Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Vote for the Adirondacks - New York Times

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It may seem like a small thing — a new well to give decent drinking water to 71 families in Raquette Lake, a small town north of Utica in the Adirondacks. But the town’s request for permission to build the well on state parkland is the only constitutional issue that voters across New York will be asked to approve next Tuesday. New Yorkers should vote yes. And lovers of the Adirondacks should be extremely relieved that even this modest request, for a structure 10 feet wide and 12 feet long, needs statewide approval before it can be built in one of the pristine areas of the park.

The reason for all this effort is that since the six-million-acre park was created in 1892, nearly three million acres of forest has been preserved as “forever wild” by the state Constitution. There is plenty of private land in the park, with 130,000 permanent residents, and there are enough lakes and mountains and trails and cabins to lure about 10 million visitors a year.

But when the founders of the park put some sections off limits — deeming it to be of such importance that almost nothing new should be built on it — they clearly meant business.

Any exceptions require a constitutional amendment, which in turn requires the consent of both the Legislature and the voters. Over the years, state voters have been asked to approve a range of projects — cutting trees near an airport, for instance, or expanding a cemetery — and most such requests have been granted.

Raquette Lake asked for help after water from the old well began to resemble “amber beer on a bad day,” as one local official put it, and the Health Department declared the water undrinkable, forcing residents to boil it. Under a plan developed by residents and the state, Raquette Lake would trade 12 acres of its own woods for an acre of the “forever wild” forest where the town could build a new well. This is essentially the deal that voters will be asked to approve.

That a small well requires a constitutional amendment should make the Adirondacks’ many admirers breathe easier. Changing New York’s Constitution is as hard as it gets in government; in the Adirondacks’ case, it means that nobody can build a housing development or anything else on “forever wild” land without the approval of all the rest of us in the state.

On Tuesday, vote yes on the only statewide initiative on the ballot. It will allow Raquette Lake to use one acre, and only one acre, of Adirondack wilderness for a new well.