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Book Reviews

Saving Land: Who Benefits and Who Loses
Book Review by Susan Allen

Ecofascists: How Radical Conservationists are Destroying our Natural Heritage
By Elizabeth Nickson
(NY: Harper Collins, 2012)

The debate is all too familiar. "Saving land is considered an unalloyed good," writes Elizabeth Nickson in the opening pages of her work, getting to the heart of what local people are up against when they oppose the land trusts, the so-called environmental organizations, and their many well-heeled supporters. Faced with "stunning photos of natural beauty," what can rural people do to hold on to their own way of life?

The stories Nickson tells are all too familiar — a nursery business closed down by regulations stacked against not only expansion but against ordinary commercial practices. The push to herd all new construction into the already-settled areas, yet the anti-growth forces oppose environmentally beneficial sewer projects precisely because that will make such growth possible. The wilderness movement and how it has overtaken all national thought about dams, roads, forest practices, grazing, even single family dwellings and their darned "floor and wall tiles."

She cites all the fashionable buzzwords — for which no one actually knows their meanings — "ecosystem," "sustainable," "vulnerable," "smart growth" — and the "visions" that go along with them. She rightly excoriates the whole "consensus building" process designed to suppress "inconvenient thinking" that some "stake-holders" might bring to the table. She recounts the rise of supposedly scientific "ecoregional approach" to land use decisions and the new "conservation biology" theories that support it. And she scoffs at the promise of economic boom times through "ecotourism" for communities that have lost their resource industries, finding no real-world facts to support it.

The arguments Nickson makes tend to sprawl all over the place — each could make its own well-documented book. The large corporations that fall in line with oppressive regulations for the sake of their own image and dual goal of driving out the smaller businesses which are unable to either comply with or fight them. The "debt for nature" swaps engineered by the big land trusts that have cruelly wiped out indigenous populations all over the globe. The cynical lawsuits where "my friends sue me and I can force new regulations."

Nickson devotes some attention to New York and the Adirondacks in particular, recognizing that therein lies the genesis of the land use control movement, with its unwritten goal of ridding the region of its pesky rural inhabitants. Her book shows that the faux rural life-styles enjoyed by these new residents have in fact destroyed the very communities they replaced.

Interspersed with these big-picture arguments is Elizabeth Nickson's own story of splitting up thirty acres into two lots and building one new house. Held hostage to a horrific array of rules and bylaws, she finds herself in meetings "where I was distinctly unwelcome," and she is forced to accede to and pay for — a series of mind-numbing studies, site visits and legal and planning documents.

Touched on are two of the least-analyzed results of all this "greenline" planning and regulation: the pitting of once close neighbors against each other, and the absent local government leadership who "pressed the mute button" and let their land trust overlords get away with it all.

Nickson cites numerous sources in her work: The number of land trusts and allied organizations and their vast wealth, the losses in forestry jobs in some National Park areas, the tax write-offs in conservation easements, the lists of endangered species that act as "surrogates" for stopping land uses.

My worry is about the book's title. Nickson explains why she is enamored of it, but I fear it will just turn off those who ought to read it and who Nickson might stand a chance of convincing.

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