A fool’s errand

While preparing to head off alone into the bowels of the Death Star to disable the tractor beam holding the Millenium Falcon captive, Obi Wan Kenobi rhetorically asked of Han Solo, “Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?”  I think of such questions sometimes when my legislators act foolishly.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to be a state legislator.  You also shouldn’t have to know all the relevant facts in relation to a proposed law in order to sponsor it.  But somewhere along the way, someone who knows the law and the facts should step in before a law is proposed.  State Senator Cathy Giessel shows her ignorance of the law and the facts with her sponsorship of SJR11, which calls upon Congress to designate Central Park in Manhattan a wilderness area and thus prohibit any development absent approval from Congress. (This is nothing new – Kyle Johansen, a State Representative, did this with HJR31 in 2012.)

“WTF?” you may rightly ask.  Senator Giessel claims that the goal of the resolution is to bring to light the ridiculousness of Alaskans being prevented from developing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Apparently Sen. Giessel is not afraid of looking like a total and complete idiot, and also disparaging the intelligence of Alaskans on a national stage, by making this proposal.

The resolution is legally and factually flawed in several ways.

First, Central Park is not eligible for designation as wilderness.  The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) was established by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  Under the Act, only existing Federal lands are eligible for selection as wilderness, and five specific factors must be satisfied: (1) the land is under federal ownership and management, (2) the area consists of at least five thousand acres of land, (3) human influence is “substantially unnoticeable,” (4) there are opportunities for solitude and recreation, and (5) the area possesses “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.” Not surprisingly, Senator Giessel’s proposed resolution does directly not address these requirements.  Central Park would not satisfy at a minimum the first three factors: it’s not Federal land, it consists of only 843 acres, and the influence of humans is substantially noticeable. 

Second, under the Alaska Statehood Act – similar to all states that joined the Union following the original 13 Colonies – the State of Alaska was entitled to select 103,350,000 acres of land not already set aside by the Federal government for other uses.  Alaska has been granted an additional 1.5 million acres of land for university and mental health trust uses.  The lands encompassing what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were never eligible for State selection and have, since the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867, always been Federal lands.  Thus, creating the Arctic Refuge never took away from Alaska any land that was ever granted to Alaska. Sen. Giessel proposes that Central Park should be taken away from New York. Her resolution suggests that the Federal government should “acquire” Central Park, without regard for the fact that such an act would be illegal and violate that state’s sovereignty.

Third, under the Alaska Constitution, the people of Alaska agreed to be bound by the terms of the Alaska Statehood Act that exclude certain lands from use by Alaska.  Specifically, Article 12, Section 12 states: “The State of Alaska and its people forever disclaim all right and title in or to any property belonging to the United States or subject to its disposition, and not granted or confirmed to the State or its political subdivisions, by or under the act admitting Alaska to the Union … The State and its people agree that, unless otherwise provided by Congress, the property, as described in this section, shall remain subject to the absolute disposition of the United States.”  Thus, by insisting that the Federal government allow Alaskans to do what they want with lands retained by the Federal government, Sen. Giessel (and virtually every other elected State official on this issue) has violated her oath of office, which includes a promise to “support and defend … the Constitution of the State of Alaska.”

Finally, as noted above, Central Park is not Federal land – it has always belonged to the people of New York. But, if Sen. Giessel is concerned about protecting it from abuse, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1963.  Plus, simply looking at the park not only in photographs and maps but in person (Sen. Giessel, have you ever been to Central Park? I have …), you can tell it is not under threat of development.  (Sure, it is landscaped and has paved trails, but that is not the type of “development” Sen. Giessel and others desires to pursue in the Arctic Refuge.)  There is only one building in the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if the park hasn’t been developed by now, it won’t.  One could also say that it is a model for management, as most of the expenses for maintenance of the park are raised by a private non-profit, the Central Park Conservancy, thus alleviating much of that burden from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

One could say that Central Park is already like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  An oasis of habitat, surrounded by development (the North Slope region to the immediate west of the Refuge is a vast network of oil and gas infrastructure), it should be left alone to continue providing the valuable habitat it does to the many species that thrive within.  Central Park currently provides rich habitat to a variety of avian and mammalian species. In fact, Sen. Giessel’s stunt is a compelling argument in favor of wilderness designation for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 1002 Area on the coastal plain.  The biodiversity and importance of the coastal plain within the ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge far outweighs that provided in the mere 843 acres seen in Central Park.

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