Gov. Paterson’s recent call for a moratorium on land purchases by the state of New York, primarily in the Adirondack Park, would appear to be a common-sense response to the state’s present fiscal crisis. Especially in a budget year that will undoubtedly require the elimination of thousands of public-sector jobs and the reduction of services critical to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
You would never know that, judging by the reaction from various “environmental” lobbying groups who predict gloom and doom should the governor’s proposal be enacted.
We are told that “once in a lifetime” opportunities for land preservation will be lost, public access will continue to be denied and organizations that have fronted millions of dollars for the acquisition of key parcels, based on unwritten promises that New York state would bail them out, will be left holding the bag.
Conversely, most local officials, citizens groups and the region’s elected state representatives are cheering the moratorium plan, arguing that the ongoing pattern of converting private land to public ownership is having a devastating impact on the economic and social fabric of the region.
The continued migration of younger citizens leaving to seek job opportunities elsewhere increases the average age of those remaining, causing additional burdens on local government and resulting in property taxes that are reaching unsustainable levels. The 2009 Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project, commissioned by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages in collaboration with the Adirondack North Country Association, clearly identified these problems.
Leaving aside the question of whether it is good public policy to have private entities that are unaccountable to New York voters making unofficial land purchase commitments on behalf of the state, what is the real impact of these acquisitions on the communities in the region?
Clearly, the largest and most controversial of these proposals is the plan to purchase from The Nature Conservancy and convert to “Forest Preserve” designation some 65,000 acres in the Central Adirondacks in a deal rumored to cost approximately $100 million. The land is part of a larger 160,000-acre piece that TNC bought from the Finch, Pruyn Co. two years ago for a reported $110 million.
WOOD = JOBS
While the parcel contains important natural assets: Hudson, Cedar and Indian river frontage as well as some 70 lakes and ponds that deserve continued protection, it is also home to some of the most productive forestlands in the state that provide badly needed woods jobs in towns like Newcomb, Minerva and Indian Lake.
A 2009 study prepared for the National Alliance of Forest Owners finds that a change of ownership from private to public would result in the elimination of more than 300 jobs. Also lost forever will be the opportunity to take part in emerging forest products markets like biofuels production and carbon sequestration. An actively managed private forest can sequester four times the carbon of public “Forest Preserve” land, making it a key tool in the fight against global warming.
This land has remained in its undeveloped pristine state primarily due to Finch’s practice of leasing recreational rights to sportsmen’s clubs. Their lease payments annually cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in local taxes. Their local expenditures for food, supplies, equipment, gear and services run to the millions of dollars in an area where an extra $10,000 to $15,000 a year can spell the difference between survival and closure for a North Country gas station, general store or other local business.
The clubs have a well-earned reputation for highly responsible stewardship of the leaseholds, have on numerous occasions rendered expert assistance in search-and-rescue missions, provided refuge to lost hikers and paddlers and taken an active role in local organizations. All this will be lost should the purchase take place. They are the reasons why the town boards of the three communities identified above have all passed unanimous resolutions calling upon the state and TNC to take the steps necessary to ensure that these clubs can remain in their historic homes and continue to play their vital role in the social, environmental and economic life of the Adirondacks.
Unfortunately, the state’s plan offers little more than lip service to mitigate the economic damage that will inevitably accompany the sale: an affordable housing project here, a minor expansion of hamlet zoning there, and the “promise” of a snowmobile link between Newcomb and Indian Lake. With New York taking on the full responsibility for payment of local taxes as well as the annual cost of maintenance and supervision of this vast new acreage, how long will it be before fiscal realities result in a reintroduction of last year’s proposal to cap state tax payments to localities, and further reductions in DEC staffing that cause these new lands to be neglected?
The good news is that there is clearly an alternative that can provide the environmental protection and public access demanded by the lobbyists without the job losses and economic damage resulting from fee simple purchase and Forest Preserve designation.
TNC recently completed the sale of approximately 90,000 acres, the balance of the Finch, Pruyn lands, to a Danish pension fund that invests in forestland, and the state will soon close on the purchase of conservation and some access easements for the parcel. The net result is that forest industry jobs were saved, the land is forever protected from development, the public will have some rights to recreational access, and the sportsmen’s clubs in that area will continue their historic use and provide their economic benefit. TNC was able to recoup its investment, and the state will spend but a fraction of the cost of fee simple acquisition with only limited annual carrying costs thereafter.
This kind of public/private partnership should be the model for all future transactions, starting with the 65,000 acres. There are several forest product companies willing to fill the private-sector role and the state can leverage a small portion of the funds that would be required for an outright purchase to secure the easements, freeing up the savings to devote to other environmental needs. TNC can then cash out, secure in the knowledge that their mission has reached a successful conclusion. The best way to ensure that this fiscally responsible alternative is followed is to urge the Legislature to adopt the governor’s moratorium proposal.
Donald C. MacElroy lives in Clifton Park and is a seasonal resident of the Adirondack Park. He is also a member of one of the sportsmen’s clubs that would be eliminated by the proposed NYS/TNC deal.
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