144,000 acres of Adirondack forest for sale Corporation's move is part of broader plan to boost profit

October 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBANY, N.Y. - For a century, some of the finest whitewater canoeing and trout-fishing rivers in the state have been off-limits to the public because they coursed through Adirondack hardwood forests owned by a succession of timber companies, most recently Champion International Corp.

But last week, Champion announced plans to sell all of its 144,000 acres of North Country forest land - the largest block of New York state land to be offered for sale since the state started keeping such records three decades ago, state officials said.

In doing so, the company presented the state with both an opportunity and a threat: the opportunity to buy, preserve and thereby open to the public at least a portion of the ruggedly pristine property and its scenic, north-flowing rivers, along with the threat to sell the land to developers if the state or preservation groups fail to intervene.

Champion's announcement sent a shock wave through the environmental lobbying community, prompting a number of groups to call on Gov. George Pataki to move swiftly to protect the land, either by buying key parcels or by working with Champion to find other timber companies that might maintain it as working forest. Champion officials said they hoped to sell the land by next summer.

Problem for state

"Some of the potential uses for that land could have bad long-term consequences, like the subdivision and sale of the river corridors," said Neil Woodworth, counsel for the Adirondack Mountain Club, a nonprofit lobbying group. "Putting this land up for sale is something that Governor Pataki must respond to."

But the Champion announcement creates a problem for the Pataki administration. With the passage of last year's $1.75 billion Environmental Bond Act, the state has more money than ever for open-land acquisition - $50 million this year alone. But the state also has identified about 90 environmentally sensitive properties for purchase, far more land than the state has funds to buy, state officials said. That list includes parts of the Champion property.

Pataki gingerly sidestepped the issue Oct. 8, saying through a spokesman that while he recognized the importance of the Champion land, his first priority was to complete the acquisition of 15,000 acres of land in the heart of Adirondack Park from Marylou Whitney, the heiress and Saratoga socialite.

"We're concentrating on Whitney right now," said Michael McKeon, Pataki's press secretary. "But the governor is always open to new opportunities as they arise, and we'll certainly take a look at what we can do in this area."

All but 3,000 acres of the Champion land is inside the boundaries of Adirondack Park, 6 million acres of publicly and privately owned land that constitutes the largest American park outside of Alaska. The land is divided among three major parcels in the remote and sparsely populated northwestern section of the park.

The Adirondack land is part of 325,000 acres that Champion is selling in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. The sale is part of a broader plan, announced by Champion Oct. 8, whose goal is to increase the company's pretax profits by $400 million a year.

No price set

Pamela Koprowski, a spokeswoman for Champion, based in Stamford, Conn., said the Adirondack land had become expendable because the company was trying to focus on its softwood products such as plywood while its New York forests produce mainly hardwoods such as sugar maple, birch and beech. The company is also selling its Deferiet paper mill near Watertown, N.Y., which employs 600 workers.

She said the company has not set a price for its land. State officials declined to speculate on the property's value. But the state has offered Whitney Industries about $14 million for its 15,000-acre parcel - roughly $930 an acre. At that price, the Champion land would cost $134 million.

But the state is likely to pursue far less costly alternatives, state officials said. First, it will probably encourage other forest-product companies to buy large parts of the land and continue logging on them, which would maintain jobs in the park while also preventing commercial or residential development.

The state could also buy what are known as conservation easements on parts of the land, which are contracts that prohibit owners from developing their property. Such easements can be highly attractive for both parties because they reduce the tax burden for owners since the development potential of their land is gone, and are far less costly to the state than outright purchase of the land.

Environmental groups will also encourage Pataki to acquire land surrounding four north-flowing rivers on the Champion property: the Grass, the St. Regis, the Oswegatchie and the Deer. All flow into the St. Lawrence River except the Deer, which ends in Lake Ontario. Such acquisitions would not only prevent construction near the rivers but would also open them up for hikers, canoers and hunters.

'Spectacular whitewater'

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