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New York State will get an assist from a major foundation in saving the last major privately owned wilderness in the New York City area.

A $5 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation will help purchase the 17,500-acre Sterling Forest, completing the $55 million bid that will allow the Open Space Institute and the Trust for Public Land to buy the tract that had been slated for commercial development.

The foundation also announced the $1.7 million endowment of a chair in conservation ecology at Duke University and a $1.2 million environmental fellowship program at Duke and Yale universities and the University of Michigan.

Mrs. Duke, the wealthiest woman in the United States when she died in 1993, left the bulk of her estate to the New York City-based charitable foundation.

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