Voters across New York will decide the fate of a contentious Adirondack land swap when they go to the polls on Nov. 5.
Proposition 5 would let Willsboro-based NYCO Minerals Inc. expand its wollastonite mine in the Essex County town of Lewis into a 200-acre tract of state Forest Preserve land in the Jay Mountain Wilderness. Wollastonite is a rare white mineral used in ceramics and paints and as a safe substitute for asbestos.
As part of the land swap, NYCO would give the state another 1,500 acres to add to the Forest Preserve. It would also return the 200 acres, known as Lot 8, to the state after the ore was removed and the mine is filled in and replanted.
Brett Lawson, NYCO Minerals mine superintendent, looks out over the company’s existing wollastonite mine in the Essex County town of Lewis in June.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Labor unions, Essex County supervisors, the New York State Association of Counties and Adirondack government groups are backing the proposal, but it has split environmentalists. The Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club support it. Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club are opposed.
The land swap is on the statewide ballot because it would require an amendment to Article 14, the "forever wild" clause, of the state constitution, which prevents state-owned Forest Preserve land from being "leased, sold or exchanged, or taken by any corporation, public or private."
Critics of the swap say it would set a bad precedent. Protect Executive Director Peter Bauer said the overwhelming majority of Forest Preserve amendments have been narrowly focused and have provided "a real public benefit.
"They have been to expand cemeteries, to expand runways so it's safe for planes to land at airports, to provide electrical service, to look at municipal infrastructure for public water supplies," he said. "What we have here is an effort to pass Proposition 5 solely for the private commercial gain of a local mining company, and that would be a real departure from historic precedent."
Adirondack Wild's Dan Plumley said the proposition, if it's approved, would be "the worst precedent in the history of forever wild.
"This is a swap for convenience of a private corporate entity," he said. "It has no public value like other swaps have had."
John Brodt, a public-relations specialist NYCO hired for this campaign, said preserving NYCO's 100 jobs in Essex County, and the associated economic spin-off amounts to a public benefit.
"The benefits of Proposition 5 extend far beyond NYCO Minerals, the business," Brodt said. "Those benefits extend to the 100 employees of NYCO and their families. It extends to the other businesses in the Adirondack region that do business with NYCO and may not be in the community if it wasn't for NYCO and its employees."
"If you take the 100 jobs out of those communities, that's a huge negative impact on the economy, so there's definitely a public benefit," said Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board.
The Adirondack Council says this wouldn't be the first of the 22 approved Forest Preserve amendments that would have some private benefits.
"The most obvious was the Perkins Clearing amendment, where International Paper won the ability to own and manage a compact and contiguous tract of timberland instead of the checker-board pattern it shared with the state before the amendment was approved," Council Executive Director Willie Janeway wrote in an email. "However, the power line approved for Tupper Lake in 2009 and the drinking water wells approved for Long Lake in 2007 also saved individual taxpayers, homeowners and businesses in those communities large sums of money, while preventing long delays in solving their problems."
The other public benefit, proponents say, is that the state will get seven times the amount of Forest Preserve acreage it's temporarily giving up if the proposition is approved, including important wildlife habitat, more than 3 miles of streams, sensitive fisheries and recreational resources.
Critics argue that the public doesn't actually know what it's getting because there was no "enabling legislation" passed for Proposition 5.
"While NYCO and others are saying, 'We're going to buy this land, give it to the Forest Preserve and replace it,' there's no contract, there's been no purchases, there's been nothing spelled out in the law for how that would happen or when that would happen," Bauer said.
Brodt admitted there isn't a contract, but he said that's because no one knows exactly how much wollastonite is on the 200 acres, which will determine how much land the company has to give the state. Exploratory drilling can't be done until the amendment is approved.
"The way the arrangement is structured is that NYCO will be required to give the state land of equal or greater value to the value of Lot 8," Brodt said. "What we have done is worked very closely with the (state Department of Environmental Conservation), the Council and the Mountain Club over the course of this summer to identify those properties that DEC and those two organizations believe would be of value to the Forest Preserve."
The list includes three properties NYCO currently owns, two properties it has an option to buy if the proposition is approved and a sixth property, the owner of which Brodt said has been in talks with the DEC.
One of the most contentious points in the debate surrounds whether the 200 acres NYCO would be allowed to mine contains old-growth forest.
Bauer said the property contains many trees that are 200 years old or older and has "all the classic signs of old-growth forest."
However, NYCO and the Council say the 200 acres contains no old-growth forest. Brodt cited an analysis from the New York Natural Heritage Program, a partnership between DEC and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which reportedly found that Lot 8 does not contain old-growth forest.
"Surveys show no significant biological, environmental, wildlife or recreational resources on the 200 acres being traded to NYCO," the Council said in its statement of support for the land swap.
Why do other environmentalists believe the parcel contains old-growth forest? The answer may hinge on how you define "old growth." While the forest on Lot 8 is not virgin timber because it had been logged in the past, it does contain many large, old trees.
Plumley said he conducted a survey of the tract.
"Some of the sugar maple are as large as 102 inches in circumference, 32-and-a-half inches diameter at breast height," he said. "Under the growth guidelines for the International Association of Arboriculture, trees that large are rated to be between 150 and 300 years old. One hundred and twenty to 150 years old is a northern hardwood forest that is approaching or reaching old-growth stage."
Another point raised by critics of the deal is that NYCO has another source of wollastonite it could mine nearby, known as the Oak Hill site, so it doesn't need the Forest Preserve land to stay in business.
"NYCO put out a 25-year strategic plan just a few years ago where they talked about the wollastonite (at Oak Hill) was of a higher quality than the wollastonite at its existing mine," Bauer said. "NYCO went through an adjudicatory hearing at the APA (state Adirondack Park Agency) and received a string of APA and DEC permits for that second mine, which NYCO says has at least a 25-year supply."
NYCO says the Oak Hill site would be more expensive to develop because it has a larger overburden of sand and rock that would have to be removed first.
"If our costs to remove wollastonite go up, then our prices have to go up," Brodt said. "When prices go up, there is a risk that customers will look elsewhere for their supply, particularly when some of our major competitors are in countries with far lower costs of doing business like China and India. So whenever we encounter issues of competitiveness in the marketplace, we risk losing business, and when you risk losing business, you risk having to downsize your workforce."
Supporters of the proposition say it never would have made it this far if there was no public benefit to the land swap and if it wasn't a special case.
"It's kind of a unique circumstance where an ore vein goes under the Forest Preserve land," Monroe said. "It's not like a company wants to locate a new manufacturing plant and they want to take Forest Preserve. I don't think local government would support something like that."
Brodt said the process of getting a constitutional amendment approved is "very arduous." It takes the approval of two separately elected state Legislatures and the support of voters across the state.
Bauer said he doubts that legislators had all the information, including the fact that NYCO has a second wollastonite mine, when they voted to approve the land swap earlier this year and in 2012.
"Unfortunately, the scrutiny that this proposition received in the legislative process was not very deep, and the DEC, NYCO and its supporters did not bring a full set of facts forward," Bauer said. "What this means is if we give away 200 acres of old growth to a mining company to be completely destroyed and turned into a mine, it means there's no place in the Forest Preserve that's beyond the reach of commerce. It means there's no place that's truly forever wild."
The division between the Park's green groups on this land swap has largely been respectful. However, some environmentalists have questioned the Council's and the Mountain Club's decision to side with economic interests on the land swap. Bill Ingersoll, a guidebook author, publisher and member of the Mountain Club's Conservation Committee, said the two organizations are making a "political gambit.
"Recognizing that jobs are part of the NYCO equation, they are almost certainly hoping that a show of support here might inspire local officials to return the favor elsewhere," Ingersoll wrote in a column posted last month on the Adirondack Almanack website.
Asked about other groups' supporting the proposition, Plumley said, "You cannot say you stand for 'forever wild' and then approve this land swap."
Janeway argued that the Council's support is based on the proposition meeting its six criteria for judging the merits of Forest Preserve land swaps.
This is an issue that won't be decided just by voters in the Adirondacks, but rather from all of New York, most of whom have never heard of NYCO Minerals or couldn't find the town of Lewis on a map. How can they be expected to vote for or against the proposition?
Brodt said NYCO couldn't afford a statewide advertising campaign, so it is largely relying on its base of supporters, in particular the statewide labor unions and business organizations, "to spread the word to their members across the state that this is a win-win proposition for the environment and the economy." He and NYCO officials have also met with newspaper editorial boards and issued press releases.
Plumley said the environmental groups opposed to the land swap are getting their message out through their members, press releases and through voter guides distributed to New York City-area residents.
Both sides of this debate have also launched their own websites: adirondacklandswap.com and saveforeverwild.org.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.