Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches:
Economic Reality and Wilderness Protection

In last week’s Dispatch I claimed that we do not have nearly enough protected wilderness in America.  I promised to address counterarguments and objections this week.   I would like to thank all commenters for what were on the balance quite thoughtful observations.

After reading the comments and thinking about what issues a reasonable person might raise I came up with three possible objections to my parade of numbers:

  1. I don’t believe the data or the data is meaningless.
  2. I’m not arguing with the data.  Yes, wilderness is nice but we can’t afford it when we have such economic hardship in our Adirondack communities. Protecting more land makes that hardship worse.
  3. The data is meaningful – there is not enough wilderness overall.  But there’s enough here.  So this data is not relevant to me or to wilderness issues in the Adirondacks.

Let me take these objections one at a time.

Despite a few skeptical comments here and there I really didn’t feel as though anyone was disputing the data itself.  That’s good; the data is close enough so that such a dispute would amount to arguing nits in ignorance of the big picture.  What I did get were some comments that challenged whether the data was meaningful.

For example one of the numbers I generated was wilderness area we get per person if we split wilderness acreage evenly between everyone in a state.  One commenter didn’t like that too much.  He wrote in:

“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.”

Sounds damning, doesn’t it?  And after all, no state is going to divide up its wilderness evenly amongst its citizens, so what is the point of the calculation?  Moreover all the land is shared, so in another sense all of it belongs to every person.  If Illinois has more than 32,000 acres of wilderness then each citizen has access to 32,000 acres of wilderness in the Land of Lincoln.

The problem with this objection is that it may damn my choice of illustration, but in no way does it damn the data itself.   I may choose to illustrate the stark contrast between urban land and wilderness by looking at density, as I did; someone else may choose another comparison.  But no matter how one slices the data it simply does not support any notion that we have enough wilderness.

For example, let’s work under the notion that wilderness is shared, not divided up.  Suppose that one one-tenth of one percent of Illinois’ citizens chose to visit their shared 32,000 acres of wilderness on a weekend for a little wilderness camping.  The result would be that your camping neighbor would be about a hundred feet away from you.  How many weekends at that usage rate would it take before there was no wilderness left in Illinois at all?  This is a perfectly serious question.  Even in the Adirondacks with “all that wilderness out there,” as one acquaintance put it, overuse is causing tremendous damage in many places.  Millions of people visit the park every year; of course there is overuse!

My choice of illustration was just that, not a proposal that we split wilderness individually.  You can slice these numbers any way you like and the result is still utterly compelling.   I would challenge the aforementioned commenter to show how the data can possibly be made to look supportive of there being enough wilderness.  There’s simply not a chance of it.

The next objection, the economic argument, is the most common and the most public one (though in my thinking a little bit of a red herring and not necessarily the primary reason behind peoples’ opinions).  The Adirondack epicenter of the dispute between wilderness considerations and economic ones is Tupper Lake, partly because of the ACR project but also because of Tupper’s history as a logging town and its current economic malaise.  It makes for a first-class example of the myopia that I referred to in last week’s Dispatch.  I’m going to set aside the dubious question of whether adding Wilderness to the Forest Preserve actually increases economic hardship or not.  Let’s assume it does just for the sake of argument.  For the moment I’m only interested in one question: how much economic hardship are we talking about here?

Let’s compare Franklin County, home of Tupper Lake, to Cuyahoga County in Ohio, home of Cleveland, where I was born.  Cleveland has endured some tough economic times too (and lousy sports teams).   But lest you think that this comparison is unfairly skewed by me picking a county with such a large, economically depressed city, let me correct your notion.  Cuyahoga County has some of the wealthiest and most tony communities in the world.  The most impressive areas of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs put the comparable neighborhoods in Chicago to shame (really).  Shaker Heights was for many years the richest suburb in America.  Gates Mills looks like New England as depicted in the movie Holiday Inn.  The Cleveland area has world-class cultural amenities and one of the best hospital systems in the country.

Let’s do a little comparison, courtesy of the US Census Bureau (statistics compiled from 2006-2010):

  • Median value of housing units – Cuyahoga: $137,200, Franklin: $88,800
  • Median household income – Cuyahoga: $43,603, Franklin: $42,050
  • Persons below poverty level, percent – Cuyahoga: 16.4%, Franklin: 14.4%
  • Life Expectancy- Cuyahoga: 74.2 years, Franklin: 75.1 years

So for example if the median household income is about the same in each county but the cost of buying a house in Franklin County is only about 2/3 of the cost in Cuyahoga County, it’s hard to see how the cost of living in Franklin County is a bad deal.  And you live longer.

Since most of the focus on this wilderness versus the economy debate is not Franklin County in general but Tupper Lake specifically, let’s narrow our attention.  I don’t dispute the hardship occurring there; I’m in Tupper Lake several times per year, I have eyes.  But a reality check is called for.  Let’s do a little comparison, Tupper Lake to Cleveland, straight-up (all data from the various Federal government agencies, the census and the aggregate data site  Here are the big four statistics that most directly align with concerns typically expressed by Tupper Lake residents:

  • Unemployment in May 2012 – Cleveland: 9.9%, Tupper Lake: 8.4%
  • Per capita income in May 2012 – Cleveland: $17,137, Tupper Lake: $22,814
  • Poverty rate, 2009 – Cleveland: 41.5%, Tupper Lake: 13.2%
  • Percent population loss, year 2000 to year 2010 – Cleveland: 17%, Tupper Lake: 7%

But wait, there’s more:

  • Murders and Rapes, 2009 – Cleveland: 81 murders, 341 rapes, Tupper Lake: 0 murders, 0 rapes
  • All Violent Crime, normalized to a 1-10 scale (1 best, 10 worst) – Cleveland: 9, Tupper Lake: 4
  • Property Crime, normalized to a 1-10 scale (1 best, 10 worst) – Cleveland: 8, Tupper Lake: 5
  • Air quality, normalized to a 1-100 scale (1 worst, 100 best) – Cleveland: 23.2, Tupper Lake: 57
  • Water quality, normalized to a 1-100 scale (1 worst, 100 best) – Cleveland: 30, Tupper Lake: 60
  • Percent of graduates with high school diploma or higher – Cleveland: 69%,  Tupper Lake: 78%

The classic hard-core response to someone who complains about where they live is to say “You don’t like it? Move” (I think that’s a stupid retort, by the way).  Nonetheless if you plan to move from Tupper Lake for a better life don’t move to Cleveland.

Now you might complain that this is a bogus comparison because Cleveland is a big city and Tupper Lake is a small town.  Damn right.  Tupper Lake has a little over thirty-five hundred residents trying to lead a life of at least decent quality.  Cleveland has a hundred times that many people trying to do the same thing.  And the numbers only hint at the real story.  Take a walk around the worst part of Tupper Lake at night.  Then take a walk around Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood at night, where the average life expectancy is only 63 years.  Of course you never would, would you?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cleveland… and Youngstown, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Steubenville and Dayton.  And that’s just Ohio.  Life in the Adirondacks looks pretty good, let me tell you.  A trip to a wilderness area, or even just harboring the dream of it looks pretty nice.  Some may be able to ignore these differences.   I cannot.

Obviously, considered from a national perspective – especially given the realities of urban America – to blame the tremendous problems so many people have in achieving a passable quality of life on the idea that we have too much wilderness would be asinine.   On the other hand, to consider it only from a local perspective ignores the reality that the conditions in the park aren’t nearly as bad as uncountable places outside the park.  That smacks of elitism: “It’s my community, my job, my beautiful forest preserve and all these other people don’t count.”  Which brings me to the remaining objection and to the last point of my argument.

I think a lot of people ignore the reality I brought to light with my data.  It’s not relevant to them because it’s a national view, not an Adirondack view.  Why should an Adirondacker care about the situation in Illinois or Wisconsin?  One commenter suggested that I ought to be blogging at the Wisconsin Almanack.  My strong suspicion, based upon experience, is that this objection to my argument is the most pervasive one.  In fact I claim that the bias towards local thinking is self-evident in almost all of the arguments over the Adirondacks I’ve ever seen.

Now let me be clear: I don’t think that a local perspective is wrong.  I think that the perspective of someone who has to make a living in the park is utterly valid.  I just think if someone assumes that is the only worthwhile view, or even the view that should prevail , they are being elitist, to the detriment of the bigger picture.

Here’s the irony in this debate:  how many times have we heard the claim that “environmentalists” are “tree-hugging elitists” who want to lock up Adirondack land for a favored few, probably outsdoorsy suburbanites with nice backpacks?  Heck, some even claim that this elitism is so strong that environmentalists actually have a hidden agenda to destroy towns like Tupper Lake and clean the riffraff out.

That kind of thinking is exactly backwards.  Someone who cares only about a local perspective may represent the interests of some thousands of people.  On the other hand those who want to preserve every acre of wilderness that can be preserved represent the interests of millions of people across the country, not to mention millions upon millions of future generations.  Who is the elitist?

At this point I can easily imagine being accused of not caring about people who actually live in the Adirondacks and caring only about wilderness… as if it’s one or the other, for god’s sake.   If it really were one or the other – say the quality of life of a small town worth of people versus the 69,000 acres the State is acquiring – I would side with the town.  But I don’t think that choice is real for a second.

So you can accuse me of picking the wild Adirondacks over the residents if you like.  Nothing could be further from the truth: tune in next week.

Photo: Wild Forest at Lost Brook Tract

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Pete Nelson

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.

23 Responses

  1. Solidago says:

    From your first piece – “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.”

    Wow, that’s one big assumption! I think you’d be hard pressed to come up with statistics showing that a Wilderness designation is more valuable (“for us”) than a Wild Forest designation or letting these areas get sliced and diced for vacation homes.

    Setting aside areas as Wilderness simply doesn’t make sense unless the ecological arguments are front and center.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      The claim that this is a big assumption is an interesting claim. I deal with this question a little bit in my next and final piece in this series.

  2. Moose says:

    Why does it not make sense? What ADK mgmt area the highest use?…The High peaks wilderness area. You think the Taylor pond Wild Forest generates more money for the local economy?

    • Paul says:

      Moose, I think that the Saranac Lake Wild forest or Wild forest areas around say Lake George may generate more economic activity that the HPW. Taylor Pond is not really a fair comparison.

      The HPW’s proximity to one of the largest towns in the Adirondacks may also have something to do with it.

  3. Tim says:

    “The data ARE meaningfull” etc.

  4. Solidago says:

    Is the Wilderness designation the reason for the intensive use of the High Peaks area, or because thats where all the peaks to bag are? Are people flocking to the Pigeon Lakes Wilderness because of its designation? Mt. Washington with its cog rail and road gets around 250,000 visitors per year. Mt. Marcy? 20,000. So should we put a road up Marcy? Of course not. But if you’re going to argue that we should base classifications primarily on maximizing human wealth and pleasure that’d be the logical conclusion.

    As an aside, is a place that gets 20,000 visitors a year really wilderness?

    It just doesn’t make sense to argue that we should set aside areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” … for man’s benefit.

    It’s a shame that so many of the environmental community seem to have given up on arguing that we have an obligation to protect the tiny fraction of undeveloped places that remain for the benefit of other species. Even for them, it seems to be all about developing recreational resources for human pleasure and economic gain. And when environmental protection and recreation conflict, they’ll invariably take the side of recreation.

    • Paul says:

      I agree. Do all the ski areas in places like Vermont or the Colorado Rockies drive away the tourists?

      • Scott says:

        I was excited to hike the Green Mountains when I moved here to Burlington. After hiking some of them with all their ski trails and non-wilderness views I gave up. I do all my mountain hiking in the Adriondaks even though it’s at least a two hour drive. But that’s just me, no doubt we get a lot of tourists to ski here.

        • Paul says:

          Scott, I agree if you want wilder views the Adirondacks is better, but I grew up there so I am biased! I do ski in Vermont. You have some great terrain. The New England Masters skiing program is far superior to the NY one.

        • Paul says:

          Pete, that raises a good point. How would Maine size up in your calculations. It seems like with large private tracts it must do well on the urban/wild scale? Also, cane we count Canada as a partner in helping us protect wild land. If we factor them in and the land there we may look much better on your scale?

  5. Bill Ott says:

    I wish somebody from the NY DEC (are you there?) would answer some of these issues. I cruised to the DEC site but did not see descriptions of balanced use plans, etc. This thread is about wilderness in general but it keeps coming back to New York, so we might as well hear from New York.
    Pete has really brought up a hot topic the last few weeks, and I think we would all like to hear from somebody “in the know”. (in addition to Pete, I mean)

    Bill Ott

    • Snowshoe steve says:

      New York has “broken” their wilderness principles often and both ways. The Jay wilderness was/is under 10,000. The sentinnel has roads bisecting it, Moose Pond in ST Armand is surrounded by Mckenzie wilderness but they classified some of the shoreline wild forest to accomodate motorboats. Crane Pond? Do we dare. The winds of the DEC are the same as those in the capital building of Albany.

  6. TiSentinel65 says:

    I recently hiked Pillsbury Mt. On the way up it occurred to me that the state did the land deal for the Perkins Clearing tract the right way. Lyme timber retained logging rights. The camps I believe are allowed to stay, with the members only keeping exclusive one acre tracts around said camps. Access for many outdoors enthusiast is open. There are a few easy to follow rules but the land is open to the public. It also is an access point to the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. The Finch Pryun lands if done right should follow a similar template. Yes there are lands in the deal that should have a pure wilderness designation just as there are lands that should have a conservation easement. I just wish camps like The Gooley club could have remained. To me, retaining the traditional core users of the land, the lease holders, then adding the coservation easement users would have been better economically speaking for the surrounding communities.

    • Snowshoe steve says:

      I didnt find the Gooley clubs argument compelling at all. They want exclusive rights. It’s fair to argue if snowmobiles will be allowed or just foot traffic but keeping a monopoly on these lands after the state shells out big dough for it…who wants that?

  7. Paul says:

    “Let’s compare Franklin County, home of Tupper Lake, to Cuyahoga County in Ohio, home of Cleveland, where I was born”

    Pete, why not compare something like Summit County in Colorado (a mountain town where resort development is the key to the economy) to an Adirondack mountain county (where we also think that tourism will drive the economy).

  8. Paul says:

    Let’s give it a try:

    Median value of owner occupied homes.


    median HH income.


    persons below the poverty level:

    I will have to look for more info when I have time.

  9. Snowshoe steve says:

    Probably more accurate to compare summit with the village of Lake Placid. Either way, point is the ADKs are hardly 1930’s appalachia. Above the medium an average nation wide. Doesn’t mean things can’t improve.

  10. Don Dew Jr says:

    Interesting piece Pete. Another interesting comparison between Tupper Lake and Cleveland would be the percentage of public verses private sector employment. My guess would be Tupper Lake has more public sector jobs then Cleveland per capita.

  11. Paul says:

    Pete, for folks like us the argument that there needs to be more wild land (I would not say wilderness specifically) per capita is compelling when viewed on a national scale.

    But cut to the chase on one point. Do you think that there is enough wild land per capita in the Adirondacks (assuming that this area does not need to make up for other places that have dropped the ball)?

    One point I would make on the data above that I shared. Look at the median price for a home in Summit county CO versus the median income. That is exactly the problem we see in areas with a tourism driven economy. That is the kind of thing that will fall out of having an economy based more heavily on tourism in the Adirondacks. Isn’t that what we are hoping to promote by adding more wild land in the Adirondack Park? It sound like one of the main arguments being made by many groups advocating for adding more Forest Preserve land now??

  12. Paul says:

    ” I would challenge the aforementioned commenter to show how the data can possibly be made to look supportive of there being enough wilderness. There’s simply not a chance of it.”

    Let me be the devils advocate here. Your argument seems to make the incorrect assumption that everyone needs some level of wilderness. I think there are many people that never have any intention of going to wild places, nor do they feel any emotion based on the presence or absence of wilderness. I remember a line from a Woody Allan movie. “I thought that the only reason we had woods was for potpourri”?

  13. Guest says:

    I was enjoying my version of “wilderness” recently trolling along a shoreline with my six horsepower gas motor, and I thought to myself that the motor ran like a swiss watch after all these years.

    This made me wonder if a guy who objects to motors in the wilderness should then therefore object to the sound of the swiss watch in their pocket. The sound is man made, so does it automatically detract from one’s “wilderness experience”

    On a more important subject that is never mentioned in TAA, does man have a moral obligation to manage nature, now that we’ve disturbed it, or interacted with it, and now that we can’t prevent our outside influences on it (air pollution for one).

  14. Paul says:

    “Why should an Adirondacker care about the situation in Illinois or Wisconsin? One commenter suggested that I ought to be blogging at the Wisconsin Almanack.”

    Pete, my comment was not to imply that someone in the Adirondacks should not care about these other areas where they have done a poor job in protecting wild lands. My point was that having lots of wild land per capita in a place like Newcomb NY doesn’t greatly improve the situation you described for the folks living out in those areas. You make it sound like the person making the comment (me in this case) doesn’t care about the situation on a more national or global scale. That isn’t the case.

    The fact is that to improve their situation in these areas they need to be convinced locally. Generally speaking in the Adirondacks I think that the majority of people clearly understand the importance of protecting wild land. There may be disagreement on the best way to do that, public versus private, easements versus Forest Preserve, but on the whole the folks seem to understand the challenge.

    The economic question that you pose in your title is a complicated one on any scale. But in the Adirondacks we should not have to debate it. We should have that data. This isn’t the first public acquisition of this type. In 1989 the state purchased river corridor lands (St. Regis, Grasse, Oswegathchie) and conservation easements on over a hundred thousand acres of land from Champion International. There it was the same model and the main economic selling point was that we would see improvement in local communities. So it it is well over a decade how are the local communities fairing? Given the economic crisis you may want to correct the data and use 1998 to 2008 but it should be easy to see if there has been a positive or a negative economic impact. You should be able to look at it to determine if there was any “economic hardship” or any economic improvement (as planned) from the transaction. You don’t need to compare it to some other place just compare before and after.

  15. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    Great comments all, my thanks. People are really thinking about this and making good points. One more related column Saturday…

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