After years of anticipation, DEC signs deal to acquire former Finch, Pruyn lands over the next five years.
By Phil Brown
After five years of anticipation, the deal is signed: over the next five years, New York State will purchase sixty-five thousand acres of former Finch, Pruyn & Company lands from the Nature Conservancy.
It is the largest acquisition for the Forest Preserve since the state agreed to buy 74,600 acres from William Seward Webb in 1895. But environmentalists are impressed not so much with the size of the land deal as with its ecological and recreational benefits.
Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, said the parcels to be added to the state Forest Preserve, in conjunction with adjacent protected lands, will protect large swaths of habitat, including much of the Hudson River watershed, and provide a refuge for plants and animals in the face of climate change.
“Adaptability is a key component for the survival of species, including brook trout and moose, and large, connected blocks of protected habitats allow species to find refuge—especially across elevational gradients,” Carr said.
The lands encompass 180 miles of rivers and streams, 175 lakes and ponds, and six peaks above two thousand feet. Natural gems sure to become destinations of hikers and paddlers include: the Essex Chain of Lakes, OK Slip Falls, stretches of the Hudson and Opalescent rivers, Boreas Ponds and nearby Boreas Mountain, and the eastern slopes of Santanoni Peak. For rock climbers, there are the huge cliffs of Sugarloaf Mountain west of Indian Lake.
But don’t start packing your gear yet. Although the state plans to buy the first parcels this year, even these lands will not be open to the public right away.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the agreement in Lake Placid in early August. In all, the state will purchase sixty-nine thousand acres for $49.8 million. (The deal includes two non-Finch parcels, totaling four thousand acres.)
The Nature Conservancy bought all 161,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn’s lands in 2007 for $110 million. The conservancy later sold ninety-two thousand acres to the Danish pension fund ATP for $33 million. In 2010, the state paid $30 million for conservation easements on the ATP lands that prohibit development and allow some public access. The state always planned to buy a substantial amount of land for the Forest Preserve as well, but it had not entered into a contract.
“Until we had a signed agreement, all we had was an intention, a willingness,” remarked Joe Martens, head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which manages the Forest Preserve.
Cuomo put to rest any doubts about the state’s intentions. Some political leaders in the Adirondack Park had been lobbying the state to protect the land with conservation easements rather than add it to the Forest Preserve. This option would have allowed logging to continue and hunting clubs to remain as leaseholders.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, argued that the loss of forestry jobs and income from the hunting clubs will hurt the local economy. “I’m saddened, disturbed, and angry about it,” he said after Cuomo’s announcement.
But Martens contended that disposition of the Finch, Pruyn lands struck the right balance between conservation easements, which allow logging to continue, and forever-wild Forest Preserve. The lands to be added to the Preserve, he said, will attract paddlers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts, giving a boost to the economy.
“We looked at the project as a whole, and these parcels have high recreational value,” Martens said in an interview with the Adirondack Explorer.
The state plans to buy two parcels this fall for $13 million, the 18,318-acre Essex Chain Tract and the 944-acre Outer Gooley Tract. Because the lands are leased by the private Gooley Club, they will not be open to the public for another year or so—with the possible exception of a canoe takeout on the Hudson River.
The takeout will make it possible for paddlers to put in at Newcomb and travel downriver for twelve miles, exiting just before the Indian River confluence. This stretch of the Hudson contains flat water and only mild rapids. At present, lacking this takeout, paddlers must continue through the dangerous rapids of the Hudson Gorge to reach a legal exit point, a trip suitable only for whitewater experts.
DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said it’s possible that the new takeout will be available late this year or early next year. However, the department has no immediate plans to open the dirt road leading to the takeout. For the time being, at least, paddlers will have to carry a mile or so to the nearest public road.
The Essex Chain of Lakes Tract promises great paddling as well. The Essex Chain comprises eight ponds, most of which are connected by navigable waterways. In addition, paddlers could carry to several nearby ponds. It also contains a stretch of the Cedar River that may entice whitewater paddlers.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, would like to see the state designate this region the Essex Chain Canoe Area and allow paddlers to drive on existing dirt roads to reach the chain (as well as the Hudson River takeout). Currently there is only one Forest Preserve tract in the Park managed primarily for paddling, the St. Regis Canoe Area.
Woodworth also is excited about the paddling opportunities on the Boreas Ponds, three linked waterways with impressive views of the High Peaks. Not only could paddlers camp on the ponds, he said, but if new trails are constructed they also could climb nearby Boreas Mountain or hike to an existing trail that leads to Panther Gorge in the High Peaks Wilderness.
Woodworth said the future Forest Preserve tracts “contain the most valuable lands for mountaineering, hiking, canoeing and kayaking, and skiing opportunities that have been acquired in the last thirty years.”
Other lands of interest to outdoor enthusiasts include:
OK Slip Falls. One of the highest waterfalls in the Adirondacks, this cascade will be a destination for hikers, cross-country skiers, and ice climbers.
Sugarloaf Mountain. Located west of Indian Lake, Sugarloaf’s large cliffs are certain to beckon rock climbers. “It’s very exciting, since it’s not every day that climbers gain new, major cliffs,” said Jim Lawyer, co-author of the guidebook Adirondack Rock.
Upper Hudson and Opalescent Rivers. Paddlers will have much-improved access to the Hudson north of Newcomb. In addition, the lower stretch of the Opalescent, a tributary, also will become public.
High Peaks approaches. Hikers will have access to a direct route up Santanoni Peak, via a slide on its east flank, and will be able to camp on the way to Allen Mountain, the most remote of the High Peaks (a nineteen-mile round trip).
The acquisitions also will allow the state to create snowmobile trails connecting a number of Adirondack communities.
DEC could not say in what order the lands will be acquired. That will depend in part on the amount of money in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
Most of the lands are leased by hunting clubs. The Nature Conservancy agreed to extend their leases through September 2018. As the state acquires the lands, however, the leases will be modified so the clubs have exclusive use only to their cabins. The public will have access to the surrounding property. Eventually, the cabins will be removed. All of the clubs were offered the chance to relocate to adjacent easement lands.
After buying Finch, Pruyn’s 161,000 acres, the conservancy reached out to local communities and gained their approval for the disposition of the land. Nevertheless, some politicians, including Monroe and Brian Towers, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, opposed adding so much of the land to the Forest Preserve. Although he lost this battle, Monroe is prepared for another—this one over the classification of the new Forest Preserve lands.
The main issue is whether dirt roads leading to the interior of the tracts should be kept open to motor vehicles. A Wilderness (or Canoe) designation would prohibit motorized use. A Wild Forest designation would allow the roads to stay open.
Monroe argues that most of the land should be classified as Wild Forest to allow hunters, anglers, and others to drive into the interior. “It’s important to the economy,” he said. “Sportsmen need access. It’s also a question of fundamental fairness. The land should be shared.”
Environmentalists want most of the land classified Wilderness or Canoe. In fact, the Adirondack Council proposed in the 1990 that the state someday establish a 72,500-acre Wild Rivers Wilderness Area that would include the Essex Chain of Lakes and the Hudson Gorge. With the new acquisitions, the state will own nearly all of the proposed Wilderness Area.
A motor-less designation, however, could result in long carries for canoeists and kayakers. Judging by maps, paddlers would need to portage three miles to reach the Essex Chain and more than four miles to reach Boreas Ponds. Woodworth suggests that certain roads be classified Primitive, a designation that would allow them to stay open even if the surrounding land is Wilderness or Canoe.
Martens expects that the more remote lands will be classified Wilderness, though it’s too soon to say which ones. He said the department will listen to all sides before making any recommendations. The Adirondack Park Agency makes the final decisions on Forest Preserve classifications.
The Nature Conservancy still owns another prime parcel that the state intends to add to the Preserve: Follensby Pond. The conservancy bought the three-mile-long lake and surrounding lands—some 14,600-acres, in all—from the McCormick family for $16 million in 2008. Martens said the state won’t acquire Follensby until the Finch transaction is completed. ■