N.Y. deal guards land through cooperative pact

44,650 acres of Tug Hill Plateau involved in $9.1 million agreement

July 28, 2002|By Richard Perez-Pena | Richard Perez-Pena,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TUG HILL PLATEAU, N.Y. - A stretch of these northern New York highlands will remain forever wild, open to the public for recreation but preserved from development, under an agreement reached by Gov. George E. Pataki, the Nature Conservancy and a timber company.

The complex $9.1 million deal covers 44,650 often stunning and ecologically important acres between the Adirondacks and Lake Ontario. It is New York's second-largest land preservation pact since the 1980s, and by far the largest outside Adirondack Park.

The agreement is a significant step toward conservationists' dream of creating an almost unbroken swath of wilderness across the Great Northern Forest, the mountainous region stretching from northern New York across much of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and into Quebec. The Tug Hill Plateau encompasses the westernmost edge of that forest, and the largest part of it west of Maine that remains largely unprotected.

The deal also typifies a trend in wilderness preservation in the last few years, with states and conservation groups moving away from buying tracts outright. Instead, they are blending public and private ownership, in some cases paying for the land, and in others paying for the right to restrict its use - a less expensive approach that allows the same number of dollars to cover many more acres.

Learning from conflicts from previous land deals, the state and the Nature Conservancy worked closely with local communities and won their support for the project by accommodating their concerns about hunting rights and economic development in this depressed region.

Hunting camps OK

The state will provide a $1.5 million grant to the Tug Hill Commission, a local agency, to develop a plan to manage the property. The Northern tradition of hunting camps - rustic cabins on land that hunters have leased for years from timber companies - will be preserved. Some logging will continue, protecting an important source of jobs.

Officials say they hope that opening the area to recreation will provide new sources of income. Winter sports enthusiasts regard the plateau, with its extraordinary snowfall and relatively flat terrain, as one of the best places for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. It is gaining a reputation as a place for bird-watching, and also hiking and canoeing, in addition to hunting.

Vast quantities of water shape every feature of the landscape across the Tug Hill Plateau, in swamps, dense forests, and spectacular river gorges where layered stone walls rise as high as 300 feet. As storms sweep off Lake Ontario, this is the first obstacle they meet; here they drop 21 feet of snow a year, plus heavy rains in the warmer months.

A snowy region

It is the snowiest place east of the Rockies, and it set a national record in 1997, with over 6 feet of snow in 24 hours. All the precipitation supports a profusion of life, from trees down to rare freshwater mussels.

"Tug Hill is a unique and wonderful place," said Pataki, who has made land preservation a priority of his administration. "I've been there in the spring, when it's so beautiful, as it is right now, and I've been there in the winter, when there's 20 feet of snow."

The Tug Hill Plateau first drew conservationists' attention for its glamorous fauna like black bears, eagles, ospreys, bobcats, martens (relatives of minks), the beavers that help create the swamps, and the occasional moose. But the closer they looked, the more they became intrigued by less obvious wildlife.

They found the plateau a breeding ground for a wide range of migratory songbirds that winter in the tropics, including several species of warblers, bobolinks, and red-eyed vireos, whose persistent six-note call - "Here I am, where are you?" - is the background music in many stands of trees. Waterfowl like the black duck, the wood duck, and the great blue heron, with its 6-foot wingspan, also thrive here.

The swamps and rivers provide homes for many aquatic plants, the eastern pearl-shell mussel that lives in rocky stream beds, as well as trout, chub and even salmon in the lower reaches of the rivers.

`Ecologically distinct'

"Tug Hill Plateau is ecologically distinct from the Adirondacks, which have a granite base, because it has a softer, more porous underpinning," said Henry Tepper, state director of the Nature Conservancy in New York. "It's like a big sponge, soaking up and releasing an enormous amount of water, feeding a huge system of rivers, streams and wetlands."

Loggers who have made heavy use of the area since the 19th century have profoundly changed the forest. Dividing it with roads used to search for cash crops - softwoods like white pine and balsam fir in earlier generations, and hardwoods like maple and black cherry today - they created invasion routes for raccoons, cats and other predators that raid birds' nests. The logging roads also have provided access for all-terrain vehicles that chew up the earth, and which conservationists hope to banish from the area.

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