In November, if you're an eligible voter, you'll be asked to choose yes or no to some amendments to the state Constitution. Both are about Article 14, which governs the state-owned, "forever wild" Adirondack Forest Preserve.
One of them would settle Township 40, the queen of all property title disputes, which predates both the Adirondack Park and the Forest Preserve. Township 40 is 220 parcels of land totaling more than 1,000 acres around Raquette Lake, including much of the namesake hamlet. Ever since a series of possibly illegal tax sales in the 1870s and 1880s, these parcels been doubly claimed by the state as well as by private entities that include homeowners, a fire department, a school district and a utility company. Never before has this mess been so close to being resolved. Please vote yes to unknot it, hopefully once and for all.
The other Adirondack amendment is harder to judge. It has to do with NYCO Minerals' mining operation in the town of Lewis. NYCO is the world's biggest producer and supplier of wollastonite, a rare, white mineral used commercially as a reinforcement or additive in ceramics, paints, plastics, friction products and various building products. The rocks in Lewis are a good source of wollastonite, and NYCO employs about 100 people there. NYCO's open-pit mine goes right up to the line of its property's border with the Forest Preserve - specifically the Jay Mountain Wilderness. Miners can see more wollastonite in an outcropping on the state land, but they don't know how far back it goes. They want to find out.
That's what we're being asked: Can NYCO take a 200-acre piece of the Jay Mountain Wilderness, which it calls Lot 8, and do exploratory mining there? In return, the company would give the state at least 1,500 acres for the Forest Preserve. Also, when NYCO is done with Lot 8, it would give it back to the state to be Forest Preserve again - albeit compromised, depending on how much it's been mined.
Even if the thought of mining on the Jay Wilderness sickens you, the acreage numbers makes this a pretty sweet deal for the state. That's why some of the Park's environmental groups, the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club, support it. Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said the 1,500 acres has "better wildlife habitat and greater recreational opportunities" than Lot 8.
But not all agree. What turns other environmentalists - like Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild and the Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter - against the deal is the precedent it would set. Never before has a Forest Preserve land swap been for a private company's commercial gain. The others were for municipal good: a town cemetery in Keene, a public airport expansion in Arietta, a public water supply in Raquette Lake and a new electric transmission line through Colton to Tupper Lake.
These critics also say the company could instead mine land 2 miles away at a site called Oak Hill, which has at least 15 to 20 years of wollastonite that's a higher grade than what's in the Lewis mine. NYCO officials say that wollastonite would be more expensive to extract because it's under more sand and rock. At this time, the extra expense would put the company at a competitive disadvantage. Maybe, as with oil, a time will come when the mineral will be worth paying more to get out of the earth.
Economically, we find it a bit hard to forecast how much difference this constitutional amendment would have. It might add 10 years or more to NYCO's 100 jobs in Lewis, which it claims it might otherwise have to move elsewhere once the current site is mined out. There's two or three years left in the current site, the company says. On the other hand, the company would say that, as political leverage. It's hard to see the future.
But the future is at stake, including whether other companies would use this amendment, if approved, to make deals for pieces of the preserve. It's a slow and tedious way to get land, but since NYCO did it, some others would probably try.
The state could gain a lot of Forest Preserve land that way, if, as has happened so far, each trader has to give more than it gets. In a way, that's how the Forest Preserve grew. Would it be good to open the door to more of it? We're not sure.
To us, the voter's decision comes down to weighing two things: on one hand, a certain, immediate gain for the Forest Preserve and for a notable employer; on the other, the uncertain possibility for more companies to buy state land for resource extraction in the future.
Also, consider two more things:
1. The Forest Preserve has gotten bigger than ever in the last 20 years and is now roughly 47 percent of the Park's 6 million acres.
2. Mining may not be pretty, but it's necessary. We all unknowingly use wollastonite, since it's in the buildings and products we use.
With that said, we'll leave you to make up your own mind about how to vote on NYCO - but again, please vote yes on Township 40.