End of year thoughts about man and nature

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Eye from Albany
December 2002

End of year thoughts about man and nature
By Paul M. Bray

The end of 2002 is a momentous time if you consider the war fever on the Potomac and the impeding financial calamity facing state and local government. A hot war in Iraqi seems inevitable though it is far from clear why the Administration in Washington as created this inevitability. We wait for the next Al Qaeda act in the USA. Hard financial times in New York State also are inevitable, but no one seems to want to offer any solutions other than Band-Aids. The public has become a bystander asked by their leaders to do little more than shop to keep the last vestige of the national economy afloat.

I find myself wanting to leave the issues of the moment to look at what may be a significant change in the relationship of man and nature.

Despite man’s dependency on nature, the relationship between man and nature is a difficult one. Man has an almost insatiable need to extract natural resources (note: ANWR) while also depending on nature’s beauty to satisfy aesthetic cravings. In part, the man-nature relationship has been maintained in the 20th century by a degree of separation with man inhabiting cities and nature allowed to flourish in parks and preserves. This was perpetuated by the fiction that denied the active presence of nature in cities and the significant role of man especially in the most pristine natural settings, what we have called wilderness. Just as fences may allow neighbors to co-exist better, separation has served to allow a certain level of co-existence in the man-nature relationship. Yet, the wall of separation between man and nature is cracking and we have tough challenges to finding the balance that integrates the up-close needs of man and nature. Some signs of facing this challenge are coming to the forefront and we can see them in New York State.

A decade ago when the centennial of the Adirondack Park was celebrated the Centennial Committee called the Park “A Park of Man and Nature”. This was fitting enough for a vast Park that is the size of the State of Massachusetts and the home of about 130,000 residents. It encompasses the largest and only constitutionally protected wilderness east of the Mississippi River, but also attracts 10 million visitors a year.

During the 100 year period after its creation in 1892 the interests of nature and man, respectively, in the Park were for the most part distinct and separate. Conservationists who came mostly from metropolitan areas wanted the State to acquire more land to add to the slightly 50% of the Park that is the constitutionally protected “forever wild” forest preserve and to make sure that it remained forever wild. Park residents wanted local control and complained that they were being colonized by outside forces. Many viewed the Park as a vehicle for their subservience. Writer Phil Terrie correctly called the Park a “Contested Terrain”.

Calling the Park one of man and nature may have sparked a realization on everyone’s park, insiders and outsiders, that there is common ground between the interests of man and nature. When that common ground is the objective both interests benefit.

I think of this in the morning when I hear a promo on public radio for Essex County-“A county in the Park”. This shouldn’t be extraordinary as Essex County is within the Adirondack Park, but it is. Essex County government has a long history of attacking the Park for limiting its local powers and thereby what it perceived as its economic development potential. It took outside marketing consultants to teach them that the Park made the County more attractive to 21st century businesses.

In recent years Dick Lefevre, Chair of the State imposed and locally loathed Adirondack Park Agency, worked tirelessly to partner the interests of man and nature and state and local government within the Park. He helped successfully navigate tough issues like snowmobile use and cell towers while opening new channels to the Park’s more than 80 towns and villages to get the Park behind local needs.

Regrettably, Dick retired in November leaving a very large shoes to fill. The Centennial, Dick and other forces are beginning to have the effect of making the former battle ground of the Adirondack Park into a model for protecting natural values while fostering economic opportunity and social equity for the Park’s residents.

Just as the needs of man and nature are being reconciled in the Great North Woods of New York, ecologists are discovering a high level of bio-diversity in cities. As the New York Times reported, “From Paris, Rome and Cairo to New York and Baltimore and Phoenix, cities are all subjects of intense ecological study. Unesco is even thinking of making several major cities, including New York, biosphere, important natural areas to be protected, joining the ranks of such traditional natural wonders as Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.” Imagine New York State with two biospheres, the Adirondack Park and New York City.

What this all suggests is that we are reaching a much higher level of sophistication in our thinking. Man and nature should no longer be separated in our thinking. We can no longer love or loath cities or pristine nature without seeing the hand of man maintaining pristine nature and force of nature in our cities.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com