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Green groups call for state preservation of Whitney Park

Two women paddle in 2005 on Little Tupper Lake, which the state of New York bought from the Whitney family in 1997 as part of a 15,000-acre purchase. One of the Whitneys’ former houses is seen on the far shore. (Enterprise file photo)

Shortly after the owner of a historic 36,000-acre Long Lake estate announced on Wednesday that he plans to sell the property for $180 million, conservationists said they wanted the state to step in and buy it.

The Whitney Park property — which John Hendrickson, the widower of Saratoga philanthropist and socialite Marylou Whitney, inherited following her death last year — has long been considered a key tract for Adirondack conservationists. The estate is surrounded by vast swaths of state wild forest and wilderness, and it includes 22 lakes, 80 miles of roads and 20 miles of trails. By Thursday morning, green groups were beginning to weigh in on the significance of this land being on the market.

Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer called this opportunity a “major moment” for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos.

“The future of the Adirondack Park as a wild and protected landscape is on the line with whether or not Whitney Park is protected or it’s changed in the future,” Bauer said in a statement.

In the past, local elected officials have pushed back against state acquisition of the property. Long Lake town Supervisor Clay Arsenault was not immediately available for comment Thursday, but Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages President Matthew Simpson said the association wants “to support Hamilton County and Long Lake on what their interest is in this property.”

“We want to make sure all of our communities see a positive outcome with this property,” Simpson said.

Whitney Park was established by William C. Whitney in 1897, according to Adirondack Life magazine. He consolidated 80,000 acres at the time for $1.50 per acre.

Marylou Whitney inherited the property after her previous husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, died in 1992, according to the Journal.

In 1997 under the Gov. George Pataki administration, the state of New York purchased nearly 15,000 acres of wilderness from Whitney for $17.1 million — with $10 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and help from the Nature Conservancy in negotiating the deal. The move was hailed by environmentalists at the time, partly because the Whitneys had previously proposed developing the property with a hotel and other buildings. That land is now part of the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, which includes 20 miles of trails and several bodies of water, including Little Tupper Lake and Lake Lila, which the state bought in 1979.

The Nature Conservancy declined to comment on the announcement that the rest of Whitney Park would be put on the market.

The remaining 36,000 acres of Whitney Park has been “at the top of the land protection priority list in New York state for the last 50 years,” Bauer said.

Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan noted that it has been listed as a priority in the state Open Space Protection Plan — essentially a wish list of properties the state would consider acquiring — since it was created in 1993.

“We look forward to working with colleagues in the land trust community and state officials to find ways to secure the future protection of these lands,” Sheehan said. “It will be a greater challenge without a new bond act to provide additional funding.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday that the state would postpone a voter referendum on the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act until 2021 because of financial challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The state has many capital funding sources and potential partners to work with,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan noted that the Whitney Park lands were listed in the council’s 2020 VISION research series, a three-volume report with recommendations for how to fulfill “the dream of creating a true Adirondack Park” through land preservation. The council has long promoted the creation of a 400,000-acre Bob Marshall Great Wilderness, which would involve the consolidation of three wilderness areas, six primitive areas, thousands of acres of state Forest Preserve and the purchase of more than 170,000 acres of private land, including Whitney Park.

Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Michael Barrett said his organization would also like to see the state acquire Whitney Park.

“Through state ownership this land would be a significant addition to the Forest Preserve and a major victory for the Adirondack Park,” he said. “Whitney Park is not only important ecologically, but also in terms of recreational opportunities. If made accessible to the public, it would offer paddling routes rivaled only by the St. Regis Canoe Area and numerous destinations for remote wilderness hiking.”

Adirondack Wild Managing Partner David Gibson said “a great deal of work has already been done to prepare for this moment.”

“The Whitney landscape lying at the very heart of the Adirondack Park has been well studied in the past by conservation scientists and planners at the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Park Agency and by others,” he said. “At the invitation of the family, I was privileged to tour the property and can attest to the conservation importance of the entire tract, especially its interlacing network of lakes, wetlands and streams. To look north towards the tract from the shores and surface of Forked Lake and then to have had the chance to look south from the main camp, called Deerlands, at Little Forked Lake are unforgettable experiences,” Gibson added.

“Even during the pandemic, this project ought to rise in levels of priority and urgency,” Gibson said.

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