Excerpt from 1885 Assembly Document 36:
This excerpt from pages 21 - 24 of the section entitled "Taxes on State Lands" from the report to New York State Comptroller Alfred C. Chapin is the result of the work of a commission appointed pursuant to the Legislature in 1884 to "investigate and report a system of forest preservation" related to the "forests covering the Adirondack Plateau and the relations which these forests bear to the commercial and industrial interests of the State." The recommendations of the commission, known as the Sargent Commission, were submitted to the Legislature by the Comptroller and were of paramount influence in establishing the state's Forest Preserve policies, including that for State payment of taxes on the Forest Preserve lands. The commission's principle concern was the effect of forest devastation on "the water-sheds of the principal streams of the State."
The reasoning for state payment of taxes on the Forest Preserve lands is most succinctly stated on page 24:
"Upon this general plan, the State lands in the Adirondacks are to be hereafter held and acquired, not for the especial benefit of the counties in which they lie, but in a much greater degree for the benefit of the whole state " cf. rest of paragraph.
TAXES ON STATE LANDS
It appears from the report of the special committee on State lands in the Adirondack region, made to the Senate in January, 1884, that in 1873 the State owned 38,854 acres of wild land; that from 1873 to 1883 the area of State lands increased about 711,762 acres, making the total area of such lands in 1883 750,616 acres. This acquisition of land by the State took place almost entirely through the purchase of lands by the State tax at sales. There is little doubt that in the immediate future, if there be no change in the conditions of the Adirondack wilderness, there will be added several hundred thousand acres to this domain of three-quarters of a million acres which the State now holds. It has been suggested that this tendency of lands to accrue to the State from the non-payment of taxes may possibly solve the forest problem by making the State ultimately the owner of .all the lands within the Adirondack forest. It is to be noticed, however, that this very acquisition of lands by the State which has occurred almost entirely within the last twelve years is the clearest and most striking demonstration of the destruction of natural wealth which has taken place in that region. These lands have fallen into the ownership of the State simply because they have been stripped of their merchantable timber and rendered waste, and for many years to come practically valueless. The lands which will come to the State hereafter through tax sales will likewise come because they will have suffered a similar ruin. It is of vital moment to the State to put an end, if possible, to the temptation to strip the land of its forest wealth, which the practical absence of an efficient collection of the taxes has created. Under the present law prevailing in the forest counties the tax becomes collectible between November and February in each winter, and it is not until about four years from the succeeding summer that the State can completely divest the title of the owner who refuses to pay his taxes. This period of nearly four years and a half is the minimum period required if the proceedings of the local authorities and of the Comptroller be conducted with the utmost rapidity which the law permits. In practice, however, sales for unpaid taxes have been held at intervals of several years, rarely less than four and often as many as seven. It will be perceived, therefore, that the owner of forest lands in the Adirondack region who proposes to strip the lands of all their forest value and then to surrender them to the State will have a period of between five and ten years during which he has practically complete immunity from the payment of taxes, and an enormous advantage over his competing neighbor who may feel compelled to pay his taxes. This is practically what has been done. The lands acquired by the State have been acquired after their long abandonment. They have been acquired after the towns, the counties and the State have lost the taxes of many years, and the lands have finally fallen to the State stripped of merchantable timber, and requiring fully half a century for their restoration to a condition in which, under existing condition of the lumber business, they can have any commercial value.
The Commissioners consider it to be obviously just between the State and its citizens, as well as a matter of the greatest moment to the welfare of the State, that the owners of lands in this wilderness who have decided to bear no longer their fair share of the expenses of the government, shall not be permitted to waste and ravage the real estate which is in itself the only security the State holds for the payment of the taxes levied upon it. The third bill which the Commissioners have prepared proposes, therefore, to prevent the cutting or removing of timber from lands in the Adirondack region upon which the taxes are overdue. It proposes also to enable the Forest Commission, as part of their duty in the preservation of the forests, to directly enforce this law. There is nothing oppressive in such a provision. Forest land differs from building lots, farms and nearly all other lands in the State, in that its sole present and available value consists in a growth which may be completely removed to the utter destruction of the value, although the land nominally remains.
It also seems to the Commissioners obviously wise that the proceedings for the collection of taxes upon forest lands in the Adirondack region should be much more efficient. Communication with the remotest part of this forest region is now more rapid than in former years, and there is no longer a valid reason why the delay should be so great in giving title to the State upon lands whose owners propose to abandon them. Forest lands are neither homesteads nor farms, and tax laws which may be properly indulgent to a farmer or the owner of a house ought to be made much more strict with respect to forest property controlled generally by large owners. It is no exaggeration to say that when an owner of forest lands has let the taxes for one year go into arrears, he has usually taken the first deliberate step toward a surrender of the lands, and the only doubt is to what extent he can, to his own profit, render the lands valueless before his surrender of them is complete. The Commissioners propose, therefore, in the third bill to reduce very greatly the delay in the proceedings upon the non-payment of taxes, and to make those proceedings much more certain and efficient, and to bar objections to the title of the State after a reasonably short time. There is no good reason why an owner of forest lands should be indulged more than one year after the taxes have become overdue, before his title is vested finally and absolutely in the State.
This change will also afford a reasonable protection to the owners of property in the Adirondack towns, who now pay their taxes and are unjustly compelled to bear a steadily-increasing burden imposed upon them by owners, generally without permanent local interests, and desiring to seek new fields of operation as soon as they have completely stripped the old fields of their value. If the State speedily acquire such land, and then, as the Commissioners next proposed, if the State pay or bear the taxes upon the land, the inhabitants who honestly and promptly pay their taxes will be at once relieved of the unjust burdens of unpaid taxes which sooner or later fall upon them.
It is only after the most careful and prolonged consideration that the Commissioners have concluded to recommend that the State hereafter bear taxes upon its lands in the Adirondack region. The Commissioners are aware that this is an unusual course for a government to follow, with respect to its own lands. But the peculiar circumstances of this case make the course obviously just, if the general plan the Commissioners recommend should be adopted.
Upon this general plan, the State lands in the Adirondacks are to be hereafter held and acquired, not for the especial benefit of the counties in which they lie, but in a much greater degree for the benefit of the whole State. It is not, therefore, the case of a county court-house, jail, asylum or other local institution. Nor is it the case of a single building or of a few buildings, which, like the Capitol or a State insane asylum, though benefiting the whole State more than the county in which it stands, still forms so inconsiderable a part of the real property of that county that if a tax were laid upon it, the tax would be no more than the share of benefit which the county derives. In the Adirondacks the present lands of the State are a considerable fraction of the lands in very many towns. By the bills now submitted a policy is proposed which will probably result in a considerably greater acquisition of lands by the State upon sales for taxes. Ultimately, therefore, there will probably be the position of the State holding a large part of the property in the Adirondack towns which would normally pay taxes, and this holding would be chiefly for the benefit of the rest of the State.
It is to be observed, also, that when the State becomes the owner of lands upon the plan now considered, the State assumes many of the advantages of a private owner which ought, in common fairness, to carry with them the corresponding burdens. The roads in the Adirondack region will afford access and protection to the State lands. The courts, offices and officials of the Adirondack counties will be constantly used by the State in the protection of its domain and in the assertion and establishment of rights with respect thereto, precisely as they are used by private citizens. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that the State should, up to the extent of taxes upon the lands which it holds in these counties, bear a proportion of the expenses of local administration whose benefits it receives.
The Commissioners, as has been intimated, believe, as did the Senate committee of 1883, and as is believed by nearly all who have studied the problem, that default in the payment of taxes will bring to the State, from time to time, considerable acquisitions of land. If the State do not pay or bear taxes upon these lands, then the remaining owners in the various Adirondack towns will see their burdens steadily increase without any increase to them of the benefits which taxation purchases.