By George Earl
Rifle in hand, clad in heavy wool plaid, and fueled by an early breakfast, I hoofed it up a steep ridge and came to an impressive vista of forested mountaintops and wild ponds.
This was a rare glimpse of a piece of the Adirondacks that has been in private hands since the Civil War. Someday soon, though, it is expected to be added to the public Forest Preserve—that is, unless the Gooley Club has its way.
The Adirondack Nature Conservancy acquired the tract in question—some sixteen thousand acres leased by the hunting club —as part of a larger transaction in 2007, when it bought all of Finch, Pruyn & Company’s land in the Adirondacks, about 161,000 acres.
The Gooley Club tract has long been coveted by preservationists: among other natural assets, it contains the confluence of the Indian and Hudson rivers, a long stretch of the Cedar River, and the pristine Essex Chain of Lakes. The Nature Conservancy intends to sell it to the state along with adjacent lands once owned by Finch, Pruyn. The sale would not only protect a large swath of woodlands in the heart of the Adirondack Park, but it also would open up the land for public recreation. And it would mean the death of the Gooley Club.
The Gooley Club is not alone. All told, about twenty hunting camps will lose their leases under the conservancy’s plans for the former Finch, Pruyn lands. In November, the Gooley Club invited me to visit its camps and hunt its property to get a feel for what’s lost when a sportsman’s club closes.
The club maintains a cluster of rough-hewn camps on Third Lake, which is part of the Essex Chain, and an “outer camp,” which was once a farmhouse, at the confluence of the Indian and Hudson. If the state adds the land to the Forest Preserve, the buildings will be torn down.
For Gooley’s 120 members, who come from as far away as Arizona to hunt, fish, and socialize in the backwoods, the looming demise of a club that has generated many good memories is sad to contemplate. The club has been around for more than sixty years, but spokesman Donald MacElroy says its roots go back to the Chain Lakes Sportsman’s Camp founded in the late 1800s.
“We may seem to some like bitter-enders who can’t let go of the past,” said MacElroy, whose grandfather joined Gooley in 1949, “but you have to remember that many of us were raised on the property to love and respect the Adirondacks by fathers and grandfathers who instilled the values of sportsmanship and conservation in us from an early age. We are now raising the next generation to follow that same path. It is not a legacy we will easily give up.”
Against the odds, MacElroy and other members hold out hope that they can save the club. They propose that the state purchase conservation easements instead of acquiring full title to the land. Under such an arrangement, the property would be protected from development, but it could still be logged. And the Gooley Club could continue to lease the land and enjoy exclusive hunting and fishing rights. The club is willing to allow some public access to river corridors and perhaps the Essex Chain of Lakes, but the members want privacy around their camps.
The proposal is similar to easements implemented in some parts of the Park. In fact, the conservancy sold most of the former Finch land, more than ninety thousand acres, to a timber-management company called ATP. This land is protected by a conservation easement that permits logging and allows hunting clubs to stay. At the moment, there is no public access to these lands, but if, as expected, the state purchases the easement rights from the conservancy, then the public presumably will be granted some access.
Most of the Gooley Club tract, however, is among fifty-eight thousand acres that the Nature Conservancy plans to sell to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve. MacElroy concedes that the club has little negotiating power as a leaseholder, but he argues that his proposal makes sense, given the state’s financial problems. Not only would an easement deal cost the state less money, he said, but it would keep forestry jobs in place. Also, the club would continue to contribute to the local economy.
“I like to think that my passion is tempered with realism,” MacElroy said. “I don’t think [the environmental community] has gotten the memo yet about the state’s fiscal condition. Our proposal leverages the limited funds that the state has in a way that meets the needs of all the users. All we’re asking for is to maintain our little toehold.”
Environmental activists contend that the Gooley Club lands are ecologically important and rich in recreational opportunities and so belong in the Forest Preserve.
“This is one of the most important regions in the Park in terms of ecology and tourism potential,” said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council. “It would be like asking someone who just purchased a Picasso if they could just cut a couple of pieces out of it before they took possession. I don’t think anyone would agree to that.”
Sheehan noted that the council has proposed establishing a 72,480-acre Wild Rivers Wilderness Area that includes the Gooley tract, an idea first suggested in 1990. The region contains long stretches of five major rivers: the Hudson, Indian, Cedar, Rock, and Boreas. Most of the land is already in the Forest Preserve. The addition of the former Finch lands would nearly complete the Wilderness.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said adding the Gooley property to the Forest Preserve (as well as former Finch lands along the Hudson Gorge) would create exciting recreational opportunities, such as paddling a long stretch of the Hudson below Newcomb, backpacking through remote woods, fishing for trout in wild rivers, and canoe camping on the Essex Chain of Lakes.
“We want to turn the Essex Chain of Lakes into a new Canoe Area,” he said. “I think the primary goal of the [Gooley] Club is to keep the public off the Essex Chain of Lakes, and that couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the Adirondack Mountain Club.”
As to the Gooley proposal, Woodworth said: “Their idea of a conservation easement would exclude the public. The public would in effect be paying for [the Gooley Club’s] playground through taxes” paid by the state on the easement lands.
As mentioned, some easements in the Park do allow public access. Often in such cases, a club will retain exclusive rights to an acre or so around its buildings, but the surrounding forest is open to the public for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other forms of recreation. The Gooley Club, however, wants to maintain exclusive rights to hunting and fishing throughout the tract.
“If we’re going to hunt and fish in there, we want the rights to that,” said Dave Hulbert, a club member. “You can only compromise so far before you lose what you’re trying to keep.”
The Nature Conservancy plans to end the Gooley Club’s lease by 2018 at the latest. Connie Prickett, a conservancy spokeswoman, said Gooley and the other hunting clubs were given an opportunity to relocate to nearby lands protected by easements, but the Gooley Club was among those that declined the offer.
MacElroy said the land offered the club was too remote from fishing waters. Because most of the club members come to fish, he said, “such a move would probably spell the end of the club.”
Michael Carr, executive director of the Adirondack conservancy, said the organization does not intend to modify its plans to accommodate the Gooley Club. He noted that the conservancy hired a team of scientists to inventory all the Finch, Pruyn holdings before deciding which lands to sell to the state and which to protect by easements.
“The Gooley Club lease tracts stand out because of their exceptional public recreational features and biological importance,” Carr said. “That’s why those and other outstanding properties will go to the Forest Preserve. As public lands, they will offer new and exciting economic opportunities for surrounding communities and small businesses.”
The Nature Conservancy also met with dozens of local leaders after purchasing Finch’s lands to discuss the future of the entire 161,000 acres. The conservancy then came up with a plan that will allow logging to continue on most of the property. Although the local towns signed off on it, some politicians have since raised questions about the deal, including the removal of hunting clubs.
Three towns—Chester, Indian Lake, and Newcomb—have passed resolutions urging the state to allow the clubs to remain in place, emphasizing the role they play in the local economy. Officials in all three towns have connections to clubs slated to close. Chester Supervisor Fred Monroe belongs to the Polaris Mountain Club, which borders the Gooley Club. Indian Lake Supervisor Barry Hutchins is descended from the Chain Lakes Sportsman’s Camp’s first caretaker. Newcomb Supervisor George Canon is a member of the Gooley Club.
“The Essex Chain of Lakes is now the Holy Grail for environmentalists,” Canon said. “They’re hell-bent on making that state land, and when they do there’ll be a way of life that disappears.”
Although DEC has a letter of intent to buy the lands from the conservancy, it isn’t legally binding, and Monroe would like to see the deal renegotiated. That could happen, he added, if the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, is serious about cutting the state’s deficit.
Monroe said the Polaris Mountain Club has the funds to buy its leased land from the conservancy, but most of the other clubs probably do not have that option. He envisions easement deals that would allow some public access during certain times of the year.
DEC refused to say whether it intends to stick with its plan to purchase all fifty-eight thousand acres. “Discussions about the Finch, Pruyn lands are ongoing, and we are declining to comment further at this time,” spokesman Yancey Roy said in an e-mail.
The Gooley Club says it will lobby the governor and state legislators to modify the plan if the club fails to get what it wants from the conservancy and DEC.
This isn’t the first time a battle has erupted over hunt clubs. In 1999, DEC struck an agreement to preserve more than 144,000 acres owned by Champion International, mostly through easements. The deal called for the eventual removal of nearly three hundred clubs. The clubs sued the state and lost, but DEC later changed the easements to let most of them stay. In later conservation deals, the state allowed hunting clubs to remain on easement lands. However, clubs must be removed from lands that become part of the Forest Preserve.
Adirondack officials also complain that expanding the Preserve takes away forestry jobs and precludes economic development. Environmentalists, however, contend that additions to the Preserve are necessary for ecological reasons.
“On the Forest Preserve, logging stops,” said John Davis of the Adirondack Council, adding that older, unlogged forests provide better habitat for certain species of songbirds, salamanders, fish, wildflowers, and reclusive predators. “And with climate change, it’s more and more important that we preserve, simply preserve, large blocks of forest,” Davis said.
Expansion of the Forest Preserve is not the only threat to hunting clubs. With the decline in the popularity of hunting, many clubs are having trouble attracting new members. In fact, some that leased land from Finch, Pruyn have dissolved in the past few years, according to Connie Prickett. The Gooley Club has stayed afloat because it transformed itself from a seasonal men’s hunting club to a year-round family destination. One member described hunting as “a dying art.”
Losing the exclusive use of the Essex Chain of Lakes, he said, could be the club’s death knell.
During my hunt on the Gooley property, I spotted no deer, but I had a very pleasant hike. In the afternoon, I hooked up with the club’s vice president, John MacElroy (Donald’s brother). John has the confident bearing of a seasoned sportsman. He wore a tattered kerchief knotted loosely around his neck, camouflage chamois-cloth bibs, and soft-soled boots. He had been bear hunting in a nearby swamp.
John hadn’t seen any game either. We stowed our rifles in the cab of his pickup and headed back to camp on the gravel logging road he has traveled since the 1950s. The sun hung low in the sky, and there was a hint of resigned melancholy in his voice as he talked about the club’s uncertain future.
“We’ve been good stewards of the land for many years,” he said. “About 1,100 people visit every year. If it becomes state land, I don’t think you’re going to see as many people use it as you’re seeing now.”