The state has lost a $2.5 million federal grant it planned to use to buy the Follensby Pond property from The Nature Conservancy because it couldn't come up with the rest of the money needed to complete the deal.
The state has now shelved the long-sought-after Follensby acquisition, at least for the next few years, and instead is focused on purchasing 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands in the central and southeastern Adirondacks.
"It's on the back burner for now," Mike Carr, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's Adirondack chapter said Monday.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
Located in the towns of Harrietstown and Tupper Lake, the 14,600-acre Follensby property borders the High Peaks Wilderness and a 10-mile stretch of the Raquette River. It is home to a 970-acre lake that is best known for hosting the Philosophers' Camp, where Ralph Waldo Emerson and other 19th-century scholars held a retreat in 1858. The property was owned by the McCormick family of Manchester, Vt. for more than 50 years before they sold it to The Nature Conservancy in 2008.
In 2010, the state won a $2.5 million federal Forest Legacy grant from the U.S. Forest Service to be used toward the purchase of the property, now estimated at $16 million. The grant was available for two years, through July of 2012. The state received two extensions on the funding, the last of which ran out on Jan. 31.
"Due to competing priorities for land acquisition projects, the department will not have the state share of the funds for the purchase of the Follensby Pond property in the near future," DEC Forest Legacy Coordinator McCrea Burnham said in a Jan. 24 letter to the environmental group the Adirondack Council, which issued a press release Monday about the state losing the grant.
The letter says the state was concerned that the lack of progress on the Follensby Pond acquisition would negatively affect New York's ability to secure other pending Forest Legacy grants.
"Therefore the department decided not to request an extension on the Follensby Pond grant but instead will reapply for the funds when the state has its portion of the purchase price available," Burnham wrote.
Carr said the state did the right thing by returning the money.
"They're not ready currently," he said. "We're working so hard on moving the former Finch lands into public ownership that they didn't feel they should apply any department resources to advancing a transaction like Follensby."
Last year, the state signed a contract with the Conservancy to purchase the former Finch lands for $49 million over five years, using money from the state Environmental Protection Fund. In December, the state closed on part of the deal's first phase, the 18,300-acre Essex Chain of Lakes tract, for $12.3 million.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said the state's decision to return the money was disappointing, but not surprising. He said it's a sign of how much the state has cut the EPF, particularly in the last four years.
"It's important that the state get back to the track of wanting to make this a $300 million annual fund, and it's only about half of that right now," Sheehan said.
"If the EPF had remained at 2008 funding levels, both the Finch and Follensby parcels could have been acquired and added to the Forest Preserve by now," Council Legislative Director Scott Lorey said Monday during a hearing in Albany on the Environmental Conservation portion of the state budget. "All of these new lands and waters could have been opened to the public already, providing an economic boost to Adirondack hamlets and villages that need the stimulus. It's a shame New York must return the grant money to the federal government."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed increasing the state's allocation to the EPF by $19 million, from $134 million to $153 million. He would raise the EPF portion for land protection, including purchases, from $17.5 million to $20 million.
Lorey called on the Legislature to provide an additional $11 million to the EPF this year above the governor's proposal: $10 million for open space protection and $1 million for the fight invasive species.
Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board Director Fred Monroe said his group had opposed the use of Forest Legacy funds to purchase the entire Follensby tract in fee and add it to the Forest Preserve because that would prohibit logging on the property. In a statement, Monroe said the Review Board "supports a mix of conservation easement on 70 to 80 percent of the tract, which would save that percentage of the forest industry jobs, and fee acquisition of Follensby Pond, a buffer around it, and the site of 'Philosophers Camp.'"
However, there aren't currently any forestry industry jobs on the Follensby tract. Carr told the Enterprise there hasn't been any logging on the property since the Conservancy purchased it nearly five years ago, although just before TNC acquired it there was a salvage logging operation for hemlock trees that were felled during the a big windstorm.
Tupper Lake Mayor and Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun has been opposed to the state's purchase of the Follensby property. He said the state's decision to postpone the acquisition gives lawmakers time to lobby the governor against adding more land to the Forest Preserve.
"It would give us the opportunity to talk to the governor and say, 'We really don't need to purchase this right now for a number of reasons,'" Maroun said. "Number one, the state can't afford it. Number two, we have too much land and not enough resources to take care of it. And number three, the taxpayers don't want to spend more state tax dollars on purchasing land when there are ways they can actually help the taxpayers with issues that could create jobs and promote tourism."
Carr said the Conservancy can hold the Follensby property until "the time is right and the state is in a position to talk with us." He said the property is currently being leased to four hunting clubs, is managed by a caretaker and is used for some of the Conservancy's research and programs.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.