The Property

There was an interesting article in The New York Times this week about “161,000 acres of highly prized Adirondack wild lands” that were purchased this summer by the Nature Conservancy.
The cost was $110 million – and the sellers had owned the land since the end of the Civil War.

[Image: The “View from Noonmark Mountain” by Robbie’s Photo Art, found via Flickr; this photo is simply for illustrative purposes: as far as I’m aware, it does not show the property discussed below].

These 161,000 acres, “considered the last remaining large privately owned parcels in Adirondack Park,” we read, “are an ecological marvel”:

containing 144 miles of river, 70 lakes and ponds, more than 80 mountains and a vast unbroken wilderness that only loggers and a few hunters have ever seen. The property also contains unmatched natural features like the blue ledges of the Hudson River Gorge, OK Slip Falls and Boreas Pond, with its stunning views of the Adirondack high peaks, which naturalists have dreamed of protecting for decades.

While the article is actually about what the Nature Conservancy might be forced to do next, in order to live up to its own purchasing agreement, what I find extraordinary is the idea that these 161,000 acres of “unbroken wilderness,” a long day’s drive from New York City, have only been seen by “loggers and a few hunters” since the end of the Civil War.
So what else is out there…? And do we know?

[Image: Two stitched panoramas of the Adirondacks: (top) Valley View Ledge” / (bottom) “View from Catamount Mountain, both by retropc, found via Flickr].

Absurd questions, of course: it’s New York state, not Borneo or even Utah – or Bosnia, for that matter – and so it seems relatively unlikely that some weird and amazing lost city or heretofore unknown species of hominid will be found out in the darkness by Nature Conservancy volunteers.
And yet I can’t help but think of vague, sci fi-like scenarios of undiscovered archaeological sites – civilizations no one even dreamed existed, thriving here on the North American landmass before ice ages came and scraped the place clean – or monstrous fossils lodged in lumps of exposed bedrock, weird marks in the sides of distant hills corresponding to no known period of the earth’s biological history… Crashed spaceships. The world’s largest cave system. Medicinal flowers.
And so on.
Anyway, there’s something about large, privately held plots of wilderness that absolutely fascinates me – and not because I advocate turning the public lands of the United States over to private interests, but because of what I might call the literary, even psychological, possibilities of owning wilderness.
In fact, I’m reminded of yet another New York Times article, this one about the large-scale private purchasing of former timber lands out west.
There is, we read, “a new wave of investors and landowners across the West who are snapping up open spaces as private playgrounds on the borders of national parks and national forests.” There are thus “private ponds” – and private rivers and mountains and gullies. In fact, there are “vast national forests, grasslands and wilderness areas that in Montana alone add up to nearly 46,000 square miles, about the size of New York State” – however, “in many places, the new owners are throwing up no trespassing signs and fences, blocking what generations of residents across the West have taken for granted – open and beckoning access into the woods to fish, hunt and camp.”
Then, surrounded by a few hundred acres of remote and unpopulated – and unpoliced – land, you start to do things… Gradually planning a bid for political sovereignty. Building things deep in the woods. Walking around alone at midnight, thinking about calculus, surrounded by 2000 acres of your own land.
This, in turn, reminded me of an old Clive Barker story called “Down, Satan!
I may not have remembered the story correctly, having last read it in high school, but its premise is that a fabulously wealthy businessman decides to build Hell on Earth – literally to construct Hell – in order to summon forth the devil (or some such idea). He thus sets about designing and building a terrifying new complex full of torture machines and acid baths and vast graveyards somewhere on private land in Nevada.
At the end of the story, the police raid the place and the guy realizes that he has, in fact, summoned the devil to Earth – and it’s him

[Image: “Serene View” in the Adirondacks, by |ash|, found via Flickr].

In any case, we learn that these sorts of transactions, involving formerly public lands, are growing much more common – but also more complex and more ambitious. “Over the last 10 years,” we’re told, “at least 40 million acres of private forest land have changed hands nationwide.” 40 million acres! That’s very nearly the size of the United Kingdom.
Of course, the motivation behind all these purchases is not preservation – or even constructing Hell: it all comes down to logging. Even environmental advocates are now picking up their chainsaws.

In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection.
Both groups are feeling under siege: timber executives because of the decline in logging, and environmentalists because of the explosion of growth on the margins of the public lands.
Many environmentalists say they have come to realize that cutting down trees, if done responsibly, is not the worst thing that can happen to a forest, when the alternative is selling the land to people who want to build houses.

But surely “selling the land to people who want to build houses” is not the only alternative.
Surely someone with loads of money could finally do something interesting, for instance, putting aside the cocaine addiction and the personal fleets of Range Rovers and the Malibu mansions and buying land, buying lots of land, buying as many tens of thousands of acres as they can afford – and not developing it, not re-selling it, not clear-cutting it, not even necessarily preserving it, just doing something out there in their own private wilderness, whether it’s opening a system of public trails – or maybe you can subscribe to the land the way you subscribe to a magazine, and so you get access to new trails every few months – or building radio astronomical research stations, or a summer camp for landscape journalists, or the BLDGBLOG Academy, or a human clone farm, or whatever. Build a private cave. Who cares.
But, surely, with literally tens of millions of acres of land at stake here, and with more and more – and more – people becoming billionaires, let alone millionaires, someone with a little imagination will come along finally and do something interesting out there, away from the airports, alone in the darkness of North America, surrounded by maple trees, coming up with plans, changing history, supplying novelists with fodder for plots for decades to come.
Otherwise we’ll just build more houses.

16 thoughts on “The Property”

  1. ted turner is already doing this, he’s up to 1.91 million acres. it’s joked that he can “ride a horse from new mexico to montana and never leave his own land.”

  2. sadly, private ownership of large wilderness tracts is one of the few remaining saving graces from development. i’ve long held a fantasy that with a multimillion dollar lottery win i’d buy a massive chunk of forest and do absolutely nothing with it. i don’t think i’m the only one with that dream.

    still, it’s an interesting notion. that people now have to pay inordinate sums of money to let nature do exactly what it would do without the human complex encroaching on it. it’s bizarre.

  3. Thanks for the link, Robert!

    Meanwhile, what’s Ted Turner actually doing on all that land? Just grazing? I think if you own a million acres of land anywhere… I don’t know. I guess there’s just something so strangely evocative in the notion of going for hours and hours deeper into your own property, completely and totally alone and off the grid of anyone, unnoticed utterly, that the idea genuinely excites me. But it seems mere ownership is not enough. Just buying something and preserving it against development doesn’t really get my imagination going.

    I don’t think I have any idea what I’m talking about right now. Sorry to ramble…

  4. This also reminds me of the film “The village” from 2004 where it turns out (warning: plot spoiler) that this shaker-like commune is actually a constructed community built as a wildnerness preserve by a group of people feeling the horrors of the city and their own pasts.

    Also reminds me of logan’s Run… but almost everything reminds me of Logan’s Run.

  5. Surely you’ve heard of the team of bazillionaires who have designed and are building a solar-powered mechanical clock that chimes once every hundred years in a privately-held mountain near Great Basin National Park in east-central Nevada….. Right?

    No? Well then check it out.

    (I was hoping to be traveling through that area right about now, but oh well… Plans change.)

    There’s also Roden Crater, which has similar aims, but doesn’t quite fit the Crazy Billionaire archetype.

  6. If a Billionaire does something interesting in a forest, but noone is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

  7. The falure of private land ownership is that all those new owners want to drive up to their parcel of pristine woodlands and suddenly you have a four lane highway pushing deep into former wilderness. That’s the story of how Minnesota is loosing it’s roadless tracts.

    Just do a search for ‘road ecology’ or ‘road effect’. one road can degrade the forest for hundreds of feet on either side. we are loosing silent places (not to say the chainsaws make good lullabys…)

  8. Marvelous post. I too noticed that article in the NYT and also thought it strange, haunting, lyrical that so much land could have been owned by one entity for so long.

  9. The middle of nowhere is always a very relative concept, and its striking when it isn’t where you think it should be. Visiting the northern states from southern Canada puts that in relief; for Canadians the further south you go, the more inhabited and civilised the territory, but when you cross that border, you all of a sudden enter the northern wilds… it’s as though by going south of 49 one suddenly jumps north of 60…

    Keep well…


  10. This is almost exactly the premise of ‘the Other Side’, the only novel by the peculiar artist Alfred Kubin. A proto-Kafka, decadent ur-surrealist sort of affair, concerning an obscenely wealthy individual who constructs a private kingdom, called ‘the Dream Country’, in the the wildernesses of central Asia. He uses his vast secret organisation to track down people of suitable temperament and convince them to move there. Eventually a loud neurotic American finds the place and ruins it with his practical ideas.

  11. Turns out that the “New Hell” from that Clive Barker story mentioned in the post is actually constructed in north Africa, not Nevada. Oops! Just saw a copy of the story again today – I hadn’t read it in nearly 14 years.

  12. Geoff,

    I found your great post a little late, but wanted to share with you a link to a very evocative website a friend of mine in Anchorage pointed out to me, when I bugged him for any leads on buying property in Alaska: Psychologically some of the more “remote” parcels are overpowering.

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