swap. Photo: Brian Mann

NYCO landswap divides environmentalists

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Yesterday during The Eight O'clock Hour, we reported on NYCO minerals operation in the Essex County town of Lewis. The company, which employs more than a hundred people, is hoping that voters statewide will approve a land swap next month that will allow them to expand their mining operation onto roughly 200 acres of forest preserve land.

In exchange, the company is promising to donate roughly 1500 acres of forest land to the Park, most of it bordering the Jay Mountain Wilderness. The deal has the backing of local and state officials, but it has sharply divided the region's environmental community.

Brian Mann, our Adirondack bureau chief, joined Martha Foley to talk about the dispute.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Other green groups say the deal would add valuable new lands to the Park, including areas along Spruce Mill Brook in Essex County.  Photo: Brian Mann
Other green groups say the deal would add valuable new lands to the Park, including areas along Spruce Mill Brook in Essex County. Photo: Brian Mann
Martha Foley: Brian, first just a quick reminder — why is a 200-acre land deal in Essex County on the statewide ballot?

Brian Mann: This land is 'forever wild' Park land and to use it for any reason other than as forest preserve requires amending the state constitution.  So this deal has already survived two consecutive passages in the state legislature, with bipartisan approval there.  Now it needs a vote by the people across the state.

MF: Okay, yesterday we heard a lot of support for this from the business community, from lawmakers, and from Joe Martens, the state environment commissioner and himself a respected environmentalist before heading to Albany.  But green groups in the Park, they're all over the map on this.

BM: Yeah, they really are. This isn't one of those cases where environmentalists differ on small details or emphasis.  They really disagree on firm principle here. 

NYCO's Mark Buckley points to the border between mine-owned lands and the state forest preserve.  His company hopes to push that boundary back if voters approve the deal. Photo: Brian Mann
NYCO's Mark Buckley points to the border between mine-owned lands and the state forest preserve. His company hopes to push that boundary back if voters approve the deal. Photo: Brian Mann
Peter Bauer heads a group called Protect the Adirondacks and his group is urging voters to reject this deal. He says this is exactly the kind of land that the state Constitution was supposed to protect.  "It's really 150 year step backwards. The lands that the state of New York is giving up is really old growth forest," Bauer told NCPR.  "It's a very rich setting, a lot of vernal pools."

MF: Right, but we've seen land swaps before. There's another one underway this year — it'll be on the same ballot — involving roughly a thousand acres of forever wild forest lands around Racquette Lake.  Green groups aren't opposing that deal.  So why the concern over these 200 acres?

BM: A big element seems to be the fact that this isn't a land swap to help sort out a local government's property dispute, or to help build new town infrastructure — this is a deal that will benefit a private mining company.  Here's Dan Plumley with the group Adirondack Wild.  "We're not worried about a fire sale tomorrow if the swap goes forward," Plumley said.  "But we're vigorously opposed to the precedent of forever wild lands, protected under the constitution, being swapped out for private international corporations or conglomerates for mineral resources."

Supporters say this deal would help preserve 100 jobs.  Opponents say it would destroy 200 acres of forests that are supposed to be "forever wild." Photo: Brian Mann
Supporters say this deal would help preserve 100 jobs. Opponents say it would destroy 200 acres of forests that are supposed to be "forever wild." Photo: Brian Mann
MF: Okay, so those are two environmental groups opposing this and last week the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club joined them, urging voters to reject the NYCO land swap.  But on the other side of the equation are the Adirondack Park's biggest green organizations, the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

BM: That's right. Neil Woodworth, head of ADK, issued a statement last year saying that this deal adding 1500 acres to the Park will "ensure that New York will end up with more-valuable recreational and scenic lands for public use and enjoyment.” 

And the Adirondack Council has been actively campaigning to try to get the NYCO deal passed. 

I asked the head of the Council, Willie Janeway, this week if the concerns raised by other green groups had swayed his opinion and he said No.  "There is a fair amount of misinformation that's circulating," Janeway said, adding that he was "convinced" that the deal met his group's criteria for making land swaps.

BM: Asked if he was accusing other green groups of spreading inaccurate information, Janeway answered this way: "No [but] I think it's important to look at the science and the facts...We withheld support for this until we had the details.  Other groups did choose to articulate positions.  We waited until we had the facts.  Are the lands going out lands that are critically important, do they have unique features?  No. They're not old growth forest, there's not water resources.  Are the lands going in superior and better?  Absolutely."

MF: Brian, there's one specific factual dispute there between Peter Bauer with Protect the Adirondacks and Willie Janeway with the Adirondack Council.  It's the question of whether these 200 acres that NYCO wants to log will include actual old growth forest. What's the science there?

BM: Right. Old growth is a term that scientists sometimes use to refer to really primeval undisturbed forests.  I asked Dan Plumley with Adirondack Wild about this — he's also described this stand as "old growth."  Here's what he had to say:  "I'm saying it's old growth," he answered. "It's not virgin. These lands were likely timbered at one time, but that was in the 1800s.  Biologists or ecologists may dicker over the term."

MF: So some disagreement there over language between these green groups.  Brian, finally, this issue is going before millions of voters who have no idea about the Adirondack Park or the nuances of environmental law here.  How is this debate likely to affect the outcome?

BM: It's a really great question.  Right now supporters of the swap appear confident, but opponents have just launched a new website that urges voters to reject the deal.  Clearly, people going into the voting booth will have heard a very mixed message here — with one side saying this swap will add 1500 acres of prime recreation lands to the Park, the other side saying it actually threatens the Park's integrity.

MF: Okay, this goes to the voters November 5th.  And before election day, we'll also look in-depth at the big historic land-swap proposed for Racquette Lake, that could end a century-old land dispute there.

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