Sterling Forest to become New York park $55 million deal brings 15,800 acres under public ownership


NEW YORK -- After more than a decade's crusade by preservationists, Sterling Forest has been acquired by the state of New York from its private owners, creating a park that is 18 times as large as Central Park and an hour-and-10-minute drive from midtown Manhattan.

The acquisition is the largest by the state's park system in 50 years. The complex real estate deal is valued at $55 million.

The deal with the land's owners, Sterling Forest LLC in Tuxedo, N.Y., gives the public 15,800 acres of rugged woodland 40 miles northwest of New York City that is studded with crystalline lakes and streams and is a habitat for bobcat and black bears. Cobbling together that acreage has taken five years of lobbying to corral the purchase money from the federal government ($17.5 million), New York state ($16 million), New Jersey ($10 million) and several foundations.

Even though a sales contract was signed a year ago, the last major financial piece in the puzzle was not plugged until December, when a $5 million donation was announced by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Effort started in 1985

The public acquisition of Sterling Forest completes the dream of of a Manhattan couple, Paul Dolan, an executive at ABC News, and his wife, JoAnn Dolan, executive director of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. In 1985, the Dolans were hiking in a part of the area skirted by the Appalachian Trail when they learned that the pristine surroundings might be used for development. They began knitting together a coalition that eventually recruited such disparate allies as House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Sierra Club.

The deal was given urgency in 1993 when the private owners threatened to build a city for 35,000 inhabitants and 20,000 workers, a complex that would dwarf all but a few towns between New York City and Albany. Critics, however, said the threat of development was a bargaining strategy designed to get top dollar from state and federal governments.

The acquisition still leaves 2,250 acres in the hands of the Sterling Forest company, which is controlled by Zurich Insurance, a Swiss company. They want to build hundreds of homes and some commercial buildings on their remaining Sterling land and plan to apply for development permits to the town of Tuxedo's planning board in a few weeks.

As a result, preservationists are beginning a second campaign to acquire the remaining Sterling acreage. They are also concerned about plans for an unrelated development of 2,000 homes bordering Sterling Forest that will be known as Tuxedo Reserve. "It is clear there is a remaining threat," said John Gebhards, executive director of Sterling Forest Partnership, one of the main groups fighting for the public acquisition of the forest.

Plan being drawn

The new park will be operated by the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission, which already oversees 23 parks in New York and New Jersey. Although the public will be able to visit Sterling immediately, the commission will take the next year to draw up a plan for managing a park that to date has little in the way of parking areas, picnic tables, beaches or bathrooms but which at the same time does not want to encourage overuse.

The commission's executive director, Robert Binnewies, is credited by preservationists as the crucial official whose persistence made the acquisition possible. "There were many moments when people didn't think this would happen but somehow it did," Binnewies said. Gov. George E. Pataki, who hiked and skied in the area as a boy and represented part of it as a state assemblyman, has also been credited with pressing for ** the acquisition.

The Sterling Forest acquisition comes on top of the recent deal by the state to buy a 15,000-acre Whitney family property in the heart of the Adirondacks, a deal that will not be closed until June. "This is a tremendous accomplishment," Pataki said. "The largest single piece of open property in the metropolitan region will be protected and preserved for the people of New York and New Jersey forever."

New Jersey was also interested in the purchase and contributed million because it wanted to protect a watershed for the Wanaque-Monksville reservoir system, which provides water for more than 2 million inhabitants in the northern part of the state.

Getting federal aid proved most complex of all. In exchange for their votes for purchase money, several congressmen insisted on approval of pet projects, including a long-term extension of logging in an Alaskan forest. Gingrich persuaded his colleagues that such provisions would invite a veto by President Clinton.

The Sterling Forest deal has several intricate features.

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