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SAVE MORE WILDERNESS LAND IN ADIRONDACK PARK

Gov. Pataki's announcement that New York State will buy nearly 15,000 acres of forest land from the Whitney estate in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains capitalizes on a marvelous opportunity to enlarge and protect for the public land in the Adirondack Park.

Two conditions converge to make this a good time for Albany to invest money in such wise public ventures.

While the total park, at 6 million acres, is the largest in the continental United States, more than half the land within it is owned by private interests. The public and private lands are intermingled in a hodgepodge.

The State Constitution protects the state-owned land with its rock-solid "forever wild" provision, but the rest of the park is not covered by that degree of protection.

The state has plenty of money these days -- probably more than ever -- that could be directed to buying and conserving undeveloped lands in the Adirondacks -- and elsewhere in the state, too.

Good times on Wall Street have sent Albany a river of tax money and helped to generate a healthy surplus in the state treasury. Open-space purchases like that from the Whitney interests define a good use of these unexpected funds. They are one-time expenses rather than continuing commitments that might be hard to maintain in an economic downturn.

In addition, the environmental bond act of 1996 provides money for open-space purchases and the Environmental Protection Fund, replenished annually, still has current-year money available.

Converging with the availability of money is availability of land. A record amount of it is for sale in the park area. The Adirondack Council, a staunch advocate for the park, calculates that nearly 400,000 acres have come onto the market from 16 owners of large parcels. The council would like to see as much as $58 million spent to buy much of the land outright or to put other areas under conservation easements. In arranging easements, the state would buy development rights (and not use them), while the owner would be left with job-creating timbering rights.

The biggest prospective seller is the Champion International Corp., which makes cardboard. Undergoing a corporate restructuring, Champion has put a for-sale sign on 141,000 acres in three parcels in the northwest portion of the park. On this property are waterfalls, river corridors, bogs, wetlands, boreal forests and plenty of spruce trees. The council believes nearly one-third of Champion's land merits state purchase.

Park advocates have long eyed the 51,000-acre Whitney estate, including Little Tupper Lake, probably the largest lake owned by a single family in the Northeast. So the purchase of a large portion of this property is, as Gov. Pataki said, "a priceless gift from this generation of New Yorkers to those who will follow us." With its 10 lakes and ponds, the site offers a canoeing paradise.

The state need not follow the lead of the Adirondack Council on every potential purchase, of course. But for many telling reasons, this is the right time to go shopping for land in the Adirondacks. New York should be looking to round off its forest-preserve holdings so they make contiguous wholes. The state should be anxious to acquire prime public recreational possibilities. It should be on the lookout to preserve and enhance important animal and plant habitats before it's too late.

Seize the opportunity -- as Albany sensibly has with the $17.1 million Whitney purchase -- before it is lost.