Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Adirondacks, Part II: Land of Stunning Hope

by Fred LeBrun
Albany Times-Union
December 2, 2007

After driving endless numbers of internal roads and an hourlong fly-over in Tommy Helms's 30-year-old Cessna sea plane, what's most striking about the 161,000 acre Finch, Pruyn & Co. property in the Adirondacks is its vastness and continuity.

Or as biologist Michelle Brown of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy put it, the property's "intactness." Viewed in a global context, which we seldom think of for the Adirondacks, Brown says the Finch, Pruyn & Co. lands represent one of the last, best places on earth to conserve, protect and keep whole a significant temperate deciduous forest system.

What a stunning acquisition this is by the Nature Conservancy, still breathtaking to contemplate six months after it happened.

A meticulously maintained working forest in the pumping heart of the Adirondacks kept very private for 146 years, with 144 miles of river, 70 lakes and ponds, 80 mountains and and a ton of natural wonders only a few eyes have seen.

On very short notice, timber products giant Finch, Pruyn & Co. came calling and Adirondack Chapter executive director Mike Carr and his staff dropped an already full plate of land stewardship issues in the North Country to accommodate. They scrambled, borrowing $110 million from John Hancock Insurance and the Open Space Institute to seal the deal.

But now the madness begins. While an expensive clock driven by the interest on those loans is ticking, Carr has given himself a year to put together a complicated plan for the future of the property that takes into account myriad demands and desires from a broad range of stakeholders, and the Nature Conservancy's own mission statement.

"I'm not going to please everybody, probably nobody completely," the affable Carr said, as we were driving down a private road to a trail head that would take us in under a half-hour to a postcard view of Ok-Slip Falls.

In future generations, this little trail to the highest waterfall in the Adirondacks, and one of the tallest in the state, will become as popular as the trek from Adirondack Loj to Marcy dam -- if it becomes part of the Adirondack forest preserve, or becomes public through an easement. It probably will, because it is very high on the wish list of environmental groups looking to steer about half of the 161,000 acres into the Forever Wild forest preserve.

That means the state will have to make a significant purchase here. But at the same time, local governments, which have a veto if Environmental Protection Fund money is used, will have their demands, primarily centering on economic development opportunities. A snowmobile trail linking the towns from Long Lake to Schroon Lake is a high priority for them. The hunting and fishing clubs with a combined membership of 3,500 that lease 131,000 of the acres now would like a voice in the future as well, even though they may have to settle for smaller leases than they have now, and then there is Michelle Brown's voice, most compelling of all.

The Nature Conservancy, after all, is about protecting nature, biological diversity. Not about guaranteeing public access, or honoring hunting leases, or developing recreational opportunities. Mike Carr is certainly aware of all these other hands out, and wants to satisfy as many as he can, but not at the expense of the fragile ecosystems, the unusual, threatened and endangered.

The Adirondack Chapter has launched a hurry-up $35 million fundraising effort over this property, which tells me in the end they hope to keep a hunk of it. Interestingly, in short order they've raised more than $5 million, most of it coming in far from Long Lake. There are those in distant places who may never see the Adirondacks who understand the global importance of this piece of property.

So Mike and his staff and board will get a chance to decide how best to divvy it up to give it the wisest protection and use, while getting out from under a groaning debt load and a $1 million a year in taxes.

I do not pretend to have an inside track on Mike's thinking. Besides, I think his evolving plan is very fluid at the moment. But here are my impressions of where we'll be when the dust settles on this phenomenal legacy for our grandchildren.

Much of the Finch, Pruyn & Co. property will continue as a working forest. Done right, it works.

Mike Carr is a big believer in the dynamic that currently exists, that's kept the Finch, Pruyn & Co. properties beautifully maintained and conserved. In all likelihood, sexy items like the Essex Chain lakes, the Hudson Gorge, OK-Slip Falls, and maybe even Boreas Ponds will go into the forest preserve, as environmentalists wish. But there will be a place for the hunting and fishing clubs, which have proved to be excellent stewards and represent a strong Adirondack tradition.

There will be a connected snowmobile trail along existing logging roads, and probably named lakes and ponds that Tommy Helms and the other seaplaners can fly into, to keep that old tradition alive too.

Through the manipulation of transferable development rights, struggling towns and hamlets surrounded by forest preserve will get buildable property for growth.

In other words, my hunch is Mike Carr will come up with a complex mish-mash of public and private interests interlocked through easements, leases and fee purchases. A new paradigm for land acquisition in the Adirondacks.

This arrangement will require unprecedented cooperation and respect among parties, and pose a huge challenge for enforcement and all new headaches for the DEC.

But you can be sure the delicate ferns and mosses growing around rare limestone outcroppings, around Pickwacket Pond and up in the higher elevations, around Squaw Brook valley, and elsewhere, will never be safer.

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

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