State seals land deal

New York state now owns the 18,294-acre Essex Chain of Lakes tract in the central Adirondacks.

The state closed on the purchase of the property from The Nature Conservancy on Dec. 21 for $12,389,319.52, according to a deed filed in the Essex County Clerk’s Office in Elizabethtown. It’s the first phase in the state’s five-year, $48 million plan to buy 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn and Co. timberlands – a deal announced in August by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It’s very exciting for us to carry forward the governor’s vision here, and we’re honored to be part of this great conservation success,” said Mike Carr, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter.

Located in the towns of Minerva and Newcomb, the Essex Chain of Lakes parcel includes thousands of acres of forest, 11 lakes and ponds, 14.7 miles of Hudson River shoreline and 8.5 miles of Cedar River shoreline. The tract has been in private lands since before the Civil War.

Until the fall, the public won’t be able to access most of the parcel, including the Essex Chain of Lakes and the east shore of the Hudson River. That’s because a pair of hunting clubs – the Gooley Club and the Polaris Club – have exclusive leases to a combined 11,600 acres in the tract. Those areas will remain off limits to the public until the clubs’ leases run out on Sept. 30 of this year, Carr said. After that, the clubs will have exclusive rights to one-acre envelopes surrounding their camps until 2018, when they have to vacate the property and remove their camps.

State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in an email that the state plans to open up the unleased parts of the property to the public this spring.

In the meantime, DeSantis said DEC is working on a draft public access and state land classification proposal for the entire tract. She said it will be submitted soon to the state Adirondack Park Agency.

“The APA plans to release a draft land classification plan for the tract in the coming months,” DeSantis wrote. “A public comment period will begin once the draft plan is released and public hearings will be held before the final recommendations are sent to the Governor for approval.”

The question of how much public access should be allowed in the Essex Chain tract has been generating a lot of debate lately. The Park’s environmental groups want to see the Essex Chain become wilderness, which would limit motorized access to the property. Sportsmen’s groups and local officials want to see road access to the Essex Chain maintained and would prefer a less restrictive wild forest designation.

TNC hasn’t taken a position in the debate, but its deal with the state includes an easement that grants the towns of Minerva and Newcomb rights to interior roads that access a pair of gravel pits on the property. The gravel pits will be available to maintain roads on the parcel although the access will be subject to the property’s classification and DEC approval. There’s also a clause in the deal that conveys rights for floatplane access to First and Pine lakes to the towns. Carr said maintaining floatplane access on the tract was something they heard “loud and clear” from sportsmen and people in the neighboring communities.

“We’re most excited about people getting out and experiencing these new lands and waters, telling their own stories and seeing some of the economic benefit,” Carr said. “As these lands become permanently open to the public, people will be more willing to invest in related business, we hope, as visitors come from all over the world to see these places.”

Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery-Corey said town officials are optimistic that the deal will benefit the local economy.

“We believe there will be benefits,” she said. “We believe we’ll see more canoers, hikers, potentially snowmobilers and possibly a more year-round benefit, and I think that would be a good thing. We’d certainly welcome outfitters and restaurants and other types of businesses, and I think there will be opportunities we haven’t even thought of.”

Corey also said she’d like to see opportunities for the disabled and senior citizens to access the property, which she visited for the first time last year.

“What an extraordinary place. It was stunning,” Corey said. “I look forward to going back again. I’m really glad the state has stepped up to make sure the property will be something the public will have access to.”

The state is under contract to purchase the remaining former Finch, Pruyn parcels over the next five years. Those properties include the 11,950-acre McIntyre Works parcel, the 22,081-acre Boreas Ponds tract, and a tract containing OK Slip Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the state, among several others. Carr said the next phase of the acquisition will hinge on the funding stream for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

“When they signal what they have left statewide in that fund, we will look to the list of tracts that need to be sold, package them together and offer them to the state,” he said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or