THE CONSTITUTIONAL protection afforded the state-owned Adirondack Forest Preserve is not something to be taken lightly. It is ambitious in its scope and timeless in its intention: the lands “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
As important a protection as this is, though, it is not and should not be mindlessly absolute. There are unusual circumstances in which for the good of the Forest Preserve and the people of the state, the best course is to amend the constitution in a way that enhances the Forest Preserve and serves a public good. That is the case with two proposals that will go before the voters this November. They deserve support.
Inherent in the constitution is the understanding that it will need to be revised from time to time. Part of this understanding is that it should be very difficult to do so. It takes approval of two consecutively elected legislatures, followed by the majority of voters in a statewide referendum, to enact an amendment. Supporters have to persuade a lot of people over the course of at least two years that their cause is right. Factor in a historical tendency for New Yorkers to vote no on any amendment they don’t fully understand, and proponents of an amendment must clear a high bar.
Because of this process, we can approve an amendment that addresses very particular circumstances without undermining broader constitutional safeguards. We can consider amendments case by case. And taken on the merits, the two proposals in question this year are good for the state.
In one, the state will exchange two hundred acres of Preserve in Essex County with a mining company for a much larger amount of private land in the area. It expands the Preserve in a way that the state receives more of value than it gives up.
In the second, the state will surrender any possible claims to long-occupied properties near Raquette Lake in exchange for land that will enhance the Preserve for public use.
This amendment would allow the state to transfer two hundred acres of land on Slip Mountain in the Jay Mountain Wilderness to NYCO Minerals. The company wants to extend its existing wollastonite mine onto this state land adjacent to the mine. The current mine is reaching the end of its life. As the mineral is depleted, the company can move onto the new land, helping to prolong its business for eight to ten years.
In return, NYCO will pay the state at least $1 million, maybe more depending on an appraisal of mineral values. The state has identified 1,500 acres, most of which is adjacent to the Jay Mountain Wilderness that it can purchase with the $1 million. In addition, when the mine is depleted and reclaimed, the two hundred acres will return to the Forest Preserve.
Neither the land coming out of the Preserve nor that which would become state land appears to have unique ecological features. But the increased acreage would provide new public access to several streams and forested hillsides while expanding an existing Wilderness. This enhancement makes the amendment a good deal. And on top of that we get the economic benefit of strengthening a company that employs one hundred with a payroll of $6 million.
Opponents of this measure are concerned that it could lead to more pressure in the future for amendments that respond to private business interests and so fundamentally weaken the protection of the Forest Preserve. But the demands of the constitutional amendment process safeguard against this. We can agree that this swap is worthwhile without making it any easier for someone else to amend the constitution in the future.
The second proposed amendment would clear up a century’s worth of dispute over ownership of land in an area of Raquette Lake known as Township 40. And in the process valuable new land will go into the Forest Preserve. In this case the state isn’t exchanging any land that is of practical value to the public. It is giving up the right to say it holds title to properties that to all appearances have been privately owned and used for decades.
The dispute involves 216 parcels of property totaling about a thousand acres on Raquette Lake. The state believes that it acquired title to these properties in the 1800s through tax sales, but there is no conclusive documentation of the title claim. Because of the clouded title, property owners sometimes have faced legal challenges or difficulty getting mortgages.
The amendment would allow the private owners of these lands to receive clear title in return for making payments to the state. Those payments, expected to total more than $600,000, would be used to purchase land for the Forest Preserve, most likely a parcel that includes the carry trail between Utowana Lake and the Marion River. This 295-acre tract provides important public access for recreation and is now owned by the Open Space Institute, which paid $2 million for it.
The state loses nothing of real value, just theoretical claims to properties that have no public benefit. And it gains—at a bargain price—a tangible expansion of the Forest Preserve with direct benefit to canoeists and other members of the public. The amendment clearly deserves support.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher