By Phil Brown
The list of Adirondack lands protected over the past two decades is long and impressive, but one choice property coveted by conservationists remains wholly in private ownership, its future uncertain: Whitney Park.
Situated in the central Adirondacks, this 36,000-acre estate boasts more than 20 lakes and ponds, including Little Forked Lake, and has enormous environmental value and recreational potential.
“The Whitney tract is the last major tract of ecologically sensitive, biologically important and recreationally important lands in the Adirondacks,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks.
The death in July of Marylou Whitney, the 93-year-old family matriarch, has brought to the fore questions about what’s next. Will the family keep the land as it is? Will it be subdivided and developed? Will it be protected by conservation easements that prohibit development but allow logging? Will it be sold to the state to become part of the forever-wild forest preserve?
Bauer said this poses a test for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who sees himself as an Adirondack champion. “Clearly we hope the state of New York reaches out to the Whitney family,” he said. “This is a major moment in the history of the Adirondacks.”
Not surprisingly, environmentalists would like to see all or most of the land added to the forest preserve. Long Lake Supervisor Clark Seaman disagrees. “I would hope the family would continue to own the land because it provides jobs for local people,” Seaman said. “If it transfers to the state, those jobs disappear.”
Last December, Marylou Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson, told the Explorer that the family had no plans to sell the land to the state or anybody else. “We don’t foresee this being for sale in the near future,” he said. Besides her husband, Whitney is survived by five children from two previous marriages. The Explorer could not learn who will inherit the land.
The Whitneys have been a presence in Long Lake for more than a century. William C. Whitney began buying up land in the region in the late 1800s. By 1941, the family had acquired 96,000 acres, according to the late historian Barbara McMartin. In the ensuing years, the Whitneys sold off several parcels, substantially reducing their holdings.
Whitney Park has employed scores of local residents over the years to log the land, maintain its road network, and take care of its vacation houses and other buildings. Marylou Whitney was known as a philanthropist, giving money to Long Lake’s medical center and public library, among other causes. “They were very community-oriented and supportive of the town,” Seaman said.
In the late 1990s, the Whitneys alarmed conservationists when they hatched a plan to build a hotel and 40 vacation homes on or near Little Tupper Lake. The homes, modeled on the “great camps” of the past, were to be built on parcels of about 300 acres each. Gov. George Pataki stepped in and reached a deal for the state to acquire Little Tupper and surrounding lands—in all, 14,717 acres—for $17.1 million.
The Whitneys are free to develop their remaining 36,000 acres, but there are some restrictions. More than half of the tract—about 19,000 acres—has been enrolled since the early 1960s in a state program that gives tax breaks to timberland owners. The Whitneys would have to quit the program before they could develop these acres.
The Whitneys also would need a permit from the Adirondack Park Agency for any subdivision and development. What’s more, a permit issued in 1992 stipulates that the APA can require the Whitneys to develop a master plan for the whole property before undertaking new development. (That permit authorized the family to sell two parcels on which could be built a total of seven houses.)
The APA has designated the Whitney land “resource management,” the most restrictive of the agency’s six private-land classifications. The Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan allows one house for every 42.7 acres of RM land. In theory, this means the Whitneys could build about 840 houses. However, the agency takes other factors into account when determining the appropriate building density, such as topography, wetlands, and the types of soils. It’s unlikely the APA would approve a development with so many houses.
If the Whitneys were to propose 300-acre estates, as they did at Little Tupper Lake, that could still lead to the construction of 120 houses, along with roads, driveways and outbuildings—fragmenting a largely intact forest that lies between the William C. Whitney Wilderness (created after the acquisition of Little Tupper) and the Sargent Ponds Wild Forest.
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, asserts that fragmentation of the tract would create “a hole in the middle of the Adirondack Park.” He credits the Whitneys for preserving their land for over a century, but he said it’s now up to state officials and others to work with the family to ensure that it continues to be protected.
“It clearly has environmental and recreational value, and in the war against climate change it has the potential to grow lots of trees and sequester lots of carbon,” he said.
Janeway said the land could be protected by easements or just by an agreement with the owner, but he’d like to see at least some of it added to the forest preserve.
The Whitney tract could be a paddler’s and backpacker’s paradise. Among its bigger waterways are Slim Pond, a 10-mile-long finger of water that empties into Big Brook; Salmon Lake, whose outlet flows through the Whitney Wilderness; and Little Forked Lake, which is linked to Forked Lake, where the state runs a campground. The tract’s highest peak, 2,520-foot Salmon Lake Mountain, has a fire tower.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said 19th-century paddlers often followed canoe routes through the region and paddlers could do so again if the state purchased the tract. In fact, the property has so many waterways that Woodworth said it could become the Adirondack Park’s second canoe area if it were not added to the William C. Whitney Wilderness.
“We would like to see either the whole of Whitney Park or a significant part of it go into the forest preserve,” he said.
Gerald Delaney, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, said he has yet to discuss Whitney Park with other elected officials. “We are aware that it’s on the environmentalists’ wish list and that it’s the last big purchase,” he said. But Delaney would likely oppose any state acquisition in the wake of a recent court decision that calls into question the legality of tree clearing for snowmobile trails in the forest preserve, he said. “If the court ruling stays, it’s a big impact. This is not the time to be buying more forest preserve.”
Under the state’s 1993 Environmental Protection Fund Act, local towns can veto state purchases of land in the Adirondacks. However, Whitney Park is exempt from the veto because it was listed as a desirable property in the state Open Space Conservation Plan before the law was passed. Nevertheless, if the Whitneys offer the land for sale, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it will work with local officials and others to try to fashion a deal that everyone can live with.
If the state were to buy all of Whitney Park, the price undoubtedly would run into tens of millions of dollars. Prices of big land deals vary, depending on the amount of acreage and waterfront property, among other factors. It’s worth noting, though, that the Whitneys received $1,162 an acre in the Little Tupper deal two decades ago. In more recent deals, the state paid the Adirondack Nature Conservancy roughly $700 an acre for the Essex Chain Lakes and Boreas Ponds tracts. If the state paid the same per acre for Whitney Park, the price would top $25 million. If the family received as much as it did for the Little Tupper tract, the price would approach $42 million.
The state could save money by purchasing only part of the tract outright and purchasing conservation easements on the rest. Even if the Whitneys do a deal, they may want to keep their camps and adjacent property for their own use.
“Hopefully everyone can work together and continue protection of this incredible property in the heart of the Park,” Janeway said.