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Victory at Hand

HUNTING CAMPS TO BE SAVED ON CHAMPION CONSERVATION EASEMENTS

Ten-year Saga may be Drawing to a Close

By Carol W. LaGrasse

Over ten years after Governor George Pataki announced that all the hunting camps on the former Champion International lands would have to be removed, the DEC has issued a revised conservation easement to allow 220 camps to remain. The leases are located on lands now owned by Heartwood Forestland Fund III where the State acquired conservation easements on 110,000 acres in St. Lawrence, Franklin, and Lewis Counties.

When DEC acquired the 139,000 acres of Champion lands in full title and conservation easements in 1999, it had originally imposed a schedule of removal of fifteen years for the camps on the conservation easement lands, dooming them to a final date of 2014. For the camps on the 29,000 acres of lands acquired in fee simple, only five years were allowed. The latter camps, most notably the lovely Sunbeam Club owned at the time by Industrial Contractors Corporation, are gone. Bare land is all that a person can see at the site of the Sunbeam Club at the oxbow of the St. Regis River, because the location is now fully "restored" according to the official report to the Adirondack Park Agency (APA).

But in spite of the loss of the Sunbeam Club and 77 other camps of the original 298, the state's announcement of the revised conservation easement in November represents a great victory for the leaseholders and especially the leaders in St. Lawrence County who originally came on board our lawsuit to save the clubs in 1999 and persisted working with landowner Heartwood and the DEC over the years.

Each camp will be allowed a one-acre plot and the rest of the huge expanses of land will be opened to public hunting. The leaseholders will retain the right of motor vehicle access. Heartwood will be permitted to lease no more than the present number of camps, which is 220.

When the conservation easement is approved, the multi-generational family culture of the hunting camps will finally be secure. And other hunters will benefit with public access. As DEC's Director of Lands and Forests Robert K. Davies stated publicly, the owners of the forest will continue to benefit because the camp owners are "the eyes and ears on the ground" that assist with the management of the productive forest. The communities of the North Country will benefit because the land will continue to support their traditional culture and economy.

Back in 1999, when I started the work to save the Champion camps, almost everyone thought that the idea was far-fetched. But the help of the late Lloyd Moore, the St. Lawrence County Legislature, Howard Aubin, Gary Edwards, Jim Morgan and Shiela Galvin, a number of the hunting camp owners, and many other people gave our lawsuit momentum.

Ultimately, we never got over the bar of the court's strict interpretation of the time limit on service, so our lawsuit was never heard; but the hunting camps were publicly recognized both for their personal significance to the men and women and their families who enjoy this multigenerational way of life and for the significance of their tradition of hunting to the culture and economy of the local communities. It was gratifying to see state policy change as other large blocks of conservation easements were acquired and especially satisfying to see others, most notably Hank Ford, who was then the Supervisor of the Town of Colton, take up the cause. Ultimately Governor Pataki, near the close of his term of office, announced a change in the policy that had doomed the camps. He issued an executive order in October 2006 that those camps remaining on the conservation easements would be saved. DEC and Heartwood spent these many years in legal work and negotiations to implement the new policy.

When he announced the revised conservation easement, Mr. Davies made a memorable statement that was quoted in the New York Outdoor News on November 27: "Requiring the camps to be removed really didn't make sense for a lot of reasons…And frankly, it was a mistake. We've had good relations with the camp owners, they've provided eyes and ears on the ground and really assist us in our management. And it was a very unpopular decision to remove the camps."

Another remark of his that was quoted in the Outdoor News reflected a viewpoint often conveyed by many of us who have been opposing DEC policy to remove hunting camps: "The primary recreational use of these lands is for hunting, and without the camps—which are in pretty remote locations—the public isn't recreating on them. Having the camps there is what's going to continue the tradition of hunting on these lands."

When Lloyd Moore drove me around on the Champion leases to see many of these camps, the remoteness was quite apparent. We never met a soul except for the particular individuals that Lloyd had arranged for us to meet to be escorted into the camps.

One of the things that I have learned after I moved here in 1973 goes contrary to the view expressed by environmental organizations with which I was familiar. Living in the North Country, I became impressed with the love that hunters have for the natural world, and with their sensitivity toward the very animals that they hunt. The rugged little camps enjoyed by the majority of the hunters seem to be emblematic of their immersion in the simplicity of their involvement with nature. So, when Mr. Davies said that the hunters are the eyes and ears on the ground that help in the management of the lands, it was so logical, considering the reverence and closeness to this remote nature that I learned to respect so much in these men and women.

In looking over the DEC summary of the conservation easement revisions, I found myself reading from DEC almost my own words of a decade ago that were in opposition to DEC policy. The first benefit that is written into the DEC summary, and which was at the heart of my work, is:

"Continuation of the long-standing cultural and social tradition of allowing people to participate in and enjoy local hunting and fishing clubs and recreation camps in the Adirondack region, where such camps are an accepted historical use of large, privately owned and managed forest properties."

Where DEC commented on significant environmental impacts, this particular statement was a testimony of respect for the hunting club leaseholders:

"Additionally, hunting clubs and families have leased the camps on these properties for decades and hold a personal knowledge of, and investment in, the Easement lands. This personal attachment to the lands benefits DEC by helping staff meet stewardship responsibilities on such extensive and remote lands. Camp lessees generally respect the land and the lease terms that they are invested in, following all necessary rules and regulations so that they do not jeopardize their leases, and they also act as the eyes and ears on the properties for DEC and the Landowner."

This statement bridges the human side of the benefit to the hunters, touching on their reverence for the land, and the practical benefit that this brings to the landholder and the state, the holder of the covenant to protect the land. The short statement closes with those same words Mr. Davies used at the meeting where the New York Outdoor News took notes. As a property owner, I feel the same way about the hunters that we allow to return to use our relatively small holdings.

The DEC also made a somewhat practical economic analysis that is included, where real estate tax payments to localities are summarized among broad benefits. We had complained in 1999 of the DEC and APA failure to look at the economic significance of the hunting camps.

The spirit and specifics of the first clause of DEC's summary of the "proposed action," especially the perpetuity clause, represent a watershed breakthrough and policy reversal:

"The Landowner's right to enter into exclusive private posting lease agreements on the Easement lands until June 30, 2014 will be terminated, and replaced with the perpetual right of the Landowner to lease no more than 220 traditional hunting and fishing camps, each with a one (1) acre surrounding area of land referred to as a 'Recreation Camp Envelope' or 'Camp Envelope,' which envelope will contain all camp buildings and other improvements (such as outhouses and sheds)."

Downside: More Land for the Forest Preserve
The years of negotiations apparently required a concession to the environmental preservationists. The state is extracting more private land in exchange for allowing the camps to stay. Heartwood agreed to convey full title to 2,676 acres of land now encumbered with a conservation easement to the DEC. Of this, 2,161 acres (about 3.4 square miles) in Franklin County just inside the northern boundary of the Adirondack Park in the vicinity of Deer River will become "forever wild" Forest Preserve.

There is no environmental or public policy justification for the transfer of the remaining title of any land under conservation easement to increase the size of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which presently approaches three million acres. It would be preferable for the lands along the Deer River to remain privately owned in split title, and logged sustainably.

The DEC will acquire approximately 515 acres of private land outside of the Adirondack Park to become State Forest. This is a questionable decision, considering that problems are continuing to develop, because of the preservationist influence against allowing sustainable forest management on State Forest lands.

According to the DEC's draft environmental impact statement, it is the intention of the conveyance of land to the state that the benefits to each party resulting from the modification of the conservation easement be equal, for which real estate tax analysis was considered. It is a ironic that the appraised value of the hunting camp buildings could be a factor in the amount of land that is being conveyed to the state.

This diminishment of privately owned land may be the result of negotiations with environmental organizations to reach agreement with all parties for the splendid achievement of issuing the revised conservation easement. One can hope for swift approval of the meticulously planned revised conservation easements to give a permanent reprieve for the hunting camps.

Historic Benefits to Remain
For over one hundred years, first by the St. Regis Paper Company, later by Champion International Corporation, and now by Heartwood Forestland Fund, the timberlands on the conservation easement tracts have been managed as working forests, with recreational access limited solely to hunting club lessees and the guests of the landowner. Under specific terms of the new easement, internal roads will continue to serve the leaseholders and provide access to their camps.

The DEC is to be congratulated for the achievement of issuing the revised conservation easement and for the analysis that sensitively weighs the combination of human and economic considerations and environmental factors, demonstrating the important benefits of this fine plan to allow the camps to permanently remain on their leases.

Still ahead in the process of approving the revised conservation easement is the review by the Adirondack Park Agency, because the amended conservation easement requires an amended subdivision permit. Once the subdivision process is complete, the clock will tick for one more year, at the end of which the land will also be open for the public to hunt.

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