Thursday, November 07, 2013

New Yorkers Vote to Cede Public Lands to Private Owners

Everyone has been looking forward to a new era in New York City leadership with Bill De Blasio's mayoral win on Tuesday, November 5th, but there has been very little hype about the ballot measures that passed.  Everyone knows we voted to have statewide gambling - as if it weren't here already - but there are other ballot measures I believe we should be more concerned with.  The two I speak of, Proposals 4 and 5, were voted in with roughly 72% and 53% approval, respectively.  These approved proposals now allow Adirondack lands, which are supposed to be "forever wild," to be placed into private ownership.

Proposal 4 was a bit complicated because it involved a township that is situated on the public lands.  This New York Times article recalls a news item from 1903 that called the residents "squatters."  The proposal finally gave the long-time residents ownership of the land they've lived on for decades, even though it was technically situated on public land.  One can imagine how such a precedent might play out in the future.  Can anyone build a house on public land now, stay there for a long time, and then finally get ownership of the land?  Should folks be allowed that power?  How might that complicate the idea of land preservation?  I don't think there is a clear right or wrong side to this issue, especially when we think of the generations of people who have lived in the township who only now will have added rights and benefits because they legally own the land they live on.  How many years did they not receive certain services because they were not legal land owners?  As the NYT article shows, the issue was not an easy one to resolve and it literally took over one hundred years to finally reach an agreement.  Nonetheless, it sets a precedent for private owners to claim public lands.

Proposal 5 is not complicated at all.  Even though the vote was tighter, the majority of New Yorkers voted to allow NYCO Minerals to expand their mine into public lands.  In a truly bizarre twist, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council - two groups that are advocates for the preservation of the area - actually supported the bill.  It may be because NYCO Minerals, as part of the deal, has to give land of a larger value to the public, but that doesn't change the fact that the mine will go deeper into the preserve and that weakens the entire area around the mine (I learned that in my Populations and Communities class in college).  Therefore, the mining company isn't just affecting the lot they are taking; they are also affecting the rest of the land around that lot - and all the vegetation and wildlife that lives there.  This article, by Bill Ingersoll, describes the reasons why Proposal 5 was a bad idea.  I wish more people had been aware of the issues he describes, especially in terms of the precedent that has now been set.  We have decided that it's okay to cede public land to a private entity even though there is no public benefit from that transaction.  I shudder when I think of what can happen as a result of this vote.  This blasts the door wide open for other environment-destroying companies to make deals with our government and to ruin our land, water, and skies.  Yes, I know it has been happening for centuries, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stop it every time we have the opportunity to vote on it.  I mean, we actually get to vote on these things - how important is that?  It's exciting and amazing.  Yet some of us don't realize how taking that time makes a huge difference not only in our lives, but on our physical environment.

The real issue is that these ballot proposals are rarely covered in a compelling way or in a way that draws the interest of large numbers of people.  There are few who search for information about the proposals in order to be able to vote in an informed way.  I can find the articles and share them with you because that is what I do, but I know most of the voters out there didn't have much information about the proposals.  If I had been wiser and less work-addled, I would have written about this issue sooner - before voting day - and shared the information I had with my friends and students.  Today, I feel bad that I didn't.