Proposed transfer of 200 acres of 'forever wild' New York State land in Adirondacks to mining company reveals rift between environmental groups; state would receive US$1M to buy 1,500 acres elsewhere in Adirondacks for conservation

ALBANY, New York , November 8, 2013 () – While casinos dominated the political debate, the most tightly contested issue on the ballot this week involved a proposed swap of state land in the Adirondacks to a mining company -- and revealed a schism between environmental groups that act as watchdogs over the largest park in the lower 48 states.

Voters agreed by a 53-47 percent margin out of more than 2.2 million votes cast to allow the state to trade 200 acres of "forever wild" state land to NYCO Minerals Inc, so the company can expand its Willsboro mine near Lake Champlain. In return, the state will receive $1 million to buy 1,500 acres elsewhere in the Adirondacks that will become protected.

A campaign leading to the vote turned into a showdown between Adirondack conservation groups, with major organizations like the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, and New York League of Conservation Voters issuing a statement Wednesday celebrating the vote result.

Public approval of the swap affirmed an approach of cooperation and collaboration with local governments, unions, and property owners that "can produce victories and results that benefit the Forest Preserve and communities," according to the statement. Business and civic supporters said the measure was necessary to protect the jobs at the mine, which has been running for decades and whose owners said might have to close if the expansion was thwarted.

Other groups, including Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks, and the Sierra Club decried the vote as setting a dangerous precedent for trading forever-wild land for short-term commercial gain. The swap carried widely in the 12 counties within the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, as well as in the four-county Capital Region (59-41 percent margin), Syracuse and Rochester.

The measure was rejected -- in some cases narrowly -- by voters in just nine of the state's 62 counties, covering such disparate locations as Manhattan, Brooklyn, Ithaca and Penn Yann in the Finger Lakes, suburban Buffalo, Kingston in the Hudson River valley and Cooperstown.

The heart of the dispute centered on Article 14 of the state constitution, which establishes the state Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks as "forever wild" and not to be leased, sold or exchanged, or taken by any corporation, public or private. In four previous voter-approved amendments, swaps involved forest preserve lands transferred for public uses, like water systems, power lines, airports and cemeteries.

"This is troubling," said Dave Gibson, of Protect the Adirondacks. "I have been doing this work for 28 years, and I have never seen a split like this among Adirondack conservation groups over Article 14. In the past we could disagree on issues, but all groups would come together to stand behind Article 14."

Among the Adirondack counties, where business and civic leaders say state land ownership of about half of the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park has constricted business growth, the land swap passed by a 62-38 percent margin, much larger than in the rest of the state.

However, votes in the those counties composed just 7 percent of all votes cast on the swap, so this deal, as all potential future deals, rested in the hands of people who live elsewhere. The 99,239 "yes" votes cast in those Adirondack counties were more than overshadowed by 186,034 "no" votes cast in Manhattan and Brooklyn, according to state election figures.

"Not all Adirondack environmental organizations are the same," said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. He said collaboration and cooperation -- rather than ideological entrenchment -- is needed to resolve disputes over how to both protect the park and create economic vitality for its residents. "This time we found common ground with residents, local government, and labor unions," he said.

Asked about concerns the NYCO swap could set a precedent for future attempts by private companies to obtain "forever wild" state land, Janeway responded that more than two million people voted on the land swap amendment. "People took the time to educate themselves. They were not blindly voting, and these people across the state consider themselves stakeholders in the future of the park."

bnearing@timesunion.com, 518-454-5094, @Bnearing10

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