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Stillwater Club Meeting Focuses on Keeping Hancock Tracts in Private Hands

By Carol W. LaGrasse
April 20, 2003

Late in the afternoon on April 17, a long trip over isolated roads through the seemingly endless forests and small clusters of houses of St. Lawrence County led to a bumpy ride for several miles on a dirt road. Finally, the driver reached her destination at a ravine where the spring rapids of the Middle Branch of the Grass River churned about fifteen feet below. An ingenious old steel suspension foot bridge the width of three rickety walking planks led to a stone stair rising to a neat complex of log buildings on the opposite shore, the headquarters of the Stillwater Club.

The log dining hall at the Stillwater Club was packed with the top brass of St. Lawrence County officialdom, town board members from throughout the county, and representatives from about twelve far-flung, isolated sportsmen's clubs that have camps on timberland in the county. County and town officials had hosted a prime rib dinner to consider the implications of the possible sale of the property that the Stillwater Club leases from a timberland company. The officials had issued invitations to key players from the region to discuss the prospective sale in the context of the State's recent accumulation of ownership and control of large tracts of formerly private lands in the county. On the vast majority of these timberlands, hunting and fishing clubs are being kicked off land that they have leased for generations from the forest industry.

The intensity of the gathering of about one hundred men and three or four women in the rustic hall almost seemed to rise above the troubling reason for the meeting. A group of lands totaling 71,500 acres that Hancock Natural Resource Group (HNRG, known as "Great Eastern Timber Company," or GETCO), on which the Stillwater Club and many other clubs present were located, was scheduled for auction on May 21, 2003.

Newspaper articles with headlines like "State eyes massive land purchase for Adirondack Park preservation" had been announcing the clarion call of the environmentalist groups that the government "protect" these properties by buying them. John Sheehan, the executive director of the Adirondack Council, stated in March, according to Associated Press, "We've been asking the state since the late 1980's to protect both shores of the Grass River and add to the forest preserve. This is a huge amount of land."

If the state acquired the land, as the Adirondack Council advocates, it would be the second largest purchase in the state's history, exceeded only by the 1999 acquisition in fee simple and conservation easements of the 139,000-acre Champion International properties in St. Lawrence and adjacent counties.

The clubs represented in the room have names like Clear Pond, Rainbow, Featherbed, Deaf Creek, Little Blue Mountain, Cranberry Lake, and Stillwater, bespeaking the character of the lands where they members enjoy the camaraderie of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors together. Their officers and lessees listened intently as Keith Zimmerman, St. Lawrence County's chief planning officer, explained the conclusions he had drawn after the County Legislature commissioned his department "to find out what they could" about New York State landownership and control in their county. The Hancock land offering includes over 212,000 acres in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, divided into 14 distinct sale blocks. One 71,500-acre block consists of the former Draper and Yorkshire lands in the towns of Clare, Clifton, Colton and Piercefield, which by the County's real property descriptions actually totals 73,150 acres, of which 19,300 acres are already subject to a DEC conservation easement.

The offering speaks of the portions being divided into a 50,000-acre portion, which was revealed to contain seventeen hunting clubs, including the Stillwater Club in Clare, and a 20,000-acre portion that includes eight other clubs. These eight clubs on the easement lands are scheduled to be closed in 2004, according to the conservation easement.

"They've described the importance of their hunting camps in the offering," Mr. Zimmerman said. "This is a cultural asset that was lost n the Champion deal."

"For thirteen years, the Board of Legislators has been lobbying the State not to acquire any more land, either as fee simple or easements," Mr. Zimmerman declared.

While explaining detailed color-coded maps of St. Lawrence County, he said that the county is experiencing a "tea cup effect," where 21 percent of the land is either owned or controlled by the State. However, it is not water that the tea cup is filling up with, but State-owned land, he said, as the State buys up the land in the tea cup-shaped county from the south to the north. This effect also includes State-owned cooperative forest tracts outside of the Adirondack Park.

Not many years ago, St. Lawrence County was relatively free of the negative effects of significant State ownership of lands.

On an optimistic side note, Mr. Zimmerman pointed out that the bid offering could possibly be for the purpose of valuing the holdings, rather than to get bids used for actually selling the properties. GETCO has a tax assessment lawsuit against the Town of Clare and its taxes are $114,000 in arrears there, he said. In addition, the firm has filed a tax grievance with the Town of Colton. A recent report in the newsletter of the Society of American Foresters indicated that the value could be approximately $100 million for the full 212,000 acres, he said. Hancock bought the Yorkshire properties in 1995 for $20 million, or $273 per acre, he said. The average full value assessment of the Hancock lands is currently $473 per acre, but is skewed by assessments in the Town of Colton, he remarked.

After discussing these prices, Mr. Zimmerman said, "This makes it a costly option to a conservation group, unless the State came in." He pointed out that the State budget has lost 23.5 percent, about $8,000,000, from the Environmental Protection Fund, and that the purchase of these lands would use "a lot of" the remains of the fiscal year 2004 fund.

He observed that if another timber company purchased the tract it would be beneficial for the timber interest to keep the leases on the properties outside of the conservation easement area because the clubs pay a significant part of the holding costs, help with road and boundary maintenance, and are excellent stewards of the land.

"Repeated calls to the State have not resulted in any indication that the State is either interested or prepared/positioned to bid on the property," Mr. Zimmerman stated in the planning department's written report distributed at the meeting.

However, he pointed out that two Watertown Times articles have quoted somewhat different remarks by DEC officials. An official in Watertown was said to have stated that the State is looking at the land, but another official was said to believe that the land should remain as working forests.

Outside of the Adirondack Park, Mr. Zimmerman said, a recent 45,000-acre private timberland transaction involving the State and The Nature Conservancy along the East Branch of Fish Creek in the Tug Hill region in Lewis County kept the roads in private lands and retained the majority of the hunting clubs with perpetual leases, but about one-third of the camps were lost.

Lloyd Moore of the Town of Clare, a mover from the St. Lawrence County Legislature who presided over the meeting, pointed out that the lawsuit that was brought to challenge the State acquisition of the Champion lands "never got into court," but "we really got our money's worth on this." Publicly recognizing the work of the Property Rights Foundation of America to put the case together, he said that, since the case was brought, "The State has lived up to the local veto power. Probably the case is why the State did Fish Creek the way they did."

State Senator Raymond Meier, a Republican whose 47th District office is in Massena, gave a few remarks as the meeting drew to a close. He pointed out that he and Assembly Member Diedre Scozzafava, whose 112th District office is in Gouverneur, have been meeting with DEC. He optimistically remarked, "It is a compressed time frame. It would be very difficult for them to put together a package in that time frame."

Urging that "all of the stakeholders get together," he remarked, "There's a level of sensitivity here that wasn't in the Champion deal...We need to look at how the State gets involved. There ought to be a procedure to get involved."

The new Assemblyman from the 118th District, Darrel Aubertine, also introduced himself, taking a different tone. "I'm fairly new to this particular problem," he said. "That's not to say that I'm not sympathetic to this situation." His humility and interest impressed some listeners.

"I believe that I can make the leadership in the Assembly understand in a way they haven't done in the past," said Mr. Aubertine, as he spoke of the heritage of the clubs. He is a Democrat with district offices in Watertown and Canton. In the past, efforts to pass bills favorable to private land owners have been stymied in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

Alex MacKinnon, the Chairman of the St. Lawrence County Legislature made a brief, fiery address, ending with the words, "This beautiful facility should not become a memory. It's time to draw a line in the sand."

Hank Ford, the Supervisor of the Town of Colton, gave a rallying statement. He pointed out the threat of the Adirondack Council's declaration against any motorized use on much of these lands in the Raquette River region. Mr. Ford announced that the clubs were forming a new organization, the Adirondack Citizens Council, to bring together the sportsmen, the ATV operators, local government, and citizens.

"We want to continue to be able to do what we are now able. We are starting in northern Franklin County and St. Lawrence County. We hope to become statewide and perhaps nationwide!" he said. He announced the first open forum of the Adirondack Citizens Council at the Colton High School the following week. He said, "We can't go like we did in 1989," referring to the change in ownership of the Yorkshire lands, which he thinks should have spurred them to action.

Speaking of their fondly remembered Assemblyman who died prematurely several years ago, Mr. Ford pointed out, "John O'Neil said, 'Your journey's just begun.'"

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