Without a doubt, National and State Parks make up the biggest “common” area for tax payers to explore and make use of; it is also a prime example of the tragedy of the commons in today’s world. To be fair, many users of these common areas are respectful of nature and follow the leave-no-trace philosophy, but no matter how careful users are, a single track trail can quickly become a herd path of three or four people wide simply from increased foot traffic and weathering; and of course, once this happens, it can be very difficult to recover. This article from the NY Times blames the advent of social media and geo-tagging (specifically Instagram) as an issue as it alerts too many people to picturesque areas that were otherwise only described as gritty contour lines on a map, while some natural areas – like the Adirondacks of NY – are facing issues from floods of tourists thanks to their close proximity to major cities, and tourism campaigns from the State.
The Adirondack Park is a 6.2 million acre park in Upstate New York, making it the largest of it’s kind in the United States – it’s most recent addition to the park was in 2012 when Gov. Cuomo purchased 65,000+ acres for nearly $50 million – with almost half being protected as “forever wild” in the New York State constitution. Cuomo highly praised his own actions and initiated a hefty tourism program intending to bring people from the nearby Montreal and New York City to spend their money in the many tiny Upstate towns that reside within the boundaries of the Park. And, predictably, tourism increased. In 2015, Cuomo’s office issued a report that claimed tourism in the Adirondack park area was $1.3 billion dollars and generated $162 million dollars in state and local taxes. That is a lot of tourism and it is changing the landscape of the Adirondacks. Weekends leave the roads clogged with cars as they search for parking spots at the tiny trail heads, with many often just parking on the shoulders of the road.
While the increased tourism is beneficial to local economies, it has been rather detrimental to the local environment. A number of the Adirondack mountains were burned in the 1800’s to allow the peaks to be surveyed, and those that weren’t scorched were often logged quite heavily. These area’s are growing back (some old growth can still be found in some remote areas), but the peaks have been slow to recover. While only a fraction of the High Peaks consist of alpine climate, the tops of these mountains are rocky, cold, and windy, making growth slow and precarious. Trails are marked on rocks with yellow blazes and stone cairns. Through the stubby spruce branches, the trails sit lower than the dirt as they have been eroded down to the mountain rock. With increased foot traffic, these trails have widened, allowing rainfall to concentrate into small streams and erode even more of the trail, continuing the widening effect. On the peaks that do maintain alpine climates, the small and delicate plants that took years to grown are trampled and killed in a season underfoot of clumsy hikers and wayward dogs. There is also a huge environmental impact that comes with the increase of cars and litter.
This overuse issue is one that has been steadily ramping up over the past few years, forcing the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to take notice and put together some focus groups to help prevent future damage and control tourism. Much of what they have come up with, is more infrastructure: more kiosks with information about nearby underused trails, more signage directing travelers to the new kiosks, more electronic variable signs on the interstate connecting NYC to the High Peaks region, more public roadside restrooms, more parking spots, and better painted parking spots. They have even designed an “environmentally sustainable trail” to be cut-in in the hopes that it will redirect some hikers. (This, after Cuomo disregarded federal road sign regulations and put up 540 tourism signs through out New York at a cost of $8.1 million, only to be told to take them down or lose $14 million of Federal Highway Assistance funds.)
Of course, building new signs and suggesting that people find different “underused” trails may help to disperse some of the foot traffic, but it does not tackle the issue of overuse and many in the DEC and Adirondack Park recognize this. Not to mention all the signage and buildings will take a nice sized bite out of the taxes tourism has created, but it is also likely, many of the small towns and counties will end up footing the bill, while the state reallocates those tourism taxes to projects in the City.
There have been a few suggestions made that would cut back on traffic altogether, but as can be imagined, they are often met with a fair bit of resistance. The first idea centers around permits and is essentially two fold: permit fees will create revenue that could then be used to maintain high use trails while also acting as a deterrent for some luke-warm users. The second idea also focuses on reducing foot traffic by closing particular trails throughout the season, forcing hikers to go elsewhere. While both of these ideas have merit, they both have problems as well. Closing certain trails will reduce foot traffic, but it will also push that foot traffic elsewhere; it is just moving the problem from one location to another. And, of course, there is the likelihood that when the trail is reopened, the foot traffic is more intense as people look to get out on the trail while it is open. But then we get to the idea of permit fees.
Personally, I have no problem with permit fees to use certain areas of wilderness. It will probably keep some hikers that are just out for a glorious Instagram shot from ascending the peaks, and it will generate a revenue stream for maintaining the lands and trails. The issue with all this, is that these are not private lands, they are state lands, and every New Yorker and tax paying citizen across the country has had money taken from them to be used for maintenance of the Adirondack Park. Now the people that want to use the park will be paying for it twice.
In Part II, I will examine where the newly acquired land came from and how it was being used prior to coming under NYS ownership, and perhaps a solution to the problems besieging the Adirondack Park.
Sow seeds of liberty so we can all reap sheaves of freedom together.
The general consensus is that the environment needs protection; that man kind, gone unchecked will destroy the natural world, use all it’s resources and be left to live on a dusty ball of rubbish. We are then led to believe that the only way to protect the environment and all it’s natural beauty – and keep humanity safe for eternity – is through regulation and laws passed down from the State. While I do think the natural world has some intrinsic value, it is not through State dictation through laws and regulations that this value be implied or protected; rather, that protection should come through private property rights.
If you are not aware, a good chunk of Northern New York is made up of the Adirondack National Park, a 6.1 million acre park that includes the Adirondack Mountain Range, over 10,000 lakes, and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers. Nearly half of the acreage is privately owned, but is under heavy restrictions placed by the Adirondack Park Agency, the other half is owned by the state. This means that there is a great infrastructure of roads running in and out of the park for both local residents and tourists looking to hike, canoe, ski, or otherwise enjoy the natural world that the park provides.
As you can imagine, winters in Northern New York can be rather daunting, especially the higher elevations in the mountains: there is ice, snow, steep slopes, billowing winds, curving roads, sub-zero temperatures, and, of course, people. In an attempt to melt the snow and ice and keep travelers safe, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) plasters the roads with salt. During the off seasons, the salt is stored in massive piles, most of the time in a giant dome shaped salt barn, but there are some piles that are left exposed to the elements year round.
In the 1970s, the National Wildlife Federation called out the use of salt to melt ice on roads as being potentially harmful to the environment, and as it would turn out, they were partially correct. According to Dan Kelting, an Environmental Sciences professor at Paul Smith’s College, New York State began using heavy doses of road salt in the 1980s and in the time that has passed, NYS has used over 7 million tons of salt on the road.1 The salt melts the ice, gets washed away by rain, pushed into the ditches by snow plows, and eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers, streams, and ground water, where it causes problems for both nature and humans.
Salt is a naturally occurring mineral that is often added to foods (sometimes in great quantities) to enhance flavors. It is also a necessary mineral to our basic survival as human beings; however, when too much salt is introduced to the diet, there are a number of health concerns that can rise, including: hypertension, stroke, and heart disease to name a few. Of course, no one is saying the general salt contamination in well water from salting the roads is so bad that it can cause these diseases (in some houses though, the well water is no longer potable), but individuals who suffer from hypertension – aka: high blood pressure – or who may have already suffered a heart attack or heart disease, that would need to monitor their sodium intake may unknowingly consume too much salt in their water and risk future health problems.
The Current State Monopoly Approach
The amount of salt in the ground water also causes secondary health effects. If you have lived in a place where they salt the roads, you will recall seeing a white minerally buildup on the rocker panels of your vehicle. You will also notice that once your vehicle starts to rust, it spreads quickly. This is from the salt on the roads, and why you wash your car more in the winter, than in the summer. What’s happening is that salt is a corrosive agent; it is corroding the metal parts of the vehicle and breaking them down, this same thing happens to water pipes, and unfortunately, many older pipes contain harmful substances such as lead. So when the salt water starts to corrode pipes, it also begins to release lead, and other harmful substances contained in the pipes. (This is essentially what happened in Flint, MI.) Not only does this cause secondary health effects, but it also adds undue infrastructure stress on both public and private water systems as well as any appliances that utilize the water, as parts tend to wear out sooner and need replacement earlier than expected.
While run-off may add to the salt contamination issue, the main source of salt contamination comes from the salt barns – where they store the salt. As you can imagine, a big pile of concentrated salt will slowly seep into the ground from the rain and humidity. And this is where we are today. It has happened in a few towns – notably Orleans, NY – that the salt has seeped into the ground water and has wreaked such havoc on the infrastructure that the town water systems need to be replaced.2,3 This replacing also comes with a very high price tag in the millions, sometimes exceeding $10 million.
In a number of Northern New York towns, the state has come in and cleaned up the mess, laying down new waterlines, however, this cost is passed on to residents – both directly and indirectly – for example in Palmelia, NY, the DOT laid new pipe along route 342, but by then many homeowners had already spent thousands replacing appliances and plumbing fixtures in their own homes, and on top of that, these homeowners were required by the state to pay an additional water bill of $2500 to cover capital costs of the project.4 In the town of Orleans, where the project was estimated to cost $13 million, the town received a $100,000 grant from the state and an $11 million interest free loan, but it wasn’t enough to cover the project and residents were left with the option of covering the $1.9 million difference by adding an extra $1000 a year to their water bill. Don’t forget, the $11 million would eventually have to be paid back – by taxpayers funding the town. In the situation with Orleans, despite numerous studies tracing salt concentrations back to the salt barn, the DOT does not claim responsibility for the contamination. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time this happens, but par the course, State led pollution is usually kept quiet and the State seldom takes responsibility. In the case of many towns in Northern New York, even when officials have accepted blame for contamination, officials have gone so far as to say that the contamination of a private well is a problem for the well owner, not the State.
To make this even more disturbing, consider where the funding for the $11 million interest free loan and the $100,000 state grant came from: the tax payers of New York. And don’t forget, NYS DOT receives federal funds ear marked for particular projects, so essentially, the loan money, and the grant money are coming from every single tax payer in the country.
It seems a bit convoluted, but broken down it goes like this:
A State run monopoly with required membership enforced by the State, and funded by tax-payers creates an environmental health problem. The State run monopoly then loans tax-payers their own money to fix the problem. It then forces residents to pay an extra fee for the new work.
There is no winning when you sue a tax-payer funded organization, you are in essence suing yourself.
A More Minarchist Approach
If we look to the free market and more liberty-centered solutions we will find that there are a few different options we can follow. The first is just smaller government. The NYS DOT is a state wide organization. They consider all state highways their jurisdiction and treat them accordingly. When we examine the facts, however, most of the small towns in the Adirondack park don’t actually use salt. Instead they use sand. Now sand doesn’t clear the roads down to pavement, but it also doesn’t effect the water table as drastically. (It may cause some siltation in rivers and streams, but that seems the lesser of two evils when compared to salinization.) Local towns also use sand instead of salt, because it is cheaper and they don’t have the massive tax base that New York State does. In fact, New York State uses 2.5 times more salt on the roads than local municipalities do.5
When a small town creates an environment of toxicity for both private individuals and businesses, it is easy enough to pick up and move locations, but remain in close proximity to jobs, family, and friends. The State has very little vested interest in where their citizens go as a move out of state is much less likely than a move from one town to another (moves within the same country are twice as likely as moves between counties, let alone States.6) Consider the economics of a person moving from a town of 200 versus a state of 20 million; just based on a percentage of tax-base alone, a person is much more valuable to a small town than the state, likewise the incentive of a small town to keep citizens is much higher than that of the state.
A Slightly More Anarchistic Approach
We can also look at this from a more drastic lens and consider that the roads be privatized. It sounds scary, but it makes sense, and it keeps everyone healthier. If the roads were privatized, and owned by a third party, it would be up to the third-party to keep the roads clean. Undoubtedly, they would want to keep their roads clean of snow and ice to ensure safe travel and happy customers. In order to do so, they could utilize the current State model and use copious amounts of salt, but as we’ve seen in many instances above, salt gets into the ground water and contaminates wells. Unlike the State, which has unlimited funds to repair damage, a third-party’s resources are limited. There are many examples of private corporations being held responsible for environmental pollution, when GE contaminated the Hudson, they were forced to pay for clean up, a third-party that owned the roads and subsequently contaminated the ground water would be held responsible for clean up and rectification. Restaurants and businesses that couldn’t afford to constantly replace appliances and in turn left towns in Northern New York, could recoup costs from the third-party responsible for the contamination, stay in their local residence and continue to build the economy. A third-party would know this and out of necessity, go out of their way not to contaminate their surroundings and would either come up with a better way to store the salt, or they would come up with another way to clean the roads.
A third-party would also be solely responsible for storing the salt. In some towns, residents did not want to build covered salt barns, surely an uncovered mound of salt will contaminate more ground water than a roofed salt barn, but as it was a publicly run entity, the residents made the choice to leave the salt uncovered. If a private entity was responsible for containing the salt, the public would have no choice in how it was stored and, in looking out for their best interest, the private entity would cover the salt.
The difference between the State and private corporation is competition. The State has no competition, and there is no limit to their funds. When they damage private property, they are seldom held accountable and when they are held accountable, the damage costs are just another line item on next years budget that every tax-payer will have to answer for, this is not the case for a private corporation. Rather, quite the opposite. Private corporations funds are limited by their resources. Imagine how shareholders would react if a company kept going over budget every year and just increased product pricing in an attempt to cover the difference. That company wouldn’t last very long. The State also has a monopoly on competition. Sure, there are elections every few years, but in 2016 “when voters cast ballots for state representatives [last fall], millions of Americans essentially had no choice: In 42 percent of all such elections, candidates faced no major party opponents.”7 This lack of competition does not exist in the private sector, as soon as another company sees an opportunity to step in and make some money, they will and the competition can drive prices down and increase quality of goods and services. It is shameful that residents of Northern New York do not have the ability to make these choices to help keep their lives safer and the environment healthier, and it is even more shameful that it seems a fairly standard practice that State level politicians would suggest contamination on their behalf is the responsibility of the private property owner.