LEWIS -- In a ballot proposition that has split environmental groups, a mining company is asking New Yorkers to let it expand its pit mine into 200 acres of constitutionally state-protected Adirondack forest land so it can follow a vein of a white, crystalline mineral called wollastonite.
In exchange for the land and the ore beneath, NYCO Minerals Inc. proposes giving the state at least 1,500 acres of forest land if the wollastonite deposit is as rich as the company expects it to be. The number of acres would be greater than 1,500 if the state Department of Environmental Conservation determines that the royalty value of the wollastonite is more than $1 million.
Some environmental groups call it a good deal because it will preserve about 100 jobs and provide new access to mountain peaks and trout streams. But others say it's wrong to amend the "forever wild" clause of the state constitution for the financial benefit of a private company.
The proposed swap requires an amendment because Article 14 of the state constitution requires state-owned Forest Preserve land in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park be protected as "forever wild," never to be sold, leased, exchanged or logged.
Exceptions require approval by two consecutive state legislative sessions and then voter approval. Previous amendments have included land transfers to enable expansion of public cemeteries or airports, improvement of public water supplies and expansion of ski centers.
The Adirondack Mountain Club, which is both an environmental group and an outdoor recreation club, supports the NYCO proposal for expanding its operations in Lewis, about 110 miles north of Albany in the eastern Adirondacks.
"I think this is a very good deal for people who care about the Forest Preserve, especially people who like to hike," said club executive director Neil Woodworth. He said the 1,500 acres NYCO would give the state include two trout streams and new access to Jay Mountain.
When NYCO was finished mining, it would restore the landscape on the 200 acres and give it back to the state.
John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, said his group supports the plan because it meets or exceeds six principles for judging the merits of exchanges. Among the criteria, the swap must achieve a significant improvement to the Forest Preserve and the communities involved. Also, the land being given to the state must be of higher quality than the parcel being exchanged.
But Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said the exchange would open the door to other companies that want to benefit from land swaps. And he said the Willsboro-based NYCO Minerals, the largest employer in the economically depressed region, was disingenuous when it said it would have to shut down in a few years without the expansion. The company already has permits for a new mine nearby.
The Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club also opposes the land swap, saying it's not vital to the mining company's survival and would diminish the strength of the "forever wild" clause.
Woodworth said the swap won't open the door to other private companies because every proposed amendment is judged on its own merits.
"A private company or individual can always go forward and bring an amendment," he said. "But most of them fail."
The proposal will be on the November ballot.