Saturday, October 6, 2012

How Much Wilderness is Enough?

A week ago last Monday I was in my kitchen preparing for my classes and enjoying a cup of coffee.  I loaded up the Almanack and read the just-published article by Phil Brown about his trip to the Boreas Ponds as part of Governor Cuomo’s visit.

I enjoyed it and found it informative.  It certainly whetted my appetite for seeing the ponds in person.  A couple of predictable comments had been logged on the article but nothing that really grabbed my attention.  I finished my coffee and got on with my day.

I must say I had no idea there would be such a vociferous reaction to Phil’s little report, would never have guessed that it would obliterate my personal comment record from my Dispatch on Revitalizing Tupper Lake, which got to seventy-one comments.  Phil’s inoffensive report passed that in a single day.  Since then there has been plenty of additional discussion on other articles, all with a similar theme.  What’s the deal here?

Well, the deal here is the same deal as always.  Sides are taken with dizzying speed as those who think we have too much wilderness in the Adirondacks face off against those who think we need more.  Ulterior motives are revealed, then hidden, then revealed again.  Meanwhile a sort of meta-layer of critics comment on the others and accuse Phil Brown and the Almanack of biased reporting.

Amidst all this noise is a critically serious issue.  It’s so important that I am champing at the bit to charge into the fray.  However given the rapidity with which accusations of bias and hidden agendas seem to come flying in from the readership I figure I’d best start with a disclaimer.  Here it is:

Disclaimer: the following Dispatch will be biased.  It will advocate unrelentingly for a specific side in this debate, namely that we need more wilderness.  Furthermore, it will be flush top to bottom with an agenda, which is to bury the idea that we have enough wilderness under an avalanche of sobering numbers and respectable parlor-level Socratic reasoning.  Next week’s Dispatch will challenge the usual arguments to the contrary by completely reversing the insulting and wrong-headed idea that environmental advocates who want more wilderness are tree-hugging elitists.

Sharpen your knives, kids.  Here we go.

The opinion that we have enough protected land already, that the State should take no more and certainly not classify much of what it does buy as Wilderness, strikes me as myopic, ignoring the larger reality outside the park.  I have said so in previous Dispatches.  In one I gave the example of driving from our home in Madison Wisconsin to the border of the park, a nine-hundred mile trip during which we pass through the communities of more than twenty million Americans and not as much as a single acre of wilderness.   My argument here will expand upon that anecdote.

Let me begin with a few definitions, assumptions and constraints upon which I believe we can all agree.

First, we have to have some common ground on what we mean by wilderness.  This can be argued endlessly and I don’t want to that here, so I will merely put my definition of wilderness on a continuum.  I’m going to do that by adopting the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which is held in widespread favor.  It says, in part:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped… … without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.. ..

That means no roads, no logging, no ATV’s, no snowmobiles, no hunting camps.  It is a strict and reasonably clear definition, putting wilderness squarely at the preservation end of the continuum.  Now lest the sharp knives come out prematurely let me point out that I am not insisting that this is the only possible definition.  I’m just situating the term so that when I refer to wilderness no one will think I’m equivocating about it.  If anything I’m doing a favor for those who would disagree with my argument on the basis that supporting such a strict wilderness position is “extreme.”

Next let me impose a constraint, so as to not have the argument proceed too broadly.  I will confine my interest here to wilderness as a benefit to people.  That means I will not pursue the ecological argument that wilderness is important to the health of the planet (for example, as part of the complexities of climate change or the preservation of species).  I will also forgo the moral argument, which is that nature has its own rights, that we human beings do not have a superior right to extinguish species and pave over all the old growth forest.  Obviously these arguments are inevitably part of the equation in the relationship between people and the wilderness and I think they are terribly important.  But in the interest of clarity I will not deal with them explicitly.

With a workable definition and a practical constraint in hand let me establish a couple of assumptions, both of which I claim have consensus support.  The first assumption is that wilderness as I have defined it is valuable and good for us and we should have at least some of it.  I don’t think anyone advocates for opening all lands in the park to logging and motorized recreation.  For example even some of the more prominent opponents of the Finch Pruyn acquisition have been quoted as saying that places like the area around OK Slip Falls should be protected State Wilderness.  The second assumption is that communities are valuable and we should sustain them.  I know of no one who wants to shutter Lake Placid.

Given these assumptions the issue then becomes one of balance.   This ought to be obvious but it gets blurred by people all the time as they pursue their agendas.  The question is not whether wilderness is good or bad or whether development and jobs in the park are good or bad.  Those kinds of arguments amount to nothing more than posturing and demonizing.  It’s all about balance.  I refer readers to the well-reported results of the ADK Futures Project, a series of workshops led by strategy consultants Dave Mason and Jim Herman.  The outcome of these workshops, attended by a diverse swath of park residents, visitors and advocates, was a surprising level of consensus around the vision of a sustainable park that balances wilderness in the spirit of my definition with vibrant, green communities, connected and interdependent with each other and with the protected land around them.

So to be clear: in this Dispatch I am neither arguing over what is the best definition of wilderness nor am I arguing over whether it is important and good for people.   Arguments over those two things can be had elsewhere.  Instead I am assuming something upon which I believe we all concur: that having at least some wilderness of the type described in the Wilderness Act or defined by the Constitution of the State of New York is important and good for people.

If we can agree on that, then this debate becomes focused like a laser on the question that is title of this Dispatch: how much wilderness is enough?

When we ask that question let us be absolutely sure to ask it on behalf of all people.  Men and women who live and/or work in the Adirondack Park and think in local terms have a valid perspective but there are millions of people who live elsewhere who have a stake in the fate of Adirondacks –and all other wilderness areas too.  It seems obvious to me that this needs to be accepted right from the start.  If the wilderness has benefits for human beings, which we have assumed, then the most democratic and defend-able position must be to consider all human beings, not just a privileged few.

Given all of the above, let me remind you of my trip to the Adirondack Park from Madison, Wisconsin and share some numbers.   What I did with my research was to look at each of the states I drive through on the way to the Adirondacks: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  For each state I gathered a reasonably thorough set of numbers for three things: the total area of each state, the area that is urbanized and the area that can reasonably be described as wilderness, at least close to my adopted definition.

The first number, total area, was easy.  There’s no possible dispute about that data.

The second number, urbanized area, was not difficult either as it is data produced by the census.  However it requires some description.  First, the official definition of urbanized land is developed land with a density of at least 1,000 residents per square mile.  Second, the most complete numbers are from the year 2000 census, so I used those even though they are twelve years out of date.  It is a fact that the amount of wilderness in the United States as a whole is shrinking, not growing, though in the states in question it is relatively stable so those numbers are good enough.   However the amount of urbanization has increased by measurable percentage points over the last twelve years,  therefore these numbers do not present the best data for my argument.  But they’ll do.

The third number, land area that qualifies as wilderness, took hours and hours of my time.  There are no hard numbers on this of course, so I had to go to some work to compile them. That in turn meant I had to make judgment calls.  You can be sure that none of the numbers I derived for wilderness in each of the states is inarguable.  However they are in the ballpark.

First, I strove to be thorough.  I began with Federal Wilderness.  I then added wildlife refuges from the Fish and Wildlife Service that were large enough in scope to meet a reasonable definition of wilderness (the Federal standard is 5,000 acres, I picked 1,000 acres).  I next went to a variety of state, county and local sources as well as backpacking and outdoors publications and web sites so that I could count state land that would reasonably qualify.

Second, knowing that my state-owned land estimates would be incomplete, I erred on the side of more acreage being counted as wilderness in order to be as fair as possible.  For example, Pennsylvania is heavily forested but almost all of it is state forest.  Less than 10,000 acres are federally protected.  After looking in detail at the breakdown and classification of state land I arrived at a figure of 146,000 acres that are wilderness.  This is almost certainly a higher total than would be supported by the on-the-ground reality.  But that’s okay.  Frankly even if my numbers were off by ten of fifteen percent here and there, the power of the overall statistics would change little.

Let’s start with a look at Wisconsin, my current home.  Wisconsin prides itself on its extensive forests and natural beauty. It has a healthy wolf population.  It has somewhere on the order of twenty-thousand lakes, most of them surrounded by forest.  Its largest city, Milwaukee, has a population just shy of 600,000.  The next largest city, Madison has 230,000 people.  That’s not much urbanization compared to the other states.  In fact Wisconsin is the largest state of the five in area but the smallest in population.  Every state except Indiana has more than double Wisconsin’s population.

Not surprisingly, Wisconsin has the best numbers of the five states in terms of wilderness balance.  Would you like to hear them?  Ready?  The urban land acreage in Wisconsin out-totals the wilderness land acreage 14 to 1.   If the wilderness land in Wisconsin were shared evenly between all residents so that they could have their wilderness experience, each person would get 662 square feet, the size of a shack.  Your wilderness-loving neighbor would be waving hello at you from a distance of twenty-six feet.  Solitude indeed.  Remember from above that the Federal definition of urban land is a density of 1,000 people per square mile.  That sounds like a lot.  If you shared the wilderness in Wisconsin equally with all residents the density on that land would be 42 times greater than the definition of urban density.

Those are the best numbers.

Let’s try Ohio, the state in which I was born.  Ohio has some beautiful areas, trust me.  Ohio also has the worst numbers of the five states.   In Ohio the ratio of urban acreage to wilderness acreage is more than 36,000 to 1.  If you were given your piece of wilderness in Ohio it would be six inches square, making the population density 96,000 times greater than that of Cleveland.  I’m not making this up.

The other states fall in between Wisconsin and Ohio.  For the record, here they are:

Indiana: 112 times more urban land, 85 square feet of wilderness / person

Illinois: 73 times more urban land, 110 square feet of wilderness / person

Pennsylvania: 18 times more urban land, 530 square feet of wilderness / person

You may wonder how New York fares.  Thanks to the foresightedness of your ancestors in creating the Adirondack Park and protecting its wilderness reasonably well, New York fares much better than any of the other five states.  In fact it’s quite a difference.  New York actually has only twice as much urban land as wilderness.  That’s gratifying, but it’s not anywhere near stunning.  Your share of the wilderness would be 2,685 square feet, a good-sized house.  But even so your neighbor would be only 52 feet away from you, making for a density ten times that of the urban standard.

These numbers speak for themselves.  And it’s not just the Midwest.  I haven’t done the detailed calculations for any other state but I’ve glanced at the numbers and basically only Alaska comes close to a balance that isn’t eye-opening.   Man oh man you should see the data for New Jersey.  The bottom line is that we don’t have enough wilderness in the United States to come even remotely close to allowing access and enjoyment for all Americans.

If you still hold that we do have enough wilderness, even in the face of these overwhelming statistics, I have to wonder how you can justify your position.

I have anticipated some objections to my numeric argument and I am ready to address them.  I will do so next week as I explore the role of elitism in this debate, along with responding to the comments I hope to see to this Dispatch.

Photo: The Great Range, a fine argument for wilderness

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

41 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Pete, your numerical facts make me think you studied under Bill Clinton. I mean that as a compliment.
    I’ve always been someone who looks at the other side of the coin. Meaning that when someone asks how much wilderness is enough, I wonder how much development is enough. I even go so far as to ask, what gives you the right to use the word development when what I mostly see is destruction.
    Born and raised in Detroit, I always wanted to live in the UP or move into Canada north of the Soo. Didn’t do that but eventually made my way to the Adirondacks after many years in NYC. By the way, I’ll pick NYC any day over Albany, Saratoga or Glens Falls.
    I love this place. I love for all the mountains, lakes, trees and animals other than human. I’ve never had a problem with the APA. I view it as a paper tiger.
    I have no object to development in the Adirondacks so long as it takes place in the hamlets. Needless to say, I hate strip development along roads and lakes.
    Do we need wilderness? Better to ask, “Do we need wall to wall people?” Why do some people think we need wall to wall people? Oh, I know. We want money from them and the more there are the more money we can get (unless they take ours first).
    Sorry to go off here a bit but I do get sick when I hear the question “How much wilderness is enough?”

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Thanks Pete.

      In honor of Pete Klein’s erudite comments I took an in-depth look at Michigan. After all, Amy and I sometimes travel through it and into Canada to get to the Adks instead of going through Ohio and PA. I know the state pretty well having had many clients there in a past life and family in Detroit as well. You haven’t seen the stark power of demographics in this world until you have driven out Jefferson Avenue and watched urban Detroit change to Grosse Point Park in all of a 1/4 of a block. But I digress.

      Michigan is one of the few Midwestern states that has real wilderness. I have hiked extensively in the UP, some of it is mighty wild.

      Michigan has a lot of Federal wilderness. I was generous in adding close to 200,000 acres of State land as wilderness. That’s almost certainly high, but I wanted to be fair. That gives the following results:

      Ratio of urban land to wilderness is > 4 to 1. Each person in Michigan would get a little under 50 feet of wilderness before running into their neighbor, a density 11 times greater than urban standard and 5 or so times greater than Detroit, Pete Klein’s home town.

      So Michigan moves ahead of Wisconsin, to second place, still trailing NY. And still not much wilderness in the big picture…

      Thanks for the Clinton compliment. He is a wonk, isn’t he?

  2. Dan says:

    The Earth is badly overpopulated, and this is only getting worse! Within a few more generations (or so it seems) there will be little area left. Places MUST be maintained as human-free.

    As far as the park is concerned, the ‘founding fathers’ of the park envisioned that the entirety of the area inside of the park would be ultimately protected from development, and be forever wild. Now, this unfortunately applies only to the public land inside of the park, but it is what was intended.

    Additionally, those naysayers who want less wilderness character have seem to have forgotten how economically beneficial having wilderness can be. Sure, it may not create (or maintain) jobs for things such as logging, but it does create tourism-related jobs, and bring in people from all over. Take the reduction-ad-absurdem case: Let’s get rid of ALL of the protections in the park, and let ATV and snowmobile trails go rampant; let’s let people develop anywhere they want to; let’s let loggers come in and cut the whole forest down…..I, and 99% or or more of the other people who visit the area would stop visiting, and suddenly the ~6-8 million visitors would stop bringing their $$ to the park.

    • Paul says:

      Dan first of all (at least here in the US) we have more forested land now than we had at the turn of the last century, so I am not sure what you are talking about “little area left”?

      Those “naysayers” are not usually advocating for changing Wilderness land back to non-Wilderness land. They are usually talking in the context of Pete’s article about what may already be a good mix for this area. Like you say it is that mix of wilderness and other land that makes the place so special. It may be good that the ‘founding fathers’ whoever they are, probably guys set up with palatial estates and game preserves, didn’t get their way (at least yet.

  3. Moose says:

    It wouldn’t bother me in the least if every bit of the forest preserve was available to harvest/forestry, as long as it was done in a sustainable way.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Pete, thanks for the Michigan comments. Detroit was a great place to grow up in the 40’s and 50’s. I left and the place fell apart. It was growing up in Detroit that I first learn to hate the suburbs. I truly believe it was the suburbs that destroyed Detroit.

  5. Bill Ott says:

    Hello Pete:

    Fantastic article. I think you have produced some original statistics. Who ever even thought of comparing these numbers before? I had to reread a little to make sure you were stuffing the entire state population into wilderness areas as opposed to just urbanized population. I wanted to differentiate here because I had the idea of just moving everybody (except me of course) in Ohio (my state) to the wilderness. At 6 inches square, Ohio people might just decide they want more of what New York has.

    Then, of course, I don’t know where you found wilderness in Ohio, except that tract of land that includes the Browns stadium and Progressive Field (the Indians).

    Bill Ott

  6. Snowshoe steve says:

    Your idea of 1,000 acres is way to small for inclusion but I really like the stats.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      It is by various scientific measures but in perception it is maybe enough to feel like one is in the wild. At any rate it was me trying to be as fair as possible. Obviously it doesn’t blunt the numeric force of the argument.

  7. Paul says:

    Pete, so you are arguing for more Wilderness land in general? The debate here in the Adirondacks is usually about Wilderness in our own local. If you look at the math in this neighborhood the percentage of Wilderness land (or at least Forest Preserve land which is very similar) is at a pretty high percentage compared to some of the areas you pass through on your way. In the Adirondack park I think that Wilderness land alone (leave out the rest of the FP) is about 20%. How does that match up?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      It matches up great compared to most places. But my point is that a local view isn’t enough, that the larger reality must be considered. Yes, absolutely I am advocating for more wilderness in general and in the Adirondacks specifically, regardless of whether the “local” balance looks better than elsewhere.

  8. Jim Frenette says: mention the need for balance.Imagine a beam balanced on a fulcrum. The conceptof balance is not readily accepted by those furtherest on either end from the balance point. At one end we have those who believe the goal of those enviros is to lock up enough land so as to make it almost impossible for the rest of us to make a living here and thus we will have to move . On the other end of the beam we have those who believe those other guys want to lose or loosen those stupid regulations,so as to be able to cut down,pave over,develop where ever and when ever. The only good tree is a harvested one.Fortunately we have those on either side who are closer to the balance point and love the adirondacks and believe that we all need to learn how to listen to the genuine concerns of those on the other side. Now imagine rowing a guide boat,let one oar represent the environment and the other the economy. If you don’t have both oarsin the water you aren’t going to get very far.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I agree with your comments to an extent. When I wrote “The question is not whether wilderness is good or bad or whether development and jobs in the park are good or bad. Those kinds of arguments amount to nothing more than posturing and demonizing…” I was agreeing with you.

      But make no mistake. The whole point of my Dispatch is to argue that the fulcrum is nowhere near the middle. The balance is massively on the side of developed land. There’s just no question about it.

      Rhetoric on both sides can be extreme; I agree that is not helpful. We do need more mutual understanding and communication; you are right about that too. For example, I have been pleased with the Adirondack Council’s shift over the last fifteen years from more confrontational positioning to more consensus-building. But saying that the rhetoric on the far ends of each side can be extreme, or even certain tactics on either side can be extreme is not the same as saying that the positions on wilderness acquisition at either end are equally extreme. In the context of the kinds of numbers I offered it is hard for me to see how the purchase and constitutional protection of 69,000 out of 161,000 acres by the State is even close to extreme.

      • Paul says:

        “The balance is massively on the side of developed land.”

        Pete, I agree sometimes it seems this way, but is it really true?

        Take a long plane ride it seems like you travel over a lot more undeveloped land than developed. Here in the Finger Lakes on NYS we had much more “agricultural” land (a form of developement) in the past than we have now. Most of that land has now reverted to woods??

        Is there more developed land than undeveloped land?

        • Pete Nelson says:

          Well, Paul, it really is true if you believe my data. Do you not believe my data?

          Your response to that matters not: you answered your own question in your next comment, below, when you said that there were 110,000,000 acres of wilderness in the entire country. That’s 4.5% of the total land area. That’s pretty much a slam dunk.

          In my hundreds of flights over the years I have had the same experience that lots of wilderness-loving fliers have experienced: utter dismay at how little of the American landscape viewed from an airplane is undisturbed. Honestly I’m not sure where you could be flying to get the impression you got, other than Alaska.

    • Moose says:

      It seems to me the oar representing the environment greatly contributes to our economy. I drove to Lake Placid this weekend, there were 50 cars along the rd to the Dix mtn, 150 to Giant/AMR, 200 at Cascade/Pitchoff, God only knows what was going on down at the Loj. My Guess is those numbers combined. All those users were enjoying and spending their tourist dollars for wilderness recreation.

      How does the economy oar work? I just don’t know what kind of industry people expect to have up here? Our local work force doesn’t take low paying jobs. Most of the hotels and resorts use immigrant labor. Agriculture? Same thing. I heard a report on NPR recently where a farmer said he has “never” had a “white person” make an entire day of picking apples! Historically the ADK economy has always been that way. The immigrant work force is what fueled all the mines and timber camps. The ADK population is as low as ever but probably as wealthy as ever.

  9. TiSentinel65 says:

    Jim, that’s a good analogy. We definately like living here because it is not the city or suburb, however people need jobs to continue to live and raise families here. As you reach the ends of both spectrums you will find few people advocating for those positions. Most people that live here occupy the ground in between. We do see the importance of protecting certain parcells of land just as we see the importance of giving buisnesses opportunity to provide us with jobs.

  10. Paul says:

    Pete, there is 110 million acres of wildness land in the US (again the most wild stuff). In the Adirondacks the number of acres of Wilderness land is only growing right? So generally speaking what is a good number?

  11. Pete Nelson says:


    I’m not sure where you got your figure, but let’s take it. The land area of the US is roughly 2,428,160,000 acres. That makes the percentage of land in the US that is wilderness using your number – including all that wild stuff in Alaska – 4.5% or so. Look at only the continental US and we drop well below 3%. Not impressive.

    Given such a low percent, what I think is a good number is a silly question and beside the point. But since you asked I’ll indulge you just this once. With the data as it is my argument is going to look pretty good regardless of how challenging you think your question was.

    Statistically speaking if I suggest any reasonable increase it would mean increases many people in the Adirondacks would not support, for an improvement that at best puts some areas on a par with New York State as it is today.

    For example, suppose I advocate for a relatively modest increase in wilderness, not doubling it like I might dream to be able to do, but something much more incremental, say a 25% increase to improve the overall quality of life for Americans (I argue it is all but self-evident that this is modest given the tiny percent of land that is currently wilderness). To be completely fair let’s further suppose that we divide this increase among regions proportionately based upon their percent of overall US land area (sort-of like the US House of Representatives instead of the Senate).

    Because of its relatively large area the result of this increase in Wisconsin would be to reduce the ratio of Urban land to wilderness to 2 to 1, basically “catching” New York. Hey, Wisconsin deserves it too.

    Based upon the same deal, percentage of land area, what would this proposed increase require of the Adirondacks? As it turns out, just shy of 69,000 acres.

    That’s a familiar number these days, isn’t it?

  12. Paul says:

    Pete, First let me explain that I agree that more wild land is a good thing. The 110 million number is for only land that is specifically designates as Wilderness land. The 20% (19 actually (from the APA)) is only for the land designates as Wilderness in the Adirondacks. As you know the percentage of forever wild land in the Adirondacks is about 40% and growing. If you look at what most reasonable folks would consider wild land there is far more than 110 million acres in the US.

    What is interesting about your comments is that you seem to view someone who thinks that maybe there is enough wild land in some areas that they are opposed to wild land preservation in general?

    It sounds like this blog should be at the Wisconsin Almanack?

  13. Pete Nelson says:


    I’m not surprised you favor more wild land. I didn’t think otherwise. But you like to provoke by putting a challenge question or two at the end of your comments and this time I decided to take the bait. And you did again on this comment, so I’ll respond one more time because your last two on this comment are misleading.

    For the record: I don’t think or assume whatsoever that someone who thinks that there is enough wild land in the Adirondacks is opposed to wild land preservation in general. To the contrary I have never met anyone in the park who is opposed to wilderness, never met a single person who does not care about this park. As I said in the piece it’s about balance, not these kinds of polarizing opinions.

    What I am saying is that the balance is demonstrably and clearly out of whack, way out of whack, and a local perspective only is not enough because it ignores the reality outside the park. So, sure, I’d love to post this on the Wisconsin Almanack. And the New York Almanack, and PA, OH, IN, IL, NJ, etc.

    I’m going to address this matter of perspective in detail in Saturday’s Dispatch, so I’ll leave it for now.

  14. Paul says:

    Thanks for the reply. I will have to look more closely at the statistics and perhaps I will be convinced about things are as far “out of whack” as you say. Like I said above if you take a long flight (forget about Alaska fly from here to where you are in Wisconsin) and I see a lot more trees that I see houses. That is true even once you pass over Manhattan and clear the NJ suburbs. It makes me think that a lot of this is about labels. A satellite photo of the country at night pretty much tells the story of what is developed and what is not.

  15. Paul says:

    Pete, if you use your definition of Urban (1000 per square mile) is there any part of the Adirondacks that would qualify? Saranac Lake proper would probably be the only place. So there the balance (being very generous and using only state owned forever wild land) would be 3 million to 1920 (converted square miles to acres). So 1562 to 1. If we look only at land specifically designated as Wilderness it is 1.138 million acres to 1920. So 593 to 1. I know this is only in the Adirondacks but that is where some of the perspective on the subject should come from. Some of these states are going to have to figure out how to convert their developed landscape into undeveloped land just like we have seen in the Adirondacks over the past hundred or so years. Like you said you want the land not to be simply for the “privileged few”. If you set aside 70,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks and designate it as Wilderness or a million acres in Alaska that might help you or me who can hop on a plane and go check it out but not the poor guy in Milwaukee.

  16. Paul says:

    It is a funny coincidence that NCPR had this story this morning on a “bird’s eye view”.

  17. Bill Ott says:


    How much water is enough. I don’t mean water in the Adirondacks. I mean, if we have enough water to drink, is that enough; or maybe we should have enough to wash our dishes, too, and maybe even take a bath. How about wash a car, fill a pool. If we had just this much water, would that be enough, or should we fill the lakes, rivers, and oceans, too. I haven’t seen an ocean in years, but I think we still need them.

    There will never be enough wilderness. We have to get as much as we can now. We can build a subdivision with houses, stores, and roads in a year, but it takes hundreds of years to revert that land to wilderness, and when does that happen? Take no prisoners, make no apologies, there will never be a “right” number for how much we need. We need all we can get as fast as we can, no mater what it costs.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio
    Browns wasteland wilderness

  18. Rick Wilt says:

    You can arrage numbers to equal whatever you desire!
    The Town of Arietta is at 96% State controlled, that is far more than enough!
    Rick Wilt
    Town of Arietta

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Well actually, Rick, you can’t arrange numbers to equal whatever you desire, not without being dishonest. Mathematics is rarely about exactness when it is applied to the real world because the real wold is not very exact. But it is amazingly accurate and it is always about things like truth and significance and meaning. Mathematics has an unrelenting power that is not bent to the whims of politics as easily as those ignorant of it would like to think. Dismissing statistics is a convenient refuge for people who would otherwise lose an argument. You can argue that if you like but I’m a college math teacher and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m talking about.

      In fact to demonstrate my belief in the above I’m going to agree with you about the town of Arietta. If 96% of the land is controlled by the State, that is plenty, maybe even too much!

      Now if the only thing that mattered in this debate was the Town of Arietta you’d really have me.

      • Paul says:

        Protecting wilderness lands far away from the “urban” areas will improve the equation but I am not sure that it is much of a practical solution. If you really want to do this you could add the 75% of the earth that is covered with ocean to the equation and you will probably already “fix” things. Instead of your hiking boots grab your scuba gear.

        • Moose says:

          You bring up a good point in defining a value to wilderness. Is the value economic, ecological etc.. Is a low diversity wilderness, like a desert or some ocean areas equal to that of saving a tropical rain forest?

      • Paul says:

        Pete, I think that if you think that 96% is “plenty, or maybe even too much”. Maybe? I think it is clear that you have a very extreme view when it comes to this concept.

        • Pete Nelson says:

          My my Paul, you do like to be a provocateur, don’t you? But to label my view as extreme on the basis of a comment about the town of Arietta that from its tone to its exclamation point was obviously tongue in cheek ought to be beneath you.

          I have sought all along to avoid this kind of juvenile labeling, therefore I’m not going to further here to respond to the claim.

          But you may find my column in two weeks interesting if you really want to try to label me as extreme.

          • Paul says:

            Not trying to be provocative. That just seems like a comment that was out there, if it was true. I guess it is not, then you are not that extreme. Thank goodness. To me it sounds like that town has zero opportunity for geographic expansion. Now if you own a small private in-holding surrounded by state land (like both you and I do) that is good, for this town not so much.

            For example Herkimer and Hamilton counties in the Adirondacks are more than 60% state owned, so at the county level. The Adirondacks is 40% state owned (and growing), so there still quite high at the state level. I know that you want to expand to the national level with your stats so these things appear not to matter. But to folks in those locals they probably do. That was my point.

  19. Guest says:

    What is Agenda 21 and is it happening here?

  20. mike sundberg says:

    Lets follow your argument to its illogical conclusion – Only 52 feet to your neighbor is too close; it needs to at least 200 feet to be appropriately wildernessy. A circle with 200 feet in any direction is 125,600 square feet which is 0.0045 square miles. This area for each of New York State’s 19.5 million people is 87,934 square miles. That’s how big your wilderness needs to be. Oh wait that bigger than the whole of New York State – at 56,566 square miles.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      This is a worthy objection. The conclusion Mike takes it to is indeed illogical.

      Is that conclusion relevant? Does it negate the power of he comparisons? Good questions.

      This is one of the possible objections I anticipated. I am writing about in the upcoming Dispatch.

  21. Paul says:

    Not entirely sure what is relevant about these Wilderness/capita calculations? Are we all planning on spreading out and staking out our chunk?

    Unlike us there are lots of people who don’t care about Wilderness and there are also folks that think 52 feet to the neighbor would look like miles.

  22. Bill Ott says:

    Hello All,

    I have been following this blog all along and have come to no conclusions, however a few thoughts.
    First, perhaps the question is not how much wilderness is enough, but how much wilderness we need? Cattle comes from Texas, corn comes from Kansas, and potatoes come from Maine, but where these commodities are grown (manufactured), there is no biodiversity. We need the cattle and all to eat and live, but the environment needs biodiversity to survive, and that is not to be found in a corn field. We need the wilderness to preserve that which we would otherwise destroy, and naturally this commodity must be spread all around,even if in areas as little as a thousand acres. The intricate web of life on this planet will not survive because humans save it, but only if we humans, who think we are so smart, leave some of it alone.
    The preceding has nothing to do with people enjoying the wilderness, but this does. There have been years when I have not gone to the woods, but I always knew they were there. Knowing the Adirondacks, remote Utah, and Mt Rose in Reno, Nevada (which I have climbed, starting from near the casinos downtown) are there have sustained me in periods of suicidal Browns urbanicide. Just knowing there is somewhere to go can be a refuge. But it had better be there.

    Bill Ott

  23. Richard Todd says:

    It is my feeling that those who push hardest for more wilderness in the Adirondacks are the people who already have what they want. (A place they can call their own in the Adirondacks.) They don’t want others coming in, developing, and changing what they have. Quite often these are people who are not from this area, who have limited wilderness opportunity where they live but now feel they know how to tell us how we should save our wilderness areas.

    If you feel that strongly about it why don’t you relinquish your piece of paradise in the Adirondacks and make it forever wild.

    I think the people of the North Country have in the past and in the future can continue decide what is best for our area. We are not ignorant.

    A balance is necessary I agree. But with few good job opportunities all of my children and thousand of others have left the area to be replaced by retirees and others with money. Declining populations and public school enrollment continues to make educating our local children more difficult if not impossible. What family with children wants to move to an area with inferior schools?

    It’s hard not to feel like the local people are not even part of the conversation.

    Richard Todd

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