DUCK SOUP: Selling the Woods

There are whispers in Washington about selling off national land. Privatization is the buzzword. Public broadcasting, space exploration, welfare, health care: the private sector is more efficient. Let the market work its magic. Why should the woods be any different? I've been to the woods and I've come back to say "Stop." We should nip this one in the bud.Adirondack Park, in New York State, is rightly credited with magnificent natural beauty. It is the largest state park in the country, and the largest preservation area, state or federal, east of the Mississippi. Although it is called a park, it is actually a mix of public and private land governed by fairly strict conservation laws. It is also a glaring example of why the national government must not be tempted into placing woodlands into state or private management.While our National Forest system maintains access for everyone under it's often criticized banner of "multiple use," Adirondack Park is a playground for the rich. And while our National Park system manages an uneasy balance between wilderness preservation and tourist comfort, Adirondack Park has preserved the highlands through inaccessibility and left the valleys to development by private interests.Perhaps the worst effect of mixed private and state management is the hopeless dearth of information available about the park. Maps and other useful clues are provided only by Chambers of Commerce in the many small towns strewn through the region. Understandably, being instruments of business, the Chambers distribute information aimed at monetary gain. There's a blizzard of pamphlets about motels, craft shops, restaurants, guide services, boat rental, fishing and hunting equipment, and private camp grounds. Trail and canoe maps are sketchy, and difficult to read. Private and public lands as depicted on maps turn out to be inaccurate if not downright imaginary when you try to find them. I'm sure there are U.S. Geological Survey maps of the area, but they are not available at either private or state information kiosks within the park. The state campgrounds depend on commercial sources for most of their explanatory material as well. I drove on a seventy mile detour to an area designated on two maps as "wilderness." The heavy traffic on the corduroy road should have been a clue. The road was an access route for a museum tour. But there was no way to get to the wilderness if it existed at all.Those who can afford to stay in motels, inns, hotels, resorts and the like, or are members of the numerous hunting clubs which maintain private camp areas, are well served. Otherwise you pay ten bucks a night (without hookups) for one among two hundred or more sites at each of the official State campgrounds, or spend more at a privately owned camp. You are permitted to hike into the woods and camp alone if you enjoy an interesting regulatory challenge. Backpacking permits are available if you can find a ranger - lots of luck, and you will probably have to pay for a place to park while you are gone. Mom and Pop and the kids won't find any place for the sort of family camping enjoyed throughout the National Forest system, at least in any semblance of "alone." Camping in Adirondack is like living in a trailer park -- nice views of aluminum siding, wheels and pavement. If this is the future of the recreation leg of multiple use land management in our National Forest lands, they will truly become playgrounds for the rich. Camp grounds will follow the theme park model, motels, dude ranches and restaurants will cater to the tastefully outfitted elite, and the average person will become more and more cut off from the natural world. But, maybe that's what some members of Congress have in mind. We are the beneficiaries of far-sighted, even visionary efforts to set aside some of our natural world. The debt we owe those who devoted their lives to saving a few forests is immeasurable. The least we can do is strengthen protection, and when possible add more land at the margins. Selling our nation's treasures is worse than stupid. In the crush of population growth and environmental destruction that we face in the near future, forests once gone are unlikey to ever be replaced..

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