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The Big City Urban Sprawl As a Way To Save Trees
January 22, 2000

By JOHN TIERNEY 

IF you are a lover of wilderness, you may have a hard time appreciating the ecological beauty of Co-op City. You probably have a hard time imagining Donald Trump as a savior of species, or seeing Ben and Jerry as environmental menaces.

But you might reconsider after reading Peter Huber's new paean to nature, ''Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists'' ( Basic Books ). If your highest priority is to save the wilderness and preserve species, Dr. Huber argues, you have to move people off the land and pack them into cities.

''It is greener to live in Trump Tower than on a 40-acre farm in Vermont,'' said Dr. Huber, a former professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research organization. ''The only way to save the wilderness is reduce the human footprint on the land by living vertically instead of horizontally.''

Dr. Huber calls himself a Hard Green to distinguish himself from mainstream environmentalists. He shares their desire for bigger national parks, but he thinks they're unwittingly hurting their own cause. ''If we followed the Soft Greens' policies for renewable energy and agriculture,'' Dr. Huber said, ''most of New York State would have to be covered with organic farms and solar cells in order to support New York City. To live vertically, you need food from compact high-yield farms and fuels from below the surface.''

Vast forests in New York and other states were felled by pioneers, the original organic farmers, to feed their families and their livestock. More than a quarter of the farmland was devoted to turning solar energy into the renewable fuel powering their transportation system: the grasses and grains eaten by horses.

But in recent decades, many of those fields have reverted to wilderness because they are no longer needed to grow food or fuel. Over the past quarter-century, Dr. Huber estimates, the country has gained 70 million acres of wilderness, more than all the land occupied by cities, suburbs, roads and any other kind of development.

Where Soft Greens see ''urban sprawl'' destroying the countryside, Dr. Huber sees cities absorbing the farmers who once destroyed the wilderness. ''It's true that we lose a little green space at the edge of cities as suburbs grow,'' Dr. Huber said, ''but that loss is more than offset by all the wilderness gained from the farms abandoned farther away.'' You might think of New York City and its suburbs as the antidote to rural sprawl.

WHERE Soft Greens fret about the risks from factory farms and pesticides and genetically engineered plants, Dr. Huber exults in the land saved by new technologies. ''If you care about the open range, you should recoil from free-range chicken on the menu,'' Dr. Huber said. ''You should prefer chickens living in the agribusiness equivalent of Trump Tower. If you care about seeing more of the Vermont woods of Robert Frost, you should think twice about eating Ben & Jerry's ice cream.''

Ben & Jerry's prides itself on getting milk from small family farms in Vermont, and it opposes the use of a synthetic growth hormone to increase each cow's output. ''If farmers used that hormone, they wouldn't need so many cows,'' Dr. Huber said, ''so some of the farms could revert to forests. There would also be fewer cows emitting methane, which is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases.''

His argument did not impress Liz Bankowski, the senior director for social mission development at Ben & Jerry's. ''We think the hormone could have negative consequences for the cows,'' she said, ''and we don't want to increase milk production if it puts family farms out of business. Losing small farms is not in the environmental or economic interest of Vermont.''

Dr. Huber acknowledges that Hard Green technologies pose social and environmental problems. ''You have to deal with pollution and other issues,'' he said, ''but the costs are vastly outweighed by the benefits of creating so much new wilderness. You have to keep things in perspective.''

Similarly, he said, Soft Greens ought to keep the big picture in mind when contemplating proposals to stop urban sprawl.

''You may want to stop someone from building new homes near you because the extra crowding reduces your quality of life,'' he said. ''But it's a fraud to confuse your self-interest with what is good for the planet. If you make it harder for people to move to cities and suburbs, they'll end up in places where cougars and eagles could be living.

©2000 The New York Times

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