All for One and One for All?
Hunting Access and Hunting Club Leases Should All Be Saved
One Hundred Square Miles of Finch Pruyn Lands Threatened with "Forever Wild"
By Carol W. LaGrasse
Hunters who are finding that DEC is continually closing roads into the Adirondack Forest Preserve are deeply concerned with the important access issue. It is difficult or impossible for a hunter to transport a deer by hand if the road is five or ten miles from the place where the deer is killed.
But hopes are raised when the state announces another acquisition for the Forest Preserve. At the present time, the DEC intends to acquire one-hundred square miles of the former Finch Pruyn lands for the Forest Preserve, to become "forever wild," never to be logged again and to be closed to motor vehicle access. Incidentally, these are the most productive of the paper company's former holdings, and comprise about 65,000 of the 161,000 acres of land that The Nature Conservancy acquired, which were all of the company's holdings. The Nature Conservancy has sold over 90,000 acres to Upper Hudson Woodlands ATP* and holds an option to acquire conservation easements on these lands, with the intention to flip the conservation easements to the state.
Returning to the lands that DEC and the Conservancy intend to become "forever wild"as soon as the state has the money to acquire these lands: These lands are of interest to hunters because they are presently closed to the public and some of the hunting community would like to hunt on these lands.
However, the viewpoint of that sector of the hunting community is focused solely on the idea of opening public access, missing two points, one that concerns them directly, and one that concerns the hunters who have used the Finch Pruyn lands by holding leases where they have built hunting camps.
Hunting camps that are on timber company leases are generally modest, prideful cabins where often multi-generations of hunters come for decades and pursue a way of life each fall, and perhaps other times of the year, with their families. The land is little disturbed and the cabins are much loved by the hunters who occupy these leases. However, when the state acquires the land for the "forever wild" Forest Preserve, the state orders that the camps be removed. In the past, the state has burned many camps to the ground after acquiring land for the Forest Preserve.
When we organized the lawsuit to attempt to stop the state acquisition of the 139,000 acres of Champion International lands in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, we were fighting a battle to save the hunting culture. On these lands were three hundred hunting camps, organized within various clubs. The state had announced that the camps on the land to become Forest Preserve had to be removed or demolished within five years and that those on the conservation easement lands would have to be removed within fifteen years. However, although our lawsuit failed to be heard on the merits, it caused a lot of adverse publicity for the state and precipitated a new wave of hope and action for the hunting camp lease holders. After the lawsuit, serious negotiations began to save the camps.
Momentum on behalf of the hunting camps continued to gather, and was further intensified by the fear of the sale of the 72,000-acre Hancock timber holdings, which were coveted by environmentalists and which contained 25 hunting clubs in the towns of Clare, Clifton, Colton and Piercefield. Lloyd Moore from Clare, a member of the St. Lawrence County Legislature and the president of the Adirondack Park Agency Local Government Review Board, had taken me on a tour of the Champion leases in October 1999 and also had been very concerned about the Hancock holdings. He invited me as an honored guest to a meeting on April 17, 2003 at the Stillwater Club, deep in the forests of Clare in St. Lawrence County.
The County Legislature was intensely concerned that the state was acquiring large amounts of land at the southern part of the county, which had been almost free of state land ownership, and had commissioned a study by their planning department. At the meeting, the St. Lawrence County Planning Department made an elaborate presentation of statistics and maps. Their study concluded:
"It is in the long-term best interest of St. Lawrence County to keep large forested tracts available for providing sustainable timber harvesting, leases to hunting clubs, public recreational access, reasonable property taxes and wildlife habitat and water quality protection."
Local residents and officials had already joined with hunting club members to recognize the importance of preserving the hunting club culture. The meeting at the Stillwater Club led by Mr. Moore and other leaders of the St. Lawrence County legislature kicked off a concerted effort to save the camp leases.
At the meeting, Colton Supervisor Henry R. "Hank" Ford announced the formation of a new Adirondack organization.
"We want to be able to continue to do what we are now able. We are starting in northern Franklin County and St. Lawrence County," declared Hank Ford at the meeting, inviting the people packed in the club dining hall to a meeting of the new "Adirondack Citizens Council" the following week at the Colton High School. Mr. Ford's organization quickly gathered steam.
The mobilization of hunting club leaseholders, local residents, and the county legislature brought success. In August 2003, St. Lawrence County breathed a sigh of relief when the 72,000 acres that Hancock Timber Resource Group had put up for bids were privately sold for $25.5 million to GMO Renewable Resources, an international timber firm based in Boston. The clubs were allowed to continue on their leases.
The work to save the camps on the Champion lands continued, involving hunters, citizens, and legislators. In October 2006, shortly before leaving office, Governor George Pataki reversed the policy that had condemned the camps on leases located on the conservation easement lands and allowed these camps to stay. Because the Champion tract was divided between 29,000 acres consigned to the "forever wild" Forest Preserve lands and 110,000 acres of conservation easement lands; it can be seen that many camps were saved. Lloyd Moore said he felt that, to a significant extent, the momentum that led ultimately to this good result was a result of our court effort that brought the issue of saving the hunting culture before the public, involving leaseholders, St. Lawrence County and others, even though some of the leaseholders on conservation easement lands had already given up.
The key was that many people and groups with different approaches became involved in a common cause, from key members of the state legislature to leaseholders to the local county to the Property Rights Foundation of America.
A similar united front is needed to save the hunting club leases on all the Finch Pruyn lands, whether the club is a large, well-known organization containing 15,000 acres or a group of modest private camps on smaller leases.
The impact on family life and the hunting culture will be enormous if the camps are not allowed to stay. A much greater proportion of the Finch Pruyn land is slated to become "forever wild" than that originally planned for "forever wild" part of the Champion tract. Last February an Adirondack Park Agency report summarizing three Nature Conservancy permits related to over 70,000 acres mentioned 48 camps on the Finch Pruyn lands slated to become "forever wild," dooming all these camps.
One of the clubs on the Finch Pruyn lands is the Polaris Mountain Club near the Hudson River in the town of Newcomb. The camps on the Polaris lease are charming, but modest, family-owned cabins.
Photographs in a family album from a decade ago show children playing, men engaged in building a camp, a woman standing outside a cabin door, deer hanging around in a snow-covered clearing, a chickadee in a pine tree, a family relaxing in a room overlooking the woods, and young girls baking cookies in a wood-burning kitchen stove and fishing beside the fine Finch Pruyn bridge spanning the Hudson River.
What possible reason can there be for converting these well protected, reverently used lands to "forever wild"?
And, what sense does it make to add any more land to the Adirondack Forest Preserve? The preserve already is nearing three million acres in size. And, in addition, the state has acquired 700,000 acres of conservation easements during recent years.
For the average hunter, the ownership of a hunting camp on a lease may seem special, and it is. But the camp owners at the Polaris lease and on the many leases at the Champion tracts that I visited are not rich people. They are of the same means as the people who go for a hunt on private or state-owned land on a weekend during the big game season. There is no moral or practical victory in the leaseholders having their camps destroyed to supposedly open up more land to hunters and others, particularly considering that the high quality logging roads are likely to be blocked with giant boulders, the culverts ripped out, and the land become inaccessible. **
In fact, there is a great moral and practical loss, namely the loss of a multigenerational hunting way of life and the family life involving the little camps.
The leaseholders should stand together. All hunters should unite behind the leaseholders. The Finch Pruyn lands should not be acquired by the State of New York.
* Upper Hudson Woodlands ATP, LP , is located at RMK Timberland Group in Atlanta. ATP is a Danish Investment Fund.
** Even the fate of the fine bridge built across the Hudson by Finch Pruyn is a cause for concern. In addition, the potential destruction of good logging roads and all forms of access for motor vehicles once again raises the issue of fire protection access and difficulty of emergency rescue.