Environmentalists disagree on whether proposed swap is good for the Forest Preserve.
By Phil Brown
THE VIEW from Hardwood Hill is a bit disappointing. We were hoping for open ledges with a vista of the Jay Range, but when we got to the summit we found ourselves wading through ferns and zigzagging among trees.
Fortunately, we had come not only for the view. We wanted to talk to Mark Buckley, an environmental quality manager with NYCO Minerals, about a proposal to swap two hundred acres of public Forest Preserve for 1,500 acres of private lands in the vicinity of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area.
NYCO wants to mine the Forest Preserve parcel—known as Lot 8—for wollastonite, a mineral used in ceramics, plastics, rubber, and other products. Buckley says the land swap would enable NYCO to extend the life of its existent mine in Lewis for eight to ten years.
“If we don’t get Lot 8, we have to relocate the mine,” Buckley remarked as he guided Explorer Publisher Tom Woodman and me on a hike up Hardwood Hill, a 2,280-foot peak that likely would be among the properties given to the state in exchange for Lot 8.
Even without the swap, NYCO would not close its local operations at once. The current mine, which abuts Lot 8, still has a few years of life, and the company has the rights to wollastonite deposits at a nearby site known as Oak Hill. The Oak Hill mine could keep NYCO busy for another twenty years. However, Buckley said the wollastonite at Oak Hill is more expensive to extract, in part because of the large amount of bedrock sitting atop the ore. Also, relocating to the new site would cost several million dollars. The bottom line, he said, is that NYCO would be less competitive.
“The failure of the land exchange would create a great deal of uncertainty for the future of NYCO’s operations in the Adirondacks,” said John Brodt of Behan Communications, a public-relations firm that represents NYCO.
Given that NYCO is one of the Adirondack Park’s largest employers—with a hundred workers and an annual payroll of $6 million—the region’s politicians, including State Senator Betty Little, have lined up in favor of a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that would authorize the land swap.
Environmental groups, however, are split. The Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) have endorsed the measure, whereas Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild oppose it.
ADK and the council contend that the economy and the Forest Preserve would both come out ahead if the amendment passes. The critics say the amendment would set a bad precedent weakening Article 14, the section of the state constitution which declares that the Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.”
In terms of raw acreage, there’s no question that the Preserve would benefit. Under the proposal, NYCO would acquire two hundred acres of state land on Slip Mountain in the Jay Mountain Wilderness. NYCO has agreed to pay at least $1 million for the land and possibly more, depending on an appraisal of the parcel’s mineral value. That $1 million would buy far more land than the state would give up.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has identified six parcels, including Hardwood Hill, as candidates for acquisition. Together, they total 1,500 acres. Five of the sites, including two owned by NYCO, border the Jay Mountain Wilderness. The sixth, also owned by NYCO, borders the North Branch of the Boquet River.
“The one million dollars gets you all or most of those parcels,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a phone interview. If NYCO ends up paying the state more money, he added, “then we’d have to find more land.”
What’s more, NYCO would give Lot 8 back to the state after it closes the mine.
Apart from an increase in Forest Preserve acreage, there are other benefits to the land exchange, according to Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director. It would improve access to the Jay Mountain Wilderness and Hurricane Mountain Wilderness and open up to anglers stretches of three trout streams—Derby Brook, Spruce Brook, and the North Branch of the Boquet. In contrast, DEC officials describe Lot 8 as “plain vanilla woods” that see little use.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, objects to the “plain vanilla” characterization. He noted that Lot 8 has been part of the Preserve for more than a century. In contrast, he said, the lands the state would receive have been heavily logged.
“This is a sweet deal for NYCO, but it’s a raw deal for the Forest Preserve,” Bauer said. “We’re giving up old-growth forest for cut-over lands.”
However aged the forest may be, it doesn’t fit the definition of old growth, according to DEC. Under the state Environmental Conservation Law, an old-growth forest must have “an abundance of late successional tree species, at least one hundred eighty to two hundred years of age.” Rob Davies, director of DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, said most of the trees on Lot 8 are well under a century old. “It’s really in the first generation of trees,” he said.
NYCO expects to mine only about fifty of the two hundred acres of Lot 8. Afterward, it would be required to “reclaim” the land. Buckley said the company will fill in the pit with waste rock and soil and then plant saplings.
Bauer said the site will remain a scar on the landscape for decades. “This land will come back into the Forest Preserve looking nothing like the land that left the Forest Preserve,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest argument against the amendment is that it would open the door to other forms of exploitation of the Forest Preserve. David Gibson, one of the founders of Adirondack Wild, argues that Article 14 should not be amended unless there is a substantial benefit to the public. In this case, he said, the benefit is to a private company that wants to save money.
“They’re not out of minerals. They have twenty years of minerals at Oak Hill,” Gibson said. “And the public is being asked to allow them to mine in the Forest Preserve? It’s just a matter of expediency, and that doesn’t seem like a good reason to amend Article 14.”
“DEC has said this is about jobs,” Bauer said, “so anybody who says they want a part of the Forest Preserve for jobs or to make an investment in the Adirondacks, they would seem to meet DEC’s test.”
Joe Martens, the DEC chief, dismissed concerns that there will be a rush of similar proposals to exploit the Forest Preserve. He described NYCO’s situation as unusual in that the company is mining a vein of ore that extends onto adjacent state land. Furthermore, he said, getting a constitutional amendment adopted is not easy: it must be passed by two consecutive state legislatures and then approved by the public.
“Every constitutional amendment must stand on its own merits,” Martens said. “This one benefits both public and private interests. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
If the amendment passes, NYCO will drill for ore samples over the winter, Buckley said. Based on an analysis of the samples, the company will then prepare an estimate of the amount of ore and its value.
As to charges of expediency, Buckley prefers to think of the land swap as just good business. “Any mining company wants to mine the easiest ore to get at,” he said.
On Election Day, November 5, New Yorkers will vote on six proposals to amend the state constitution. Proposal 4 and Proposal 5 pertain to Article 14 and the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
Proposal 4: The proposed amendment to section 1 of article 14 of the Constitution would authorize the Legislature to settle longstanding disputes between the State and private entities over certain parcels of land within the forest preserve in the town of Long Lake, Hamilton County. In exchange for giving up its claim to disputed parcels, the State would get land to be incorporated into the forest preserve that would benefit the forest preserve more than the disputed parcels currently do. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?
Proposal 5: The proposed amendment to section 1 of article 14 of the Constitution would authorize the Legislature to convey forest preserve land located in the town of Lewis, Essex County, to NYCO Minerals, a private company that plans on mining the land. In exchange, the NYCO Minerals would give the State at least the same amount of land of at least the same value, with a minimum assessed value of $1 million, to be added to the forest preserve. When NYCO Minerals finishes mining, it would restore the condition of the land and return it to the forest preserve. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?