The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages issued a statement this week opposing the state land deal announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday in Lake Placid.
The land deal consists of the state buying 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. land in the central Adirondacks from The Nature Conservancy over a five-year period for $49.8 million. The land would go into the Forest Preserve. The first phase is scheduled to be completed this year and would contain the Essex Chain of Lakes tract, which includes a stretch of the Hudson River and a series of ponds.
"First and foremost it should be pretty obvious to most of us that the state of New York is in dire financial straits," said AATV president Brian Towers, supervisor of the town of Wells. "These are difficult times. They are difficult times for taxpayers, difficult times for my constituency and I don't know one in good conscience can suggest that we spend $50 million on what seems to be a nicety and not necessarily a necessity at this point in time. This 69,000 acres was not in jeopardy of being developed any time soon."
Towers said more of the land should have been sold to Timber Investment Management Organizations, which he said were interested in the land, and then put into conservation easements. He did say parcels containing Ok Slip Falls, the Hudson River Gorge and a few other places should have been preserved, but with less acreage around them.
"We certainly don't support taking productive forestland out of the equation," Towers said.
Earlier this week, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens told the Enterprise that the Finch land was studied and that productive forestland was put into conservation easements as part of a prior deal with the state.
This 69,000 acres has roots in a much larger land deal. In June 2007, when Finch, Pruyn was ready to sell its timberland, the Conservancy bought the paper company's 161,000 acres in the Adirondacks for $110 million. In 2009, the Conservancy sold 92,000 of those acres to ATP Timberland Invest, a Danish pension fund, for $32.8 million, with conservation easements to prevent development. At the end of 2010, the Conservancy sold the conservation rights on all but 3,000 acres of that land to the state for $30 million. Several other parcels were sold to Adirondack towns.
"When we looked at the entire suite of parcels and the overall 161,000 acres, we did exactly what the critics said should be done," Martens told the Enterprise Monday. "We looked at the most productive timberlands and the best timberlands and kept them, and acquired an easement on those lands so they would be kept in production. And we looked at these parcels and we determined that these were the ones that had the highest recreational value, the highest public values or the most sensitive resources, and that these should be set aside for the Forest Preserve, so it was a very careful balancing act based on the attributes of the land itself, which we think is a very intelligent way to approach a big project like this."
Although Towers said he is opposed to the deal, he said he is not holding a grudge and would prefer to move on and look at other issues. One of those would be the creation of a comprehensive recreation plan for the Adirondack Park. He said the plan should be inclusive of all users and look at things like roadside camping, horseback riding, mountain biking and finding places where ATV use would be appropriate.
"It's got to be a park for everyone," he said. "I think that brings economic opportunity for the private sector."
Towers would also like to see a dialogue continue on the creation of a land bank in the Adirondacks that would provide hamlets with additional development rights to replace those lost with state land purchases.
"This is a golden opportunity to look at transferable development rights and ultimately a land bank," he said.