by Charles C. Morrison
On Election Day last November, by the narrowest margin (53-47%) in the 120-year history of the “forever wild” provision of the state Constitution, voters allowed a private mining company, NYCO Minerals, Inc., to buy 200 acres of ecologically valuable State Forest Preserve land known as Lot 8 to extend its existing Town of Lewis wollastonite mine. Lot 8 is in the Jay Mountain Wilderness of the Adirondack Park, in the Lake Champlain Valley.
This was also the first amendment ever with no public purpose; it solely benefited NYCO. Even the oft-mentioned 1979 land swap with International Paper, which the Sierra Club opposed, had some purposes that benefited the public. Also, NYCO will buy Lot 8 by paying the state with run-of-the-mill cut-over forest land it owns. This land has no special resource value and is the kind of land the state can buy anywhere in the Adirondacks at any time.
The vote put the usefulness of “forever wild” protection on a slippery slope, creating a terrible precedent. The message is that Forest Preserve land now can be bought if a commercial interest pays enough for it and can convince a majority of the voters that it will be good for the economy and will create or protect jobs. In other words, “forever wild” has been greatly weakened and the Forest Preserve is now much less protected by the Constitution than it was before this vote.
Before the vote, NYCO mounted a $750,000 public relations campaign of disinformation saying that Lot 8 is worthless as wilderness but if they didn’t get it before running out of ore in the existing adjacent Lewis mine, their 105 employees would be out of a job and NYCO would leave the state. What they didn’t tell the public is (a) that they intended to apply to the state for a 50% expansion of their existing mine (application now filed), (b) that they own another mine two miles away that will be ready for full-scale mining by 2016, (c) that they are still prospecting in the area for more ore deposits, (d) that they own a state-of-the-art mill in nearby Willsboro which they have no intention of abandoning. In fact, no jobs would have been lost if the proposition had been defeated.
NYCO’s next step as required by the November vote is to undertake test drilling on Lot 8. This will help NYCO decide whether or not to proceed with full-scale open pit mining. If NYCO does go ahead, the drilling data will also provide the basis for an appraisal that the state Legislature will use to determine how much NYCO will “pay,” in acres of forest land for Lot 8. The Legislature could raise other issues.
This “forever wild” amendment only lifts constitutional protection of Lot 8 enough to allow NYCO to cut trees to create corridors (not roads) for bringing in lightweight drilling equipment for use at up to 21 sites. During the test drilling, Lot 8 in every other way is still Forest Preserve Wilderness subject to all normally applicable non-constitutional state laws and regulations. For example, the Adirondack State Land Master Plan and the State Environmental Quality Review Act were not “implicitly” erased by the November vote as DEC and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) now maintain. These laws still must be obeyed.
In January, Earthjustice, a national not-for-profit environmental law firm representing Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks!, the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Atlantic States Legal Foundation, warned the state about the need to address these other legal requirements. There is plenty of time to do this right while NYCO continues mining the expanded Lewis mine. However, in April, DEC and the APA started a short-cut approval process, ignoring the admonitions of Earthjustice. This could lead to a lawsuit.
On April 2, DEC issued a draft Temporary Revocable Permit, maintaining that it is all that is needed to govern test drilling activity on Lot 8, even though the ASLMP normally would have to be amended to make an exception because it prohibits motorized uses in wilderness. Similarly, on April 11, APA released an amendment to the Jay Mountain Wilderness Unit Management Plan, two days after Earthjustice sent a second warning letter.
Charles Morrison is a member of the Chapter's Adirondack Committee.