Public Remarks Delivered by ALCS President at Land Conservation Dedication Event
August 20, 2021
Remarks of Josh First, president of Appalachian Land & Conservation Services Co, LLC, at August 20th 2021 dedication ceremony for the public acquisition of 404 acres, at the foot of Peters Mountain in Middle Paxton Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania:
I would like to thank Mike and Annette Blum, the majority owners of Flemish Down, LLC, whose generous 50% bargain sale donation of value made this entire project a success, Phil Wallis the former executive director of Audubon PA, Kyle Shenk the Pennsylvania director of the Conservation Fund, Anna Yelk the executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, who managed to carry this project over the goal line, our brothers and sisters at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, our colleagues at the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources whose generous grant of taxpayer money matched the Blums' charitable donation to cover most of the costs, and many many other people and organizations who worked on this, tried, sometimes failed, but each time advancing the ball further down the field.
This project began in 2010 with Phil Wallis of Audubon PA needing a conservation property for a complicated Audubon real estate transaction he had created. By 2014 Phil had focused on 151 acres of this property and was actively fundraising for it. Then like so many people during the Great Recession, Phil and Audubon ran out of money and lost the state agency commitments they needed to follow through here. Phil moved to Martha's Vineyard to run their island museum and is the only guy I have actually seen look right in dockside loafers, so he belonged there, and Audubon PA left conserving this stretch of the Kittatinny Ridge to other people.
Then Kyle Shenk of the Conservation Fund was brought in to be the money rainmaker and save the day. That left me and Kyle looking at each other, wondering who was going to find the purchase money. We persevered ahead separately and together. The Conservation Fund brought in Kittatinny Flyway and Fort Indiantown Gap buffer money and an interest in the land by the National Park Service. They got us a "whopping" $700 per acre NPS appraisal and no bargain sale, which is a really, really bad deal. Land in this part of Dauphin County has not sold for anywhere close to $700 an acre since probably the 1930s, and the NPS desk jockey bureaucrats wouldn't even sign off on us taking a qualified charitable donation of the balance, which CPC has done here now today, and so then we at Flemish Down walked away.
To this day I have no idea how Agrarian Associates arrived at that crazy low $700 per acre appraisal, because even the lowball appraised value we ended up selling to CPC for today was over double that amount. Flemish Down could have easily sold off estate home lots and large hunting camp lots here for far more money. Everyone knows it. Most of this valley is public land, there is little private land. We held the upper hand, and we were generous. But we could not afford to be stupid.
Anyhow, Kyle and I still speak to each other at least once a year. We speak in sign language, if you know what I mean. With love, of course.
We at Flemish Down sulked for a year and then either we approached CPC or they approached us, I don’t recall, but I am sure it is probably important to someone. What is most important is that CPC was willing to put skin in the game and take some risks.
In 2019 and 2020 CPC took a financial risk and got a flurry of appraisals, the first one we said Yes to, and then a DCNR desk appraiser said no-go on that. We were back into the sulking and sign language mode for a while.
Then we eventually agreed to a lower amount with a charitable bargain sale, which allows Flemish Down to recoup a significant amount of its charitable donation in the form of federal tax credits. CPC also fundraised beyond the $500,000 DCNR grant for the difference we had given up from the first and higher appraisal but that we needed. Then we finalized the sale agreement, solved an unexpected boundary issue, and then finally finally finally consummated the deal in late 2020.
So from our perspective this only took "a few days and a couple people." It goes to show what a labor of love many of these land conservation projects are. If you want them to succeed, you often have to stay glued to them.
This project began in 2010, solidified in 2014, took some form in 2015 and went backwards and forwards, further and in bigger form in 2019, and then actually happened in 2020. Only ten years.
The takeaway being that these land conservation successes often take an unbelievable determination and fierce dedication by everyone involved. Even people who are not here celebrating with us today helped move the ball down the field.
Do not take these transactions for granted and never pass up an opportunity to buy more public land.
And remember: America must conserve every acre possible because every inch of America is sacred ground. I mean of course through willing-seller and willing-buyer capitalist financial exchanges, not through government eminent domain or heavy handed regulations.
There are three reasons why conserving working landscapes like this are important.
First, the undeveloped, unbuilt open landscape is human development; that is, it the fullest development of the individual human being.
Humans need open land. It is where we as a species originate, it is where we have spent 98% of our time on planet earth as hunter gatherers, it is where we reached our pinnacle and most refined form in the Pleistocene. Open landscapes are our most original and most important human habitat.
To hunt and fish on these open landscapes is to be our most fully human and healthy selves, and to hunt one must have wide open spaces and animals to pursue.
To be an honest and healthy human, to be truly human, one must coexist on and with open land and the animals that share it with us, because these landscapes and animals are an intrinsic part of being a human being. There is no "app" for experiencing wildlife as a hunter gatherer.
Second, Wild people need wild land.
Americans are a wild, free, untamed people, because of our national formation on the hammer and anvil of the wilderness frontier.
To keep our wild character we must have wild spaces, like this property, and the larger 50,000 plus acres of adjoining public land it fits into.
Our American Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our Yankee ingenuity and work ethic all emerge from the individual liberty Americans encountered and embraced on the American frontier. Far away and free from the reach of overbearing government meddling and coercion. Americans today are just as needy of freedom from government reach as our founders were in 1776.
If our minds and spirits are to remain free, we must protect these wild landscape touchstones of America’s greatness and our original national purpose - freedom. We are still a frontier people, and the open American landscape is our national identity. We must cling to it and protect it at every turn. Conserving properties like this achieves that goal.
Third, there is no better way to protect the environment than to buy it.
Regulations and laws and government oversight only go so far, they usually go too far, and in order to protect our private property rights they can only go so far. Regulations are not the right tool.
If we really want to protect our physical and mental habitat, as well as the air we breathe, the soil that grows our food, and the water we drink, then setting aside through capitalist conservation maximum quantities of land for future humans and animals is the only proven way. Buying or conserving through conservation easements with willing sellers and willing landowners farmland, forests, mountains, waterways and watersheds, all landscapes working for us and protected for us one way or another, should be the goal.
We need farmland protection, because China is not going to feed America, at least not with healthy food. America cannot afford to be dependent upon China for anything, let alone to eat.
We need protected forest land because our forests are renewable sources of clean air, scenic views, hunting, and timber.
Our successful project here achieves all of these values. May we have many many more projects like this in our lives.
Thank you to Annette and Mike Blum for their undying patience, and their generous 50% matching donation of value that made this transaction possible in the first place.
Thank you to the CPC staff for their tireless passion for land conservation and willingness to hang on for dear life where other good people had fallen off the twisting and turning merry-go-round.
Thank you to DCNR for the generous and judicious matching grant of oil and gas funds and taxpayer money that made this acquisition possible.
And thank you to the PGC for standing ready to facilitate the transition of this private property into publicly administered public lands open to humans and wildlife alike.
[NOTE: About 150 acres of this 404 acre acquisition went to the National Park Service, which administers the Appalachian Trail that cuts through Flemish Down. NPS staff were not present at the dedication ceremony.]