New York buys Adirondack tract from Whitneys $17.1 million deal opens pristine forests near Little Tupper Lake

15,000 acres of wilderness

But timber industry expresses concern about loss of jobs

January 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALBANY, N.Y. - New York's Gov. George Pataki has announced that the state has reached a landmark agreement to buy nearly 15,000 acres of Adirondack wilderness that the Whitney family had planned to develop, while protecting another tract twice that size for 10 years.

The $17.1 million deal opens a pristine stretch of forests, streams and lakes - including Little Tupper Lake, regarded by naturalists as one of the region's jewels - to the public for the first time since William C. Whitney, the industrialist, bought the land for a family retreat a century ago.

The acquisition will connect separate tracts of publicly owned forests in the Adirondacks, allowing canoeists and other adventurers to travel hundreds of miles without interruption. And by barring development on an additional 36,000 acres of Whitney land for the next 10 years, the state has been given time to find a way to preserve that land.

"Through this agreement, we will preserve a uniquely valuable wilderness in the heart of the Adirondacks, ensuring that future generations will be able to enjoy thousands of acres of undisturbed rivers, ponds and forests," Pataki said.

Unhappy about price

The Whitney family, headed by Marylou Whitney, had proposed subdividing the 14,717-acre plot that the state is buying and building luxury homes on it. But that plan drew bitter protests from environmentalists and outdoorsmen, who urged New York state to buy the property, which is about 35 miles southwest of Lake Placid.

Whitney, who inherited one of America's oldest fortunes from her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, spoke bluntly about how pained she was at having to give up a cherished family property for far less money than she had expected to get for it.

The family has sold property around Little Tupper Lake for $1,917 to $9,000 an acre, but under the deal, the family wound up selling the tract to the state for $1,161 an acre.

"Because of my love for this state and the memory of my late husband and his family, I have settled on a deal that I would normally not do," Whitney said

The deal drew immediate praise from leaders of the state's major environmental and recreation groups, who described it as one of the most significant land purchases the state has made in the Adirondacks in several generations.

"The state has been buying land in the Adirondacks for years, but Whitney Park has always been the missing piece of the puzzle," said Neil F. Woodworth, a lobbyist for the Adirondack Mountain Club. "Now that we have this piece, the state's lands in the Adirondacks are finally linked."

But the deal also drew protests from some business and community leaders in the Adirondacks, who believe that the state's drive to acquire land in the park is hurting the timber industry, the region's economic backbone.

"We think that when New York state purchases the Whitney property and incorporates it into the forest preserve, we will lose a major resource that is used by people across the state and the nation, namely timber," said John Brodt, a spokesman for the Blue Line Council, a group that represents property owners, employers and labor unions in the Adirondacks. "And you lose jobs."

6 million acres

For nearly a century, New York state has been acquiring property in Adirondack Park, which with 6 million acres within its borders, is the largest public park in the contiguous United States. The state now owns 2.5 million acres of forest preserve that intermingles with more than 3 million acres of private land, including 110 villages, hamlets and towns.

But the state still faces huge hurdles in its efforts to preserve the Adirondack forest, including a recent decision by a timber company, Champion International Corp., to sell its 144,000 acres of North Country forest land.

Environmental groups have lobbied the governor to move quickly to preserve the land, either by buying it or working with Champion to find another timber company to preserve the land as a working forest.

The state's last major land purchase in the Adirondacks was in 1988, when the administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo bought 15,419 acres from Lassiter Properties, a timber company.

But the Lassiter deal did not include a vast stretch of wilderness like the Whitney property. Rather, the state bought dozens of parcels scattered around six counties.

"The purchase of the Whitney property may be the most significant purchase of wilderness on the East Coast since World War II, when the state was buying up property in the high peaks of the Adirondacks," said Bernard Melewski, a lawyer for the Adirondack Council, a private group.

"The Whitney property is, without question, the heart of possibly the greatest stretch of wilderness on the East Coast," Melewski said.

The Whitney property was once a vast estate three times the size of Manhattan. But over the years, small parts were sold off, and timber was taken from many stretches to pay taxes.

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