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