The South Downs emerged from under the weight of 1000 years of English history to gain National Park status in Great Britain in 2009. Never heard of it, you may say. Well, William the Conqueror came here one day in 1066, and changed our English and American history forever.
Nearly a millennium later, no one did more to achieve a National Park for the South Downs than Paul Millmore of Lewes, Sussex (Paul’s home is contained within the Park) who campaigned vigorously for the National Park for decades. He joined Adirondack Wild the last week of December, 2010 in Adirondack Park’s Keene Valley for part of our Dialogue for the Wild. In this case, it was community discussion about the South Downs, and to exchange notes about parks and protected areas on either side of the Atlantic.
First, a bit about Paul Millmore. He is a rural planner by trade, and a pioneering international conservation consultant. He is the author of the National Trail Guide to the South Downs Way. For over 20 years, Paul has consulted widely in North America and in the Adirondacks on a wide range of conservation topics, including planning, countryside management and tourism, heritage trails and walking paths, ranger services and stewardship, cultural and natural resource inventories, conservation record-keeping and more. He last spoke in Lake Placid in 2001 about “Citizen Lessons in Environmental Discovery.” As you can see, Paul can relate to the Adirondacks pretty easily.
As Paul’s slides of the South Downs moved along, the audience of about 25 in Keene Valley’s Congregational Church (Van Santvoord Room) received a crash course in South Downs ecology. On the Downs proper, there are rarities everywhere, rare butterflies, rare plants, all low to the ground, with the sky above, not trees or shrubs. These rarities are here because of sheep, and infertile soils. Remove 1000 years of sheep grazing, or unnaturally fertilize these great downs, and you lose biodiversity. This ecological wisdom requires a shift in our mindset, as we in northeastern North America might tend to view sheep, and infertile soils as bad for rare life forms. However, we might see a parallel in Adirondack low elevation boreal rivers. These low fertility boggy riverbanks, if allowed to gain nitrogen from a warming climate and hastened decomposition, would be overrun by shrubs and trees, shading out the rarities. Thus it is that on the South Downs, grazing keeps the land in ecological balance.
The Downs are often symbolized by the dramatic 30-miles of steep chalk cliffs facing the English Channel, symbolized by the “Seven Sisters” shown here. Created out of the calcium rich bodies of small sea creatures, this wave cut escarpment of chalk is, as Paul points out, the only true wilderness in the South Downs – indeed, in all of England. The Adirondacks may have far more wilderness, but far less human history! Along the escarpment is the South Downs Way, one of the great countryside walks in all of England.
Paul went on to describe Countryside, as defined in English law. By law (1948) and tradition, housing and industrial development is concentrated in Great Britain within hamlets, or towns or cities. The countryside outside of these zones is simply not available for such development. There is no private property right to develop it. Despite it being private land, there is a public right to access it, so long as that access is appropriate and does not harm the private owner. Here lies the great tradition, and burgeoning tourist attraction and economic benefit of countryside walking from inn to inn, from town to bed and breakfast, and back again. This business is critical to the life of the South Downs. It is also critical to know that these countryside “parks” are locally managed.
As for the culture and nature divide, Paul is a lumper, not a divider. From his viewpoint, all forms of culture and all forms of nature in the countryside (and the town) deserve our attention, our concern, our protection, our stewardship. He knows there are important lines not to cross, and knows that our wilderness has its own critical cultural, as well as legal and spiritual importance. Yet, he reminds us that we are part of nature, so our culture and its history are critically important. Paul views the Adirondack “debate” as pointless. Embrace wilderness and human cultural history together, he urged. Don’t forget the mining history and centers at Mineville, for example. Celebrate it, preserve it, just as you preserve the High Peaks Wilderness.
Remember, too, he reminded us, to measure the economic benefits of wilderness and cultural and historic centers throughout the Adirondacks. Measure and report these results to government on a regular basis. These may be the ultimate “received bits of wisdom” from our much older English cousins across the pond.
As for the South Downs National Park itself, Paul sees this is just the first and most logical victory. The Park is managed by local people, not by London, and Paul is one of the many locals who have moved from Park creation to Park stewardship. Stewardship money must be locally raised, he argues, and he has successfully raised a lot of it himself. In one example, he persuaded the reluctant local powers that be to screen with native vegetation an enormous parking lot built for Countryside walkers and sightseers. He did this by writing the first check to acquire the necessary tree seedlings, and by shaming hundreds of others to write their own checks. The trees are now mature and screen the sun’s reflection off hundreds of automobiles, which would otherwise have been visible from thirty miles away. Imagine the visual impact from Owls Head, Hurricane or Cascade Mountain of a 15-acre, unscreened parking lot at Rt. 9N and 73 in Keene!
Now, Paul has other campaigns in his sights, including the first marine sanctuary in Britain on and off the South Downs coast. Also, he will fight for ecological restoration of the only undisturbed estuary in all of England. The River Cuckmere forms a beautiful meandering floodwater through the Downs, cutting through the escarpment down to the sea. Yet 19th century Englishmen cut a straight channel before it reaches the sea to stop it from flooding. This cut has sealed the meander off from nutrients, and starved the floodplain of its potential richness. Bird life and all life forms suffer. These days, the economic value of biodiversity and birdwatching far exceeds losses from floodwaters, so don’t count Paul Millmore out. More ecological and cultural gains, on the South Downs and elsewhere, are within his determined reach.
Photos: Above, The Seven Sisters, coastline bordering the English Channel and part of the South Downs; Below, Paul Millmore, successful advocate for the South Downs National Park in Great Britain, and friend of the Adirondacks.