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New twist: Republican governors take lead in environmental protection

April 26, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

One mountain goes by the harmless little name of Allen, the other the more intimidating and unpronounceable Couchsachraga. They are two of the most remote bumps of land in the Northeast, and more than one hiker has remarked that the solitude atop either one is almost spooky.

Located in New York's southern Adirondacks, they are divided by the Opalescent River which flows over glittering stones that resemble a riverbed of diamonds and gold.

Summiting either peak is difficult enough, but is made moreso by the fact that much of the surrounding lands are owned by a private paper company which precludes hikers from plotting a direct route.

More than a quarter of a million acres of forest and wetlands encompassing some of the richest beauty in the nation, has been vigilantly guarded by No Trespassing signs for the better part of a century.

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But now the state of New York has entered into a deal with International Paper, which will open the land to the public while protecting it from development and still allowing selective logging.

According to the New York Times, "The land New York State is protecting at the cost of millions of dollars is some of the most magnificent landscape in the Adirondacks, a striking blend of wild rivers, hidden lakes and vast stretches of trees - spruce and fir in the northern sections; birch, oak and other hardwoods in the south."

The deal itself is almost as remarkable as the scenery. International Paper essentially gives up control of the land, but retains the right to log, provided it does so with care. In exchange, the company will be paid by the state for the protective easements. It will still pay taxes on the land, but at a reduced rate, generally reflecting the land's lower value due to the fact that it cannot be sold for development.

And that was a real danger, considering that many paper companies, strapped for cash, have been selling off scenic tracts of land to private housing developers.

So the land is protected, the tax base is preserved, the loggers keep their jobs, the company gets a financial boost and naturalists have a whole new wild world to explore.

And who was the politician who pulled it off? Some progressive green or starry eyed liberal? Nope, it was Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.

Being closer to the people and closer to the real world, state-level politicians tend to noodle things through faster than the fed-level politicians, and there are indications, positive ones, in my view, that some Republican governors are concluding there is nothing unconservative about conservation.

While national figures such as Vice President Dick Cheney are getting their environmental advice from Big Oil, governors such as Bob Ehrlich here at home are seeking solutions to environmental problems without crippling the big industries and small businesses that create our jobs and make our country work.

Much has been grumbled about the $30 annual "flush tax" to help restore the Chesapeake Bay. But in many ways, the bay is Maryland, and not too many people who have seen and experienced it are bound to complain. What the farmers are to us, the watermen are to the shores and it is hard to begrudge an effort to restore their fisheries and their livelihoods.

Environmentalists too, seem to be getting the message - that being, that it is neither effective nor beneficial to militantly pursue all-or-nothing solutions. Because too often the result is nothing. Nor does it win the PR war. The public mood is sour toward inflexibility on either side, and increasingly it rolls its eyes at people who would chain themselves to redwoods. PETA is less effective because it has never learned the obvious lesson that throwing pies at hog farmers does nothing to reduce the annual consumption of bacon.

Increasingly, we're seeing environmental groups that, instead of condemning cattle farmers, are helping them plant trees along the creeksides to sop up animal leavins' before it hits the watershed.

It's my guess that a decade ago, the Adirondack deal might not have been so heralded by environmental groups, which might have balked at any logging whatsoever and insisted on outright purchase of the land by the state.

But that likely would have left more than 1,000 people out of work and a massive chunk of land off the tax rolls - not to mention that the state probably could have not afforded the purchase in the first place.

But now, Larry Selzer of The Conservation Fund in Virginia, which helped broker the deal, says "Working forests are recognized as a desirable outcome precisely because they keep large landscapes intact and balance economic and environmental objectives."

Conversely, Thomas C. Jorling of International Paper says, "This shows an evolution of the orientation of the forest products industry toward capturing all the multiple values of managing forests rather than focusing just on the production of fiber."

Imagine that. Compromise worked out better than taking a hard line for everyone. Perhaps some day our national Republicans will wake up to what state Republicans have already learned.

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