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Adirondack land swaps rally support, create opposition

Johannes Gilger

On Tuesday when you go to vote, you’ll find two issues on your ballot that deal with New York’s Adirondack Park.

Both involve small land swaps that have been in the works for years. But because they impact the park’s forest preserve, which is protected by the state constitution, they require a vote of the people to move forward. Although one of the land swaps enjoys wide support, the other has sparked controversy and a fierce debate among environmentalists.

Tucked away in the Adirondack foothills about a two-hour drive north of Albany, a massive pit plunges down eight stories down into the earth. Mark Buckley, from Willsboro, has worked for NYCO for 26 years and is now the company’s environmental safety manager.

"At the bottom of the pit, that grayish white rock where the drills are setting, that’s where they’re drilling ore now," he says.

Trucks the size of small buildings are hauling out chunks of whitish rock – a mineral called wollastonite that’s used in everything from paint to plastics. Just beyond a line of trees above the pit lies a parcel of roughly 200 acres of forest land, acquired by New York state and added to the Park in the 1800s.

NYCO hopes to expand its drilling operation here.

"We have drilled along here and we know that there’s ore at depth – not real deep – it’s down there," Buckley says.

It’s a gorgeous stand of forest – big pines and maple and what look like seasonal pools.

To gain access to this land, NYCO needs a constitutional amendment. Working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the company put together a land swap that will trade these 200 acres for roughly 1500 acres of other land that would be added to the forever wild forest preserve.

The trade has already passed on a bipartisan vote in New York’s legislature in two consecutive years. Now it needs a final vote from all New Yorkers to move forward.

Peter Bauer with Protect the Adirondacks represents a growing coalition of environmentalists who hate that idea. They say the deal threatens to open park land to corporate mining.

"It's really a 150-year step backwards. The land that the state of New York are giving up are old growth forests. It's a very rich setting, lots of vernal pools."

But the Park’s two biggest green groups – the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council – both support this land swap. They say it will benefit the environment, by expanding the Jay Mountain Wilderness, while keeping good jobs in the park.

"There is a fair amount of misinformation that's circulating," says Willy Janeway, who heads the Adirondack Council. "No, they're not old growth forests. There aren't water resources. Are the lands going in [to the park land as part of the swap] superior and better? Absolutely."

The question of whether this land swap would affect actual old growth forest is hotly debated. Usually, old growth is a term that describes forests that have never been logged before.

Dan Plumley, with Adirondack Wild, also opposes this deal. But he acknowledges that this stand of trees doesn’t meet the technical standard of old growth.

"It's not virgin," Plumley said. "These lands were likely timbered at one time, but that was in the 1800s. Biologists or ecologists may dicker over the term."

If the swap does go through, the 200 acres would have to be eventually restored by the mining company and would then be transferred back into the forest preserve.

The other land swap on the statewide ballot aims to straighten out a boundary dispute in the tiny hamlet of Raquette Lake, also in the Adirondack Park, where old survey maps and bankruptcy cases created a long-simmering muddle. All sides are support passage of that ballot measure.