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The essential Adirondack argument

January 23, 2010
By Joe Hackett, Enterprise outdoors columnist,

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Unlike most of the world's wilderness parks, the uniqueness of the Adirondacks comes from the fact that people remain a key component in a vast natural landscape.

Due to this, an inherent argument has long existed between various factions over the best, wisest and often most profitable use of the land. For many years, the region's natural attributes were viewed in such easily quantifiable terms as the number of beaver pelts, total board feet of lumber, tonnage of iron ore and other measurable aspects of development and extraction.

It wasn't until the late 1800s that a host of other, far less tangible values were attached to the local landscape. These values were evidenced in the spiritual, recreational, artistic and even curative properties of the Great North Woods property. Fittingly, it was a preacher, the Rev. W.H.H. Murray, who was first responsible for exposing these benefits to the nation.

Despite over a century of living in close proximity to wild lands, no one has yet been able to figure out how to resolve long-held Adirondack arguments over land use. The issue continues to fester like a boil on the land and the society that shares this space. Invariably, the argument boils down to the bottom dollar, where the best use is determined by the economic factors that will permit society to exist.

Terms such as "sustainability" and "wise use" do not necessarily have to be at odds; however, they have often been seen that way due to a lack of information on the economics of the land. Over and again, the essential Adirondack argument eventually comes back to land values, and the question is, "Is the land more valuable if utilized for production and development or when it is preserved for outdoor recreation and the appreciation of nature?"

Proponents of development and extraction industries have been able to produce solid figures for the financial benefits of their various endeavors, but until recently, there was very little research available on the financial benefits of wilderness preservation.

Although most have accepted the notion that protected, wild lands are of considerable value to society, it has always been difficult to define that value in terms of dollars and cents.

Opponents of wilderness preservation have argued that wilderness preservation restricts access to a small segment of the population, locks up valuable natural resources, cripples the local economy and raises fire danger. Another common claim is that wilderness is the creation of elite liberals who want it to be preserved and reserved for wealthy out-of-towners and other ne'er-do-wells.

In various studies that have been conducted, researchers typically considered the economic benefits associated with recreation on wilderness lands rather than on the land directly. Although researchers have considered both the environmental and economic impacts of the wilderness, it has remained difficult to put an accurate, monetary value on such intangibles as the psychological impacts of wilderness on the human soul; the health benefits of outdoor recreation; the physical properties of the environment such as fresh air, fresh water filtration, carbon sequestration and the ecosystem as a whole in regard to not simply the fish and wildlife but to the entire spectrum of life available in an undisturbed, unmolested environment that has been allowed to thrive intact.

Wilderness lands retain values that defy definition in terms of human benefit. Forests and fields, mountains and valleys, rivers and ponds, lakes and streams, and the fresh, balsam-scented air combine to form a living organism that supports a web that is held together in fragile fashion. In wilderness there is life, and it is a web that provides support for our own human civilization. In failing to protect these wild places, we fail to protect ourselves.

From a financial prospective, wilderness lands have the lowest cost per acre for land management, and yet they provide a wealth of spiritual, physical and psychological benefits that our society cannot do without. Wilderness is stitched into the cloth that wraps our nation's heritage, and we are obliged to preserve it for future generations. Yet the refrain around here remains, "Show me the money - we can't eat scenery!"


Wilderness as a commodity: dollars and sense

Wilderness lands provide outdoor enthusiasts with the opportunity to experience a sense of history and to visit lands that remain as wild as they all centuries ago. However, these rugged, undeveloped and expansive lands are rapidly disappearing across the country today due to "progress."

Viewed as a commodity, the increasing scarcity of such lands will help make them much more valuable in the future, and yet they remain readily available for our recreational pleasure today.

At what point does progress become regressive? The point was raised when the U.S. Forest Service proposed opening roadless areas in western states for extraction industries during the Bush years. Opponents charged that the lands, if left intact, were of greater public value. Their battle was aided by a blossoming movement among academics in wilderness economics. Many studies which initially focused on tourism development were later used to provide a framework for determining a market value of wilderness lands.

Wilderness economics studies produced by Dr. John Loomis at Colorado State University, Dr. John Omohundro at Potsdam State University and Dr. Robert Costanza at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont have permitted researchers to assign a reliable dollar figure to the previously incalculable and seemingly intangible values of preserving wilderness and its pristine natural resources.

According to the article, "As a Matter of Fact, Money Does Grow on Trees," published in Outside magazine, researchers in the emerging field of ecological economics research have determined that wilderness pays off primarily in three ways:

-direct income from recreational use and as a quality-of-life benefit to lure new businesses and residents

-passive-use value (what it's worth to maintain the opportunity to visit wilderness, or to pass that opportunity on to future generations)

-through the "ecosystem services" of natural processes such as the air and water-purification functions of an undisturbed forest: "Researchers digging into the economy of the West are finding that forests often have a higher cash value standing than they have as cut timber. Small towns born as logging outposts now thrive as recreation gateways."

Recentstudies, which have confirmed intuitive notions with hard economic facts, shed a new light on both the environmental and economic benefits of wilderness preservation. Forexample, Dr. Costanza of UVM used figures extrapolated from real life to estimate the costs of replacing the benefits derived from a natural forest ecosystem with a manufactured device.

In 1989, the EPA directed the City of New York to construct a water-filtration plant, estimated at $8 billion to build and $300 million a year to operate. Rather than take on the huge, multi-year project, city officials devoted $2 billion to restore and protect its Catskill Mountain watershed to allow the healthy 2,000-square-mile forest to complete the work of a proposed $8 billion industrial plant. The estimated value of natural water filtration services provided by the forested watershed was $6 billion.

That's a lot of green.



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