By David Gibson
A Sugar Maple on Lot 8 that may be 175 years old or more. Gibson Photo © Dave Gibson
Bill Ingersoll’s recent post about the November 5 vote on the NYCO Minerals-State Land Exchange (Proposition 5 on the upcoming ballot) makes good reading – as do the comments.
His interpretation, that the land exchange stripped-down to its essence represents a straight commercial transaction that lacks any public need or benefit, is one Adirondack Wild shares, but Bill made an especially articulate case.
One of the interesting comments to Bill’s post comes from my colleague Dan Plumley. Dan notes that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s characterization of “Lot 8,” the 200-acre section of Jay Mountain Wilderness the company wants to mine for wollastonite, is plain wrong. Dan’s opinion is informed by observations he and I made during recent field visits to Lot 8. We were impressed by the forest environment there, which I will get to in a moment.
Forest Preserve advocates once seemed pretty united in opposition to mining on the Forest Preserve by constitutional amendment, but that was in 2008 prior to the proposed amendment’s first passage in the state legislature. Since then, and especially in 2013, DEC aggressively lobbied for this land swap and attempted to change our positions. Adirondack Wild, for one, would not alter its view that this was a bad deal for the Forest Preserve, had negative consequences for the future, and would actually harm the integrity of Article 14, since there was no public benefit.
The idea of a land swap with NYCO has been around since the early 1980s and heretofore DEC had been leery of doing anything more than lending technical support to the company and those legislators endorsing an amendment. By 2013, the governor and local legislators were framing the land swap as essential for job retention and economic well being in Essex County (“The Park is Open for Business,” according to the governor’s office), and the DEC parroted those arguments.
NYCO Minerals is a valuable employer in Essex County, no doubt about that. Yet, NYCO’s president told us in a candid conversation during 2012 that if the land swap fails in the NY State Legislature or at the polls, the company has no intention of shuttering its business, but would eventually move mining operations to its nearby Oak Hill mine, long ago permitted by APA and DEC, and containing at least 20 years worth of mineral reserves.
DEC knew this of course, but chose to claim that jobs were at stake when the pressure was turned-up, presumably from the governor’s office. Yes, the company’s president also told us that Lot 8 would be easier and less costly to mine than Oak Hill, thereby benefiting a company in a competitive global marketplace (partly, the company may be in competition with itself, meaning other mines it owns elsewhere). Whether or not Article 14 should be amended purely for reasons of commercial cost-cutting and convenience is an important issue facing the voters.
Here are excerpts from the NYS DEC position paper on NYCO and the land exchange which played a role in the NYS Assembly’s support for the amendment this spring, as did support from the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club:
“Lot 8 was acquired by the State in the late 1800’s at a tax sale and became part of the Forest Preserve as a result. Lot 8’s current forested character has environmental value consistent with forest land in the region but DEC has not identified any unique ecological or natural resource features on the property…There is no evidence that Lot 8 includes critical wildlife pathways, and it includes no brooks or streams.”
As Dan Plumley points out in his comment to Bill Ingersoll’s post, “DEC’s assessment of the value of these lands ecologically is entirely wrong – as if it was never visited or honestly assessed. Lot 8 includes tremendous old growth northern hardwoods across the site…and is a rich, calcareous site for its soils, diverse terrestrial plants and wildlife. It is indeed a rare forest stand within the whole of the Adirondacks.”
Adirondack Wild has made two field visits to Lot 8, and spent about seven hours in all bushwhacking through parts of these 200 acres. Limited as our investigations have been, I believe we have spent more time there than DEC and even one visit casts doubt on DEC’s assertions. Lot 8 certainly has significant ecological and natural resource features.
We found several small streams coursing through these woods, and majestic stands of old-growth or older trees including Sugar Maple, White Ash, American Beech, American Basswood and Big-toothed Aspen towering above our heads. Some of these trees were well over 20 inches diameter, some Sugar Maple over 30 inches. We estimate that the older Sugar Maples may be 200 years old or more, with tree diameters (DBH) from 15 to 34 inches, tree circumferences reaching 102 inches in size, and tree heights reaching 90 to 100 feet high. This is a very rich, interesting forest judging from its apparently calcium laden soils and duff layer that appears little disturbed. Lot 8 appears to demonstrate the best of northern hardwood ecosystems in the Adirondack Park.
Eastern northern hardwood forests are described variously as “old growth” when they have developed relatively undisturbed, with deep soils, various crown classes (tree tops) and stem sizes with oldest trees above 120 to 150 years in age depending on the citation. With many trees potentially as old as 100 years, with at least one as old as 178 years, Lot 8 appears to have reached an old growth age level for Sugar Maple and White Ash, and approaching old growth for Beech and Basswood.
A few of the beeches had been climbed by black bear, while at our feet grew plants indicative of rich soil: Maidenhair Fern, Christmas Fern, Blue Cohosh, among them. There may be some rare herbaceous plants growing here. We found some large vernal pools, meaning ephemeral ponds which may harbor many amphibians during their spring breeding period, which then disperse through the upland forest. Based on our informal investigations, this site deserves a formal ecological site analysis.
DEC’s position paper goes on to state that:
“As one can see Lot 8, while forested, contains no exceptional natural resource features and contains no formal public access… The land to be received for inclusion in the Forest Preserve would be in the vicinity of Lot 8 and provide greater natural resource, recreational and environmental value than Lot 8. The land to be received would also improve access to the Forest Preserve in the area of the Jay Mountain and Hurricane Mountain wilderness areas and Taylor Pond Wild Forest.”
While public access and recreation values are certainly important, we are not a recreation organization and won’t pretend to address those issues. What I can say is that DEC waxes eloquent about the natural resource and recreational values on the lands which may be received in exchange, yet dismisses Lot 8’s assets without, it would appear, having done much, if any, field work there. Also, none of the exchange parcels are guaranteed to come into the Forest Preserve in exchange for Lot 8. No implementing legislation has yet been approved in the State Legislature. The public has no way of knowing exactly what Forest Preserve and what added value it is getting in return for Lot 8.
Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks and the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter have teamed up to create a new website, www.saveforeverwild.org, which contains a number of reasons why voters should turn Prop 5 down flat. In addition to the ecological arguments, here are the additional reasons (refer to the website for more detail):
- Passage of Proposition 5 will mark the first time that the Forest Preserve is exchanged solely for private commercial benefit. It represents a damaging precedent;
- NYCO Minerals owns second mine nearby with a 20 year or greater supply of wollastonite, and does not need Forest Preserve Wilderness to remain in business ;
- Proposition 5 is bad legislative process because no law was passed that detailed the process for land swap or Forest Preserve benefit.
To this list, I add another: Prop 5 suffers from a lack of State credibility. The most visible proponent of Prop 5, our NYS DEC, has been less than candid about its first-hand knowledge of Lot 8, the availability of alternative sources of wollastonite, the findings and facts in the many APA and DEC permits NYCO Minerals has received at its present mine and at Oak Hill Mine, and the public need and benefit of this amendment to Article 14 of our State Constitution.
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