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Land purchase: Q&A with The Nature Conservancy's Mike Carr

August 8, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Mike Carr, executive director of The Nature Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter, is the architect of the Finch, Pruyn and Co. land deals.

In June 2007, when Finch, Pruyn was ready to sell its timberland, the Conservancy followed Carr's lead and bought the paper company's 161,000 acres in the Adirondacks for $110 million. In 2009, the Conservancy sold 92,000 of those acres to ATP Timberland Invest, a Danish pension fund, for $32.8 million, with conservation easements to prevent development. At the end of 2010, the Conservancy sold the conservation rights on all but 3,000 acres of that acreage to the state for $30 million.

This January, the Conservancy sold the town of Newcomb 348 acres for $256,591 for school use, public recreation and private development along Route 28N.

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The Conservancy wanted to sell the remaining 69,000 acres to the state, but the latter couldn't work out the finances until recently. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Bill Ulfelder, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York, signed a contract by which the state will buy the land in phases over five years for a total of $49.8 million.

Carr and spokeswoman Connie Prickett, who both work at the Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter office in Keene Valley, talked to the Enterprise over the phone Tuesday about the details of the deal.


ADIRONDACK DAILY ENTERPRISE: Could you talk about the first phase of the purchase? That's 18,000 acres on the Essex Chain of Lakes.

CARR: It's the core of the ownership south of Newcomb, spectacular connected ponds and really beautiful shoreline on the Hudson River, south of Newcomb, and the Cedar River as it comes east/west into the Hudson, above the junction of the Indian River and the Hudson. So there's three sections of really beautiful river, but the core tract is to the north and includes the ponds, the Hudson and the Cedar. There is existing Forest Preserve now on the Hudson River, but this will be better access to the Hudson, I think is the best way to say it.


ADE: If this is completed in the fall, when do you think it would be open to the public? Are there leases still on the property?

CARR: Yes, we have extended to all of our clubs the right to continue to lease until 2018. Sections of the Essex Chain tract will be open to the public if we close in the next two to three months.


ADE: Would the open areas include a section through the ponds?

CARR: The ponds won't be open. The lease terms run Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 across our entire ownership. And they will be leased exclusively. The ponds will leased during that lease period until Oct. 1, 2013.

PRICKETT: There will be exclusive leasing for another year, and then there will be a period of shared public use. So the lease holders will have access to their cabins, and the public will also be allowed on the land. All of that will be over with in 2018, and everyone will have full access in 2018. There are some unleased portions of that tract (on the Hudson River) that will be immediately available for public access. Really, I think the best thing we can tell you at this point is that specific details of what places and how to access them - that information will become available when the state makes that purchase.


ADE: Will OK Slip Falls or any other lands be open to the public?

CARR: There won't be any open to the public until the state actually buys it. It's still unclear what they'll have funding for in this first phase. ... In fact, the OK Slip tract in the Hudson River Gorge is leased privately now by one of our clubs called Northern Frontier Brigade Camp, and they have exclusive use of that, and I don't think it's likely (the state) will have funding to buy that tract in this first phase.


ADE: Do you know what order the lands will be purchased in the future phases of this deal?

CARR: The concepts have been nailed down, but it's all dependent on available funding and there's room within the contract to move tracts in as money becomes available. We tried to provide flexibility to the state because their funding picture is uncertain. It changes as Environmental Protection Fund monies become available. If they happen to have more money next fiscal year, they may want to bring additional tracts in.


ADE: Tell me what you've done in terms of biological inventories of these properties. What are some of the resources that really need to be protected?

CARR: We did extensive biological inventories over the 161,000-acre ownership after closing, with the help of the New York State Heritage program led by Michelle Brown here in our office. She's our chief conservation scientist. So two field seasons, she led teams across the ownership to identify important areas, wetlands system and rarities, and led the mapping and uploaded it into the conservation team's disposition planning work. It was really an eloquent effort scientifically, and we have tremendous data sets about where the really important areas are across the ownership. (We have some) interesting data on habitat for species like moose, bobcat and black bears, some aquatic information about the fisheries, including brook trout fisheries and landlocked salmon.


ADE: Tell me about the Conservancy fundraising efforts? Could you describe that process and how much you had to raise?

CARR: We had to raise $35 million in order to be able to hold this property for the state, and we were successful. We closed the campaign successfully in December of last year and went over goal. It was really astonishing how generous people were and how excited they were about the conservation legacy implications here.


ADE: Did you receive a lot of backing from the national organization financially? How did that work.

CARR: We did. We borrowed the initial $110 million through our world office in Arlington from our internal land protection fund, and the Open Space Institute loaned us $25 million, which we've repaid.


ADE: In the last transaction, you had with the state, the Lyon Mountain purchase, there were questions about The Nature Conservancy making money off the deal. You were cleared by the state, but in terms of this deal, how did that work out? Did you make a profit?

CARR: There's a whole series of transactions relating to this project, but at the end of the day, The Nature Conservancy, it's going to cost us $35 million to do this. That's our investment here. That's what we're leaving in the transaction as a gift to the people of New York state and the people of the world.


ADE: Can you explain that, why it would cost you $35 million? Where that money went to?

CARR: Those sorts of cost relate to interest costs on borrowing $110 million over nine years now before we're done, paying property taxes on 161,000 acres, you know, management cost for staff on the ground to manage our lease program and our timber harvest operation.


ADE: Throughout this process, there's been some critics of the deal, saying that there would be a loss of timberland and also logging industry jobs. What do you say to address those concerns?

CARR: We really did try to create some balance here. The plan called for the majority of the ownership to stay in private hands, the hands of ATP (a Danish pension fund). We sold 94,000 acres to them and sold an easement to New York state that allows for continued timber harvesting and the jobs associated with that, but frankly the economic sector in the Adirondacks, the tourism recreation sector is a far larger part of the Adirondack economy. And these lands, the lands that are going into the Forest Preserve, will support that piece. So we tried to support the piece between the working forest land - 94,000 acres - and the balance here in recreational tourism - and really identified the most special lands from a recreational perspective, like iconic places like the Boreas Ponds ... the Essex Chain of Lakes, miles of the Hudson, Cedar and Indian rivers, OK Slip Falls, Blue Ledges in the Hudson Gorge. These are places that people will come from around the world to visit, in addition to their special ecological attributes.


ADE: Another property you own is the Follensby Pond tract. State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said that the state is still not close to buying Follensby Pond and they can't for at least another five years. Do you have the means to continue to hold onto this land?

CARR: We do. We're paying taxes there. We have Follensby Park leased as the McCormick family did, the previous owners, primarily for hunting clubs, which is helping us with the carrying costs associated with that property. We have a caretaker there on site who worked for the McCormick family. We do think we'll be able to carry that property for the duration.


ADE: A lot of people have said this deal is historic and there hasn't been one this big in more than 100 years. Where do you think it stands historically?

CARR: I think the significance of this acquisition by the governor - he made the point very eloquently in the press conference on Sunday - that this is a moment when we're investing in the asset that is the Adirondack Park, and all of us Adirondackers should be very grateful to the governor for that. What he's saying is that New York state has a 100-plus-year conservation legacy that is known around the world, and these lands are contiguous to so much existing Forest Preserve and connect and join and create large, unspoiled places for species like moose and bobcat and people to find renewal. The governor made a very powerful point about the next generation of New Yorkers and people from around the world, having people come to know a Park even more beautiful than the Park we currently know and live in and love. And that, to me, really resonated as what's happening here historically because of the governor's vision, frankly. It's a 100-plus-year vision, and it's a great honor to be part of it.


ADE: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

CARR: I'm looking forward to the days as people begin to discover these places and tell their own stories of place. ... As people come away from these lands and start to tell their stories, and business owners build their businesses around protecting a permanently protected resource, and we see this tourism recreation economy build in these economies - that, for me, will be a very powerful and exciting day, and I think that day is fast approaching, based on what the governor did on Sunday.



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