More than a tenth of the Adirondack Park is protected by easements, though it’s hard to judge how protected
By Michael Virtanen
Red Tavern Road cuts through the forest of the northwest Adirondacks, with privately owned timberlands governed by a conservation easement on one side and the state-owned Debar Mountain Wild Forest on the other side.
The contrast is striking.
On the south side, the green wall of maple, beech, birch, and balsam is thick and dark, giving way only in the treetops to blue sky above the East Branch of the St. Regis River.
This is part of the Forest Preserve, guaranteed by the state constitution to remain “forever wild.”
On the north side, a narrow strip of hardwoods along the road hardly conceals the thinned-out woods behind. At one spot is a large clear-cut—a field of bleached wood chips, with a few stumps and a pile of short, thick leftover logs in the landing area where logs were delimbed, sorted, cut, stacked, and trucked away. Several cleared swaths extend from the opening up into the woods.
This is part of the Santa Clara Tract, timberlands covered by an easement that authorizes “sustainable” forestry and provides for public recreation. New York has invested tens of millions of dollars in conservation deals like this one over the decades, paying willing owners to restrict land uses while keeping the land in private hands.
But has the state gotten its money’s worth? It’s hard to say, because there’s limited public accounting of all that goes on in these woods.
“One concern is how difficult it is for the public to get information on what is required of the landowner, and where there is what form of public recreation allowed,” Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said. “This in turn makes it difficult to judge whether the state is upholding its duties of monitoring and compliance with regulations, especially for timber harvesting, gravel mining, road construction, and motorized recreation.”
A half-dozen weathered hunting camps and cottages, most posted against trespassing, dot the north roadside, not far from the Red Tavern, a bar and hotel that gives the road its name and stands on its own private parcel. The camps belong to leaseholders. The Santa Clara Tract is a 72,000-acre holding of Jackson Timberlands Opportunities, a subsidiary of the Molpus Woodlands Group, and its clients. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, Molpus is one of the largest landowners in the Adirondack Park.
Champion International sold the Santa Clara Tract, along with the rest of its Adirondack forests in the late 1990s. In the decade that followed, the other major timber companies in the Park, including International Paper, Domtar, and Finch, Pruyn, also sold their timberlands. The state acquired some of the land for the Forest Preserve. Most of it remains in timber production covered by conservation easements.
Indeed, most new land preservation in the 5.8-million-acre Park over the past twenty-five years has been done through state-purchased easements, now covering 781,000 acres, or about 13 percent of the Park. About 98 percent contain working forest, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
This private land may be logged, but it generally cannot be subdivided and developed. In addition, some public recreation is allowed on much of it.
As the owner of some of the land rights, the state pays a portion of the property taxes. Between the easement lands and the forever-wild Forest Preserve, which contains 2.6 million acres, more than half of the Park is now protected in some fashion.
What has been unavailable is a clear public accounting of what is happening in the forests on the easement lands; what New Yorkers are getting at what cost; precisely how the timberlands are managed; and what is the impact of logging on wildlife and the next generations of trees.
The easements have become the second-most important long-term conservation tool in the park, Protect the Adirondacks executive director Peter Bauer said.
“The question is: just how good a conservation tool?” Bauer said. “There’s a lot of questions about that.”
A state official called the easements cost-effective conservation tools that keep lands in private ownership and on local tax rolls while protecting open space and recreational opportunities.
“We are very proud of our conservation easement program,” said Rob Davies, director of the state’s Division of Lands and Forests. “We are leaders in the country.”
Some information is available, but it’s not easy to find.
New York has paid $95 million for Adirondack easements since the 1970s, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the program’s steward. The DEC doesn’t have aggregate information showing the state’s annual property tax payments, officials said. An Explorer request for those numbers on the 162 easements from the Division of Taxation and Finance remains pending.
Tree volume on all privately owned Adirondack timberlands, including those covered by conservation easements, grew slightly—by less than a percent—from 2011 to 2016, the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station estimated from its most recent available inventory data.
At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service reported, average annual harvest removals remained relatively flat over the period, estimated at 78.5 million cubic feet two years ago. The data from its on-the-ground sampling showed average annual net growth increased to 98.4 million cubic feet.
Still, environmentalists have raised concerns about increased logging, which they say they have seen on plane flights over the Adirondacks. Meanwhile, the market for wood domestically and overseas improved last year, according to industry observers.
The two companies that control about two-thirds of the easement timberlands—Molpus Woodlands Group and Lyme Adirondack Timberlands—say their operations have essentially continued apace with no increases in logging while meeting ongoing requirements for “sustainable forestry.” Those are based on outside audits by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which apply multi-year averages and call for cutting no more timber than easement tracts can regenerate.
Bauer said that with the substantial public ownership interests in the easement land—often more than half—annual data should be available showing total actual logging volumes and estimated tree growth by species, as well as the timber companies’ forest management plans. The audit reports don’t show that, he said.
“Because these are supposed to be sustainable forestry conservation easements,” Bauer said, “we want to see that the growing volume on a given property is increasing.”
The DEC in August added links to FSC and SFI reports on its conservation easement web page. The agency planned to post remaining interim recreation management plans on its website by the end of the year, spokesmen said.
The department also provided the Explorer with a list showing 50 current landowners of the 162 easements, including some individuals, families and townships. Most are companies or investment groups.
Environmentalists had embraced easements as a way to protect land from a market for Adirondack second homes that began heating up in the 1990s, a time when traditional timber companies were selling forests due to their own economic pressures. It was cheaper than buying land outright for the Forest Preserve, enabling the state to protect more acreage, and kept lumberjacks working and hunters renting hundreds of camps in economically strapped parts of the Adirondacks.
Conservation advocates still emphasize the value of easements but want clear public accounting of their effectiveness. They say recent flyovers, some recent federal data, and Adirondack Park Agency permits all suggest increased logging. They also complain about the limited amount of oversight information available from the understaffed APA and Department of Environmental Conservation.
And they worry that the modern investment practice of holding onto timberlands for only ten to fifteen years has implications for the long-term health of the forests. Trees typically need twenty-five to forty years to grow tall enough to produce high-value saw timber.
The timber investment management organizations, or TIMOs, which have mainly replaced the timber and paper companies as the private forests’ stewards and owners, counter that their operations abide by criteria for sustainable forestry, are so certified annually by outside auditors, and they improve forests by leaving overstories of preferred hardwoods like maple and birch to seed new growth instead of the beech that can dominate.
As a general rule, lumber companies have an incentive to cut more timber when the market is good. If the market is bad, they may let trees grow, both in size and value, until the market improves. In the easements, the TIMOs’ foresters write harvest plans and annual inventories that are audited.
The domestic and overseas markets for northeastern hardwoods dropped in the 2008 recession, but they came back strong starting about eighteen months ago, according to industry analysts.
Roughly 20 percent of their harvested timber goes for high-value saw wood, with about 80 percent going for low-value wood pulp for paper and biomass for fuel, according to Lyme and Molpus officials.
Adirondack Council staff have flown over the Park’s forests twice annually—with and without leaves on the hardwoods, which comprise most of the Adirondack forest—to see what’s happening for most of the past five years.
“There’s some evidence that the smaller cuts have accelerated as well as some of the checkerboard pattern you can see from the sky in certain places, especially the north and northwest part of the Park,” council spokesman John Sheehan said. “It’s in the northeast as well.”
Rocci Aguirre, council conservation director, said the issue that needs further discussion among the companies, regulators, and interested groups is the cumulative impact. The easement lands look like typical working forests, he said.
“Some data is sort of pointing toward a slight overharvest in terms of the sustainability of the wood stock,” Aguirre said.
Ed McNeil, a pilot and conservationist who flies over the Adirondacks, said that on recent flights he has seen more heavy equipment and areas where nearly all mature trees were logged. “They’re taking more timber off,” he said.
Molpus division forester Nick Brunette, responsible for Adirondack timberlands, said the company has not increased logging, though with some concentrated logging on some areas “they have that appearance.” On its nearly 113,000 acres of former Champion lands, workers harvest wood on about 3,000 acres a year, he said.
Charles Canham, an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, in the lower Hudson Valley, said there are legitimate concerns about overharvesting in the Adirondack Park.
“The problem is when too many clear-cuts happen all at once,” Canham said. There’s no good ecological or silvicultural rationale for clear-cuts, which initially resemble the moon’s surface and rarely show good regeneration, and which appear to be motivated solely by profit, he said.
Eric Ross, general manager for Lyme Adirondack Forest Co., disagrees. His loggers have successfully clear-cut stands of problem beech, which aren’t valuable and tend to get diseased, and have established new sustained growth of birch, maple and ash with some beech, he said.
The Adirondack Park Agency requires permits for clear-cuts of more than 25 acres.
Conservationists opposed the agency’s 2013 proposal to issue a general permit for lands subject to the forestry group certifications, which was shelved. But the APA has since delegated its permit authority to staff for accelerated reviews of clear-cuts smaller than 500 acres.
The agency board stopped publicly voting on each one. Since then, more permits have been issued, said David Gibson, partner in Adirondack Wild.
Some APA records show last year’s permits authorized Lyme Timber clear-cuts of 295, 458, and 264 acres on the company’s Black Brook, Iron Ore, and Big Moose tracts. The year before, the agency approved 2,133 acres of clear-cuts in nine projects, eight of them on easement lands. In 2015, the agency approved ten “harvest projects” involving Molpus, Lyme, and the Forestland Group, which sold the Santa Clara Tract to Molpus.
Ross said seventeen of the twenty-one clear-cut permits issued in the recent past were for Lyme. Most were for removing old overstory trees that had seeded new growth in previously logged areas but still fell within the Adirondack Park Agency definition of clear-cuts, he said.
Dick Molpus, chairman of his family’s century-old company, told the Explorer in an article in January that the nature of his clientele gave the company the luxury of cutting selectively, then waiting for the new forest to mature. The pension funds and endowments that Molpus attracts tend to be less focused on quarterly returns than some other investors, he said.
The company, which started buying lands in New York in 2007, said it owned 240,000 acres, primarily in the northwest sector of the Park. In 2014, it acquired 112,000 acres from the Forestland Group, which is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That deal included the Santa Clara Tract.
Lyme Adirondack Timber based in Hanover, New Hampshire, said the TIMO has 239,000 acres in the Adirondacks that are covered by conservation easements. Two years ago, Managing Director Peter Stein said that, Lyme had brought in a new investor who paid “a little bit more” than the original investment group, showing the timberlands didn’t lose value from its logging. Stein cited an increase in the value of board products as one reason.
Lyme acquired its timberlands in 2006 from International Paper Company, which had owned them for decades.
“It remains fully compliant with the conservation easements that are held by DEC, and we’ve got very positive audits each year,” Stein said. He declined to give a number but said the company is “satisfied” with its annual returns.
The company is harvesting less than the forest is growing, Stein said.
“Not acreage-wise but timber volume-wise, it’s a bigger forest,” he said.
Both Molpus and Lyme get annual reviews of their timbering operations from the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. In addition, the two groups undertake full recertification audits every five or three years, respectively.
For owners, the state investment in the easements on their land represents immediate cash as well as state payment of a percentage of the timberlands’ local property taxes, generally in the range of about 40 to 60 percent. In return, New York protects the timberlands from commercial development and opens most of them to hiking, hunting, canoeing, fishing and some other public recreation that differs on each but can include bicycling, snowmobiling and ATV riding on unpaved, narrow haul roads.
The DEC provided the Adirondack Explorer with a list of 162 separate easements within the Park. Of those, 112 are required to have long-term recreation plans. So far, DEC has written recreation plans or interim plans for eighty-one of the parcels, according to department spokesman David Winchell. Some others are addressed in management plans for adjacent state forests.
The DEC’s website includes descriptions of recreational opportunities for about two dozen tracts in and around the Adirondack Park, far fewer than the total number of easements. Some, like the Santa Clara Tract, which was sold in 1998, don’t yet have final recreation plans.
In some tracts, the public is allowed to drive or hike across or park cars on easement lands to reach Forest Preserve parcels—such as Madawaska Flow by the Santa Clara Tract and Loon Lake Mountain near the Kushaqua Tract.
Hunting clubs lease hundreds of camps on many of the easement lands. The Santa Clara Tract alone has about a hundred hunting-camp leases, while Lyme’s Kushaqua Tract has about thirty, according to the DEC. Under the easement agreements, leaseholders have exclusive rights to an acre around each camp, but in general, easement lands are open to the public for hunting.
It’s unknown how many people visit easement lands for hunting and other recreation.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said those adjoining state Forest Preserve tend to be used more, like the former International Paper lands in the southern Adirondacks between the West Canada Wilderness and Indian Lake and Siamese Ponds Wilderness. It includes access routes to the Northville-Placid Trail.
Others that get less use are often crossed by snowmobile trails, with the DEC trying to connect Adirondack communities on the networks of logging roads, Woodworth said. “Depending on the popularity of the route, quite a few people use those,” he said.
“But you’re not as likely to have hikers using those long stretches of roads,” Woodworth said. “It’s not the most pristine forest. Nor in most cases are there mountains to climb or beautiful lakes.”