After more than a decade’s crusade by preservationists, Sterling Forest has finally been acquired by the State of New York from its private owners, creating a beguiling new terrain for hiking, fishing, skiing and ambling that is 18 times as large as Central Park and an hour-and-10-minute drive from midtown Manhattan.
The acquisition, the largest by the state’s park system in 50 years, is to be formally announced today at nearby Bear Mountain Inn by Gov. George E. Pataki of New York and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, whose residents will gain protection of an important watershed. But the purchase is already a fact: the closing on the heart of the complex real estate deal, valued at $55 million, was completed quietly last Thursday by a bevy of lawyers and bureaucrats at the modest offices of the land’s private owners, Sterling Forest L.L.C., in Tuxedo, N.Y.
The deal gives the public 15,800 acres of rugged woodland 40 miles northwest of New York City that is studded with crystalline lakes and streams and is a habitat for bobcat and black bears. Cobbling together that acreage has taken five years of pleading, haggling and Byzantine lobbying to corral the purchase money from the Federal Government ($17.5 million), New York State ($16 million), New Jersey ($10 million) and several foundations.
Even though a sales contract was signed a year ago, the last major financial piece in the puzzle was not plugged until December, when a $5 million donation was announced by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
The public acquisition of Sterling Forest completes the dream of a Manhattan couple, Paul Dolan, an executive at ABC News, and his wife, JoAnn, executive director of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. In 1985, the Dolans were hiking in a part of the area skirted by the Appalachian Trail when they learned that the pristine surroundings might be used for development. They began knitting together a coalition that eventually recruited such disparate allies as Newt Gingrich, the House Speaker, and the Sierra Club.
The deal was given urgency in 1993 when the private owners threatened to build a utopian city for 35,000 inhabitants and 20,000 workers, a complex that would dwarf all but a few towns between New York City and Albany. Critics, however, said the threat of development was a bargaining strategy designed to get top dollar from state and Federal Governments.
The acquisition still leaves 2,250 acres in the hands of the Sterling Forest company, which is controlled by Zurich Insurance, a Swiss company. They want to build hundreds of homes and some commercial buildings on their remaining Sterling land and plan to apply for development permits to the town of Tuxedo’s planning board in a few weeks.
As a result, preservationists are beginning a second campaign to acquire the remaining Sterling acreage. They are also concerned about plans for an unrelated development of 2,000 homes bordering Sterling Forest that will be known as Tuxedo Reserve. Yesterday they were still not drinking champagne.
”It is clear there is a remaining threat,” said John Gebhards, executive director of Sterling Forest Partnership, one of the main groups fighting for the public acquisition of the forest.
The new park will be operated by the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission, which already oversees 23 parks in New York and New Jersey. Although the public will be able to visit Sterling immediately, the commission will take the next year to draw up a plan for managing a park that to date has little in the way of parking areas, picnic tables, beaches or bathrooms but which at the same time does not want to encourage overuse.
The commission’s executive director, Robert Binnewies, is credited by preservationists as the crucial official whose persistence made the acquisition possible.
”There were many moments when people didn’t think this would happen but somehow it did,” Mr. Binnewies said yesterday. Governor Pataki, who hiked and skied in the area as a boy and represented part of it as an assemblyman, has also been credited with pressing for the acquisition.
The Sterling Forest acquisition comes on top of the recent deal by the state to buy a 15,000-acre Whitney family property in the heart of the Adirondacks, a deal that will not be closed until June. ”This is a tremendous accomplishment,” Mr. Pataki said in an interview yesterday. ”The largest single piece of open property in the metropolitan region will be protected and preserved for the people of New York and New Jersey forever.”
New Jersey was also interested in the purchase and contributed $10 million because it wanted to protect a watershed for the Wanaque-Monksville reservoir system, which provides water for more than 2 million inhabitants in the northern part of the state. Years ago, Passaic County acquired 2,000 acres of the forest on the New Jersey side of the border as a water resource.
Getting Federal aid proved most complex of all. In exchange for their votes for purchase money, several Congressmen insisted on approval of pet projects, including a long-term extension of logging in an Alaskan forest. Mr. Gingrich persuaded his colleagues that such provisions would invite a veto by President Clinton.
The Sterling Forest deal has several intricate features.
Under one, the Sterling company will continue to exercise ownership over 1,000 acres for up to eight years. The company needs the town of Tuxedo’s approval to transfer development rights on those 1,000 acres to the 2,250-acre parcel it still owns so it can build more densely. Louis Heimbach, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said he believes that the transfer of rights will take place rather quickly so the state can have clear title to the 1,000 acres in the near future.
An additional 1,400 acres is technically owned by the Open Space Institute, a state conservation group, which was given $5 million by the Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace Fund for the Hudson Highlands to make the down payment on the purchase last August and secure the bigger Sterling Forest acreage. The institute plans to turn the land over to the state.
Finally, the Sterling Forest company has agreed to make a donation of an additional 500 acres once it attains the necessary approval for its housing development from Tuxedo and two other municipalities, Warwick and Monroe.
Older New Yorkers best remember Sterling Forest for botanical gardens with lush floral arrangements and romantic touches such as bow bridges. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands once opened a tulip festival there.
In the 19th century, the forest was the location of a thriving iron industry. The property was bought in 1895 by the Harriman railroad family, which sold it for $750,000 in 1953 to a real estate developer that set up the Sterling Forest company. The company developed homes for 250 families and offices in scattered park areas, but ran into financial difficulties and has been trying to unload the larger property for years.
The company has permitted hunters and hikers to use the vast Sterling reserve, but they must apply for permits at its headquarters.