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Governor Andrew Cuomo, who visited Saranac Lake on Sunday, played a personal role in crafting the Finch wilderness deal. Photo:  Mark Kurtz
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who visited Saranac Lake on Sunday, played a personal role in crafting the Finch wilderness deal. Photo: Mark Kurtz

How Cuomo shaped new Adirondack wilderness

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Later this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign off on a vast new wilderness and primitive area in the Adirondacks.

The classification deal for the former Finch lands was formally approved on Friday by the Adirondack Park Agency. But many of its details were crafted by the governor himself and by his staff in Albany.

Cuomo has taken an active role in the Finch conservation deal for more than a year, often pushing state officials, environmentalists and local government leaders to reach a compromise.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

No matter how quickly the APA and the DEC lined up behind the governor's vision, that doesn't change what the law is
In the end, all sides agreed to a deal that meant less wilderness — roughly 24,000 acres — but also less motorized recreation. The governor's hands-on effort to reach that accord has won praise in the Park but also drawn fire from groups who feel left out of closed door talks.

The story of Cuomo's unique, personal role begins in August 2012, when New York state was still clawing its way back from a brutal recession. 

A couple of years earlier, then-Governor David Paterson had established an open-ended moratorium on any new land purchases in the Adirondack Park.  That meant the massive Finch Pruyn conservation deal engineered by the Nature Conservancy – valued at more than $110 million dollars – was in limbo. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo (R) with Bill Ulfelder, Executive Director of the Nature Conservancy in New York, signing the Finch Pruyn deal in August 2012 in Lake Placid. Photo:  Brian Mann
Governor Andrew Cuomo (R) with Bill Ulfelder, Executive Director of the Nature Conservancy in New York, signing the Finch Pruyn deal in August 2012 in Lake Placid. Photo: Brian Mann
But then, in a move that surprised observers in the Adirondacks, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a sudden visit to Lake Placid.  "We all have a role in life and I know my role today.  I'm here for one purpose and one purpose only and that's to sit at that that table and sign the check on today's acquisition," Cuomo said.

Cuomo committed New York to purchasing a first phase of the Finch lands for the forest preserve, at a price tag of roughly $49 million. But in the months that followed, it became clear that Cuomo’s interest in the project went well beyond writing checks. In September of that year, he brought his entire cabinet and much of the Albany press corps to paddle and fish on the Boreas Ponds, one of the gems of the Finch conservation effort.

Governor Andrew Cuomo paddling on Boreas Pond in North Hudson, in Essex County. He'll be in Indian Lake paddling on July 21 for the Adirondack Challenge. Photo: Brian Mann
Governor Andrew Cuomo paddling on Boreas Pond in North Hudson, in Essex County. He'll be in Indian Lake paddling on July 21 for the Adirondack Challenge. Photo: Brian Mann
He described the Finch lands as "the greatest acquisition that the state has made in the Park in over a hundred years.  We can preserve it but we can also make it accessible for people."

Last summer, Cuomo came back to the Finch lands, this time with members of the state legislature and with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in tow. They paddled a stretch of the Indian River that will become part of the Hudson River Gorge Wilderness.

State conservation commissioner Joe Martens says the governor’s intimate involvement in this project was remarkable, "It's unprecedented. But I think the governor has taken a lot of personal interest in the Adirondack Park."

A governor tangled up in a fierce environmental battle over hydrofracking seemed eager to claim a green legacy in the Adirondacks. But the debate over how the Finch lands should be managed were growing more complicated. 

By last December, Adirondack green groups had rallied around the idea that much of the first phase of the project should be committed to establishing a vast new wilderness, with few roads and few forms of motorized recreation. "This would create a single 72,000 acre wilderness area that would be the most amazing collection of wild rivers in the eastern US," said the Adirondack Council’s John Sheehan speaking in December 2012.

In June of July of last summer the Adirondack Park Agency held a series of public hearings into the future of the Finch lands. Fierce behind-the-scenes debates were already underway, with local government leaders pushing for a big chunk of wild forest lands that would include motorboats on the Essex Chain Lakes. Multiple sources within the DEC and the Park Agency say that state officials were also far apart on how to structure the deal. 

Then, in September, Cornell environmental law professor and APA commissioner Dick Booth began arguing that state law would likely preclude any wild forest designation for the Essex Chain lakes.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made a surprise visit to the Adirondacks in September 2013 to talk about the Finch Pruyn deal.
Governor Andrew Cuomo made a surprise visit to the Adirondacks in September 2013 to talk about the Finch Pruyn deal.
On September 26, Governor Cuomo made another surprise visit to the Park, meeting with local government leaders in North Creek and then huddling with green leaders at Follensby Park near Tupper Lake. "I wanted to hear from the experts on the matter before I made any decision and that's why I came up today," Cuomo said.

At the time, local government leaders say they needed the governor to understand that their priorities weren’t being met.  Randy Douglas, chair of the Essex County board of supervisors said, "I think the mood today is, look, we're willing to sit down, we're willing to negotiate, but we've to have cordial conversations and open minds going into them."

But that visit by the governor was controversial.  It seemed to telegraph a lack of confidence in the APA’s staff and in Park Agency chairwoman Lani Ulrich, who wasn’t included in the meetings. Also, the governor specifically excluded some green leaders.  David Gibson, with the group Adirondack Wild, says his organization wasn’t at the table. "The governor chose to inviite certain people to meet with him and with local government," Gibson said. He noted that former Governor Pataki included all environmental groups in past talks over controversial issues.  "This governor chooses another kind of process," he added.

No one is suggesting that Governor Cuomo violated state law by intervening in the process and Peter Bauer with the group Protect the Adirondacks has defended the governor’s decision to hold those closed-door talks. But Bauer also says that Cuomo’s hands-on role led to a compromise deal which actually violates a number of state regulations. "No matter how quickly the APA and the DEC lined up behind the governor's vision, that doesn't change what the law is," Bauer said.

Conservation commissioner Joe Martens says he thinks the governor’s role in crafting the final deal was instrumental, "It kept people talking not only about the futur of that region, but the future of the Park."

Martens says he also thinks the DEC will be able to make after-the-fact changes to state rules that will make the Finch compromise work – including a plan to build a controversial snowmobile bridge over the wild Cear River. "We've expressed a lot of confidence and we woudn't have recommended this as a possibility if we didn't think it was possible," Martens siad.

During his visit to Saranac Lake on Sunday, Governor Cuomo talked about his decision to take an active role in crafting the Finch deal.  He acknowledged that he had grown frustrated with the slow process that usually surrounds land classification in the Adirondacks, "The advisors who have been through this before said this was going to be years," he recalled.

Cuomo took credit for convincing many of the factions in the Park to agree to broad terms that established a vast wilderness and primitive area, while also allowing for snowmobiles and other forms of recreation access. "We sat some people down, we started to have conversations, we said let's see if we can find a middle way.  Theycame up with a relatively consensus solution, sent it to the APA, the APA approved it, record time," the governor said.

The end result of the governor’s involvement was a deal that most environmentalists and most government leaders in the Park supported – a rare moment of accord in the Park’s often combative culture. Governor Cuomo is expected to sign off on the classification deal by the end of the month. 

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