By Gwendolyn Craig
The Nature Conservancy and state officials are “in discussion” over the future of Follensby Pond, the historical site of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophers camp and one of the largest privately owned tracts left for possible acquisition in the Adirondack Park.
In 2008, the Nature Conservancy purchased the 14,600 acres near Tupper Lake for $16 million. The land includes about 10 miles of shoreline along the Raquette River and borders the High Peaks Wilderness Area. The tract includes the 970-acre Follensby Pond where in 1858 Emerson, James Russell Lowell and Louis Agassiz engaged in philosophical discussions. It was also one of New York’s main sites for its bald eagle restoration project in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We are in discussions with The Nature Conservancy with respect to this parcel,” said Haley Viccaro, senior advisor for communications to Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Sheila Webb-Halpern, associate director of policy for strategic communications at the Nature Conservancy’s New York chapter, also said the organization was in discussion with the state. It is not clear when an announcement about the property’s future might be made, though Viccaro said they were in the early stages.
Potential deal pathways
There are a few ways a deal could happen, and some worry options could include closing Follensby Pond and several other water bodies to the public. Follensby Pond is a deep water lake with a native strain of heritage trout. After the state purchased Little Tupper Lake in 1998, bass somehow got into the lake. The bass outcompeted the native species. That incident is also one of the main reasons why John Hendrickson, widower of philanthropist Mary Lou Whitney and owner of approximately 36,000 acres in Long Lake, has said he does not want to sell his property to the state.
Bob Glennon, attorney and former executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency, said he does not think Follensby Pond will go to the forest preserve. He believes the state will pursue a conservation easement. In that case, the state and Nature Conservancy could work out an agreement regarding public access. If the state purchases it outright, it would have to be public lands added to the forest preserve, Glennon said.
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said there are a few statutes on the books the state could try to use to keep the public from forest preserve lands. Some of those exceptions include growing and cultivating trees. The statutes are unconstitutional, Gibson said, but have never been challenged in court.
“I’d be very surprised if DEC relied on any of those statutes,” Gibson said. “Getting them off the books is something I probably should have done in my career, one of many things left undone.”
He could see the DEC using a legal option called “reserved right” where the property wouldn’t be full forest preserve for a certain length of time. The DEC used that option in the Debar Wild Forest for the Adirondack great camp there. Most all buildings are not allowed on forest preserve, but the state had used the reserved right to keep Debar Lodge in private ownership for several years before the whole parcel reverted to forest preserve. Now, the future of that building is in question as historical preservationists wish it to be saved while most environmentalists believe the building should be removed.
“It’s always best to have an easement and private land, and that’s the cleanest,” Gibson said.
Questions about access
Peter Bauer also believed the state would pursue an easement that would keep the majority of the property, including Follensby Pond, closed to the public. The executive director of Protect the Adirondacks said an easement would allow management details to be “worked out in secret.” Even though public monies would be used to pay for the land, “the public has virtually no say over what happens on the property.”
Bauer said he has heard the Nature Conservancy is concerned about the future of the lake trout fishery. Bauer said it was ironic that The Nature Conservancy does “not have the confidence in the state to manage Follensby Pond if it were to be forest preserve,” considering it supported the state and its building of community connector snowmobile trails. Bauer’s organization recently won a legal battle in the state’s highest court against the DEC over the tree-cutting of certain snowmobiles trails in the park.
Neil Woodworth, former executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said he hopes the public will have a chance to visit Follensby Pond.
“Unless there was a clear, compelling biological or scientific reason (for closing it to the public), that’s a magnificent lake,” Woodworth said. “It would be really a very valuable thing for the public to enjoy.”
Woodworth said it is unusual, too, that the state and the Nature Conservancy haven’t worked out a deal over this long period. It has been 13 years since the conservancy purchased the tract.
What is also unclear is how much the property may now cost. In 2011, Rob Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, had told Adirondack Explorer that the property was appraised a few years prior at $20 million. The U.S. Forest Service had also awarded the state $2.5 million to help purchase Follensby, according to a news release in 2010. Fred Monroe, communications director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said that federal money was meant to improve the forest products industry.
“We questioned how buying land and putting it in the forever wild would help the forest products industry,” Monroe said. “Maybe they’re using a different source of money now. I don’t know.”
“We can’t tell Nature Conservancy, ‘no, you can’t sell it. It’s their property,” said Mike Kilroy, Harrietstown supervisor. “I would think that the town would like to have that open to the public.”
Bauer said towns cannot veto the state’s purchase of this land, either. It is one of about two dozen properties identified in the state’s Open Space Conservation Plan that it could purchase outright. Whitney Park is also on that list.
“We’ve always held out the hope and have envisioned an Adirondack Park where Follensby Pond was part of the forever wild forest preserve,” Bauer said. “It’s a stunningly beautiful place that we always believe the public, the people of the state of New York, should have a right to visit.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the “Philosopher’s Camp,” that Emerson and his colleagues gathered and shared similar views on philosophy, but transcendentalism didn’t originate during that campout at Follensby Pond.