The Architect: Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr rewires Adirondack Park

Mike Carr (L) paddling with Brian Mann near Follensby Pond

Over the last century and a half, the Adirondack Park has seen a lot of outsized figures shaping its future, everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Senator Ron Stafford.

But with the Park’s modern structure — the zoning map, the private land use plan, the Adirondack Park Agency — now arrived at a comfortable middle age, there had been a general sense that the era of big, history-making leaders was at an end.

Enter Mike Carr, executive director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.  Under his guidance, a once obscure regional green group has moved to buy up and protect vast tracts of timberland once owned by major logging and paper companies.

Another big parcel, nearly 70,000 acres, will now be added to the forever wild forest preserve.

“Mike Carr was the brilliant architect of this plan, which stitched together the protection of a key resource in the Adirondacks, the heart of the Adirondacks,” said John Ernst, a conservationist who owns the Elk Lake property, which neighbors the Finch Pruyn lands, speaking at Sunday’s ceremony.

But the Finch, Pruyn deal, consummated over the weekend by Governor Andrew Cuomo to the tune of $47 million dollars, was only the latest installment in an effort that has literally redrawn the Park’s map, and rewired the debate over the Adirondacks’ future.

By permanently protecting vast acreages of timberland, lakes and shorelines, Carr’s group has gone a long way toward addressing the chief environmental risk that led to the formation of the APA: the vulnerability of the Park’s privately owned timberlands.

In launching the historic Finch Pruyn deal, Carr, who lives in Keene, convinced his organization to bite off a massive $100 loan.

He then led the organization as New York state descended into the Great Recession, and kept the project afloat during the Paterson years when interest in big North Country land deals evaporated.

It was more than risky.  It was an effort which might have looked foolish if the stakes weren’t so high.

Even critics of these land deals — and there are many — have praised Carr for pioneering new ways of talking with community leaders, negotiating contracts that address community needs and provide important assets like snowmobile connector trails.

You might expect a massive preservation effort like this one to spark an equally massive backlash.  Instead, it has co-existed with a new era of detente and dialogue.

Speaking on Sunday, Republican Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward gave the Nature Conservancy an 85% grade for its handling of the Finch Pruyn deal.  Not bad coming from an elected official who would have preferred to see the project shelved.

One curious note in Sunday’s official signing ceremony was the fact that Carr himself didn’t speak, nor was his historic role acknowledged by Governor Cuomo, though two speakers described him as “the architect” of this deal.

It was a peculiar omission, but moments like that likely won’t matter much in the long history of the Park.

A century from now, when people talk about and debate the actions of the big players who shaped what happens inside the blue line in permanent ways, I suspect Carr’s name will be prominent on the list, up there with Bob Marshall and Verplanck Colvin.

Carr’s legacy isn’t complete.  Indeed, he is still shepherding some big projects, one or two of them intensely controversial.

Tupper Lake is opposing his group’s effort to protect the Follensby Pond tract, which many environmentalists see as sacred ground, the place where Ralph Waldo Emerson went to set up his “philosopher’s camp.”

Will Mike Carr redraw that part of the Adirondack map too?  Stay tuned.




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57 Comments on “The Architect: Nature Conservancy’s Mike Carr rewires Adirondack Park”

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  1. Paul says:

    Who is “Ralph Walder Emerson”? Wink, wink!

  2. Paul says:

    “Carr’s group has gone a long way toward addressing the chief environmental risk that led to the formation of the APA: the vulnerability of the Park’s privately owned timberlands.”

    Brain, I don’t think the chief environmental risk that was supposed to be addressed by the APA was vulnerability of “timber-lands”?

  3. Pete Klein says:

    I think Cuomo was serving notice to the Republicans he is not their lap dog.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    Paul –

    When the APA was created, one of the top issues raised by the Rockefeller administration was the concern that privately owned timber lands (held by companies like Champion, IP and Finch Pruyn) would be sold, broken up and developed for real estate.

    That kind of large scale development was already on the drawing board in some corners of the Park and opponents were convinced that it would erode the overall open space character of the Adirondacks.

    The timber companies have indeed sold and moved on, but due in part to Carr’s efforts, we haven’t seen significant amounts of fragmentation and development of those lands.

    Most are now covered by conservation easements or are part of the forest preserve.

    Obviously, the preservation effort (supported largely by Governor Pataki, and now by Governor Cuomo) has been controversial in some circles.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. Paul says:

    Brian, fair enough. I was just thinking that the chief concerns at the time (and still now) are things like shoreline development. But you know more about this topic than I do. Personally I don’t think that these industrial timber-lands were ever under the kind of threat described by some. In my opinion (and I think the facts can bear this out) these lands are better preserved than some forest preserve parcels. Look at the eastern high peaks, that area is getting ruined by overuse and abuse. Look at the deal consummated over the weekend. Now that land will be opened up to every joe sixpack out there.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Paul’s concern has some merit but the problem with the so called “high peaks” is that they attract those who just want to “bag” a mountain. Trails that don’t involve a mountain top are no where near as damaged as those that do.
    In fact, there are many mountainless trails you can hike even in the summer without seeing more than a couple of hikers on the trail, if any.

  7. Will Doolittle says:

    Don’t you just hate it when the public actually uses public lands, Paul?
    You’re right, Brian, Mike Carr and the Nature Conservancy have achieved something dramatic, and wonderful. I don’t think, however, the deal was as much of a financial risk as you say, not when you know what an enormously wealthy group the Nature Conservancy is. Yes, each chapter has some autonomy, but I doubt the parent group (which has billions of dollars, with a “b”) would allow the Adirondack Chapter to collapse.

  8. Paul says:

    It would be useful to see some kind of true economic impact study on these kinds of things. When the “Champion” easement deals were being negotiated it was said that opening that land to public use would have a very positive economic impact on the surrounding communities. Did that happen? It seems to me that basically nobody uses those lands for anything but hunting (and much less now that the organized clubs are gone). For example the only time it gets used by paddlers is the occasional challenge to the navigation laws so some folks can blog about it? So Pete is probably right, maybe this land will not see much use either?

  9. Paul says:

    Will, I don’t hate it. I just think it is unfortunate that we don’t keep more land under private stewardship. I admit it, I am not a big proponent of opening up more and more land for public consumption.

  10. Paul says:

    The state is paying 50 million, they already paid 30 million for the easements. Given the decline in real estate prices over the past 5 years the TNC did pretty well. They have been logging it and leasing it to help cover the taxes. The state does not have that luxury on Forest Preserve land. What is the holding cost for the state moving forward? I would suspect the new assessment will hand us a pretty hefty property tax bill. Once the celebration is over we may have a bit of a hangover.

  11. Paul says:

    Also, what is the budget to maintain this parcel. Now that we own it we need to protect it. First thing we need to do is figure out how many more Forest Rangers we need. 100 thousand acres, 175 lakes, 180 miles of river, six mountains over 2000 feet… I would think that we need at least two?

  12. Walker says:

    Paul writes: ” Personally I don’t think that these industrial timber-lands were ever under the kind of threat described by some.”

    From Wikipedia’s article on the APA:

    “Then, in 1972, the Horizon Corporation of Tucson, Arizona purchased 24,000 acres (97 km2) within the park and announced plans to build 10,000 new homes, along with golf courses, and ski areas.”

  13. Pete Klein says:

    Why preserve anything? Imagine that Curiosity discovers humans originated on Mars but left the planet for Earth once they wrecked Mars with over development.

  14. Paul says:

    Walker, just like they will never build the ACR in Tupper Lake they never would have built that. I think the focus should be on real threats not ones that are basically unrealistic. The market will not allow the ACR to be developed. In the end only the lawyers will get rich.

  15. Walker says:

    Paul, how do you know what they would have done if they hadn’t been stopped? There were other plans for 4,000 homes on 18,000 acres under development. Why would someone plan something like that and not do some pretty major building if they got the go ahead? These were real threats at the time.

  16. Larry says:

    Will, if the Nature Conservancy has so much money, why did NYS just lay out $47M of taxpayer money?

  17. mervel says:

    Given that we have a lot of both private and public land in the Park; it would seem like we could compare the outcomes for that land over a long period of time?

    What has fared better?

  18. Larry says:

    I saw an interesting bumper sticker the other day that said, “It isn’t a damned PARK, it’s the Adirondacks, where we live and where we work.” I agree.

  19. Paul says:

    Walker, the APA regulations are not designed to STOP development. Although I see many of the “blame the APA” folks make this comment often. If the new regulations at the time scared away the developer then they were not too serious in the first place. Folks just have to get permits (or a variance) if they can’t do it within the regulations.

  20. Walker says:

    Maybe so, Paul, but they are designed to stop building 10,000 homes on 24,000 acres.

  21. myown says:

    Larry, your bumper sticker buddy is wrong. It is a PARK, and has been for over 100 years – get over it. No one is forced to live in the Park. If they don’t like living in a wonderful State Park they are free to find a better place.

  22. Larry says:

    Yessir, Boss! I am so happy to have people like you tell us what to think, how to feel and where to live. I doubt that many Adirondackers (including those whose families pre-date the “park”) would agree with your imperious suggestion that we get over it. Get over yourself and show some respect for the people whose homes, lives and jobs you’re interfering with.

  23. Walker says:

    Larry, there’s very few people living in the park whose families go back to 1885. The vast majority of park residents moved here after that date, knowing full well that they were moving into a park.

    So don’t get over it. Who cares?

  24. Larry says:

    Walker, I can name quite a few in my town alone whose families were there long before 1885. As always, you think the truth is what you believe and can’t admit that there’s another viewpoint or that you might actually be wrong. That lack of self awareness is characteristic of extremist philosophies, especially environmental fascists (including those with shallow local roots) who want to turn the Adirondacks into a people-less theme park for the enjoyment of tourists, never mind the people who live there.

  25. Walker says:

    “environmental fascists”!?

    “people-less theme park”!?

    Larry, I live here. I would hardly have an interest in depopulating the park.

    You’re hyperventilating, Larry.

  26. myown says:

    Sorry Larry I don’t buy your poor oppressed Adirondacker excuse. The Park has been around for over 100 years – time to move on and make the most of it. And how about showing some respect for the majority of NYS citizens and the individuals and organizations that had the foresight to create the greatest State Park on the planet.

  27. Larry says:

    It’s no excuse, just a reaction to people who do not recognize that everyone is not equally thrilled by the expenditure of over $40M in taxpayer money to protect lands that were already protected or that do not face unrestricted development without paying equal attention to the needs of the people who live in the Adirondacks. Seems like an attempt to garner favor and votes from people who live nowhere near here. We could use some balance. Everyone loved the land purchase but very few questioned the economic impact or asked where NYS is getting that much money. When “my way is the only way,” that’s fascism.

  28. Walker says:

    Actually, Larry, you’re using “fascism” to mean people who disagree with you.

    “Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek elevation of their nation based on commitment to an organic national community where its individuals are united together as one people in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry and culture through a totalitarian state that seeks the mass mobilization of a nation through discipline, indoctrination, physical training, and eugenics.” (Wikipedia)

  29. Brian Mann says:

    Guys –

    Keep it civil. Whenever you dip into the “fascist” pool of vocabulary, you are almost by definition saying nothing of interest.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to debate the merits of this land purchase – that goes without saying.

    But this purchase is part of a process that includes the DEC’s Open Space Committee, a land-purchase fund of money (the EPF) created by an act of the state legislature, and an action by an elected set of government officials.

    So…it may be a bad idea, but it’s not an act of a tyrant.

    –Brian, NCPR

  30. Paul says:

    Call it whatever you like, it doesn’t really matter. Those old bumper stickers have been around forever.

    The original point of making the area a “park” was precisely so that land within the blue line could be slowly purchased and added to the Forest Preserve. That was no big secret at the time. Back then the only reason for the hamlets were the sawmills that were considered by Colvin to be a big part of what was destroying the Adirondacks (and the Erie Canal (that part we now know wasn’t true but they did think it was at the time)). So back then the idea was draw a line around the parts of the area that they felt needed to be saved and start adding it to the FP. So then it wasn’t “de-population” that they were after, but it would be a consequence of what was hoped for the “park”.

    This was all supported by wealthy landowners within the blue line. Taking Forest Preserve out of timber production was good for the price of timber on the lands that would remain in active logging. Also adding logged-over land to the Forest Preserve would, de-facto, add to the size of the large private parks that was next door to the land being purchased.

    All of this was orchestrated by folks outside the local towns and resentment of that (see above) remains today.

    The real question for 2012 is what is the plan for the “park” moving forward. We see about 1 million acres taken from development in easements over the past decade. We see a huge chunk here apparently some of the best private land in the park (well not anymore) where a resort like the ACR could actually work. We now see preservation groups setting their sights on further curtailing shoreline and “back country” development (as they now call it). Does a reaction like the on above really surprise people.

  31. Larry says:

    Actually, Walker & Brian, I used the word “fascist” to define people who resolutely refuse to recognize a viewpoint other than their own and who believe that the “truth” is what they say it is. I have no problem with people who disagree with me, but I do have a problem with people who smugly resort to mockery when they are disagreed with or who shout down those with opposing viewpoints. The final put-down is usually reading the dictionary or Wikipedia quotes they post as a way of saying others don’t know what they’re talking about. That hardly promotes debate.

  32. Larry says:

    Paul, I do agree with you that it doesn’t matter what you call it, but the term “park” makes me grit my teeth as it seems to embody the philosophy and plans of those who want to “conserve” every inch of the Adirondacks without much regard for the needs or sensibilities of many of the inhabitants. My point is that there needs to be a balance.

  33. Paul says:

    Larry, just ignore them and make your point. Then maybe they will learn to do the same.

    I pose a simple question. What are the holding costs of the land? Here everyone seems focused on the purchase price. What is the annual property tax billed based on the new assessment. It must approach a million dollars if it is taxed properly. The land needs to be managed if it is going to be the “economic engine” that it was described as by the supporters of the deal. How many new DEC staff do they plan to add to do this work? How much will the work and the staff cost? They make the mistake of buying land then a few years later they write their “unit management plan” and figure out how much it is going to cost to hold the land. This is like buying a mansion and then realizing you don’t have the money to heat the place the first winter. That money doesn’t come out of the EPF. It comes out of the same pot that is used to pay for schools and roads and bridges that are in tough shape last time I checked. So what is the true cost here? It sounds like we are maybe asking the question after we signed the deed.

  34. Walker says:

    No, Larry, the final put-down is usually calling those who disagree with you “fascists.”

  35. Pete Klein says:

    What makes a place vibrant? One thing that makes a place vibrant is no one paying any attention to someone saying, “My family has been living here since___.”
    It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in any of the places that are making progress. For a place to be virbrant, it needs to welcome new people and not be saying, “I was here first so my views are more important.”

  36. Walker says:

    Paul, those are good questions, but I suspect that the answers would amount to small potatoes when divided by twenty million. And to make your questions meaningful, you would need to offset the costs by the income generated from tourism.

    And you write “So then it wasn’t “de-population” that they were after, but it would be a consequence of what was hoped for the “park”. You think that the area that became the park has been depopulated since its creation?

    I know of few places that were, indeed, depopulated– Brandon comes to mind. But it was depopulated by a private landowner. Would you care to point out areas that have been depopulated by the Park act?

  37. Larry says:

    Absolutely agree with your assessment, Paul. Cuomo will have the down-state votes long before the bills come due.

  38. Larry says:

    Tourism will not (and never has) provide the jobs that will encourage young families with children to move to or stay in the Adirondacks. Check out school enrollment stats. Retired senior citizens do not provide sustainable population growth.

    Walker: I don’t get the reference to “twenty million”. If you’re referring to the population of NY state, saying that the costs are “small potatoes” doesn’t balance the needs of Adirondackers with all those down state tourists. Maybe it is all about down state votes.

  39. EB says:

    So I’m going to make a provocative argument to see where it goes.

    From an economic efficiency viewpoint, the Forest Preserve is actually too small and the addition of these lands to the Forest Preserve may potentially increase the efficiency of the DEC by reducing the marginal cost per acre of managing the Forest Preserve.

    Why do I say this? This is an imperfect comparison but here are some crude back of the envelop calculations: The DEC’s 2012 budget was $1 Billion and it manages approximately 4.7 million acres. That works out to about $212/acre. Compare that to the US Forest Service, it has a 2012 budget of $5.1 Billion and manages 193 million acres. That’s about $26/acre.

    There is probably as loss of economy of scale and what we bear as a tax burden is largely the “fixed costs” of having public land but there might be room to gain more value per dollar of tax expenditure.

  40. Paul says:

    Maybe they are “small potatoes” but I don’t really think so. Tell that to a school that has just used up the last of their surplus funds and is looking at more and more state funding cuts. And they are still questions that should be addressed either way. And absolutely it should be analyzed with regard to money generated by the changes. Again an analysis that was not really done here. It does not need to be done by the seller. This is private land they can sell it for whatever reason the wish. But us as a buyer should know this going in. I don’t think we really did that. Like I said the analysis is always done after the fact. Some UMPs are decades overdue.

    “And you write “So then it wasn’t “de-population” that they were after, but it would be a consequence of what was hoped for the “park”. You think that the area that became the park has been depopulated since its creation?”

    No, I said that this was something that many involved in the formation of the park had originally hoped for. That is well documented if you read about the history of the parks formation. Walker, I am sure you have.

    Many areas lost population due to the decline of the logging industry partially caused by the loss of land that could be logged. A few examples are the town of Santa Clara (gone except a few homes), St. Regis Falls, Everton.

    Would the park be a more heavily populated area if it were more developed? I think that is a safe assumption. Would it be more developed if some past events had turned out differently. I think you mention something like 4000 homes that were stopped from being built above? That would have certainly made up for Brandon.

  41. Paul says:

    EB, that is an excellent point. I also think you could combine that with allowing things like ski areas on public land (and many other uses) in the Adirondacks like you see on Forest Service land. But you won’t find too many supporters of the new “Great Range” ski center in this forum!

  42. Walker says:

    “Many areas lost population due to the decline of the logging industry partially caused by the loss of land that could be logged. A few examples are the town of Santa Clara (gone except a few homes), St. Regis Falls, Everton.”

    But Paul, you know perfectly well that logging has all but disappeared for reasons of global competition, not because of Forever Wild. There’s a reason that the paper companies have all but stopped cutting on their own land.

    “Would the park be a more heavily populated area if it were more developed? I think that is a safe assumption. Would it be more developed if some past events had turned out differently. I think you mention something like 4000 homes that were stopped from being built above?”

    Yes, and 10,000 too. And you think that would have been a good thing?

  43. Walker says:

    “The DEC’s 2012 budget was $1 Billion and it manages approximately 4.7 million acres.”

    Yes, but the DEC does much more than manage forest land– it’s responsible for environmental issues in the entire state.

  44. EB says:


    The Forest Service does much more than manage National Forests and National Grasslands. And like I said, it’s imperfect and comparison but I think useful.

  45. Walker says:

    Seems to me that without knowing what portion of each organization’s objectives are devoted to managing forest land, it tells us nothing. Like comparing the budget of the Green Bay Packers to that of the sports director of Paul Smiths.

  46. Walker says:

    From the Enterprise article:

    “DEC Commissioner Joe Martens defended the acquisition and said the original 161,000 acres of land was looked at to determine which land is suitable for logging. He noted that the state put a conservation easement on 89,000 acres of timberland already.

    “When we looked at the entire suite of parcels and the overall 161,000 acres, we did exactly what the critics said should be done,” Martens said. “We looked at the most productive timberlands and the best timberlands and kept them, and acquired an easement on those lands so they would be kept in production. And we looked at these parcels and we determined that these were the ones that had the highest recreational value, the highest public values or the most sensitive resources, and that these should be set aside for the Forest Preserve, so it was a very careful balancing act based on the attributes of the land itself, which we think is a very intelligent way to approach a big project like this.”

    …”State Sen. Betty Little, a vocal opponent of the state buying more land in the Adirondack Park, was less critical of the deal. She noted it was the completion of a commitment made to The Nature Conservancy by a prior governor’s administration.

    “The one thing that I think will happen is that there will be better accessibility to these lands,” she said.”

  47. Pete Klein says:

    The deal was pretty much as described by DEC Commissioner Joe Martens.
    The problem we are now seeing is the fact that there are those who not only oppose the deal but are also opposed to everything the Common Ground Alliance stands for and is try to achieve.
    Their attitude is enough to keep some people from ever wanting to live in the Adirondacks.

  48. Paul says:

    The comparison is probably still a useful one to make, even if only to point out the differences. The only point I was trying to make above is that Forest Service land generates income for the government beyond just the tourist income that some hope to see increase with the addition of these public lands. When they talk about the cost to manage FS land per acre have they already netted out the direct income generated by the land? Perhaps that is all separate in the BLM budget. But it is still relevant and points to a very different philosophy (one that would probably have some strong local support in the Adirondacks) of how to manage public lands.

    “Yes, and 10,000 too. And you think that would have been a good thing?”

    No, not necessarily, but many do. One mans paradise is another mans parking lot. If these were second homes (maybe a safe assumption) then this is the kind of development encouraged by our proximity to first home owners and the fact that through some of these purchases we are making the place into an area where people want to vacation.

  49. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It gets really tedious reading about the loss of logging jobs and sawmills. One guy with a chainsaw and a skidder can do the work of a whole camp full of guys did 100 years ago and small sawmills weren’t put out of business by the Park. It is a set of factors that shut down those mills. Sometime sit by the Northway and watch all the logs being trucked to Canada.

  50. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    And why is it supposed to make a persons points more credible just because they had ancestors who didn’t move?

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