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reprinted from the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Vol. 6 No. 1 (PRFA, Summer 2002)

Wilderness plan was defeated by locals
The Nature Conservancy is Quietly Acquiring "the Bob" for the State
1990 Land Acquisition Goals are Fast Being Executed

In 1989, in response to rumblings from self-styled "environmental" organizations — namely the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and branches of the national Sierra Club and Audubon Society — that the Adirondacks was being overrun by development, the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-first Century (21CC) was formed by New York Governor Mario Cuomo. The Commission was dominated by wealthy seasonal residents and members of those advocacy organizations. Due to an unrelenting outcry against the 21CC by ordinary Adirondackers and landowners who saw their properties and livelihoods threatened, the 21CC's plans went down to defeat.

But the green groups never lost sight of one of the 21CC's goals, the creation of the "Bob Marshall Wilderness" (nicknamed "the Bob"), comprising 400,000 acres. The large national land trusts, primarily The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to this day continue working toward that pet project. The transfers of interest in land inside and immediately outside "the Bob," bit by very large bit, show the enormous power and reach of TNC, mostly out of public view. With the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) as a powerful ally in restricting use of land in its permitting process, and bolstered by the well-funded advocacy organizations, TNC holds the upper hand.

The 50,000 acre Whitney Park property on Little Tupper Lake long headed the state's "Open Space Plan" list of priority acquisitions, a process also largely controlled by the same organizations. After the Whitneys' efforts to obtain various APA permits failed in the mid-1990's, the family transferred 376 acres on Forked Lake to TNC, which transferred it to NYS; a buyer for a similar 235-acre piece eventually sold it to NYS in frustration with APA permitting requirements. In 1997 the Whitneys sold 15,000 acres on Little Tupper to NYS, and were negotiating a conservation easement agreement with TNC for most of the remainder. In 1999 TNC sold another 55 acres it had acquired on Little Tupper to NYS.

In late 2000, the other major landholder in that area, International Paper (IP), transferred 95,000 acres in six Hamilton County towns to corporate entity S.P. Forests (SPF) of Maine. Hard on the heels of that transaction, Gov. George Pataki in his 2001 "State of the State" address, announced an agreement by the state "working with IP and TNC," to "protect" three tracts totalling 26,000 acres, all within or just outside "the Bob." In January 2002, SPF was issued an APA permit to subdivide 8,177 acres, with 1,100 acres going to TNC, with the expectation of sale to NYS. In June 2002, a 9,950-acre tract was sold to TNC from SPF, and TNC received an APA subdivision permit to transfer 4350 acres to NYS, plus 4600 acres in conservation easements.

To date, only 11,050 acres out of the 26,000 acres cited in the Governor's announcement can be accounted for in Hamilton County documents, a 15,500 acre parcel being presumably still in the works. Because TNC is a private entity negotiating with private owners, the conservation easement agreements do not have to be made public. They can contain restrictions regarding logging, retention of hunting camps and leases, and what types of recreational uses can and cannot occur. But any restrictions on the land then become part and parcel of future transactions to NYS. So third parties like land trusts wield considerable clout in shaping easements to suit their own private goals, with no public input required.

There are other conservation easements within "the Bob" which have accumulated since 1989, including the "Conifer Easement" of 6,103 acres in St. Lawrence County acquired from Yorkshire Timber, and three segments of several thousand acres each, one of them adjoining 5,113 acres acquired in fee from Otterbrook Timber. Whether any land trusts had a hand in these transactions may never be known, but the hysteria of the late 1980's certainly played a part, and the lines drawn on the Twenty-first Century Commission map have largely become a reality.

A little further north of the so-called "Bob Marshall Wilderness," fee and easements from Champion International have blocked out another 139,000 acres of private land. And the latest Forest Preserve map shows the beginnings of the "Boreal Wilderness," another goal of the 21CC and already filled in with three large plots of conservation easements. Finally, to the northeast, the 105,000-acre Domtar forestry company land is being marketed right now to prospective TNC donors, only awaiting DEC's "Notice of Intent to Acquire Conservation Easement."

Carol W. LaGrasse, 2002

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