By Philip Terrie
Last December Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation committing New York to conserving 30% of its land and water surface by the year 2030. Known as “30×30,” such an achievement would protect biodiversity, wildlife habitats and clean water and would significantly contribute to our state’s efforts to limit climate change. At the time, roughly 20% of New York’s surface was protected in some fashion: municipal, county, and state parks; state forests; conservation easements; and, most important, the 2.9 million acres of the state forest preserve, 2.6 million acres of which are in the Adirondacks, 300,000 in the Catskills.
The forest preserve, rigorously guarded by the provision of the state constitution, which provides it be “forever kept as wild forest lands” and that logging and removing timber for any reason are prohibited, is the most secure of all these acres (and indeed is among the best-protected public lands on the planet). The goal of reaching 30% is ambitious but essential, and the key to success is more protected land in the Adirondacks, especially through an aggressive campaign to enlarge the preserve.
When the Legislature created the forest preserve in 1885, the state owned between 700,000 and 800,000 acres; vague compass-run boundaries, often difficult to locate, inevitably meant uncertainty, a problem that has diminished over time but still keeps lawyers busy. The story of the preserve is one of growth and consolidation. New York has been a leader in conservation since the 1880s, and the 30×30 goal extends its commitment to maintaining that status.
How has the state acquired these thousands upon thousands of acres of peaks, forests, and water? For the first few decades it was mostly accomplished after logging companies stripped the merchantable timber and then opted not to pay taxes. After a few years, ownership of these abandoned lands passed to the state. Over roughly the last century, the preserve has also grown through purchase, as the state has dedicated millions of dollars to enlarging and consolidating its lands. From the start, the state has paid taxes to local government and school districts. The tax payments—on lands that do not need snow plows or school buses—constitute a reliable, stable income stream for Adirondack towns.
Many additions to the preserve in the last half century have been spectacular. One of the first was Newcomb’s 12,500-acre Santanoni Preserve in 1972, where the mechanics of moving this historic tract from private hands to the state was critically greased by the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. While the acquisition apparatus for the state was cumbersome and time-consuming, the conservancy could move relatively quickly, secure title and then hold on while the state satisfied all sorts of regulatory red tape. Five years later, the state negotiated the purchase of 9,300 acres, including the summits of 11 of the 46 High Peaks, from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. A year after that, it secured over 15,000 acres in the Nehasane Tract, including the stunning Lake Lila.
This article appeared in the current issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
Start your subscription today!
In 1997, Gov. George Pataki’s administration negotiated the purchase of the 14,500-acre Little Tupper Lake from Whitney Industries. Pataki styled himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and he oversaw vital open-space protection projects around the state, finishing his tenure with around a million acres of newly guarded land, through both outright acquisition and conservation easements. About two thirds of these were in the Adirondacks, including 29,000 acres along the Grasse and St. Regis rivers.
This was followed by the dramatic maneuvering around 161,000 acres owned by Finch, Pruyn of Glens Falls leading to the addition of about 65,000 acres, including the Essex Chain of Lakes between Newcomb and Indian Lake and the unparalleled wonders of Boreas Ponds, to the constitutionally protected forest preserve. Nearly all the remaining Finch lands were protected by conservation easements.
On every conservationist’s wish list for future acquisition are the 36,000 acres of Whitney Park in Long Lake, the 14,000 acres around the historic Follensby Pond (currently owned by the conservancy), and critical wetlands around Massawepie Mire, among others. The recreational opportunities on all these parcels are obvious, but what are the other reasons for enlarging the preserve?
As our world rushes into the unpredictable and probably chaotic climate future, one thing is certain: forests capture and hold carbon. They remove carbon from the atmosphere every summer, and they sequester much of it thereafter, both in the trees themselves and in the soil. The capacity of forests to grab and hold carbon is a fundamental element of all international climate planning. Hochul’s 30×30 initiative and the goals spelled out in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act depend on protecting the forests we now have and adding to our total of forested acres.
The best way to make sure forests are doing their job is to add them to the public domain. Our forest preserve has been a spiritual and recreational treasure for nearly a century and a half. It has protected our rivers and has been home to myriad forms of wildlife. It has soothed the souls of countless hikers and paddlers. These contributions to New York’s welfare will continue and expand, while a growing forest preserve also plays a vital role in the world-wide struggle to avoid climate catastrophe.