By Andrew Cline
A serious recession is a terrible event for most people. For environmental activists who think nature is more important than people, however, it’s a great opportunity to advance the “green” agenda.
Take the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which bills itself as New England’s largest conservation group. On Monday, it released a report that happily proclaims, “For the first time in decades, we are saving twice as much land as we are developing. Thanks to the collaborative work of state environmental agencies and conservation organizations, no longer is Bay State open space gobbled up at the rate of 40 acres a day. For every acre developed, two are protected.”
A Monday Boston Globe report on the Audubon study put it this way: “Through the 1990s and the early part of this decade, forests and fields were being developed – mostly into new home sites – at the rate of about 40 acres a day. In recent years, the study shows, that number was cut nearly in half, to about 22 acres a day. “At the same time, conservation efforts have stepped up, so that each day 43 acres of land are protected as open space, usually through legal agreements with private owners or purchases by conservation groups or the state.”
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But the Audubon’s report is highly misleading, the Globe reported. The slowdown in development, which Audubon hails as “good news,” is nothing of the sort.
“The slowed pace of development probably has more to do with flat population growth - and more recently the recession - than dramatic changes in zoning and other laws limiting home construction, officials say.”
Massachusetts has been losing population to lower-tax, higher-growth states such as nearby New Hampshire and states in the South and West. And the recession has sharply curtailed new development. So what Audubon trumpets as a conservation victory is really economic contraction.
Audubon is among the many groups that pursue aggressive government restrictions on development in the name of preserving and conserving “open space.” What they don’t tell people is just how much open space there is. Despite Massachusetts Audubon’s warnings about losing open land, a 2005 USDA Forest Inventory & Analysis report shows that 63 percent of the Bay State’s land is forested.
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In New Hampshire, where I live, several years ago preservation and conservation groups pushed legislators to pass more restrictions on development, claiming that our tourist-dependent state was at risk of losing its natural beauty. The movement fizzled after the newspaper where I work pointed out in an editorial that New Hampshire’s land mass is 84 percent forested.
The recession is also “good news” for environmental activists because it has given government a justification for spending money on “green” initiatives that could never have been justified before. President Obama’s high-speed rail initiative is a perfect example.
The justification for spending $13 billion on high-speed rail (which amounts to 76 percent of the $17 billion in wasteful spending the president identified for elimination this month) is to stimulate the economy. At least, that’s the current justification. The old justification – that it’s environmentally friendly – wasn’t cutting it with voters.
Again, our experience here in New Hampshire shows how this works. For years, environmental activists have tried to convince legislators to spend more than $300 million on commuter rail line to connect Concord, the state capital, with Boston. Legislators rationally opted instead to widen a portion of Interstate 93 from the Massachusetts border to Manchester, the state’s largest city. Some environmental activists have filed multiple lawsuits to try to get the courts to halt the widening and order the construction of a rail corridor.
That effort is going nowhere. But suddenly we might get the money for this fantasy rail project anyway. Our state rail authority has applied to Washington for $350 million to fund the rail line as an “economic stimulus” project. Suddenly, the “green” project is an economic development tool.
The same game is being played out across the country as local and state governments and Washington identify supposedly earth-friendly projects imagined during the 1990s, when 1960s nostalgia was high, as job-creators.
The irony, of course, is that if the promised economic growth really were to take place, the very activists who demanded federal funding for these projects would seek to halt the growth they generated. After all, economic growth leads to the construction of new homes and businesses, which requires clearing land – and environmental activists will never stand for that.