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:
- I don’t believe the data or the data is meaningless.
- 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.
- 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 city-data.com). 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