Nature Conservancy cashes in on questionable New York land deal

Taxpayers in New York were stunned to find out in early April that the financially-strapped state government in Albany had purchased a 20,000-acre tract of land from the nation’s wealthiest environmental group at a price far above the rural property’s assessed value.

According to the New York Post (April 5, 2010), in October 2008 the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) paid the Nature Conservancy (TNC) nearly $10 million for the property in Clinton County.  The environmental group had paid just $6.3 million for the Adirondack land in January 2005.

Local county and town officials were outraged to learn that the government in Albany had paid such a high price for the land. Saranac Councilman Jerry Delaney, in whose land the bulk of the land is located, told the Post that the sale was “a horrible deal all the way around.” 

“Ten percent a year is a good return on land, but 57 percent in three years? I think it’s clear the state has a cozy relationship with the Nature Conservancy,” he said.

When TNC bought the heavily wooded land from Domtar, an international paper company, it promised to “hold the land for New York state and quoted then-Gov. George Pataki (R) as referring to the environmental group as a “partner” with the state. Pataki, however, does not appear to be the only New York governor to have close ties to TCN. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and current Gov. David Paterson also may have had close ties to the group.

“Paterson, Spitzer and Pataki saw the ‘enviros’ as the good guys with lots of influential friends, and their view was, ‘If they can give them a few extra million dollars of public money, why not?’” an unnamed “prominent New York official” told the Post.

TNC has over $6 billion in assets, 3,500 employees, and, according to its latest IRS Form 990 filing, an annual income of over $856 million. With those kinds of assets, the group was hardly in need of charity courtesy New York’s taxpayers. The land deal had gone largely unnoticed until it was uncovered by the Post.

For decades, TNC has had the reputation of purchasing private land under the pretext of preservation and then “flipping” it to empire-building government agencies. The late journalist Warren Brookes once observed that so-called land trust like TCN were “rapidly becoming nothing more than government advance men and land agents, aggressively purchasing private property not to preserve, but simply to resell to agencies with which it develops symbiotic relationships.”

 

 

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.