Saturday, May 25, 2013

Do The Adirondacks Have Enough Wilderness?

Quinns-Cliff-300x294Dear readers:  due to a death in the family I was unable to work on this week’s missive.  In lieu of that I am editing and reposting part of a Dispatch from many months ago that is especially germane right now as debate over classification of the Finch Pruyn purchase rages on these pages.  I think it is important to once again make a point about Wilderness from a larger perspective.

Given the nature of the discussion over the Finch lands I need to make a prefatory comment.  I have ranged all over the Adirondacks and I reject the notion expressed by some that Wild Forest  = Wilderness.  While I will admit that solitude can often be as easily or even more easily found in under-used Wild Forest Areas than in over-used Wilderness areas, I do not find the two classifications equal either functionally or aesthetically (for one thing, solitude can be more easily wrecked during a visit to Wild Forest).   The two classification certainly are not equal conceptually – that’s why they exist – and even knowing that as one walks in the woods is valuable.  There are many places in the Unites States that one can have a woods experience roughly equivalent to a visit to Adirondack Wild Forest. There a far fewer places one can go that are as wild and well-protected as Wilderness.

With that said, I have been following the back-and-forth over the Finch lands on the Almanack, noting that, as I wrote in the original version of the post, 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 (brought especially into focus with Peter Bauer’s recent claims about the APA process this time around).

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 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.

Next I offer a couple of assumptions, both of which I claim have consensus support.  The first assumption is that Wilderness as defined in the Adirondacks 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 advocates for a Wild Forest designation the Finch acquisition have been quoted as saying that places like the area around OK Slip Falls should be protected 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.

If we can agree that the question is balance, then this debate becomes focused like a laser on one question: 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 defendable 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.

Photo: Quinn’s Cliff at Lost Brook Tract

Related Stories

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.

14 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Pete, Sorry to hear about your loss. I do agree that there are differences between Wilderness land and Wild Forest land. I think those differences are exacerbated by lack of enforcement in some cases, but I guess that is an argument for Wilderness land. I think in the case of the Finch lands a big question (given the expectations of the towns) is economic. For example will there be more folks using the Essex chain if it is very difficult to access with a boat? If you get this wrong this whole town “buy in” might be poisoned for future deals. Start with Wild Forest and then modify as needed. Re-classification happens frequently.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    Hello Pete,

    I also come from out of the line, Lakewood, Ohio, and I cannot wait to visit Wisconsin when all its residents are enjoying their 665 square feet at the same time. Then the whole rest of the state would be a true wilderness and I would be the only one there. Nowhere to buy gas, though.

    There will never be enough wilderness. Get as much as we can while we can, because a hundred years from now the game will be over. Teddy Roosevelt had vision, and we must also. We do not even have to invent our own vision, just protect some more land from the people, for the people and the land.

    Bill Ott

  3. Al Pouch says:

    Simply put, everyone does NOT want or need a wilderness experience. Plenty of folks living in Chicago or New York City neither want or need this type of environment nor would know what to do here. Central Park is enough of a wilderness for some. Your statistics are dramatic, but not realistic.
    Al Pouch

    • Daniel says:

      Al, you make a reasonable point, but you are forgetting something, in my opinion. You say that people–such as those from NYC “don’t want or need this type of environment”. My presumption is that you are basing this on the idea that so many of them don’t utilize or visit wilderness area. However, very few of these same people don’t ignore and don’t not care about these areas. Asking these people the question: “Do you use/or plan to use these areas?” may in fact get you a “Nope” response. Asking the question: “Do you think we should get rid of these areas?” will get you a “Nope” response as well.

      Whether or not you think so, people do have an inherent belief that wilderness areas are important. It’s the same inherent sentiment that keeps people (and animals) from wanting to see people that they have not met and do not know from being hurt.

      • LocalYokel says:

        Good point on the difference between using wilderness and caring about it. However, you are incorrect in stating that people have an inherent belief that wilderness is important.Don’t assume just because you and I (and many others)may feel deeply about the importance of wilderness that it is some sort of innate human characteristic.

        • LocalYokel says:

          To answer Pete’s question, no, I don’t think the Adirondacks have enough Wilderness.

      • Paul says:

        Daniel, this is true. But in this case an important question is who will USE the land for recreation and bring dollars into the local communities.

  4. Randy says:

    Good article, but you got me wondering about your premise for seeking balance, when at the end you disparage anyone who disputes your statistics (emphasis on “your”). Perhaps you can recast your data based on that population that (1) lives in the areas in or near wilderness and wild forests, and (2) those who actually either go to or plan to go to these areas (either wild or wilderness). My take on this is that those in these categories are the “privileged few” by choice, not by economic or social standing (as was the case in the early days of the Park, eg, Great Camps). We need a healthy dialogue on what is feasible when it comes to protecting not only the lands that are, and are becoming part of the Park, but similar areas in our country, if not the globe. In the meantime it is up to the individual to chose whether or not to have a stake in this situation. I would venture to posit that comparing the lands in the Park today versus its beginning years the amount of “real” wilderness and wild forest has increased dramatically mostly due to the absence of aggressive lumber practices, while the population of our state has grown significantly over the years.

  5. jay says:

    Way way way too much wilderness!!!

  6. Tony Goodwin says:

    I question the statement that we must “…get as much as we can while we can….” The land in question is New York State Forest Preserve – a category that is already better protected than much of the other public land in this country. If it is not initially classified as Wilderness (which I have stated I favor for the Essex Chain) doesn’t mean it can’t be reclassified at some future point. Remember that as of 1972 there was “only” Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks, but then the State Land Master Plan magically “created” over one million acres of Wilderness.
    Yes, we should continue to add to the Forest Preserve where appropriate, but no every acre needs the additional protection of a Wilderness designation.

  7. George says:

    Recall that when the debate began in the 19C about preserving the Adirondacks/NYS Forest Preserve, the NY Times called it “a Central Park for the World”. Wilderness everywhere on the planet is being destroyed.
    Where is the wilderness in developed Europe, for example?
    Or undeveloped Myanmar? When viewed on a global context, the opportunity to preserve/create wilderness in NYS is a great and relatively unique opportunity. We are fortunate to have the option. It is a gift to the world. And we should take it.

    • Paul says:

      This is all well and good. And you may be absolutely correct. However here, like I have said before, an agreement of sorts has already been made with the surrounding communities. If that agreement is now moot than I think we are making a mistake. This should not become some kind of bait-and-switch. I guess it is fine but being honest in the beginning and telling the towns that the aim was to protect as much of this land as wilderness as possible was the goal then why did we ever enter into the economic argument? Was it just an effort to appease the towns? Or was it as trick of some sort? Or, if a Wilderness designation is the best economically that just explain it in detail. None of that is even being discussed in any of the drafted proposals.

  8. Peter says:

    There are few places left in the Eastern US that have the opportunity to create wilderness. In the context of the northeast, not just the Adirondacks, it is important to take advantage of the opportunities that we do have to protect wild places. The title of the article might read, “Does the Northeast have enough wilderness?” In that case the answer might be a bit simpler.

  9. Paul says:

    Pete, is that a person in the upper right of this photo?