Cuomo’s Divisive Adirondack Legacy

The Adirondack legacy of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is more than just a land acquisition and a failed snowmobile master plan. Indeed, those were actually projects he inherited from previous governors and merely stewarded to their logical conclusions. Instead, the one project that can be fully attributed to Cuomo involved a mine, a protected wilderness, and a highly controversial amendment to the state’s constitution that allowed one to gain access to the other.

High in the hills above Lewis – a sleepy community in Essex County a few miles north of Elizabethtown – is a large open pit mine at the foot of the Jay Mountain Range. The mine is operated by NYCO, a company based in Willsboro, NY, but traded around like a baseball card from one multinational corporation to another over the years. It produces a mineral called wollastonite — hardly a household name, but it’s a substance that can be used (among other things) as a substitute for asbestos.

This is a part of the Adirondacks that few tourists see – not just the mine, but the town of Lewis in general. On my most recent visit I was struck by the sharp decrease in highway traffic as I drove north past the Northway’s ever-popular Exit 30, which provides the speediest access from I-87 to Keene Valley and Lake Placid. Continuing toward Exit 32, the highway’s four lanes suddenly seemed superfluous amidst the grand pine-filled forests.

If you travel far enough northeast in Essex County you’ll reach a seemingly un-Adirondack mixture of expansive pastures interrupted by forested hills – a bucolic landscape somewhat more evocative of Vermont or the Catskills rather than the land of French Louie and Old Mountain Phelps. But this is nevertheless one’s first impression of Exit 32. Turning westward onto County Road 12, though, one is presented with a rugged mountain skyline, where the Adirondack bedrock seems ready to burst vertically out of its forested cloak.

There is a stop sign when you reach the intersection with US Route 9 in Lewis, but probably not much traffic to stop for. The county road continues west, now climbing past residences and camps as it brings you closer to those same mountains you admired a few minutes ago. Where the road makes a sharp turn to the north, it undergoes a name change and becomes Seventy Lane. Then the pavement ends just before the gated entrance to NYCO’s primary mine.

Seventy Lane continues into the forest, now the narrow gravel lane its name implies. After passing the last set of private camps, it enters state land and dead-ends at one of the least known Forest Preserve parking areas you’ll ever find. A brown, standard-issue DEC sign announces this is the public access for the “Fay Mountain Tract,” although it is also (and somewhat more notably) the only entrance from the east to the Jay Mountain Wilderness, the home to that jagged skyline you saw when you exited the Northway. This is hardly a hotbed of overuse; two old roads branch out into the forest, neither of them going anywhere nor of much interest to the general public. To climb any of those mountains you must bushwhack the entire way.

Nevertheless, this area was the scene of what I’ll always remember as the Cuomo administration’s greatest crime against the Adirondack wilderness.

The Mine that Abuts the Wilderness

It’s anyone’s guess how complicit NYCO was in the constitutional amendment that came to bear its name. But Andrew Cuomo’s DEC, which was then led by commissioner Joe Martens, wanted it badly, and a PR firm did its damnedest to convince a plurality of the state’s conservation-minded voters that an open-pit mine in a protected wilderness was the best possible outcome for the Adirondacks.

This was the issue: NYCO’s wollastonite mine on Seventy Lane shares a long boundary with the state-owned Jay Mountain Wilderness. In fact, the excavation comes within a matter of yards of the state land boundary, which is clearly visible on satellite imagery of the area. The company is free to reap whatever mineral bounty it can from its own property, but the Forest Preserve is a place that “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed,” according to the famous “forever wild clause” of New York State’s constitution.

NYCO Mine and the Jay Mountain Wilderness

It was assumed, though, that the mineral lens NYCO had been exploiting extended into the neighboring Jay Mountain Wilderness. If so, it could be economically desirable to find a solution in which the mine could remain in operation, extending the employment of NYCO’s workforce (and increasing whatever profit one earns from mining and processing wollastonite).

Thus a credible amendment to the constitution advanced through the legislature in time for a 2013 referendum. As one would naturally expect, this pro-business proposal had the full backing of local officials, from town fathers to state senators. I do not fault these people for their support of the “NYCO Amendment,” because this is precisely the type of project local politicians are expected to endorse; it is a natural outgrowth of their stated priorities. I do not need to agree with it to respect their decisions.

Where this went awry, though, was when DEC quite clearly acted as NYCO’s cheerleader, arguing the economic benefits of the mine outweighed any conservation benefits of preserving one of the wilderness areas under its own care. It was a mystifying position for a state agency that, at worst, should have been neutral in a political process that was well outside of its normal operating arena; at best, DEC should – you know? – maybe have been an advocate for environmental conservation, as its mandate suggests?

But even more inexplicable was the willing support offered by two of the Adirondack Park’s self-styled “watchdog” groups: the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) under Neil Woodworth’s leadership; and the Adirondack Council, a well-moneyed behemoth of an organization who had just recently hired Willie Janeway as its executive director. Maybe it mattered, or maybe not, but Janeway was a past employee of both ADK and DEC.

Thus what many people might have seen as a black-and-white choice between two shades of green – dollars versus trees – was complicated by these two well-respected conservation groups supporting the idea of a corporate mine gaining access to the wilderness.

Proposition 5

The actual measure being presented to the state’s voters in 2013 was not easy to describe, because this was no simple land exchange. Apparently NYCO, or the Greek multinational that owned it at the time, was not willing to cede some of its generous landholdings in Lewis for that corner of the Jay Mountain Wilderness it suspected might contain the rest of its wollastonite lens.

Indeed, no one could assess the true value of the land in question – identified technically as “lot 8, Stowers survey, town of Lewis, Essex county,” but called Lot 8 for short. This was because any industrial activity, including drilling into the bedrock, is constitutionally prohibited on all state land.

Therefore the proposed amendment would be a multi-staged action, beginning with a mineral sampling operation in which NYCO would be allowed access to Lot 8 to assess its true economic value. Depending on the findings of those test bores, NYCO could then exercise an option to gain ownership of whichever portion of Lot 8 it needed – or it could decline, if the test results showed the mineral value was not as great as expected. Either way, the amendment expected NYCO to swap at least an equal amount of land back to the state, with a minimum value of $1 million.

This last stipulation was supposed to be the selling point for people like me: yes, Lot 8 at the foot of MacDonough Mountain might get stripped of its forest and its bedrock might get pulverized in the quest for mineral riches, but the Forest Preserve would be getting more land in return. This was the conservation benefit that made the whole complicated proposal worthwhile – the state might get ten times the acreage it was giving up!

And indeed, this promise of “more land” did work on some people. ADK’s Neil Woodworth, for instance, argued that Lot 8 had no recreational value (being tucked away, as it was, behind a mine far from the High Peaks) and this made it expendable. Constitutional amendments, he argued, do not set precedents, and therefore he was confident his organization could choose to support the NYCO Amendment but oppose any future proposals it found distasteful, by whichever arbitrary decision tree one might employ to justify such contrary actions.

But DEC’s advocacy for Proposition 5, as the ballot measure was officially known, occurred in broad daylight and could not be denied. Andrew Cuomo’s commissioner at the time was Joe Martens, who a decade previously had been president of the Open Space Institute when it acquired Tahawus and sold much of that land to the Forest Preserve. In the May-June 2013 issue of ADK’s Adirondac magazine he published a persuasive essay urging club members to support the amendment.

“Due to the potential value of wollastonite under Lot 8,” Martens wrote, “and the amendment’s one-million-dollar minimum value, the state would receive considerably more than 200 acres in any land exchange.” He mentioned that DEC was reviewing some potential parcels it might want to acquire, and that the department was following ADK’s advice that any such exchange land “should also improve access to the Forest Preserve in the area of the Jay Mountain Wilderness.”

Lot 8 had little preservation value, the commissioner argued. “[DEC] has not identified any unique ecological or natural resource features on the property. Lot 8 has little recreational use: the parcel has no trails or campsites, and public access is limited.” This is all true, with qualifications: if one considers wollastonite to be a “natural resource,” then at least this much had been found there; and access to Lot 8 has never been “limited,” since anyone can go there even if few choose to do so.

But there was a constituency the Cuomo administration was clearly trying to impress. Martens wrote: “…passage of the NYCO Amendment is critical to the health of these already distressed rural economies. NYCO employs approximately 150 local residents who have few alternative employment opportunities.” The commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation repeated NYCO’s oft-reported threat that it might leave New York if Proposition 5 was defeated – as if protecting mines was DEC’s primary mission.

The timing of all this is difficult to unpack from the perspective 2021, with all that has happened in the last eight years. The NYCO debate was years ahead of the sexual harassment allegations that eventually undid Governor Cuomo’s third term in office, as well as his Emmy-winning press conferences during the COVID shut-down. Nor, for that matter, did anyone in 2013 think a Trump presidency could ever happen, including (probably) Donald J. Trump himself.

The Andrew Cuomo of that era was still serving out his first term as governor, with his eyes clearly set on a second term. Perhaps he was hoping that his tough-guy-getting-things-done persona might yet appeal to New York’s rural populace, and help secure his reelection. Just perhaps this was one of the selection criteria that made NYCO such an “environmental” priority.

But then a horrific school shooting occurred in a Connecticut elementary school in December 2012, and within weeks Cuomo was expending his political capital on forcing the NY SAFE Act through the legislature. This was the controversial assault weapon ban for which no self-respecting NRA member would ever forgive him, as evidenced by the prolific lawn signs still defiantly displayed all across Upstate eight years later.

So by November 2013, when voters statewide were expected to decide NYCO’s fate, I have no doubt more than a few of those rural voters were happy to take Cuomo’s offer to preserve a few jobs somewhere up north – especially since the governor’s decision on hydrofracking in the Southern Tier was still up in the air and might yet be influenced.

None of this, experience has shown, would turn those same voters into card-carrying Cuomo fans, though. And so if NYCO was intended to help the governor build his voter base in the state’s conservative strongholds, he had already shot himself in the foot as far as his target audience was concerned. They were the ones playing him – not vice versa.

The Makings of a Wilderness Advocate

Call me naïve, but I entered 2013 taking it for granted that wilderness organizations would automatically side with the wilderness, leaving it to other entities better disposed to argue economics to do just that. Instead, all I received was disillusionment.

As gratifying as it might seem, there is probably little value in publicly airing my full list of grievances with those supposedly “green” institutions that did support the NYCO Amendment. I’ve always struggled with the entire concept of the Adirondack Council, and I have spent much of my advocacy career minimizing my contact with them. As for ADK, there has been a subsequent change in leadership that has made a world of difference.

The fundamental issue, though, was that in 2013 these two organizations did publicly support the NYCO amendment, and that was enough. The Cuomo administration made no effort to seek endorsement from all organizations, just the two it hoped would be most influential – thus the former governor’s reputation for employing “divide and conquer” tactics.

At that time I had been an active member of ADK for more than a decade, and even my seat on its conservation committee didn’t prepare me for the club’s decision. But having witnessed that decision being made in person, I am convinced it never would have happened as it did without the firm insistence of its much-admired executive director, Neil Woodworth. He and I were members of different generations – Woodworth was a Baby Boomer through and through, and I sometimes feel like a type specimen for Generation X – but we were each, at least, people with strong personal attachments to the Adirondacks, as well as opinionated speakers with ambitions to be remembered for our own roles in its conservation history. That much I’m willing to concede.

It was not possible for me to reconcile the concepts of “wilderness preservation” and “corporate profit,” though. In the same Adirondac issue in which Commissioner Martens wrote in favor of NYCO, I was granted the opportunity to air my dissenting opinion. “A principled organization should know what its values and priorities are, and be able to consistently apply them from situation to situation,” I wrote. “Some people may think the proposed ten-to-one exchange rate is a sweet deal, but this is the thinking of a capitalist. A conservationist would say the value of the preserve is unaffordable in monetary terms, so don’t ask the price.”

ADK and the Council only accounted for half of the Forest Preserve watchdog groups in operation at the time. The other two were decidedly against NYCO, but somewhat less endowed with resources to do anything about it. Protect the Adirondacks, led by Peter Bauer, had teamed up with Adirondack Wild’s Dave Gibson and Dan Plumley to create a joint Facebook page to promote a “Say No to NYCO” message. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I never went to Lot 8 in 2013. I had, however, climbed all the trailless summits surrounding it: Fay, Bald, Death, Saddleback, Seventy, and Slip (which was later renamed MacDonough). Therefore I did feel a personal connection to the Jay Mountain Wilderness, one which would be threatened by its state-sponsored diminishment. I was not impressed by NYCO’s promise to backfill Lot 8 and plant tree seedlings before returning the land to the preserve; Martens argued the “disturbed acres would once again take on a wild forest character,” but to me this vision of the future was just “seedlings on top of a landfill.”

Mount Fay above NYCO’s Wollastonite Mine

Itching to make a difference, but wary of joining another organization with whom I might not always see eye-to-eye, I petitioned Bauer, Gibson, and Plumley for admin access to their joint Facebook page as something of an “independent operator.” This was granted in due time, and thus October 2013 became my first experience using a social media platform as an Adirondack advocacy tool.

This was what I learned: you can pay Facebook to help you reach more people. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money – just five bucks can get you started for a day. But obviously, the more money you spend the greater your potential outreach.

This is important because a Facebook page initially only reaches the personal contacts of the person (or people) who run it. That’s great, but I wanted more than just my aunt in Fonda to get my message. On the other hand, I was not a member of either Protect the Adirondacks or Adirondack Wild, and I presumed no right to spend their money.

And so I funded my campaign on my personal credit card, running several targeted ads in the weeks leading up to Election Day. These began with small amounts but trended upward as time grew short and the situation seemed to grow more desperate. I made contact with people throughout the state, including pro-fracking types from the Southern Tier who were happy to annoy an “environmentalist,” and people in Manhattan who had no idea there was even a controversy. (Allegedly the PR firm hired to manage NYCO’s image through the election had been running its own suave ads in the metro market assuring its voting base there was no issue and therefore no need to worry. All was swell in the ADKs; vote “yes” on Prop 5 if you vote at all, otherwise have a nice day.)

I am not a wealthy person, and there were limits to the amounts I could rationally charge to my credit card. Nevertheless the total amount spent was in the hundreds of dollars. The night of the election I brought my laptop to a favorite pub and monitored both the Facebook account and the projected election results while sitting at the bar. There was nothing more to do at that point, and in slow motion I watched as Proposition 5 was approved by a narrow margin of some 130,000 votes.

The experience did lead to this epiphany: I had been a loyal, dues-paying ADK member for years, but I just spent several times that amount of my own personal funds to oppose one of the club’s positions. This was beyond irony, and I decided there, at that Utica pub, that my relationship with ADK was immediately and irrevocably done. It was as simple and obvious as that – easier than breaking up with a girlfriend, but just as permanent.

Lot 8 Today

NYCO and its supporters won in 2013, although I like to think I played a role in keeping the vote close. The company gained the right to enter the Jay Mountain Wilderness and make its test bores on Lot 8. But then nothing happened, and no one has been held accountable for what was effectively a failed amendment.

The support of ADK and the Council that year was more than just token. It leant credibility to an absurd idea, that supporting the expansion of a mine was protecting both wilderness and livelihoods. People talked like characters from the movie Field of Dreams: dig it, and NYCO will hire. Equating a bigger mine with more employment seemed like such a no-brainer that some people who should’ve known better failed to think critically.

What every supporter assumed was that each of the steps identified in the text of the amendment would be followed as closely as a casserole recipe. It seemed ironclad; the company would extend the life of its mine, they wouldn’t lay any employees off, and the state would get at least ten times more land than was being sacrificed. There was no way to lose!

But even the conservation lawyers failed to consider one fatal flaw: nothing in Proposition 5 compelled NYCO to do anything. It didn’t acknowledge that the company was just a subsidiary of a much larger company, or that it might be sold, or that any new owner might disavow any obligation to anyone in regards to Lot 8.

NYCO did avail itself of the opportunity to go see what Lot 8 had to offer. Why not? This much was a freebie given up by the good people of New York State. And so once the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency diligently approved changes to the Jay Mountain Wilderness management plan in 2014, NYCO cut a pair of wide, winding trails through the parcel’s mature hardwood forest. Holes were drilled into the bedrock, then covered back up before the work crews withdrew back to the company’s own property.

 

 

The terms of the amendment instructed the miners to share their findings with the state so that DEC could agree to the land’s true economic value. This would then trigger the second phase of the amendment, which in any event would result in NYCO giving more land to the Forest Preserve.

But this is what really happened after the test bores were complete: Nothing. NYCO was sold, and the new multinational overlord professed it had no obligation to do anything. The company’s interests shifted to another nearby site that in 2013 had allegedly been too inconvenient to excavate. Lot 8’s value was never disclosed, and no land was added to the Forest Preserve.

Let me say this again: The NYCO Amendment has never resulted in a single public benefit!

It was with morbid curiosity that I finally made a sojourn to Lot 8 the Saturday before Andrew Cuomo’s final resignation as governor; he was less-than-gracefully relieving me of the obligation to vote against him one more time, but I felt it was important to see his Adirondack legacy up close and personal. Sadly, though, NYCO has become as forgotten as Barack Obama’s Blackberry, and other outrages now take precedent in the minds of the state’s voters.

As it turns out, Lot 8 is easy to reach, even if it’s not a place anyone is ever likely to stumble across by accident. The woods between that lonely parking area at the end of Seventy Lane and the NYCO property line are easy to navigate, and the woods are impressive once you arrive. It’s an easy matter to follow the posted boundary around a right-angle corner straight to the mine, where the wilderness forest comes to an abrupt end and the mine opens up like a chalky maw in the surface of the Earth.

The trails to the test bore sites are difficult to miss, although they show no signs of recent activity. I’m as allergic to hyperbole as anyone, so I’ll refrain from overstating their impact to the wilderness resource. Assuming this is all that happens and that the remaining provisions of Prop 5 are never invoked, then these swaths will heal within the space of a single forest generation. Likewise, the bore sites hardly call attention to themselves – no gaping holes waiting to swallow the unwitting explorer, just a survey marker here and there.

But even if Prop 5 never went anywhere, it is still on the books. Some future version of NYCO or its corporate masters may rediscover this queer provision in New York State’s constitution and figure out they can use it to their expedient advantage. The price of land slowly creeps upward over time in tune with the market, but that proscribed $1 million base price is set in constitutional stone; the dollar amount that impressed people in 2013 may be a pittance in 2043, and thus the Adirondack wilderness may someday sell cheaply. And the jobs? Won’t increased automation do away with all those local employment opportunities?

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Andrew Cuomo’s legacy in the Adirondack Park than the boundary between NYCO’s Seventy Lane mine and the Forest Preserve: a sheer divide between a protected wilderness and an open pit, as straight and true as a surveyor’s line. The people who supported the amendment are nowhere to be found and have nothing further to say on the matter; those of us who opposed it will now forever have to keep a vigilant eye on this literal scar on the landscape, lest old wounds reopen and bleed inward toward the mountains.

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