and social justice, as I was saying in the last blog, is variable. I grew up in Bedford, New York, where the Nature Conservancy, which has gone on to get protection for outstanding natural sites all over the world, began, with the preservation of the Mianus River Gorge with its immense virgin hemlocks. The first chapters of the National Audubon Society and the Garden Club of America started here. My father was the president of the Bedford Audubon Society in the l950s. He was also played a major role and served on the board the Westmoreland Sanctuary, which was given by Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of the Pittsburgh coke magnate, who lived in Bedford. The upper stratum of Bedford lived on large estates with hardwood forests– big oak, hickory, maple, tulip, ash trees and the women took their gardens very seriously. Living in the richest deciduous forest on earth, with 4000 species of higher plants from ferns on up, we were surrounded and spiritually nourished by nature. I would not be surprised if Bedford had, and still has, more nature sanctuary and wildlife preserves than anywhere else in country. Which had been given by people who did not want their part of the glorious forest to ever be destroyed by development. It is also true that they did not want to be encroached on by the hoi polloi, and they got a big tax break. But their primary motivation was their deep love of nature.
Bedford had, and still has, four-acre zoning, which means that only the well-off can live there, and in the early seventies, which I became the resident naturalist of the Marsh Sanctuary, another of Bedford’s nature preserves, there was a lot of talk about how this zoning was exclusionary. Politicians in White Plains and developers were saying they were going to bust it. The Marsh Sanctuary consisted of two properties. One, which included a Greek amptheatre that Isadora Duncan had danced in, was just outside of Mount Kisco, the down blue collar burg that was the service town for the people in the estates. Still mostly Italians then, but now it is mostly Latino. I was a regular patron of the Midnite Diner. The other was a marsh where the rare Muehlenberg turtle had once been seen. The turtle was useful in getting the four-lane 684 routed several miles east, saving the marsh and that part of Bedford, the Mount Kisco side. The sanctuary’s two pieces were separated by the 250 acre Cook estate, which when I was there had just been acquired by a developer named Green. Green wanted to build 60 houses, which he was allowed to under the zoning, but he wanted to cluster the units, so they would all be together in one place, and the bulk of the property would not be touched. But Bedford did not allow clustering, so Green sued to have his property taken out of Bedford and annexed to Mount Kisco.
There were a lot of arguments in Green’s favor, and I was in favor of the annexation and endorsed Green’s development plan. The Cook Estate had some of the last meadows in Bedford, most of the land that had been hayfields until 1917, when the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage as the way to get around, having reverted to forest. The meadows were a haven for butterflies, and one of the meadows had a population of the rare blunt-leaved milkweed. Only one of them was going to be converted to houses and lawns and pavement. Green was also offering to give the sanctuary 60 of his acres, of gorgeous forest near the marsh, plus $150,000 for a right of way through a little skunk cabbage swamp on the other parcel, so he could put in a bridge. This was going to be how cars entered the development. All this was great, plus Mount Kisco would be providing all the services to the development, fire department, police, water, etc. so it seemed only fair that it should be the tax revenues from it. Plus revolutionary that I am, I liked the idea that egalitarian Mount Kisco would be getting bigger, and the rich people’s preserve of Bedford would be contracting. So I wrote a letter in the local rag, the Patent Trader, explaining why I supported the annexation and Green’s development, and the court gave the land to Mount Kisco.
But no sooner did Mount Kisco get the land that it promptly rezoned it for 350 units plus office space the square footage of the Chrysler building. I hadn’ realized that once land is in your jurisdiction you can do anything you want with it, as long as it doesn’t violate your own zoning laws. I felt completely betrayed and disillusioned. This was apparently what Mount Kisco and Green had planning to do all along. The masses weren’t ready to have the land turned over to them, because they had no sense of stewardship, no conservation ethic, no appreciation of nature because they had never experienced it. This qualities are only found in the upper classes, and the American conservation movement, the creation of the national park system and all the local sanctuaries in Bedford had been spear-headed by rich, conservative Republicans — a subject that I will be writing about this summer.
So here in my own home stomping grounds is a case where biodiversity conservation and social justice are at odds. England, with its vast hereditary estates and something like 80% of the land still in the hands of the old aristocracy, is another, and the national parks in Africa, which were created by European arisotocrats, evicted the local people who had been hunting the game sustainably for centuries, and classified them as poachers.
More on this in my next blog.