Compromise is essential in American government; it's built right into our system. And compromise was essential to bringing about a deal, signed Sunday after five years of negotiation, for the state to buy 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberland from The Nature Conservancy between now and 2017.
The key to the compromise, as we see it, is its five-year phasing, which is flexible and dependent on how much money is made available each year in the Environmental Protection Fund. Therefore, it's dependent on the annual budgeting process in the Capitol. And this is an election year, which means there will be some new state legislators in March's budget workshops - plus, of course, very different lawmakers (and possibly governor) doing budgets five years from now.
"There is no guarantee, just like there is no guarantee with virtually any state project," Joe Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told Enterprise Outdoors Writer Mike Lynch Monday. "It depends on annual budget appropriations. If the money's not there, we can't buy it. We're anticipating and hoping ... that the state's economy will continue to improve, that the EPF land acquisition funds will remain intact, and obviously the administration is committing to acquire the lands over five years, so that's our expectation.
"If the funds aren't there, then it could have to be halted or delayed. We could go back and try to renegotiate the contract with TNC, but we're not anticipating that this will be the case."
This pay-as-you-go uncertainty is what makes this deal more palatable to people like us, who have warned in recent years that this is not the best way to spend the state's tax revenue. We recognize the upsides of it, too (more on that below), but chief among the concerns was the inevitable question, "How can New York afford this, especially now, when the land is in no immediate danger of being turned into condos?"
The phasing addresses that fairly. The state will buy what it can afford each year, based on what's available in its already existing fund set aside for that purpose. Knowing that there's no guarantee, the DEC will probably try to buy the most gleaming gems first - those parcels seen as most attractive to outdoor recreationists and to businesses that make their living off that kind of tourism. That's as it should be. Whatever's left will be on a waiting list. In a tight year, the state Legislature and governor would be fully within their rights to put that year's land purchases on hold, where they would stand in line until the state can afford them.
After all those are bought, the state would consider Follensby Pond. The Conservancy, which also owns that property near Tupper Lake, has said it can wait.
Essentially, what we have here is a prioritized, public wish list. As with a child's Christmas list, our reaction is to tell the state, "Keep in mind that you may not get all this stuff." Nevertheless, it's good to have such long-range planning, and to have it be transparent.
What's still missing from this list, however, is absolutely crucial - an endgame. How much Adirondack land is enough for the state to own? Already, almost half of the Park's 6 million or so acres is Forest Preserve, not including these newly planned acquisitions. The state has not said when it might stop growing the Preserve.
Until it does, we have a case of open-ended mission creep: wanting one piece at a time, then another, then another. Again, it's like Christmas in that one year's desires are replaced by the next year's, but there's a crucial difference here: Old, unused toys go to yard sales, but Forest Preserve is with us forever.
Pros and cons of the big state land deal
Here are what we see as the pros and cons of the state buying these 69,000 acres. We think the cons outweigh the pros, but we're interested to know what you think. (You'd be welcome to write us a letter to the editor.)
-People will have more beautiful, quiet, natural places to go in the Adirondacks. We're sorry to repeat a cliche here, but it's true: Nature truly does refresh one's soul. People today need that more than ever.
-Outdoor recreation is a huge part of the Adirondack economy - bigger than forestry, which some critics have mentioned to bemoan this deal - and adding these lands to the Forest Preserve might boost that sector, especially around Newcomb. This town in the dead-center of the Adirondack Park already has great hiking and camping (the High Peaks Wilderness), paddling and fishing (the Hudson River and its associated lakes), historic preservation (Camp Santanoni), golf (a town course) and the Adirondack Interpretive Center. Could it be primed to take off when OK Slip Falls, the Essex Chain of lakes and Boreas Ponds are opened up? It seems possible.
-Animals will have more protection against disturbance and more ease of roaming and breeding over distances. These huge tracts of land would link other sections of the state Forest Preserve, such as between the High Peaks and points south. Granted, animals have it pretty good now that it's timberland, but still, this will be better.
-More trees will remain uncut, which will absorb more carbon dioxide at a time when that's a critical concern.
-Starting in 2007, the original 161,000 acres of Finch land was carefully examined by a wide range of parties - including local government, and leaving a lot of chance for public input - to determine which land was most suitable for logging and which for Forest Preserve. Based on that, 89,000 acres already went to a timber management company.
-It's expensive, and well beyond the $49.8 million purchase price. Forest Preserve land costs the taxpayers a lot of money every year for local property taxes, wages for DEC staff like forest rangers and EnCon officers who patrol the land, their equipment, developing and reviewing management plans, building boat launches and trails, etc. The Nature Conservancy has said its holding costs for the Finch lands were $35 million for five years. Granted, DEC's might be quite different, but it drives home the point that land costs a lot of money after you buy it.
-It will bump some 200 hunting and fishing camps from about 18,000 acres they've used for generations. While hunting and fishing are allowed in the Forest Preserve, this will be a blow to a fundamental part of Adirondack culture.
-For logging, it will take these acres out of the mix forever. Wood is a crucial renewable resource that humans will likely have to rely on more heavily in the future. Biomass energy is a new opportunity. The loss of timberland for those purposes means a loss of energy and jobs - not thousands of them, as in the old days of logging, but possibly hundreds.
-The pros mentioned above could largely have been achieved if the state had spent much less money to buy conservation easements on the land, preventing future development. The Conservancy, reluctantly, would have had to choose between making itself financially whole by marketing the undevelopable land to timber management groups, as it did with the 89,000 acres, or holding onto it.
-The EPF isn't just for buying land; one of its other important functions is to improve septic systems to protect water quality. Adirondack lakes and rivers need that protection very much, but it's hard to compel shore owners to repair their aging, leaky septic systems. Fifty million dollars might do more good in that regard than to buy more state land.
-Finally, this mostly wild land is not threatened by development, and therefore the following "acquisition policy recommendation" (No. 11) in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan is applicable: "Due to the importance of the forest products industry to the economy of the Adirondack region, bulk acreage purchases in fee should not normally be made where highly productive forest land is involved, unless such land is threatened with development that would curtail its use for forestry purposes or its value for the preservation of open space or of wildlife habitat. However, conservation easements permitting the continuation of sound forest management and other land uses compatible with the open space character of the Park should be acquired wherever possible to protect and buffer state lands."
That, however, has been bypassed before. Fred Monroe, head of the state-funded watchdog Local Government Review Board, says the state "has acquired 300,000 acres of highly productive forest lands since that Master Plan was adopted."
So, again, Adirondackers need to know where this state land rush stops.