COLTON — Nearly 8,000 acres of land in St. Lawrence County are to be protected by the state from future development, the governor’s office announced Tuesday.
Using $4.3 million from the Environmental Protection Fund, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has acquired 7,047 acres of working forest land and 947 acres to be added to the 2.6 million acres of Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondack Park. The land is situated in the towns of Colton and Clifton in the northwest corner of park.
“The newly acquired land will protect the scenic and natural resources of this region, provide high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities and ensure sustainable forest management that contributes to local economies,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said.
Both the Forest Preserve annex, called the South Branch Grass River Tract, and the larger Cranberry Forest conservation easement were secured through The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit that facilitates property easements by pooling resources from other nonprofits, corporations and government agencies.
Since The Conservation Fund’s founding in 1985, a revolving fund of money has been established specifically for conservation acquisitions, and a total of more than 8 million acres across all 50 states have been permanently protected. Prior to establishing an arrangement with New York, The Conservation Fund purchased the Grass River land in 2015, with financial support from the Pittsburgh-based Richard King Mellon Foundation.
The parcels will be included in the park’s Grass River Complex, which includes several conservation easements and the Grass River Wild Forest. Previously punctuated, easements within the Grass River Complex will now be connected, and the 947-acre Forest Preserve parcel will thread through the Grass River Wild Forest. The DEC estimates roughly 90% of Grass River shoreline within the Adirondack Park is now protected.
Conservation easements are generally private-public agreements that allow private landowners to maintain some property rights — leasing and managing camps or facilitating limited timber production, for example — while the property is protected from other development. Every conservation easement is different, and DEC easements often permit public access.
The public will have paddling and fishing access to the Grass River, and the Forest Preserve land will be open year-round to motor vehicles on an existing road, and to additional foot and bicycle traffic from adjacent parcels. The portion of the easement to be used as a working forest will still host existing hunting clubs and camps, though the landowner has retained exclusive annual use of most of the property from the Wednesday after Labor Day until Dec. 15.
The DEC is developing an interim Recreation Management Plan until a finalized version is presented for public input.
Colton Town Supervisor George R. Cayey said the acquisitions are vital for enhancing recreation opportunities for local residents and maintaining longstanding hunting clubs and camps on the easement property. Clifton Town Supervisor Charles R. Hooven said he has a positive outlook on the arrangement.
State Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Daniel G. Stec, R-Queensbury, also lauded the DEC and Conservation Fund efforts. The Forest Preserve addition and the increased connectivity between easements, Mr. Stec said, “is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts of all interests, abilities and ages.”
Assemblyman Robert J. Smullen, R-Meco, the ranking assembly member on the Environmental Conservation Committee, said he is committed to similar protection of the state’s rivers and forests through “common sense conservation.”
“The preservation and protection of our state’s natural resources is one of our most important responsibilities as public servants and as citizens of this beautiful land,” Mr. Smullen said.
The state has been responsible for paying local property taxes on Forest Preserve lands within the Adirondack and Catskill parks since the late 1800s, when they were first protected as forever-wild in the state constitution. Real Property Tax Law mandates the state pay property taxes to the local municipalities where Forest Preserve lands are designated. The properties are valued by local assessors, and the assessments are reviewed by the state before payments are made.
Proposals to restructure the taxation agreement have been floated periodically, including under former Gov. David A. Paterson and Gov. Cuomo, most recently in 2018. That year, the governor attached a provision to the proposed 2019 budget that he claimed would have increased efficiency by implementing a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT plan, so the assessment review process would become unnecessary. Payments would have instead increased annually within the set property tax cap.
Widespread opposition in the state Legislature and among conservation groups led to the formation of a Forever Taxable coalition. The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages were vocal in opposing the proposed change.
“Our communities are currently protected by state laws governing property tax assessments, grievances and appeals,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway said at the time. “Shifting to these less formal payments could leave Adirondack communities isolated, forced to negotiate alone against state officials in the future.
When the 2019 budget proposal was finalized, the provision was removed.
More information about the Grass River Complex and its new additions is posted to the DEC website.