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Rolling green hills of the South Downs in Sussex, England.
Rolling green hills of the South Downs in Sussex, England.

Across the Atlantic, an Adirondack-style debate over conservation

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The Adirondack Park continues to be a lightning rod in the North Country. The debate often pits conservationists against development. Last October state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward declared that "the great experiment is a failure" because of its constraints on economic development. Green groups argue that the Park is a boon for local economies that trade on the region's unique character.

One question is whether the Adirondack model is one that can be exported and used around the world. For example, former APA chairman Ross Whaley expressed skepticism in an interview last year. But across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, a similar scenario is being played out.

A national park in southeast England is using similar land use and zoning rules. Jacob Resneck visited the area recently and found that conservation efforts across the Atlantic are sparking a very similar debate.

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The new South Downs National Park is in the southeastern corner of Britain.

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The rolling open hills of the South Downs share little resemblance to the heavily forested Adirondacks. But like the Adirondack Park -- and unlike the national parks in the U.S. -- most of the land here is privately held with a permanent population of more than a hundred thousand people.

Paul Millmore works for the South Downs Joint Committee which is stewarding conservation in the 600-square-mile South Downs area. It will be dissolved when a National Park Authority is created next year when the area becomes Britain's fifteenth national park.

Tall and gangly with a thick gray beard, bow-tie and red suspenders, Millmore has been one of the park's staunchest advocates.

I meet him in the Black Rabbit Inn outside the village of Arundel. Taking refuge from the heavy rain outside, Millmore discusses conservation models over a rich lunch and hand-drawn pints of ale.

A conservation official by profession, Millmore has been visiting the Adirondacks regularly for more than fifteen years . Over time, he's shared his experiences with like-minded conservationists in New York and taken his impressions back to England.

We don't have all the answers. You're great on wilderness management we don't do wilderness management here 'cause we ain't got no wilderness. But we're very good at managing cultural heritage which I would say the Adirondack Park is weak on. So there are transfers that should be possible over time that would be really valuable to both communities.

Far more of the land here - more than 90 percent - is privately owned. Much of it is being farmed.  Bustling towns and villages lie inside the boundaries of this newly created park.

The fundamental similarity and the Adirondacks - the Adirondack Park - and British national parks is they are lived-in landscapes. And we have the same villages, small towns that you get in the Adirondacks. So the type of management that you would apply to an English national park is the same sort of management is that you would apply to the Adirondacks.

Since the 1960s development here has been restricted as it's designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Many opponents of the new regulations say that status already affords enough protection.

All in all the general feeling was it's not actually going to add anything so why have it?

That's William White, the southeast director of Britain's National Farmers Union which had opposed creation of a national park. He says now that they know the park is coming, opinion amongst farmers is mixed.

You know some see it as an opportunity, you know, lots of people of walking and taking their money for bed and breakfasts and all sorts of activities. And others see it - especially livestock farmers -- is with more and more people coming out with dogs and worrying livestock and generally being a nuisance.

Last spring, Britain's Environment Minister announced that a new National Park Authority would take charge here in 2011.

The new South Downs National Park will be run by a park authority similar to the Adirondack Park Agency.

The new authority's powers will come largely at the expense of more than a dozen elected local authorities that had been overseeing planning across the region.

There is a democratic deficit that we just feel it doesn't represent local opinion.

That's Deborah Urquhart, an elected member of West Sussex County Council. She says many are concerned that new constraints on development by a park-wide body could strangle communities.

The conservationists basically want to wrap it up in cotton wool and protect it and it has to be a living landscape and it has to be vibrant. And if you can't build houses, which is one of the issues, then it will gradually die and it will just be houses for the wealthy, their second homes, to come down at week-end and it would just defeat the whole object really.

How much power will be divided is still being worked out, in a debate that often sounds very similar to regulatory battles in the North Country.
Conservationist Paul Millmore says successes on both sides of the Atlantic can help communities find a better balance for open space and their economies.

The lessons that we learn can be taken to the Adirondacks and the lessons that we learn in the Adirondacks can be taken to the British national park system. So it's a two-way process and I've always wanted to get as much international thinking into conservation as possible.

If the Adirondacks are any indicator the tension over economic development, conservation and local governance will simmer here for decades to come.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Jacob Resneck in the South Downs of England.

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