Home > Uncategorized > Open Space Funding – Holy Grail? Or White Whale?

Open Space Funding – Holy Grail? Or White Whale?


Galahad grailPublic Domain Sir Edward Burne-Jones, overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details. - Unknown

Galahad grail
Sir Edward Burne-Jones, overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details. – Unknown


Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) — chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee — has perhaps been the strongest proponent of open-space preservation. He often calls the attempt to enact a stable source of funding the holy grail of the conservation movement. ~~~ NJ Spotlight (April 8, 2014)

Senator Smith and the Keep it Green Coalition (KIG), by their own rhetoric, believe that they are on a righteous quest, for the Holy Grail: a dedicated source of funding for open space acquisitions.

In pursuit of the Grail, like all quests, their singular mythical focus seems oblivious to collateral damage and impervious to the persuasive force of reason and facts.

It didn’t used to be this way: planning and regulation complemented open space acquisition. But how Smith and KIG have chosen to finance open space has forced competition and conflict, creating collateral damage instead of mutual support.

Tom Gilmore, a gentleman and former head of NJ Audubon once said that conservation is a 3 legged stool: planning and regulation; acquisition; and private land stewardship.

Shamefully, his voice is ignored by his successors as the planning and regulatory leg is amputated at the knee; the stewardship leg is gangrenous from “mitigation” and logging scams; and the one legged acquisition leg bulges and can’t support the stool.

That collateral damage is large – it includes:

1) deep cuts to critical environmental programs;

2) significant layoffs of DEP professionals;

3) further erosion of DEP as an effective public institution;

4) reinforcement of private property market values and anti-tax and anti-government sentiments;

5) empowerment of a conservation model and conservation groups that embrace voluntary private individual market transactions (as opposed to citizens engaged in the public sphere); quiet compromise (as opposed to political struggle in the public sphere); private negotiation (as opposed to public planning process); and corporate values as operating principles.

All these negatives are empowered and given millions of dollars of public resources, while at the same time undermining the activist model and starving grass roots groups for resources.

If you think this is hyperbolic or ideological, and want examples of how this actually occurs, just look at the recent massive Penn Foundation grant or the divisive Delaware Watergap “mitigation” deal. Or consider the fact that the main KIG groups initially OPPOSED a Highlands Act in favor of the voluntary and consensus based toothless State Plan and Green Acres acquisitions (which depend on the kindness of “willing sellers” – which are random – and therefore make it impossible to regionally plan based on landscape value or land use objectives);

6) perpetuation of structural environmental injustice and anti-urban bias and policies built into the current Green Acres, Farmland Preservation, Blue Acres,  and Historic Preservation programs;

For an example of these kind of destructive collateral damages,  I note that the rob Peter to pay Paul open space diversion scheme has very similar dynamics to Charter Schools. It causes a divisive conflict in a community; brute competition for resources; privatization of the public sphere; and promotion and exacerbation of inequality; and

7) an ugly a divisive battle that splits an already fractious and increasingly anemic “environmental community”.

The divisive politics is a huge strategic blunder, coming at a time when austerity is a discredited approach and anti-tax sentiment is waning (e.g.  see recent steps to increase the gas tax to fund TTF). Even worse, strategically, the divisiveness comes  at precisely the critical moment when Movement Politics are necessary to build power to engage climate change.

At least when Don Quixote quested and tilted at windmills, there was no collateral damage. He was a Knight Errant in his own mind.

So, in consideration of the magnitude of this huge collateral damage, my sense is that instead of the medieval Holy Grail metaphor,  a more apt frame would be Melville’s White Whale.

Chris Hedges explains:

The object of the hunt is a massive white whale, Moby Dick, which in a previous encounter maimed the ship’s captain, Ahab, by dismembering one of his legs. The self-destructive fury of the quest, much like that of the one we are on, assures the Pequod’s destruction. And those on the ship, on some level, know they are doomed—just as many of us know that a consumer culture based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and the continued extraction of fossil fuels is doomed.

“If I had been downright honest with myself,” Ishmael admits, “I would have seen very plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed this way to so long a voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was to be the absolute dictator of it, so soon as the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

We think KIG members know, if they’d be “downright honest with themselves“, that they are destructively chasing the White Whale.

But, like Ishmael, while they “suspect wrong“, they are so “involved in the matter” and “cover up” and “say nothing” and “try to think nothing“.

Our argument made, we close with regrets, from the mouth of Ahab:

and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? 


[* I’ll even offer a personal experience. When I worked for Tim Dillingham as Sierra Club Policy Director in the mid 1990’s, I lived in Hopewell. As the Hopewell sewer battle began, I tried to get Sierra involved in the citizen’s campaign. Tim directed me NOT to work on Hopewell issues. I was dumfounded: why would he not want to get into the most important land use battle then going on in the State? I later learned that Tim was responding to Candy Ashmum, who he had recently installed on Sierra’s Board (known as ExCom). Candy felt that Hopewell would undermine and discredit her beloved State Plan and block a compromise to preserve the west side of Scotch Road in exchange for the Merrill Lynch campus and sewer plan. They later tried to pull the same deal on Berwind – which I was trying to block with DEP regulatory sticks –  to compromise on that development in exchange for preserving land across the street on the south side of Cherry Valley Road. So now do you see how the green weenie politics work?

* When Tim left Sierra to join NJCF, I immediately jumped into the Hopewell battle, by holding a press conference with Bill Neil of Audubon and Leslie Kramer at the Merrill Lynch site on Scotch Road. ]

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