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Attorney general’s office drops probe into Nature Conservancy land deal

Attorney general’s office drops probe into Nature Conservancy land deal

The state attorney general’s office has dropped an investigation it started last year into The Natur

The state attorney general’s office has dropped an investigation it started last year into The Nature Conservancy’s sale of former timberlands to the state, finding the deals were done properly.

The probe was initiated by then-attorney general Andrew Cuomo a year ago, after a New York Post story asserted the state has overpaid for 20,000 acres of former Domtar Industries land it bought from The Nature Conservancy in 2007.

In a brief May 6 letter to Nancy Kestenbaum, an attorney for The Nature Conservancy, Assistant Attorney General Rachel Doft said there is no longer an investigation into either the Domtar deal or later ones involving former Finch Paper lands.

“The Office of the Attorney General found The Nature Conservancy complied with all relevant laws, regulations and policies in connection with those transactions and has concluded its inquiry at this time,” Doft wrote.

The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental protection organization, has long worked with New York state in arrangements in which it would use private funds to buy environmentally significant lands at risk of development in the Adirondacks, and later sell them to New York state, as state funding became available.

“The Nature Conservancy is pleased with the outcome and we’re pleased to be working with New York state to protect ecologically sensitive lands,” said Connie Prickett, a spokesman for the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter.

But Chestertown Supervisor Fred Monroe, a long-time critic of further state land acquisitions in the Adirondacks who first questioned the Domtar deal, said he still has many questions.

“It just seems like the whole state land purchase program is done in backroom deals, not done out in the open,” said Monroe, who is also executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.

In the Domtar Industries deal, The Nature Conservancy bought 20,000 acres from the Canadian paper company in 2004 for $6.1 million, and sold it to the state four years later for $9.8 million. The final cost was negotiated based on two independent appraisals. Nature Conservancy officials said the difference in price helped them cover property taxes and other costs for holding the land for four years, and actual profit was less than $100,000.

Since the attorney general’s investigation began, negotiations have continued on other deals that are in the works between The Nature Conservancy and the state. Prickett said the attorney general’s investigation didn’t interfere with efforts to move those deals forward.

The Nature Conservancy acquired 161,000 acres from Finch for $110 million in 2007, with the intention of selling much of it to the state.

Last December, a deal was finalized in which the state paid $30 million for public access easements over 89,000 acres of former Finch Paper land. Negotiations for the outright sale to the state of another 65,000 acres of former Finch land, including land in and around the Hudson River Gorge in Hamilton County, are ongoing, and expected to be done in several phases.

“That will take place over several years,” said Prickett. “We are working to move those projects forward. They are our highest priority.”

Monroe, meanwhile, has been in Albany recently, meeting with Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and other state officials to argue the case that the state’s fiscal crisis makes this a bad time to spend public money for more land in the Adirondacks.

“We don’t object to buying mountaintops or scenic or truly unique properties, but we do object to them buying working forest,” Monroe said. “Our biggest concern is the working forest, keeping those [lumber industry] jobs.”

The state currently owns about 2.6 million acres within the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, and has conservation easements on about 600,000 acres more.

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