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Enviros split on Adirondack land swap deal

Legislative Gazette
October 21, 2013

By KELLY FAY

On Nov. 5, voters will be asked to decide whether a privately owned company should be allowed to utilize up to 200 acres of the Adirondack Forest Preserve for mining. In exchange, land of equal or greater value — estimated to total more than 1,500 acres — would be added to the preserve. This would amend Article 14 of the state Constitution, which prohibits the sale, exchange or lease of land contained in the preserve.

The legislation (S.04688/A.07974), also known as proposition five, would allow NYCO Minerals — a company based in Essex County with roughly 100 employees — to extend its mining into the preserve onto a parcel of land called Lot 8. The bill has passed in the Assembly and Senate for two consecutive terms, and will now be turned over to voters to determine whether the company will be permitted to search and mine for wollastonite, a mineral used for asbestos replacement, plastics and paint.

"The land that would be acquired would connect the Jay Mountain Range with wonderful hiking trails and things that people are very excited about," said Senate sponsor Betty Little, R-Queensbury. "The land that would be mined on is really not recreational land and it's not used for anything. This would be a win-win for business, the environment and all people who enjoy the outdoors. It would help maintain the economy in a struggling area. In New York City, 100 jobs could be a coffee shop, but in the North Country that is a major employer and would impact about 100 families living there."

Assembly sponsor Robert Sweeney, D-Babylon, said the addition of 1,500 acres to the Adirondack Park would be a productive move for the preserve as well as the state's economy.

"There's nothing that makes the land particularly unique, but if this is approved the state could gain 1,500 acres of property, many of which do possess unique environmental features," Sweeney said. "This would be a gain of significant properties that would permanently enhance the preserve. There are roughly 100 jobs at stake — good jobs in an economically struggling area. There's a balance here that all-in-all I felt favored moving forward, because in the end, there's a significant permanent benefit."

According to the DEC, the 1,500-acre parcel of land that would be added to the preserve would have more than six miles of trout streams, many additional hiking trails, wetlands and a habitat for wildlife

including a rare species of mussel known as the Eastern pearlshell. NYCO has also promised to return Lot 8 to the state following the completion of the wollastonite mining.

The DEC also stated although the New York State Natural Heritage program determined Lot 8 was in good condition and maturing well, it had too few "very large and very old trees" and an insufficient amount of coarse woody debris to be considered an "old-growth" forest. Furthermore, it contains no trails, campsites, waterways or critical wildlife pathways.

But skeptics of the land exchange are concerned about the lack of specifications in the legislation and disagree with the assessment of the land. For instance, while the DEC gives specific plots outlined for the exchange, the exact parcels of land are not specified in the language of the bill. Instead, it outlines land of equal or greater value — but worth no less than $1 million — would be turned over to the state.

"There's no legislation passed and no contract about this 1,500 acres," said Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks Peter Bauer. "NYCO does not own 1,500 acres, and there's nothing that guarantees that this is coming into the forest preserve. It's false advertising for the DEC to claim that this is coming in when there's nothing to substantiate it other than a handshake and a nod and a wink."

Bauer also said 200 acres of "old-growth" forest, which has remained untouched for nearly 130 years, is not comparable to 1,500 acres of land used for logging and mining in the recent past. According to him, the 200 acres in question is "exactly what the preserve is all about" and to give Lot 8 to a mining company would be a damaging step in the wrong direction.

Daniel Plumley of Adirondack Wild agrees Lot 8 offers an invaluable habitat and is in fact enjoyed by humans.

"The land is hunted extensively by local hunters," Plumley said. "It's part of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area, and where it lies it provides some of the most significant wilderness recreational experiences. This site is a true wilderness with two large vernal pools that would be destroyed and intermittent wet lands that provide critical breeding habitats for amphibians and reptiles."

Plumley said Lot 8 is home to one of the largest and deepest vernal pools he has encountered in his 30 years in the Adirondack Park Preserve. The pool, which is roughly 90 feet long and 40 feet wide, fills with snowmelt during the spring and acts as a breeding area for several species. According to Plumley, it would be completely destroyed if NYCO were to mine on the land.

"We fundamentally oppose land swaps for private corporate gain," Plumley said. "But it's not just the ethical issue; these are very intact 'old growth' forests that are on a calcium rich soil that hasn't been disturbed in quite a long time. It also serves as a habitat to bears and white tail deer. We're principally opposed to proposition five and feel it would be a tremendously damaging precedent for the forest preserve."

However, other environmental groups say protecting and utilizing the additional acreage is more important because, although Lot 8 has been untouched since it was acquired by the state through a tax settlement in 1885, it was subject to logging prior to that. Furthermore, NYCO would be mining on just 50 acres of the 200 they would have access to.

"All parcels being dealt with have been logged to some degree at some time," said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. "All parcels have been forested and these are word games of 'how old is old.' The reality is that all of the trees involved in the transaction are second growth and have been logged at one time or another."

NYCO's Executive Director Mark Buckley said the company currently owns about 1,000 acres of the land they would exchange for Lot 8, and have options to purchase the remaining land from other owners.

Mining has taken place at various locations throughout the acreage that would be added to the preserve. According to Buckley, all sites would be reclaimed to the state's standards before the exchange, and Lot 8 would not be returned to the state until it meets the same criteria.

"The company would mine for eight to 10 years, and following that, take a few years for reclamation," Buckley said. "The state wouldn't take it back until assured that reclamation was complete, and they're required to keep it until they could prove that grass and trees would live. If they don't, they'll have to continue efforts to meet state standards."

NYCO currently runs two wollastonite mines near the land they hope to utilize. Their 70 Road mine is estimated to have five years of wollastonite reserves and would be extended onto the additional land. NYCO's Oak Hill mine site is estimated to have 20 years of reserves remaining. According to Buckley, the addition of a third mine would be instrumental in maintaining jobs for NYCO's 100 employees. Woodworth and other supporters of the legislation agree.

"Jobs at NYCO are some of the most valuable in Essex County," Woodworth said. "It's important to remember there's 1.1 million acres of land in the county of which the state owns 635,000 acres. Although it supports recreation — which is important — in ways it has taken away from economic development. Our board saw this as an equity issue because that is land where they can't mine and can't forest. Our group wants to continue to buy more land in the Adirondacks, and being fair to the workers at NYCO and taxpayers is one way to help ensure that local government won't stand in the way of that."

Supporters of the amendment said they are confident in NYCO's ability to rehabilitate the land once it has been mined. According to the DEC, "Reclamation would require NYCO to make Lot 8 become compatible with the surrounding forest and allow for access to the Jay Wilderness from the east."

Legislation known as the Mined Land Reclamation Law is also in place and requires the development of a "mined land-use plan" for each permitted site. This consists of a mining and reclamation plan with written and graphic description and requires reclamation is carried out in accordance with the plan.

However, Bauer is not convinced reclamation would be sufficient and is skeptical of the claim a new mining site is necessary in order to maintain a productive business.

"I remember in 1998 NYCO was looking for permits for a second mine and said there was only 3 years of Wollastonite available," Bauer said. "Now, here we are 15 years later and it's still producing. These open pit mines would clear-cut the forest, blow up bedrock, strip out earth and blast the land. If you look at reclaimed mine lands, if they get grass to grow, that's considered a success. What comes back to [the] preserve would be like comparing the moon to the Amazon rainforest."

Bauer is also concerned about opening up the opportunity for private businesses to purchase public land to use as they choose, saying it would set a new precedent that would be ruinous. In addition, he argues, if not having recreational use for a piece of land justifies lending it to commercial companies, then 95 percent of the preserve would be up for grabs.

"This would be a complete negative for the forest preserve," Bauer said. "It opens Pandora's Box to basically sell the forest preserve, and for whatever reason other groups are comfortable with playing 'let's make a deal' with the preserve. It comes down to whether you're comfortable selling it, and if you are, the only issue is getting a good price."

John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council does not see the potential for a "slippery slope" situation and said the amendment would not set a precedent because it focuses solely on the designated parcels of land. Furthermore, the state has made land exchanges in the past when it was beneficial to the public or forest management, yet it has not become the norm.

Examples include the 1959 decision to construct Interstate 87 to allow direct access to Montreal as well as a 1979 land exchange between the International Paper Company and the state.

"Each amendment has to be judged on its own merits," Sheehan said. "There have been well over 100 attempts to amend article 14, but very few ever make it through the Legislature because it's a difficult process and requires two consecutive approvals. It's difficult for a really controversial project to ever make it to the voters."

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