In the News  Archive

Between rock, wild place

Times Union
September 30, 2013

Miners have been drilling, blasting and digging up wollastonite at NYCO Mineral Inc.'s mine here for more than 50 years.

But the enormous open pits that yield the white, marble-textured mineral are now butting up against the boundary line between privately owned NYCO lands and the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which is protected from development.

In November, voters statewide will decide if the boundary line can be expanded by 200 acres to allow the Essex County mine to continue extracting wollastonite, used as a plastic hardener and asbestos substitute, among other things.

If the expansion wins, NYCO will hand over about 1,500 acres to the state for inclusion in the Forest Preserve, which is protected under a 19th-century law that requires the land to stay "forever wild."

The swap is one of six constitutional amendments to be considered in November.

Because the 2.5-million-acre Forest Preserve is protected from development in the state constitution, any changes have to be approved by two separately elected legislatures, and then by statewide referendum.

Over the past 20 years, four similar Adirondack referendums have come before voters and have been approved with little fanfare. New Yorkers have said yes to expansions or construction of cemeteries and airports, water systems and power lines.

But this year is different.

For one thing, the NYCO plan — which will be constitutional amendment Proposal Five on the ballot — does not have unanimous support from environmental organizations.

And the referendum will share the ballot with one of the most sweeping questions to come along in years: whether to allow the expansion of casino gambling in New York.

The November vote will likely generate strong voter turnout downstate due to the New York City race for mayor and a tight Long Island race for Nassau County supervisor. But it's unclear how many voters who live some five hours' drive from the northern Adirondacks even know about the Forest Preserve.

Proposal Five has also drawn organized labor into the fray: The United Steel Workers, which represents NYCO miners, and the AFL-CIO are pushing for the amendment's approval.

"This is something that's being done to preserve jobs," said Teresa Sayward, a former Republican state assemblywoman who is volunteering to promote the measure's approval, and who joined reporters on a recent tour of the mine.

The swap, if approved, will secure NYCO's immediate future, helping to preserve about 100 jobs in a region plagued by high unemployment, she said.

Along with the Barton garnet operation near North Creek, Sayward said, NCYO is the last operational mine in the Forest Preserve, which in years past yielded minerals such as iron, pyrite and titanium.

NYCO's site is an open pit mine — a hole in the earth that's about 150 feet deep and 1,200 feet, or four football fields, across.

Miners use explosives to loosen rock covering the wollastonite, which is then hauled away in giant trucks to a nearby processing plant.

The mine opened in 1953 and it pioneered the use of wollastonite as an industrial mineral.

Over the last 30 years it has yielded 6 million tons of ore, said Mark Buckley, NYCO's safety and environmental manager. But it's starting to run out. To ensure roughly eight years of continued activity, the company wants to go beyond the Forest Preserve boundary to tap the proposed 200-acre tract, where NYCO expects to find another 1 million tons of wollastonite

NYCO is offering to trade about 1,500 acres in six separate tracts.

Part of the land that would be traded is the Derby Brook parcel, which contains a trout stream and abundant deer and turkey, according to literature promoting the swap. There is also the Arnold Mountain area that includes a trail that provides access to spots in the northern section of the Jay Mountain Wilderness area.

After its operations end, the company's legally required restoration efforts will include filling in the massive pit and planting seedlings. The land would also go back to the state.

Two well-known environmental groups have come out in favor of the proposal, citing the economic benefits as well as the fact that the state will gain much more land than it gives up.

"In 100 years, (the mine) will look like the rest of the forest preserve," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

A trade, Woodworth said, would provide more hiking access to the nearby Jay Range, which includes a scenic mountain ridge.

The Adirondack Council has also been supportive as the referendum has worked its way through the Legislature. Executive Director Willie Janeway said the plan recognizes the needs to protect the Forest Preserve and to maintain the area's economy.

Lining up against the proposal is Protect the Adirondacks, whose executive director, Peter Bauer, believes that the trade would set a bad precedent by benefiting a private, commercial enterprise. Past swaps have been for broader community uses, with the land employed for purposes such as cemeteries or power lines.

He also said that NYCO has other wollastonite deposits in land outside the Adirondack boundary. "They don't need the Forest Preserve," Bauer said.

"I don't believe they made the case," said Dan Plumley, a partner in another group opposed to the plan, Adirondack Wild.

One thing that both sides agree on is the central role that the gambling proposal will play in this vote — Plumley calls it the "big gorilla."

But no one is sure just how the casino vote will impact the NYCO request. Will those who say yes to gambling tend to vote in the affirmative for the other proposals as well? Or will suspicion of the casino plan spark a similar run of no votes?

Another possibility is that voters will ignore referendums with which they are unfamiliar.

Voters over the years have alternately approved and shot down proposals regarding the Forest Preserve. In 1932, New Yorkers said no to a plan promoted by powerful state developer Robert Moses to allow construction of tourist cabins throughout the park. A similar idea died in the 1950s.

A series of dams proposed in the 1950s for the south branch of the Moose River also was defeated.

But voters have approved construction of the Whiteface Mountain highway and ski area, and clearing the way for I-87, the Adirondack Northway, to cut through the region.

The NYCO swap isn't the only Adirondack proposal on the ballot.

In Proposal Four, voters will be asked to approve or reject a series of relatively minor swaps between about 180 private landowners and the state around Raquette Lake in an area known as Township 40. Those swaps would clear up titles to parcels of land that have been in legal limbo for decades because of erroneous filings.

The confusion stemmed from 19th-century clerical errors that mistakenly listed some residents as being delinquent on their property taxes.

Homeowners such as Carolyn Gerdin, whose father purchased land and a summer home on the lake in 1949, say the amendment will allow them to have clear title, which they lack through no fault of their own.

No one has emerged publicly to oppose these swaps, which involve just over 1,000 acres in total.

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