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Great Lakes Article:

Pataki sets tough land goal

He wants to save 1 million acres, but state money is tight

By Yancey Roy
Democrat and Chronicle

ALBANY (Monday, February 4, 2002) -- Gov. George Pataki has set an ambitious goal for land preservation in New York: 1 million acres over the next decade.

That's almost triple what has been preserved over the last 10 years and would be a heavy lift even for a governor who has bought up far more acreage than his recent predecessors.

But with no specific plan on the table and few clues in Pataki's proposed budget, activists are scratching their heads about just how the governor could fulfill this election-year promise.

"It's a wonderful vision, but there are some practical steps that need to be taken," said Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates, a statewide lobbying group.

Pataki has burnished a record for acquiring lands and securing conservation easements to limit development -- more than 300,000 acres during his seven years in office.

But he pledged to go much further during his State of the State address last month. "Today I am setting a goal of preserving over 1 million new acres of open space over the next decade," Pataki said, surprising environmentalists and state legislators in his January address.

No one pressured him to set 1 million acres as a goal. But no one interested in preservation dared knock it either.

However, advocates are puzzled about where the money will come from.

The obvious source is the state's Environmental Protection Fund, but it is broke. When Pataki and the Legislature patched together a frugal budget following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the environmental endowment didn't get any money for the 2001-02 fiscal year.

The fund provides money for land acquisition, recycling and landfill closures. It collects money through a tax on land sales.

Pataki, who has said he likely will run for a third term, declared that he wants to make amends by depositing $125 million in the fund before the end of the fiscal year, March 31, then add another $125 million for the 2002-03 fiscal year.

Even if the Assembly and Senate agree to Pataki's plan to put $250 million into the fund, only about $66 million of that can be dedicated to land acquisition. By scale, that isn't much money if the governor is trying to fulfill a pledge that would require the state to preserve about 300 acres per day. "No, it wouldn't be enough," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council. "That would be status quo spending at a time he's proposed to triple spending for open-space acquisition in the state."

Complicating matters, Pataki has tangled the proposal with conditions some Democrats and environmentalists don't like. About $23 million in capital projects and other spending for the Department of Environmental Conservation is loaded into the fund. Also, he wants to transfer about $100 million in unused money and accumulated interest into the state's general fund.

Pataki began negotiations last week with the Senate and Assembly over adding the $125 million for the current fiscal year. His office didn't immediately return calls to comment.

Potential land deals loom, especially in the Adirondack Mountains. Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. has discussed selling 3,600 acres along the Moose River in Lewis County. Also, Domtar, a Canadian paper company, has for years been open to negotiating a 105,000-acre tract east of Plattsburgh.

Last year, International Paper Inc. announced a tentative deal to sell the state development rights to 26,500 acres in Hamilton County. But it's been held up by lack of money in the Environmental Protection Fund, activists said. International Paper -- the biggest private landowner in the Adirondacks with nearly 300,000 acres -- said just weeks ago it wants to shed assets as part of a restructuring. That could mean it's interested in making more deals.

The Adirondack Park is a 6-million-acre preserve combining public and private lands. The state owns 2.5 million acres.

There's no shortage of open-space parcels. In the fall, the Pataki administration released a conservation priority list that identified more than 120 tracts of land from the tip of Long Island to Lake Champlain to Chautauqua Lake that totaled more than 1 million acres.

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