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Hemlock-Canadice's watershed moment

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The City of Rochester sold approximately 7,000 acres of land around Hemlock and Canadice lakes to the state in 2010 to make sure that the waterfronts remain safe from development. And yet the lakes are currently at the center of a controversy about gas and oil drilling.

That's because the state's proposed plan to manage the property — designated the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest — doesn't explicitly rule out drilling on or under the land. The lakes are Rochester's primary source of drinking water.

In response, the statewide Adirondack Mountain Club and State Senator Ted O'Brien are drafting legislation to classify the land as a unique area. The designation would strengthen protections for the forest, including banning gas and oil extraction on or beneath the forest's surface.

"If there's anything that the people in the greater Monroe County area and surrounding counties don't want is that they don't want to see any kind of oil and gas extraction from the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest," says Neil Woodworth, the Adirondack Mountain Club's executive director.

O'Brien's office began looking into unique area status after the public outcry began over the state's proposed management plan. O'Brien's district includes much of the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest and he says he will sponsor the unique area bill. He says that the legislation is in the "buttoning up" phase, and that he will look for an Assembly sponsor from the region.

"We're working very hard on the bill right now," O'Brien says.

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards says that city officials are not opposed, in principle, to making the forest a unique area, but that they want to make sure the heightened status won't inadvertently prohibit routine maintenance of the land. The work is necessary, Richards says, to protect the lakes' water quality.

Richards and other city officials are opposed to gas drilling on the state forest land, he says, and to high-volume hydraulic fracturing — fracking — in the Hemlock and Canadice watersheds.

O'Brien says he and the others working on the bill want to make sure they address Rochester's concerns. And Woodworth says that the unique-area legislation can be written accordingly.

The ultimate fate of the bill, however, is with the State Legislature. The drilling industry has some pull in the Senate — it has much less influence in the Assembly — and it remains to be seen whether the industry could, or would want to, derail any legislation that O'Brien introduces.

Earlier this year, environmental activists began pushing for the Hemlock-Canadice forest to be designated as a unique area. The state Department of Environmental Conservation's draft unit management plan for the forest land started it all.

The document lays out how the department will approach a range of issues, including recreational uses and tree, plant, and animal diversity.

But the plan's language about oil and gas drilling — and there is substantial text devoted to the topic — immediately alarmed environmentalists, conservationists, and Rochester officials, who say that the plan doesn't directly rule out drilling. City officials even sent comments to the DEC asking for language that explicitly prohibits drilling in the forest.

Another problem: the draft plan doesn't directly say that the state should prohibit leasing the rights to drill under the surface of the forest. Woodworth says that the plan appears to be written to "keep alive the idea" of leasing the subsurface rights.

Many critics are especially concerned about the underground drilling rights because drillers could feasibly start a well on neighboring private property, Woodworth says, and drill horizontally under the forest land.

That's not something that's likely to happen in the Marcellus Shale formation, Woodworth says, because the shale in that area lacks characteristics that are attractive to drillers.

But it could be an issue in the deeper Utica Shale formation, he says.

And taking away the availability of the subsurface rights also takes away some incentive to drill in the Hemlock and Canadice watershed lands outside of the state's property.

A DEC spokesperson said previously that the state has no intention of allowing drilling in the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest. But the management plan's critics haven't put much faith in those remarks.

Just before the end of this year's legislative session, Adirondack Mountain Club officials met with DEC representatives and agreed not to push the unique area bill until the agency finalizes the forest's management plan.

That should happen before the start of the next legislative session in January, Woodworth says.

Ideally, the DEC will recommend unique area status for the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest in the management plan, Woodworth says. And he says there are plenty of reasons to do so: Hemlock and Canadice are the only Finger Lakes with completely undeveloped shores; the old-growth forest is a haven for wildlife, including two pairs of nesting bald eagles; and its water and trails are a recreational asset.

If the DEC doesn't recommend unique status for the forest, the Adirondack Mountain Club is ready to work with legislators — and hopefully, Rochester officials — to push the legislation anyway.

Mayor Richards says he hopeful that the city's desire to keep fracking out of the state forest and watershed — and away from the city's drinking water — isn't controversial. And the state could make that recommendation in the management plan without affecting New York's broader fracking review, he says.

"To date they've been good partners with us," Richards says. "Nothing's happened with it [the Hemlock-Canadice land] that's anything other than what we anticipated."

Many critics are especially concerned about underground drilling rights because drillers could feasibly start a well on neighboring private property, and drill horizontally under the forest land.

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