Future of new state land uncertain

Conservation groups, local snowmobilers and towns all have different ideas on what to do with a tract of land recently purchased by the state within the Adirondack Park.

In March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the purchase of 14 parcels of land, located within the five Adirondack counties and totaling 8,451 acres, from The Nature Conservancy. The Benson Road Tract, a 3,280-acre stretch located within Fulton and Hamilton counties just west of Mayfield in the town of Benson, is the largest of these parcels.

The land is awaiting classification by the state Adirondack Park Agency. The classification will determine what uses the state Department of Environmental Conservation can propose for the tract in its unit management plan, according to Dave Winchell, public information officer for Region 5.

The Benson Road Tract has not yet been classified. According to Keith McKeever, public relations officer for the APA, the process has not yet begun.

“We don’t have a time frame on it at this point; it’s not on our radar,” he said.

Before the Nature Conservancy purchased the land in 2007, it was private property owned by the former timber company Finch, Pruyn & Co. The purchase of the land is phase three of the state’s plan to acquire 69,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn & Co. land, according to the Adirondack Council’s spring newsletter.

Previously, when the company owned the land, it leased it out to hunting clubs and other recreational users who paid a fee to have exclusive use of the property, said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.

“For over 100 years, these lands were essentially off limits to the public,” Sheehan said. “This is an opportunity now to reclaim some of that public access.”

Sheehan said the council is in favor of maintaining the existing snowmobile trail in the Benson Road Tract, which connects trails in the towns of Mayfield and Bleecker via Tolman Town Road.

“Looking at the big picture in terms of outdoor recreation, these trails appear to be important to the local economy, which we do take into consideration when recommending … how the state should classify lands in the future,” Sheehan said.

Local snowmobilers are optimistic they will be allowed to expand their trails. Tami Miller, president of the Southern Adirondack Snowmobilers based in Mayfield, said she has been in talks with the DEC to work with the landowners to expand the existing trail system toward Fulmont.

“Expanding our trails would be awesome; that would help us,” Miller said. “We can’t go any farther than what we are already, where we meet Bleecker’s trail, then the lake, other than going toward Fulmont; that would be nice.”

Phil Snyder, supervisor for the town of Benson, said he would like to see the land used “for everybody” but did not have any further comment on the town’s hopes for the land.

Others are hoping the land is left to nature. Protect the Adirondacks, a grassroots membership organization “dedicated to the protection, stewardship and sustainability of the natural environment and human communities of the Adirondack Park and the New York State Forest Preserve,” according to its website, www.protectadks.org, has proposed a 12,850-acre wilderness area including the Benson Road Tract.

If the proposal is accepted, the area, known as the West Stony Creek Wilderness Area, would be off limits to future construction. The existing roads on the land, which were private routes used by Finch, Pruyn & Co., would be allowed to grow over and return to the forest, according to Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer.

“We deliberately designed the wilderness area not to conflict with the existing snowmobile trails,” Bauer said. “On the land that the state just purchased, there are clearly lots of roads that were used during forest management, such as logging roads or tote roads, and those have never been used for the public. We would advocate that those roads would not be activated.”

Diane Fish, deputy director for the Adirondack Council, is hopeful both a wilderness area and the snowmobile trails can coexist in different areas of the land.

“It’s a great opportunity to try and find a balance between environmental protection and the community’s needs,” Fish said. “There’s not always that opportunity, but this (land) does present that opportunity.”