Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Conserving Land: A Personal Story

Large oak on the conservation property Adirondack pilot and conservationist Clarence Petty maintained that the only way to really protect places in the Adirondacks that lend the Park its distinctive character and integrity was to acquire and protect them on behalf of the public. He certainly put his all into that cause for decades and helped the work of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and others, including their acquisition of the former Finch, Pruyn Company lands. Yet, Clarence was also a proponent of protecting much smaller tracts of land that rated highly in terms of the threat of their change in use (development) or their value as recreational open space or their intrinsic, wildlife or ecological value.

Like Clarence I have often sought to protect land to add it to the NYS Forest Preserve or to protect it with a conservation easement.  While working for organizations such as the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks or Adirondack Wild, my colleagues and I have often asked State government to pay for land protection through a bond act or the Environmental Protection Fund.

But acquiring “conservation land” myself and paying for the privilege is something I had not experienced. I soon hope to have that opportunity, but my Susan and I did not seek it out. The opportunity or emergency sought us.

The logger showed up out of the blue this summer to ask if we could show him our back line. He’d been hired to log the lot next to ours, news we had long dreaded because we feared subdivision and development would invariably follow. No, he said, the owner just wanted to selectively log. We talked out in the woods, batting mosquitos, and he said it would be a quick job. They would not take many trees, just the largest oaks.  He said the market for the logs would be global. He noted our lot lines and thanked me for showing it to him. It would make his job much easier. For my part, I was grateful that he had at least forewarned us and wanted to know our boundaries.

But we worried. The following week none of the big oak trees to be cut were marked.  Was this truly going to be a selective cut?  In the fall and winter, we are out in that forest practically every day. We know it and love it like our own. We trespassed, but it never felt like that. No posted signs ever separated our woodlots. The same groundwater passed under our neighbor’s land and moved north, rising into our swamp. The same barred owls roosted here, and then there. The same deer overwintered, trodding the same narrow path between them when the snow was deep. The same flock of turkeys moved silently as the shadow of elves among the trees. The same wood frogs hopped between several vernal pools that do not observe posted signs. The same hawks flashed suddenly by.

The Timberjack excavator arrived on a Friday morning out by the road. His job was to put in the log landing and road. I learned a different story from him. They actually planned to cut every tree 12 inches or more in diameter, indiscriminately. No need to mark the trees. It’s called diameter limit cutting. I call it high grading, taking the best trees and leaving the rest. The land as timber would not regain its economic value for 80-150 years.  Further, the crew more than hinted that the landowner actually planned to put the land up for sale and subdivision.

I tried to tell the Timberjack operator we would be talking with the landowner and needed time. He was naturally skeptical. The land was to be logged and then developed, he told me. It’s in a contract. That’s just the way it is.  Besides, he was not the boss.  We finally located his boss and talked him into stopping work for the day because we paid him and his crew for their day’s wages.  We were not against logging or loggers, we explained, but dead set against the parceling of the land afterwards. It meant that much to us, we told him, to attempt to talk the landowner into doing something else while the chainsaws were quiet. Good luck, he told us.  The land is priced for subdivision. They would be back the next day. They had a contract and a job to do.

We found the landowner’s name and phone number. He and his wife didn’t live far away. On the telephone they told a sympathetic and not unusual story. Old age and illness had resulted in many difficulties. They needed to log to help pay the taxes. They could not stay long on the phone.

My Susan got in the car and I joined her. She was determined to try and talk to the owners in person. I admired her courage to act then and there. We knocked, the gentleman answered. We spoke to him. He and his wife and daughter agreed to meet us that day. At least we would have an audience.

When we met we spoke with some emotion about the forest, the wildlife, and our interactions with the forest over the years. We spoke of the wetlands, the difficulty of developing it into home sites, the regulatory hurdles.  We spoke of walking our animals through this forest, and the names we gave to some of its features. The family had not set foot in those woods for years, but they listened. That was all we could hope for. They set a price. We counter-offered. They said they would think about it.

When we talked again they had come down in price. We shook hands on it. Their daughter had spent summers in these same woods as a girl scout. She remembers the former owners of our house who had run the day camp. She remembered the nurse after she cut her hand. She remembered the overnight in the woods that scared her. She and her parents remembered. This forest had shaped their lives at one time, as it shapes ours today. We just needed time to hear each other’s stories.

The logging contract is torn up and we plan to move forward with a land sale before too long. This forest will evolve, it will change. It may be isolated some day in a sea of subdivisions. Our town and our County of Saratoga is still reacting to growth, not designing it to accommodate natural benefits and to prevent large environmental impacts. This forest could be ringed with 225 housing units if the land becomes what it’s zoned for.

Or, more hopefully, our acquisition may be the start of a meaningful preserve that gives the forest more time to recover and provides local residents, wild and two-footed, more time to get to know it. This is not an old-growth forest.  It served as woodlot to the homesteaders and farmers that came here in 1850, and a place to dump old farm tools as they wore out. It was logged and mined. The sand miners came to mine sand for the moldings needed to manufacture cast iron stoves. Old roads were built into it and disappeared. The banks owned it during the depression. And the oaks grew. Amphibians bred each spring in the shallow vernal pools. The multi-trunked field pine was swallowed up by hardwoods, and overtopped them anyway. Now, it’s the “owl tree.”

Beyond the pine, dividing oak forest from swamp is the only topography – a low hill, one could scarcely call it that, but I ski down it so I know it is one. Underneath the hill, I believe, is a lens of freshwater which feeds our stream in the swamp. This is a sand-washed headwaters with an awe inspiring glacial history.  Its presence tells me of a sea to the east, blocked by ice, swift moving water, a delta forming at the edge of the glacial lake, sand accumulating by a wasting block of the huge ice field. To me, the hill is of last ice age, 10,000 years passed.  It is a humbling hill that puts humans in our proper place and perspective. The top of the hill was owned by our neighbor and it would have been bulldozed away for housing.  Soon we will own it. We want this hill and the forest on all sides of it to continue on the path of recovery, and of shared memories, an inspired statement of hope that others may add to in future. Our goal is that it outlasts us and becomes what it wants to be.

Photo: A large oak on the conservation property.

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.


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6 Responses

  1. Dan N. says:

    Dave:

    This is a wonderful personal story, and I thank you and your wife for your efforts – personal, emotional, and financial.

    I am just entering the period of my life in which I’m able to consider such things as personal efforts towards permanent conservation. It has been a life-long dream of mine to personal contribute land to the forest preserve of the ADK area. I consider your story to be an excellent and personal reminder to me about how important the efforts of individuals can be. Thank you.

    Dan

  2. Jim J says:

    Dave:

    What a beautiful, and beautifully written, meditation on our place in time, and accompanying ecological responsibilities. Thank you for sharing it with us, and best of luck in your continuing efforts.

  3. william Deuel,Jr says:

    Dave:

    So glad to hear you are doing this. That whole section was my training ground as a kid. It is a shame as to what has become some of it . Well done.

  4. Charlie S says:

    This is a great positive story on land conservation Dave.Thank you so much for your efforts. I hate what I see out there,what they’re doing to remaining woodlots… Our local leaders like nothing better than to form another tax base,ie.. tear down more woods and build another subdivision,or a storage facility,or whatnot. It’s more about the tax base than it is the woods and the beautiful displaced critters and creatures that call them safe havens.It’s a crying shame what they continue to do our erected officials and the developers they kiss up to. We can use another Teddy Roosevelt.

  5. catharus says:

    What a wonderful story!

  6. Anne says:

    David:
    God Bless you and my Sister Susan. This is the most inspiring and beautiful writing I’ve come across to save our world with the appreciation of all things good especially Nature.
    I wish they were doing it here in Allston/Boston where the past is ignored for profit.
    Blessings to you both and thank you for your perserverance. Anne Teja