Five years ago The Nature Conservancy purchased 161,000 acres of land in the Adirondack Park. Subsequently New York State acquired conservation easements that will protect 92,000 of those acres but allow continued commercial logging. Another 65,000 acres is slated to be purchased by the state and added to the Park which is protected by the “forever wild” article in the state’s constitution and would preclude any commercial logging.
The final step in this complex preservation transaction is now being challenged by an on-line petition that urges the state to use a conservation easement rather than a fee purchase. From a preservation standpoint this would mean the lands would remain in private ownership and could be used for commercial logging and various hunting and fishing camps would not be displaced. The petition alleges that the cost of acquiring a conservation easement would be $18 million with no ongoing costs as opposed to a first year cost of $60 million and a total cost of $400 million over ten years taking into account lost taxes, management expenses and lost opportunity costs.
The petition is supported by the Local Government Review Board and the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages. One argument that proponents of the petition make is that “forever wild” status could make dealing with invasive species more difficult if not impossible and put the private forest lands at risk as well.
The tension between those living in the park and relying on its lands to make a living and those who seek to have it protected and preserved is a longstanding challenge to those responsible for making and implementing environmental and economic development policy in the state. The Adirondack Park is the largest park in the lower 48 states and is unique in having 130,000 permanent residents living within its boundaries. In many ways it is an ongoing experiment in what it means for humans to live in a fragile ecosystem on a sustainable basis.
Slate is running a series of articles on walking. Americans walk less than citizens of any industrialized country. Studies have shown that the average American adult takes 5,117 steps each day as compared to the nearly 10,000 steps both Australians and Swiss take daily. Greater levels of walking (as well as cycling) has been shown to be linked to lower levels of obesity. As an inveterate walker (75 minutes a day, everyday), I read the series with great interest and thought of how difficult the layout of many of our cities makes it to be a walker. When I walk in Phoenix with cars a couple feet away from the narrow sidewalk whizzing by me at 45 mph, I realize it may be the most dangerous activity I will engage in that day.
Walking in Nashville
So I could help but envy residents in the United Kingdom when a few days later I read an article about the ongoing struggle to implement the “right to roam” laws that have been enacted in England, Wales and Scotland. These measures created a right to walk on vast swaths of privately owned land including mountain, moor, heath, down and common land. A massive mapping effort was undertaken to identify exactly what areas would be open to the public.
Right to roam map
While landowners have fought the increased access, the laws have resulted in significant increases in acreage open to the public. One wonders if these laws will help reverse a trend in Great Britain that has seen walking decrease by 25% over the past quarter century.
If you want to check out how friendly your neighborhood or community is for walking and walkers, you may want to check out its Walk Score.
Since the establishment of Native American reservations, tribes typically were opposing attempts by outsiders who wanted to exploit resources located on the reservations. More recently, tribes themselves have become active developers of reservation land often for casinos and related development. Quite a different sort of project was announced last month by the Navajos, who in partnership with Confluence Partners LLC propose to develop a $1 billion complex consisting of a resort hotel, spa, restaurants, retail and commercial space and a tramway to the river’s edge. The project would be located at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers and along the east rim of the Canyon.
Not surprisingly an opposition group has already sprung up, and long established environmental groups have begun to voice their concerns. You can download a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding at Save the Confluence’s website.
While I have no doubt that there are significant environmental issues that need to be addressed, my real interest in this is the collision between culture and legal systems. Native Americans have a very different concept of property rights but have long chafed under the paternalistic and often bumbling oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Environmentalists often allied themselves with tribes who were seeking to protect sacred sites on and off reservation lands. This particular project raises the prospect not only of internal conflicts within the Navajo nation but between the tribe and the federal government and environmental groups.
As if battles with the federal government over immigration and health care weren’t enough, several western states have embarked on a campaign to wrest control of tens of millions of acres of federal lands in the West. Utah is furthest along with the governor there having just signed into law a measure asking the federal government to give back more than 20 million acres of public lands. Not to be outdone, the Arizona Senate just passed SB1332 which would require the federal government to transfer nearly 30 million acres (or roughly 40% of the state) to the state by 2015 or face the imposition of property taxes. Governor Brewer somewhat unexpectedly vetoed the measure acknowledging that it was unconstitutional and would have imposed a huge budget liability on the state if the federal lands were actually put under state control. Measures are expected to be introduced in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico.
Coupled with these legislative efforts are a new raft of lawsuits alleging that the federal government reneged promises made at the time these states entered the Union that federal ownership would be temporary. While most legal commentators agree that this issue has been resolved in the federal government’s favor repeatedly over the years, that doesn’t address the very different public-private land ownership patterns between states in the Mountain West and the rest of the country.
Its clear from comments being made by sponsors of the bills that if they are successful they believe state ownership will pave (literally and perhaps figuratively as well) the way for more aggressive resource extraction and development. The issue has even reared its head in the Republican primary where Senator Santorum has said if elected he would work to transfer much of the federal lands to the states and sell them to private interests. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has recently issued a lengthy study discussing possible reforms to federal land management including the transfer of such lands to the states.
Environmentalists have been quick to raise the alarm of what such a transfer would likely mean for treasured wilderness areas such the red rock lands surrounding Moab, Utah. As this issue evolves it is almost a certainty the public trust doctrine will be invoked by those seeking to insure continued management of such lands in a manner that promotes the interest of the general public rather than a small group of private parties interested only in economic development. A recent Nevada Supreme Court decision did just that in applying the public trust doctrine to a dispute about whether the state had to transfer some land recently acquired from the federal government to a county.
While the takeover is supported by many in the Tea Party, in this case it is environmentalists who are raising the disastrous impact such a transfer of land could have on state budgets.