An offer worth accepting

Of the six referendum questions all New Yorkers will be asked on the back of their ballots Nov. 5, two are amendments to the state constitution’s Article 14, which governs the state-owned, “forever wild” Adirondack Forest Preserve.

Article 14 is one-way: The state can buy land for the Forest Preserve but can’t sell it. Any exception to that requires an amendment that must be passed by two separately elected state Legislatures and then by all New York voters. Legislators have already approved these two, so the people’s decisions will be final.

Back in June, we editorialized in favor of one of this year’s amendments – Proposition 4, an agreement to resolve Raquette Lake property disputes that date back to the 1880s – but we were noncommittal about the other. After much consideration, we now advise voting yes to it.

Under Proposition 5, the state would give 200 acres of the Jay Mountain Wilderness in the town of Lewis to NYCO Minerals Inc., an Essex County mining company, and get 1,500 acres nearby in return. NYCO would strip-mine the 200-acre “Lot 8” and then fill it in, replant it and return it to the state.

Mining isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary to our way of life. NYCO mines wollastonite, a mineral that has long been used in paints and ceramics but now is also important to the auto industry: to harden plastics and to replace asbestos in things like brake pads and firewalls. The only places in the U.S. where it’s mined are Lewis and Gouverneur; it also comes from China, India and, to a lesser degree, Mexico and Finland.

NYCO does have another site it can mine nearby, called Oak Hill, but it makes sense for the company to pursue Lot 8 first because it’s currently digging right up to the edge of it. This land swap could let it keep digging there another 10 years before it makes the expensive transition to Oak Hill.

The Park’s two largest environmental groups, which support the proposal, say the land the state would gain is more valuable, ecologically and recreationally, than what it would give up – in addition to being more than seven times as big. That’s pretty convincing.

Other, less centrist Adirondack green groups oppose the deal. One of their arguments is that Lot 8 contains trees up to 200 years old – not virgin forest, but still venerable. Trees that old are precious, but so are the forests and trout streams on the 1,500 acres the state would gain. Weighed in the balance, this point isn’t enough to sway us.

These groups also say this deal would set a bad precedent. Recent Forest Preserve swaps were for public benefits: a power line through Colton to Tupper Lake, a town water supply in Raquette Lake, an airport expansion in Arietta and a cemetery in Keene. This one would be for commercial use.

We don’t think “commercial use” is necessarily bad. NYCO argues, appropriately, that having a local company employ about 100 people here is a public benefit. NYCO also provides a public benefit to all Americans by supplying something the auto industry needs to improve the cars we use every day.

The precedent argument doesn’t work because voters consider each constitutional amendment separately, on its merits, not based on hypothetical situations. If the people pass this amendment and other companies follow NYCO’s lead through the amendment process, every New York voter would have a chance to consider each of those cases.

The amendment process is daunting, as it should be, but it’s also democracy its purest. And thank goodness it exists because sometimes New Yorkers are offered a deal they wouldn’t want to refuse – like getting 1,500 acres in exchange for 200 acres, which would be returned.

All things considered, we say yes to that.