Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Commentary: Open Space Helps Local Communities

I want to address another of the primary criticisms over my recent commentary on protecting our open forests, from those who claim that more open space damages local communities. “They should just be honest and stop pretending that they care about the people and ‘culture’ of the Adirondacks,” one regular anonymous commenter said, echoing the criticism of others.

Even Brian Mann, who offered an otherwise thoughtful critique, titled his response “A vision of an Adirondack wilderness, with people.” The supposition there is that seeking to expand open space in the Adirondacks means excluding people. Not only is that supposition wrong-headed, it dehumanizes those who support wilderness protection. “They don’t care about people” the argument goes, as if we’re not people ourselves. This kind of argument appeals to the basest nature of some and draws a stark dividing line between “us” and “them.” It does nothing to address the concerns I raised about the development pressures we’re facing.

The truth, of course, is that protected areas don’t exclude people, they often (as with Forest Preserve lands) guarantee large swaths of open space will be accessible to all, not just (as has historically been the case) the playground of the wealthy and corporate interests. That adds people to open forest areas in the long run, it doesn’t subtract them.

Open space preservation doesn’t exclude culture either. It helps guarantee there will be land available for local agriculture and forestry. Open space also helps create more desirable rural communities through enhanced recreation opportunities and other residential amenities (like better schools and lower crime rates) that help compensate for fewer employment opportunities. Open space has historically contributed to an Adirondack culture of rugged independence, a direct cultural contribution of no small value.

Of course, the positive impacts of the Adirondack Park’s open space are often difficult to quantify (especially when you don’t try), but there are areas we should be looking at to see those impacts in action.

Take the Moose River Plains for example; one place we know has seen an enormous influx of humanity since it was purchased by the state in the 1960s. It’s a good example because it’s essentially isolated between two gateway communities, Inlet and Indian Lake, so it’s fairly quantifiable.

It’s believed that about 50,000 people use The Plains each year, not including the some 500 campsites bordering the area, and the incidental use generated by those in the hamlets of Inlet, Raquette Lake and Indian Lake.

The simple truth is that the creation of the Moose River Plains has not, as Brian Mann would have it, “tend[ed] to squeeze out and marginalize local, rural residents.”

Exactly the opposite is true. More locals use The Plains, they generate more income from the expanded use by those outside the region, and have added property and sales tax revenue. The communities at either end of the Limekiln Lake – Cedar River Road have both seen population growth since 1950 (Indian Lake about 30%, Inlet about 21%). Indian Lake has even begun to tap into The Plains mystique with their newly inaugurated Moose Festival.

All these positive impacts from an area that was pretty-well tapped-out by Gould Paper Company (the last log drive took place there in 1948), and had been all but abandoned by the company for some 20 years before being sold to the state. It[‘s probably safe to say that on any given day more people use the Moose River Plains today than ever, including more locals.

Another example of open space in positive action is the Adirondack Park Agency’s (APA) Resource Management (RM) zoning designation. The most restrictive private property classification, RM limits density to 42.7 acres, in part to discourage the encroachment of residential development onto prime agricultural and timber lands. That open space policy preserves access for local loggers, and has boosted the local agricultural and forestry products sectors.

Take local farms, for example. In general, across America the small family farm has been in decline. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture however, farms that sell directly to the consumer in the six Northern New York counties grew from 506 to 619, while all other agriculture sectors declined 6.6%. Those are local sustainable agriculture oriented businesses whose life blood depends on open space, including areas protected by the APA’s most strict private property designation.

Another form of open space protection, conservation easement lands, have amounted to the state spending millions in an effort to sustain what’s left of the local forest products economy. For example, a few years ago the managers of International Paper announced that their Ticonderoga mill was the most profitable mill in North America and cited the short distance to the natural resource as one of the reasons. According to IP managers, suburbanization around other plants increases the distance to the natural resource, results in higher transportation and related costs, and lowers profits. That’s another example where open space protected by New York State has contributed to the local economy.

One recent commenter here at the Almanack struck a cord with me. They pointed out that part of the problem is so much energy is devoted to blaming the Adirondack Park Agency and the Forest Preserve system, that we don’t have studies that see the locally positive aspects of the Adirondack Park.

It’s time we started to see the forest for the trees. It’s time we rejected once and for all the ill-conceived arguments that Adirondack open space conservation is a detriment to local communities, and begin to recognize the direct economic and cultural benefits of preserving Adirondack open space.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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