Advocates for the Forever Wild forest preserves in New York’s Adirondack and Catskill mountains, are trying to spread the word about two ballot propositions in the November elections. They are for one of the proposals, but against another.
We walk up the trail to the summit of Hadley Mountain in the southern Adirondacks, fallen leaves crunching underfoot.
The wind picks up a bit as we climb up the fire tower for the panoramic view.
“We’re looking at the most marvelous combination of balsam fir and northern hardwood trees on a ridge line that stretches north,” said David Gibson, with Adirondack Wild. “From here we can see the high peaks of the Adirondack Park.”
Gibson says the view of seemingly endless mountains is one of the reasons why his group, which advocates for the preservation of the Adirondacks and Catskills forest land, is against Proposition 1 on the ballot. It would open the state’s entire constitution to review in a constitutional convention. Gibson worries that the Forever Wild clause for the state’s forest preserves, established in the 1890’s under article 14 of the constitution, and championed by Theodore Roosevelt, could be weakened or even dismantled in a hastily convened convention.
“I’m not convinced that a convention, coming together for a short time, can really deliberate properly about these matters,” said Gibson. “The dangers and the risks on the forest preserve outweigh the benefits.”
But Adirondack Wild, along with other preservation groups, does support another measure on the ballot. Proposition 3, which offers a way around current restrictions in the forest preserve rules that make it difficult to do things like repair and build safer bridges, and expand broadband internet through cable lines. It would create a land “bank” of 250 acres. Small acreages could be “withdrawn” from the forest preserve, if construction or power line workers need a small amount of land along state, county and town roads to complete their projects.
“You can put in a water supply system,” said Gibson. “You can put in a bike path if it’s really desired."
He says right now, localities are not allowed to bury utility lines beside roads, because the land is technically part of the Forever Wild forest preserve.
Even a project like relocating a bridge by a couple of hundred feet requires a separate amendment to the Article 14 Forever Wild clause.
There is rare unity in support of Proposition 3. Business groups and local government leaders - who are not always on the same side of the preservation groups on other issues - also support the measure.
Gibson argues that Proposition 3 is an example of why a full constitutional convention is unnecessary. There are two ways of changing the states constitution. One is a full-blown convention. The other is by proposing each change separately. He says Proposition 3 followed the second route. It was carefully crafted by the legislature with the input of a variety of stakeholders, then considered for a vote by two consecutively elected legislatures before being presented to voters.
“That’s the kind of model we should continue to follow,” he said.
Supporters of holding a constitutional convention say opponents are not giving the public enough credit, and that opening up the entire constitution to revision would bring many benefits to the state. Jennifer Wilson, with the League of Women Voters, says the state would not even have the "forever wild" provisions if not for a constitutional convention in 1894.
“Forever Wild was put in during a convention,” Wilson said. “In the last nine conventions that we’ve had, we’ve had a lot of good stuff come out of those conventions.”
Gibson and other backers of Proposition 3 say the measure faces some challenges- the language on the ballot is somewhat confusing and complicated. And there’s organized opposition to Proposition 1, which would allow for the constitutional convention. Unions, and gun rights groups, among others, are urging their members to show up at the polls and vote no on prop one. There’s concern that those same voters may just vote no on Proposition 3 as well.