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Adirondack Park: a Model for Transfer of Public Lands?

The opponents of the Transfer of Public Lands (TPL) from the federal government to the states use several arguments against the proposal. Two of them are:

  • The states can't manage their public lands.
  • The states will sell off the public lands for development.

Really? Tell that to Adirondack Park in upstate New York.

Adirondack Park was set up by the New York legislature in a series of acts in the 1880s. In 1900 it was 2,800,000 acres. By 2000, it had more than doubled to 6 million acres. It is the largest park in the lower 48 states, almost twice the size of Death Valley NP, the largest national park in the lower 48, at 3,372,402 acres. So don't pretend that the states can't manage large public lands.

The vast size points to one major difference between Adirondack Park and the national parks: 52% of the land inside the Park is privately owned. This difference make it closer in management issues to the Forest Service and BLM lands found in the western states than to national parks. Since the American Lands Council has specified that national parks are not on the table for transfer, this difference is important. For example, there is an active timber industry inside the park. So Adirondack Park provides a clear model for the management of the western public lands. Similarly, hunting brings money into the area. Private ownership within a park isn't necessarily the disaster opponents of TPL claim it would be.

The park nature of the area is maintained with state regulation of the private lands in the preserve. Development continues within the Park, and is regulated by the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan (APLUDP). Development is clustered to minimize impact on the land.

Also within the park is part of the New York Forest Preserve, which was a model for the 1964 federal Wilderness Act. The New York Constitution has provided, since 1894, that “The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.” N.Y. Const. Art. XIV, Sect. 1 In New York it takes a constitutional amendment, not a mere statute, to alienate forest preserve lands. Given recent efforts in the Congress to sell off some of the public lands, this state constitutional guarantee seems a better bet than federal statute.

Adirondack Park also provides us with an example of how economic development and environmental concerns can co-exist and cooperate. In 1873 Verplanck Colvin, an early advocate of what is now the park, wrote a report arguing that if the Adirondack watershed was allowed to deteriorate, it would threaten the viability of the Erie Canal, then vital to New York's economy.

Unlike federal land management in the west, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has expanded public access. For example, DEC has actively expanded hiking trails and snowmobile trails over private and public lands.

Fires are a major concern in the West, as more and more of the Forest Service's budget is spent suppressing fires instead of preventing them. Here, again, the Adirondack Park provides a model. There were terrible fires in 1903 (600,000 acres burned) and 1908, when New York City and Quebec City saw ashes from the fires. After that devastation, the state took measures to detect and prevent fires. These were successful, and the region has not since seen the fires the western forests have seen regularly in this century.

If the transfer of public lands is to take place, there is a lot of legislation to write, state and federal. Fortunately it's been done before, so we can look to the past. We can see how to do it wrong, which gives us clear models to avoid. We can also look to the past to see successful models, as in the Adirondacks.

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Monday, 23 October 2017
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