Article XIV, Section 1, of the New York State Constitution states: “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” These words, approved by New York voters in 1894 and unchanged ever since, should be amended only under extraordinary circumstances and only to secure a clearly identified and significant public benefit.
The NYCO Minerals, Inc., Constitutional Amendment passed in 2013 was the most controversial in the last 50 years. It passed by a narrow margin and was aided by the strong support from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which acted as a private lobbyist for NYCO, and unprecedented spending by NYCO of over $600,000.
The legislative review of the NYCO Amendment was poor. Many substantial issues were glossed over, such as how the amendment would be implemented, alternatives to selling Forest Preserve, and the ecological quality of both the Forest Preserve lands targeted for sale and the replacement lands. Few in the Legislature were prepared to fully evaluate the benefits and negative consequences of this proposed amendment. Far from an independent and honest broker, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) zealously and relentlessly made the case for the NYCO deal.
Because more proposals are coming at us, it’s important that a much better filter be created to evaluate future proposals to amend Article XIV. The Common Ground Alliance, DEC, and the Governor’s Office are working on a new amendment for possible first passage in the 2015 legislative session. It would create a new community land bank of Forest Preserve lands modeled after the successful highways land bank administered by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enable road maintenance in the Adirondacks. The community land bank would authorize the removal of some Forest Preserve lands — estimates for the bank size range from 250-2000 acres or more — which could be used for various community or municipal projects. The details have not been finalized yet for the scope or administration of this amendment. Another possible draft amendment would look to clarify the right for various utilities to utilize highway corridors; here too, details have not been finalized.
Four Article XIV Constitutional Amendments have been approved since 2007, making this period the most active in the history of the Forest Preserve for such changes. While the two amendments discussed above are being crafted, other ideas are brewing in various corners of the Adirondacks and conference rooms in the State Capital.
The NYS Constitution requires that an amendment be passed by two successive Legislatures and then be approved in a public referendum. Many amendments have failed to receive first or second passage and died in the Legislature. The NYCO amendment showed how the process has changed with the enlistment of big money lobbyists and the DEC taking an advocacy position and committing its leaders and program staff to intensive lobbying.
Here are criteria that Protect the Adirondacks will use to evaluate a proposed Article XIV Constitutional Amendment. They will protect the Forest Preserve, provide better information to legislators and the general public, and bring greater sunshine to a closed process driven heavily by one state agency. We will encourage the Cuomo Administration, DEC, and Legislative leaders to use these criteria in their review.
1. The proposed amendment must be drafted by the State Legislature and not by any State agency.
2. No amendment shall result in land being transferred out of the Forest Preserve to public or private corporations or to unincorporated businesses, private clubs, families, or individuals, or any other private legal entity.
3. A clear justification must be provided for the amendment, and it must serve only a public purpose and not result in private or commercial gain.
4. The amendment must be accompanied by legislation that explicitly describes the process for implementation of the amendment if the voters approve it.
5. There must be a complete, independent biological and ecological assessment of any lands that are subject to removal from the Forest Preserve as part of an amendment. No mature forests, old growth forests, or parcels of ecological significance shall be removed from the Forest Preserve.
6. In the case of land exchanges, the land offered in return for a parcel of Forest Preserve must be precisely and explicitly identified, must be independently determined to be of higher ecological and fair-market value than the land to be transferred out of the Forest Preserve, and must enhance the character of the Unit Management Area from which the Forest Preserve land is being removed.
As required by Article VII of the State constitution, neither the Department of Environmental Conservation nor any other State entity shall advocate for or against a proposed amendment during legislative review or between the time any amendment is given second passage and the referendum. These agencies may provide only factual, legal, and other educational information during such process.
The article also ran on the Adirondack Almanack.