Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Phil Brown: Aristotle and the Land Purchase Debate

Recently, Adirondack politicians have intensified their effort to block the state’s acquisition of Follensby Pond and some sixty-five thousand acres once owned by Finch, Pruyn & Company.

In the past two weeks, the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and the Franklin County legislature adopted resolutions opposing the purchases. The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages is expected to vote soon on a similar measure, and it stands an excellent chance of passing.

The opponents say the purchases would cost forestry jobs, force traditional hunting clubs to disband, and in general harm the local economy. But their ace in the hole is the claim that the state simply cannot afford to buy these properties.

This seems like a plausible argument. After all, the state faces a deficit of more than $9 billion in fiscal year 2011-12. Governor Andrew Cuomo is contemplating firing thousands of workers and slashing spending on education, health care, and other services. So how can we justify spending millions of dollars on land in the Adirondacks?

Really, though, this is a case of begging the question.

“Begging the question” is often thought to mean simply “raising the question.” Actually, it means to assume what is in dispute, a fallacy first identified by Aristotle (according to Wikipedia). It’s a rough translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii.

Whenever the state adopts a budget, officials decide what can be afforded and what can’t. This holds true in good times or bad times. When, as now, money is tight, the choices might be tougher, but the principle remains: each spending proposal must be evaluated on its own merits and then weighed against competing proposals.

One question facing the decision-makers this year is: can the state afford Follensby Pond or the former Finch lands? And the critics reply: the state is broke, it can’t afford them.

Thus, they beg the question. Broke or not, the state plans to spend some $133 billion in the coming fiscal year (if you include federal monies). As in other years, the money will go toward a myriad of purposes: transportation, criminal justice, education, health care, economic development, environmental protection, and so on. Clearly, the state can still afford a lot of things—even, perhaps, land in the Adirondacks.

Let’s assume that the Finch and Follensby properties will cost around $60 million and that they will be bought over three years. That’s an average of $20 million a year—a mere 0.015 percent of the state budget.

The opponents’ tacit assumption is that spending even this relatively small sum on land is frivolous in a time of austerity. But buying land to preserve the Adirondack wilderness is no more frivolous than, say, paving a road. Which should take priority will depend on the land and the road. It is not self-evident, for example, that improving a rural road in Tioga County is more important than preserving Follensby Pond.

Environmental advocates have long coveted Follensby, one of the largest privately owned lakes in the Adirondacks. Aside from its pristine beauty, the pond is valued as the site of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famed Philosophers’ Camp in 1858. As for the Finch lands, they contain such natural treasures as Blue Ledges in the Hudson Gorge, OK Slip Falls, Boreas Ponds, and the Essex Chain of Lakes. The Finch purchase would create new recreational opportunities as well as protect a huge swath of wild lands in the heart of the Adirondacks. The environmentalists say we must seize the day and acquire these special places for posterity.

Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe the addition of these lands to the Forest Preserve is not a good idea. Instead of buying the land, maybe the state should protect them through conservation easements that would allow logging to continue and the hunting clubs to remain. By all means, let’s have that argument. Let’s discuss the economic, ecological, societal, and recreational ramifications of these land deals.

But the debate won’t get far if, rather than arguing the merits, we assume at the outset that the state can’t afford these lands. That would be tantamount to assuming that the purchase of Follensby Pond or Boreas Ponds for the public to enjoy, both tomorrow and for generations to come, ranks below all of the countless things that the state will spend money on in the next fiscal year.

You don’t have to be Aristotle to see the flaw in that logic.

To learn more about the recent developments in the debate over the land deals, click the links below.

Board seeks to block land deals

Council calls for Review Board probe

Franklin County opposes land deals

Review Board replies to council

AATV to vote on land deals

Finally, you can click here to read a story about the Gooley Club, one of twenty or so hunting clubs that will lose its lease if the Finch lands are sold to the state.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown

Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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