Imagine this seemingly improbable scenario: An 800-pound gorilla comes knocking at your door, demanding some of your backyard property. You say, "No way." The gorilla leaves, only to return with gifts to sway you. Again you refuse, but the next time when the gorilla returns it goes around the side and takes part of your yard anyway.That 800-pound gorilla, hereafter to be called New York State (with apologies to gorillas, which really are very gentle beasts), recently went through a similar process of taking land in the lightly populated southwestern Clinton County Town of Black Brook. Why should anyone care what happens to a seemingly insignificant town with four times the area of Manhattan and one-thousandth its population? Read on.This story begins on Earth Day 2004, when the State of New York and International Paper, in secret negotiations, cut a deal for almost all IP's New York land holdings—about 250,000acres. Most of the lands would become easements, either Category A where the state gets recreational and development control or the less restrictive Category B easements. The total land amounts involved were roughly 16,000 acres in the Town of Black Brook.Ratchet back to 1993 when the Environmental Protection Act was passed, creating a repository for funds for land acquisition. According to the Open Space Conservation Plan, "The Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) has grown substantially, from 31.5 million in appropriations in 1994 to its current annual funding level of 225 million dollars."It is these EPF monies that the state used to acquire most of the IP land, but there was a catch. Under Title 3, Article 54 in the "Open Space Land Conservation Projects" is written, "No project, which was not listed on the state land acquisition plan as of the effective date of the title, shall be proposed for acquisition by the state under this title, pursuant to the state land acquisition plan, if any town, within 90 days of notification by the state"¦ objects to such acquisition."There is more of this tediously wordy language, but the bottom line is that a town can veto the purchase, and the Town of Black Brook did just that, many times, even after a series of offers—"economic incentives"— came from the Department of Environmental Conservation to give in.It seemed like that part of the IP land deal was dead, but the 800-pound gorilla had more tricks left. Enter the Richard King Mellon Foundation, a two billion dollar fund dedicated to conservation projects mostly in western Pennsylvania where Richard Mellon was from. The Foundation's home page states:" It does not encourage requests from outside Pennsylvania. Priority is given to projects and programs that have both clearly defined goals and plans to document progress and results." Somewhere along the way, that foundation and the Conservation Fund, another private land acquisition outfit, agreed to underwrite the land takeover in Black Brook and three other St. Lawrence County towns. Now the state could do an end run, sneak around the Open Space requirement, and take the land."I was floored," says Black Brook Town Supervisor Rick Nolan. "When I got the letter from DEC's Acting Executive Deputy Commissioner Carl Johnson late in March, it made me feel sick. What's worse," Nolan says, "is we got the letter not from DEC but a copy from Senator Betty Little without a map enclosed. What a way to treat people you were negotiating with."After a long re-sell, the letter pumped the benefits of the takeover for Black Brook, the old win-win cliché, citing opportunities for local loggers. Johnson concludes for the town, "Both these actions were taken in response to the town board's position that this was necessary for future growth and development in the town.""I like the way they decide for us," responds Nolan sarcastically.One town official told me he didn't see any economic benefit to the takeover; there are no Black Brook loggers cutting trees there, nor, as far as he knows, does the town get stumpage money from the trees cut.By now, you may be asking yourself why is all this important, especially considering Black Brook's size, and that may have played a roll. It is easy for an 800-pound gorilla to overwhelm a small entity. There was also intense pressure on the state from environmental groups to finish the deal completely, no matter what.As for most of this land the state will control, if the takeover is uncontested, it was already heavily cut after 1998, IP using the ice storm as an excuse. The land's biggest asset is the cliffs of the Silver Lake and Potter Mountains (cliffs rock climbers crave), a small fraction of the land, but Black Brook, says Nolan, would probably have parted with them without much fuss if the state left the rest of the land alone.The finalized takeover will also affect the hunting clubs that lease the Black Brook tract, effectively paying the taxes for IP and new owner Lyme Timber. All the lands are Easement A, so in April 2009, these clubs will lose their posting rights to all but one acre around their hunting camps. Sounds good for the public, right—more access?Maybe.I have been told the gates will remain on the logging roads, limiting the general public to walking these "scenic" routes, but allowing hunting club members to use their vehicles to get to and from their camps only. All this is, of course, dependent on a Unit Management Plan that could be even more restrictive.In recent years, people have joined hunting clubs as much to use their four-wheelers as to hunt, and with this outlet closed to them, where will they go? It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure that one out, and they won't go away! According to the "Adirondack Atlas," a highly authoritative source for Adirondack statistical data, the 2000 Census shows there were thousands more ATV registrations in northern New York alone than Adirondack Mountain Club members statewide, and the number of ATV owners is growing exponentially. This fact seems to be ignored by the environmental groups that, since they have lobbyists in Albany, are able to get more done to their liking, such as land acquisition, because they can work the politicians. And, it is the politicians who, in the end, feed the 800-pound gorilla.As of now, the town of Black Brook has an attorney and is taking the state to court. Says Rick Nolan, "The state has enough land and certainly doesn't need more, especially this logged-over land. The town board has agreed to fight it."Maybe the gorilla needs to be taught some manners.
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