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Two Adirondack land swap proposals on ballot

Two of the six amendments on Tuesday’s ballot deal with land swaps in New York’s Adirondack Park. One of the proposals has split environmental groups.

Proposition 4 would clear up some land disputes for property owners on Raquette Lake, in Hamilton County. It would allow the state to give clear titles to around 200 homes along the lake. In exchange, the landowners would contribute to a fund to buy alternative land for the Adirondack forest preserve. There is no organized opposition to that land swap.

But Proposition 5 is more controversial.

It would allow a mining company to take over 200 acres of what are now forest preserve lands to expand its open pit mining operations. In exchange, NYCO Minerals has offered to give the state other lands at comparable value to add to the forest preserve. The issue has divided environmental groups.

“We don’t think the swap is a good deal," said Peter Bauer, with the group Protect the Adirondacks. “It sets a terrible precedent.”

Bauer says in the more than 100 years that the Adirondack Park has existed, it’s rare that a private company has been allowed to take this much forest preserve land and use it for industrial purposes.

Dan Plumley, with Adirondack Wild, has walked the 200 acres in question, and he says it’s an old growth forest, which is rare in a region heavily logged in the 1900s, as well as a key animal habitat.

“We have trees on this site that are upwards of 150 to 300 years old," Plumley said, including American Beech trees, that bears gravitate to.

“This is rich black bear habitat,” he said.

Other Adirondack-based environmental groups, including the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council, support the land swap.

Willie Janeway, with the Adirondack Council, says the mining company has agreed to give up 1,500 acres of land it currently owns. The new land will open up public access to areas including the Jay and Hurricane Mountain Wilderness Areas. And, under the agreement, the mining company would eventually give the 200 acres back.  

Janeway says there’s another consideration, as well. The mining company has said 100 jobs could be at stake if it can’t expand its mining on the 200 acre parcel. He says his group, while advocating for the preservation of the Adirondack Park, also tries to take into account the economic welfare of the people who live there.

“The focus on this amendment is really the benefit it provides to the people of the state of New York,” Janeway said. “And the benefits to communities, including the jobs.”

Joe Martens, the state’s environmental conservation commissioner, is also in favor of the mining company land swap. He spoke to North Country Public Radio earlier this year, saying the 1,500 acres would be a great gain.

“They are far superior to the 200 acres that NYCO would get,” Martens said. “They have about six miles of trout streams and significant water bodies on them.”

Martens’ boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has remained officially neutral on the Adirondack ballot amendments.

Former Gov. George Pataki, who has a home in the park, has written an Op-Ed piece backing both land swap proposals.

Voters in the rest of New York may be wondering why they are being asked to weigh in on what seems to be local land disputes. Bauer, with Protect the Adirondacks, says the state’s constitution is set up so that all New York residents are the stewards of the park.

“If you live in Binghamton or if you live in Yonkers, you own three million acres of forest preserve lands in the Adirondacks and Catskills,” Bauer said. “You pay taxes on those lands.”

Janeway, with the Adirondack Council, says he believes New York voters, as they have in the past, will do their homework and learn about the amendments, and take that responsibility seriously.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.