By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild
Keeping forests as forests: Clarence Petty’s vision
Clarence Petty (1905-2009) grew up in the Adirondacks and eventually had a career with the state conservation department. His biography by Chris Angus, The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty. (Syracuse University Press, 2002) is still available. After a few years with the new APA, upon retirement in 1974 Clarence became one of the great citizen advocates for conservation. I first met him in 1987 in the board room of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, where his voice stilled the room. He never dominated a meeting, but when he did speak his voice carried to good effect. He declared his point of view firmly, born of his life’s experience, with a chuckle or two to lighten the atmosphere and to illustrate his point.
Clarence’s core message cut through the many emergencies we were addressing at any given time to remind us that the surest way to protect Adirondack land was to acquire it as Forest Preserve or as conservation easements, and to follow up those actions with more DEC real property staff and forest rangers to ensure that the state could compete for the real estate, as part of the statewide open space plan, and also be a good steward of that land over the long term. “We’ve got to get busy protecting more of the Adirondacks” was his frequent take-away message, followed quickly by “and we’ve got to take care of the Forest Rangers,” points well taken and easily remembered between meetings.
Around 1992 Clarence was appointed to the DEC’s Region 6 Open Space Conservation Advisory Committee, meeting in Lowville or Watertown, one of nine statewide to advise on adoption and updates to the Statewide Open Space Conservation Plan, first released in 1992. The next installment of the Open Space Plan is due next year.
These were true working groups in DEC Regions 5 (Ray Brook) and 6 (Watertown). Local governmental, landowning and environmental interests were not shy about expressing their opinions and, over many years of meetings and give and take with each other and with DEC, became invested in the success of the Open Space Plan. The Plan, in turn, was quite dependent for its success on consensus recommendations from the regional committees. Consensus, when achieved, was hard won in the Region 5 committee, but the committee earned a reputation for showing up, doing the work, insisting on willing seller-willing buyer arrangements, debating constructively, and eventually getting behind key land protection priorities. Many other states are rightly envious of New York’s 30-year old open space planning process, where policies and land protection projects are prioritized and transparently debated at regional committee meetings.
On the rare occasion I attended Region 6 meetings, Clarence was just as firm and outspoken on the need for additional land protection as he was in my board room. He was respected for his point of view, though there were strong disagreements about land acquisition, both in general and in particular. I think, for example, of the controversial 144,000 acres of the former Champion International paper company, sold to the state as a mixture of conservation easement and Forest Preserve in the late 1990s. Clarence and others from his area were not popular for supporting that negotiated sale with the company. The sale and subsequent classification and management kicked up a lot of dust, but in the end has proven of great value to the Adirondack (and statewide) environment and economy.
During the time Clarence served on the regional open space conservation advisory committee, roughly 1992-2009, the Adirondack Forest Preserve across both Regions 5 and 6 grew from 2,640,000 acres to 2,797,795 acres, or about 9,000 acres per year if averaged evenly over 17 years. Of course, land protection from willing sellers is episodic, not evenly spread over time. Conservation easements over that same area and period grew from 93,000 acres to 797,000 acres, averaging 39,000 acres per year. That was before the state’s protection of the 161,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn and Co. holdings from 2009-2014; 93,000 acres of that is in conservation easement, most of the balance is in the Forest Preserve.
Clarence’s advocacy up to the year he died had a lot to do with the success of Adirondack open space planning and the actual land protection achieved during these years. He would be sounding the alarm if he heard the Land Trust Alliance’s 2023 testimony during this year’s budget hearings in Albany. LTA’s Meme Hanley testified that “if NYS is to achieve its 30×30 target, the state and its land trust partners together will have to conserve, protect and acquire approximately 225,000 acres per year over the next eight years.”
The 30 by 30 law of 2022 makes it a statewide goal “to support and contribute to national efforts to conserve at least thirty percent of United States lands and inland waters by 2030. NYS DEC…is to develop strategies and methodologies to achieve the goal in coordination with the Statewide Open Space Conservation Plan.”
However, as Meme Hanley testified, DEC is presently hitting just 2% of the needed target of 225,000 acres statewide per year. “In 2020 DEC acquired just 5,413 acres (statewide); in 2022 the total acquired was only 4,416 acres (again, statewide). Land Trusts are currently holding over 95,000 acres of land valued at more than $150 million dollars for the State of New York. This is unsustainable for the land trust community and poses a financial risk to those organizations. We are asking DEC, OPRHP and the Attorney General’s Office to work with the land trust community to streamline the land acquisition process in NY so more land is protected for climate mitigation, biodiversity habitat, and public use. Suggested actions include hiring more real property staff at all three agencies and accepting title insurance for state-purchased properties,” Meme Hanley testified to the state legislature.
In her testimony, the Open Space Institute’s Kathy Moser honed in on the DEC’s understaffed Division of Lands and Forests. “DEC Real Property staffing across the state is at an all-time low of thirty-eight employees; two of these are seasonal and 25% are eligible to retire tomorrow. Why does staffing matter? In 1999 DEC protected 183,434 acres of land (statewide) and there were 60 Real Property professionals at the agency. The average acres protected in the early 2000s when there was adequate staffing (between 55- 60 employees) was over 70,000 acres a year,” she testified (again, statewide).
State government’s climate action scoping plan has also elevated land protection to the highest level. Keeping forests as forests is a central recommendation in the Forest and Land Use sections of the scoping plan. It calls for much greater efforts at land acquisition and conservation easements by the state, counties, towns, and land trusts. To quote the Climate Scoping Plan, “ statewide agencies and organizations, land trusts, programs, and local municipalities should collaboratively aim to expand upon historical land acquisition rates to acquire at least 500,000 forested acres by 2050, prioritizing forests with the highest quality carbon, climate, and other conservation benefits.”
The Climate Action Council, the Governor, the State Legislature all want to keep forests as forests. However, at current staffing DEC is hard-pressed to turn out another edition of the acclaimed and successful Statewide Open Space Conservation Plan, much less protect several hundred thousand acres across the state on an annual basis through 2030. The regional open space advisory committees cannot function without a robust DEC staff. In its budget testimony this year, Adirondack Wild called for the immediate hiring of at least 15 new professionals in DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests to prioritize their work on the state’s land protection plans and priorities, be they in Watertown, Ray Brook or across the state.
Open space planning is important to avoid what the 2023 Climate Action Council is attempting to sharply decrease – the annual conversion of thousands of acres of carbon sequestering and storing forests to development. The NYS Climate Action Scoping Plan states that 65,000 acres of privately owned forest are lost to development annually. A personal experience illustrates the point.
One morning, a bulldozer was tearing through the woods next to our 12-acre wooded lot. We were astonished and unprepared. The dozer had been hired to cut a new forest road for a keyhole subdivision deep into the forest adjacent to ours. Every forested acre near us is important for climate mitigation and forest birds. I stood in front of the dozer operator, heart thumping. Would he turn off his dozer until we could locate the landowner? He gave us an hour’s respite. My Susan managed to locate the landowner and we nervously knocked on their door. Their daughter was, happily, visiting her parents at the time. She had grown up as a girl scout camping in that very forest. On the basis of that emotional attachment and a handshake, the landowners ordered the dozer to stop and gave us time to raise the money to buy their parcel to add to ours. We have enjoyed that additional 13 acres ever since as it soaks up atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis, and harbors so much life, but it was all an unplanned local open space and, from our standpoint, climate emergency that could easily have gone the other way and destroyed 300 large, beautiful black oaks and their forest soils. Statewide, we can and must do better than ad hoc response to bulldozers in the forest and loss of tens of thousands of acres each year. We urgently need an updated Open Space Plan, and more motivated DEC professionals to work with towns, counties, landowners and the regional open space advisory committees to keep our forests as forests. 2030 is just around the corner.
Photo at top: Clarence and Ferne Petty along with Clarence’s work boots and much else inside his guideboat, from an exhibit at his memorial celebration in Tupper Lake, 2010.