Last week, voters across New York state voted by a narrow margin to approve a controversial land deal in the Adirondack town of Lewis, allowing NYCO minerals to mine roughly 200 acres of “forever wild” forest preserve land.
The proposal — known as Prop 5 — divided environmentalists, with three of the state’s largest green groups supporting its passage, and a coalition of smaller groups vehemently opposing the measure.
As a journalist, obviously, my job isn’t to take sides.
In this case, even privately, I remain conflicted after months of listening closely to and reporting on the passionate debate that unfolded before and after the vote.
I’ve heard strong arguments for and against the project.
But I also find a fascinating ideological tension at play, one that transcends the specific merits and demerits of this deal.
On the one side stands a reasonable argument that Article XIV of the state constitution – the “forever wild” provision — is meant to be very close to a locked box. The language of the article is very specific.
It states that the lands of the state in the Adirondacks “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold.”
The reasons for this kind of no-fudging-allowed clarity are found in the often troubled history of the Adirondacks. The landscape inside the blue line was ravaged in the 1800s by over-harvesting of timber.
State officials allowed a wide variety of questionable practices on public and private lands, many of them carried out by the Conservation Department itself.
There were repeated pushes to crack open the Park’s forest preserve for development, including an effort to create a network of hydro dams and reservoirs on the upper Hudson River in the late 1960s.
So when green groups draw a fierce ideological line in the sand, they can point without hesitation at the Park’s ecological vulnerability, and at the very high constitutional threshold established more than a century ago to curtail abuses.
“If [the principle of] forever wild can’t be saved from the jaws of a mining company to be clearcut, blasted and mined, then when can it be saved?” asked Protect the Adirondack’s Peter Bauer after Proposition 5 was approved.
Set against this hard but principled stance is the idea that the Adirondacks is a “peopled park” and the understanding – also clearly established in the state constitution – that there will be times and places where flexibility and nuance are needed.
The principle here is just as important as forever wild. It holds that the “dead hand” of past decision-makers shouldn’t rule absolutely and in perpetuity over the lives of future Adirondackers and New Yorkers.
Making changes to the “forever wild” forest preserve isn’t easy – such an act requires a full-blown amendment to the state constitution – but it is possible. And that’s by design. It’s not a loophole or an oversight.
This tension between two equally vital concepts is hard-wired into our system.
Neil Woodworth, an attorney who heads the Adirondack Mountain Club, argues that in rare instances it will make sense to allow private individuals and companies to gain chunks of state land for private use.
He points to past instances where International Paper and National Grid took ownership of parcels of the forest preserve – with more than 8,000 acres of wild lands being transferred to IP.
Last week, the Township 40 vote also offered title to small pieces of forever wild land to dozens of home- and business-owners around Racquette Lake.
“You couldn’t have done this without the whole [constitutional amendment] process, two consecutive passes by the legislature, and then a referendum by voters,” Woodworth noted.
Critics of the NYCO deal argue that in this case a constitutional amendment wasn’t warranted or justified. Fair enough.
The language of Article XIV clearly urges New Yorkers to set a very high bar for making transfers of this kind in the Adirondacks, especially in cases involving private corporations. It’s perfectly reasonable to question whether the standard was met here.
But supporters of the NYCO project were able to garner enough backing – including from prominent environmentalists, Republicans, Democrats, union leaders, local elected officials, and others – to make it through the long gauntlet of the amendment process.
It’s significant and it’s worth repeating that lawmakers and state officials didn’t just “sell” the two hundred acres of park land in question.
Instead, there was a long debate, involving a wide cross-section of New York society. The proposal survived a series of very high hurdles, bipartisan action by both houses of the state legislature, followed by a democratic vote of all the state’s people.
It may be, of course, that we collectively got it wrong.
A lot of people will be watching NYCO to see if the land deal produces economic and environmental gains as promised. We’ll see if it unleashes a flurry of other “land swap” proposals involving corporations, as critics have warned.
Whatever else happens, however, we know that one important principle was maintained last week.
That principle holds that the forever wild protections in the Adirondacks are important and worth defending with very strict constitutional thresholds.
But it also holds that in a democracy we get to continue making decisions — even bad ones, on occasion — about our lives and the policies and laws that shape our world.