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1999 Lawsuit Against DEC Acquisition of Champion International Lands Sparks Reform

By Carol W. LaGrasse

At a special meeting on May 21 called by the Altamont Town Board, townspeople came out in unity to oppose the State's purchase of an additional 2,800 acres of land toward the Forest Preserve. All five members of the town board also expressed their opposition to the acquisition, which would have added land owned by Oval Wood Dish Corporation in the town to the "Forever Wild" preserve lands in the Adirondack Mountains.

At the meeting, which was held in the town court room at Tupper Lake, the Town Board unanimously passed a resolution in opposition to the State land acquisition. Under special clauses to protect the economy and culture of local towns in the two major New York State laws that were enacted several years ago that set up the funding for such purchases, the Altamont Town Board's resolution acts as a veto of the purchase.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had been disregarding the town veto power until the Property Rights Foundation of America organized a lawsuit in 1999 challenging the State's giant acquisition of the 139,000-acre Champion International tracts in Franklin, St. Lawrence, Lewis and Hamilton Counties. One of the important points in the lawsuit is that the State violated the law by failing to obtain approval from the local towns in which the land is located. This violation was one of several illegalities in the land deal, the State's largest acquisition in history. Many of the violations pointed out in the lawsuit relate to features of State law that would protect local communities, their culture and economies. The multi-plaintiff lawsuit, known as Aubin v. New York State, etal., is now in its third year in State court, on appeal from the State's, Conservation Fund's and forest industry companies' combined motions to dismiss.

Lloyd Moore, who is the Chairman of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, is a member of the St. Lawrence County Legislature, one of the petitioners in the Champion International lawsuit. Presiding over the Review Board's May 31 monthly meeting at Baxter Mountain Lodge in Keene, he applauded this spin-off from the lawsuit

Holding up a copy of the article that appeared in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise soon after the Altamont meeting, Mr. Moore said that, as far as he is concerned, the veto of the land purchase means, "St. Lawrence County has already gotten back the $10,000 we spent on the lawsuit."

At the Altamont town board meeting, several hunters spoke out in opposition to the purchase, saying that they would lose their clubhouses on the land where they hunt and take their families. The State has already dictated that this would happen in a few short years to the 298 hunting camps that have been used for generations on the Champion International lands. If the clubs are demolished, a slice of hunting culture will be gone forever, because it is impossible to create the same camaraderie, year-round family recreation, stewardship of wildlife, and practical use or the land for hunting when people have to hike into the land without the clubs as their base of operation. The economic impact on the towns from the loss of the patronage of local stores and business by the hunters would also be great.

According to the account of the meeting in the Enterprise, Paul Chartier, one of the hunters whose camp is on the Oval Wood Dish land, voiced his opinion, saying, "I have been hunting for 47 years, my father was a charter member of the Spring Hill Club…I hate to give it up."

At the meeting, town resident Jack Delehanty said, "I was in favor of some state purchases in the past…but I'm getting a real education."

The official Altamont Town Board resolution, which was signed and sealed by Dean D. Lefebvre, the town supervisor, on May 31, pointed out, "(T)he proposed acquisition if approved and consummated would also result in the displacement of more than forty hunting camp lease members of the two local hunting and fishing club lease holders knows an 'Spring Hill' and 'Big Simond,' with the attendant negative economic impact the loss of these outdoorsmen and women and their guests would have upon the Town."

The newspaper also pointed out a statement by Altamont Supervisor Den Lefebvre:

"Under the Open Space Law the town has veto power," he said. "From an economic standpoint the State would probably pay more per acre than anyone else; that could be considered added tax revenue. However, there is a loss from a cultural standpoint. We have to draw a line in the snow or the sand and we may find that other towns will follow suit."

"I see two kids in the room tonight and I am thinking about the future, Mr. Lefebvre said, according to the Enterprise.

The town board's resolution pointed out that "the proposed acquisition now and for more than the past fifty years has provided a source of timber for local woodsmen for supply to local mills and consumers of firewood, alike, which has in turn supported the economy of the Town."

The resolution also pointed out the harm to the timber industry caused by the excessive prices that the State pays for land in the Adirondacks. The resolution stated, "(T)he proposed acquisition would have further negative effects on the price and valuation of open forest lands not only within the Town but regionally within the Adirondack Park, which negative effects (have) already placed an undue burden on timber companies in the retention of open space timber lands and (have) threatened their continued existence within the Adirondack Park."

The final point of the three-page resolution summed up an oft-repeated grievance that the people of the Adirondack region have against the pack rat mentality of the State of New York: "(T)he State of New York already owns too much land otherwise capable of economic use to supply forest products and for open space recreational uses such as biking, snowmobiling, 4-wheeling and other motorized uses, which such open space recreational uses represent a beneficial economic use which would become severely restricted or prohibited all together whenever the state acquires such lands."

The new procedure that the DEC has instituted includes sending a letter to the local town board requesting a response within 90 days of receipt of the letter if the town resolves to oppose the acquisition.

- Carol W. LaGrasse
June 2001

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