SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
November 16, 1964
The author, long an ardent conservationist and now a very worried one as well, rises in personal and purposeful wrath to denounce those he calls the spoilers of the country. He itemizes the vastness of their wreckage—past and planned—and he mourns for an America that he fears is lost forever
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November 16, 1964

America Down The Drain

The author, long an ardent conservationist and now a very worried one as well, rises in personal and purposeful wrath to denounce those he calls the spoilers of the country. He itemizes the vastness of their wreckage—past and planned—and he mourns for an America that he fears is lost forever

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What makes so many, if not all, of these projected and present schemes so painful is that they take the least practical alternative, e.g., the Beaver Kill-Willowemoc paving-over. Soon we will have millions upon millions of miles of highway—and no place worth driving to see. In state after state there is carnage heaped upon chaos. The Providence Evening Bulletin recently ran a picture series, satirically titled " Rhode Island the Beautiful," showing litter piled around a "no dumping" sign near a housing development, a billboard advertising sun cream defacing a beach, auto junkyards abreast of new highways, and oil refineries advancing down the slopes of Narragansett Bay.

Yet newspaper campaigns have no effect. For all of the high-sounding phrases about the American heritage, the fact is that the Federal Government and the vast majority of state governments do not care what the press or people have to say, even about health hazards. In Georgia the state water system is on its way to becoming a network of cesspools. In the last three years the Georgia Department of Public Health has called on 83 towns and industries to stop polluting streams and rivers. So far only 14 have complied, and it is a marvel that they have, because the Department of Health itself is one of the most offensive polluters. The state hospital at Milledgeville dumps millions of gallons of raw sewage into the tiny Oconee River.

In Maine, Atlantic salmon have been all but driven from ruined rivers, and the people themselves are hard put to stand the stench from pulp-and-paper plants and mills that befoul the air in such towns as Lincoln and Rumford. Not long ago a Maine resident wrote to the Portland Press Herald about the Ossipee River: "It would sicken you to see the soap coming down the river from the laundromats that empty directly into the stream. Then there are a few old cars partially submerged. These came from the Cornish dump which now is in the old riverbed. Then, just a short way above, you will come to the Kezar Falls dump which tumbles rubbish directly into the river. As I watched a group of campers in canoes going down this once-beautiful stream, I wondered what they will write home about their trip."

Apart from esthetic or ethical considerations (Is there any point in going into that? As Louis Armstrong said when asked what jazz meant, "Man, when you got to ask what is it, you'll never get to know"), there are valid reasons why this carnage should cease.

For one, there is a desperate need for recreation land, not only as playgrounds for father and son or for fishermen or bird watchers or hikers, but as ties to reality, to the biological reality of the world, to the essence of life itself. In many sections of the country too many Americans are becoming alienated from the reality that only parks, natural areas, wild rivers, open spaces and unblighted seashore can give. Take Whyte's man in Teaneck or Paramus or Palo Alto. He lives at 424 Elms Dell Acres (there are no elms, there is no dell and the acre is 50 by 100). To his company, he is employee No. 2784, to the post office he is ZIP Code 94350, and if you want to call him, you must dial 415 322-3099. Instead of being an individual, a human being, an immortal soul, he is part of the anonymous mass, a consumer, a member of the viewing audience, a statistic.

He is separated from life not only by numbers but by middlemen and packagers. His wife buys food in plastic cartons and polyethylene bags from a supermarket that is identical to thousands of others, and he dines on year-old "garden-fresh" peas that came out of a freezer. His kids think milk is something that is made in a machine, and his idea of a vacation is a trip to a tricked-out "reconstruction" like Williamsburg or an artificial carnival like Disneyland. He is told that he belongs to the Pepsi generation, and his image of nature is Marlboro Country. In sum, he has no conception of life, the world, values or proper judgments. He is a faceless number occupying a plywood house on a barren plot fronting an asphalt strip. Instead of being a rational creature dependent upon intelligent use of resources, he is a yea-saying slob, subjected to all sorts of fakery and flummery dished out by packagers and politicians who want to make him buy more garden-fresh peas that have been dyed green, while everything that is really green gets paved over.

Along the eastern seaboard, in parts of the Middle West and along the Pacific Coast, the situation is particularly desperate. The National Recreation Association has suggested that a community needs at least one acre of park or wild land for every 100 citizens. If that standard is accepted, then consider the plight of New Jersey, where 6 million people are living in 5 million acres. Alarmed by its need for open spaces, the state three years ago started a Green Acres plan, but it appears doomed. Why? Because the communities that need parkland the most are determined to use what open space is left for industry so that they can get "more tax revenue."

New York City seems beyond hope. In the 22-county area comprising and surrounding the city proper, the population is 15 million. Within 20 years this population is expected to double, with practically all the increase coming in what is now exurban countryside. In this period the New York area will see as much new building and development as there was between 1626, when the Dutch bought the place from the Indians, and today. This is the sort of thing that makes real estate speculators lick their chops.

In a brave attempt to forestall the blight around New York, Charles Little, a former advertising man who gave up his job a year ago for the cause of conservation, is heading an organization known as the Open Space Action Committee. Briefly put, Little and Open Space are trying to beat the speculators to the land by tying up as much of it as possible in parks, sanctuaries, golf courses and scenic easements. To do this, Little and a staff of volunteers are trying to talk to all owners of 20 acres or more within the 22-county area in order to acquaint them with the advantages of decent stewardship of the land, the possibility of tax benefits, write-offs and low-cost government loans that may be had for conservation or recreation purposes.

There are economic reasons for saving land. Unspoiled land is money in the bank. Contrary to popular opinion, which equates progress with unmanaged growth, housing developments invariably cost municipalities more money than they produce in taxes. As Little points out to surprised official after official, communities profit from parks, farms and estates but usually lose on development housing. For example, in Cortlandt, a community in northwestern Westchester County, N.Y., a typical new house pays, on the average, $500 a year in taxes, yet the town government has to spend an additional $1,500 for services and school costs. In Westport, Conn. the situation has reached the point where any new house costing less than 550,000 will probably be a tax drag on the community.

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