by Gary S. Kleppel
The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently
released the 2001 draft Open Space Conservation Plan for public
comment, a near-final step toward its adoption. Hailed by environmentalists,
business leaders and academics as a benchmark in environmental
policy, the plan demonstrates that conservation can serve both
economy and ecology.
There is but one significant glitch. There is no state funding
for implementation. At a time when New Yorkers clearly need
the economic, recreational, environmental and spiritual values
that open space brings, government must be responsive. The state
will have an opportunity to act when the governor and Legislature
return to Albany to revisit existing funding and allocation
issues, and to develop a new state budget.
In 1892, the state Legislature chartered the Adirondack State
Park, at 6.1 million acres one of the largest preserved wildernesses
on earth. Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon can fit
within its boundaries. This is not what those from afar may
think about when they think about New York. Yet, as the bedazzled
visitor gazes down from a nearly mile-high ridge at a million
acres of wild New York, he realizes that New Yorkers understand
the necessity of nature to the human spirit.
That understanding was in evidence in 1990, when New Yorkers
raised the bar in conservation still higher with the passage
of the first Open Space Conservation Plan. While the Adirondack
Park is a spectacular destination, it is still a day's ride
from Huntington, Long Island. The Open Space Plan celebrates
New York's natural heritage at the local level. The plan empowers
communities to identify the special places in their neighborhoods
that are worth protecting. It provides the governmental framework
and selection criteria for conservation. It partners state and
local governments with private organizations to conserve open
space that will enhance access for recreation and economic development,
and protect valuable natural resources, air and water quality.
Among the special places targeted for conservation by the new
plan are parcels in the Hudson River Valley and along the 326-mile
Long Path from Fort Lee to Thacher Park, outside of Albany.
Protection is also proposed for Albany's unique Pine Bush ecosystem
and the beautiful Helderberg escarpment. All of these are areas
of significant ecological importance.
Among the landmark features of the 2001 plan is the protection
of biological diversity as a motivation for conservation. This
element, originally proposed by students of the University at
Albany's Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy Program, recognizes
that the quality of human life depends on the health of the
entire living community and of the environment that we share.
Is this idealism? Not really. Protecting natural resources and
our life-support system (air and water) are cost-effective alternatives
to expensive and uncertain efforts to remediate the effects
of environmental pollution.
The Open Space Plan is the result of hard work by environmental
groups, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the state
Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and Gov.
George Pataki, who has modeled his environmental philosophy
after that of a former New York governor and later president,
Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most environmentally enlightened
public officials in history.
Full implementation of the new Open Space Plan will require
more than $300 million a year for the next several years. The
principal state funding source for the plan is the Environmental
Protection Fund. Although, under law, $125 million has already
been set aside, the fund, and hence the Open Space Plan, were
not funded this past fall.
Supporters are concerned that monies set aside for conservation
will be used for other purposes. Between this year and next,
$250 million will accumulate in the Environmental Protection
Fund and many environmentalists are concerned that this legally
dedicated fund will be raided at a time when New Yorkers' need
for clean water and air, open space, parks and environmental
quality is higher than ever.
The Open Space Plan will stimulate business. It will help farmers
make ends meet, large landowners retain family homes and communities
preserve cultural heritage. Water and air quality protections
afforded by open space conservation will reduce engineering
and infrastructure costs to communities and industries.
Most importantly, given the calamity that has entered the lives
of so many New Yorkers since this fall's tragedies, it is essential
that we have quiet, natural places within our communities to
reflect, to grieve and to put our lives back together.
Now more than ever, the Open Space Conservation Plan is an
essential medicine to heal New York. The Assembly leadership
has stated that it is prepared to appropriate the available
funds. It is important that the governor and the Legislature
see that the plan is funded and implemented.
Gary S. Kleppel is associate professor of biological sciences
and director of the Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy Program
at the University at Albany.