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Into the Woods: The “Nature” of Public Policy and Public Administration

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.  

By Benjamin H. Deitchman

In the wind and fog of New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, or along the wooded shoreline of Norris Lake in East Tennessee, it is easy to forget the vexing conundrums of public administration and policy. The influence of government and public service, however, swirl in the crisp mountain air and warm waters of these modern geographic features. Humankind has influenced our natural world and it is often public servants and nonprofit organizations maintaining and enhancing the outdoor opportunities that define many summer vacations. As the planet enters a future of unprecedented atmospheric alterations and resource challenges, conservation, preservation and recreation stewardship are critical themes for public administration theory and practice.

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The highest of the high peaks in the Adirondacks, the rocky but well-maintained trails of the New York State Department of Conservation and nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club make the trek up Marcy feasible for the weekend walker escaping the state’s populous cities. When Vice President Theodore Roosevelt ended his hike up Marcy on September 12, 1901, upon hearing of the imminent death of President William McKinley, the journey to, from and up the mountain for The Rough Rider and his family was less accessible than it is for today’s hikers. Mount Marcy is a natural feature of the Adirondack terrain, but the public and nonprofit administrators who oversee the wilderness deserve credit for the direct miles of pathway to the open alpine zone at the summit.

Unlike Mount Marcy, Norris Lake did not exist in 1901. It was a clear act of implementation on the part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), completed in 1936, which dammed the Clinch River to create this secluded recreation area just north of Knoxville.  Floating docks dot the over 800 miles of meandering shoreline. A standard attached dock is neither permitted nor advisable as water levels vary based on the calculations of TVA administrators to provide hydroelectricity, control flooding and offer recreational opportunities upstream from Norris Dam. While this is a new lake when considering a geological time scale, the Depression era infrastructure development of the TVA is poised to remain an enduring feature of the local landscape for future generations seeking the woods and waters of this expansive valley.

The role of humans in the natural domain is a widely discussed topic for scholars and scientists of natural resources. In the introduction to the 1997 book Uncommon Ground, on rethinking conceptions of nature, William Cronon describes the Garden of Eden narrative in western culture and contrasts that with the challenging landscape of modern Southern California with its high levels of human intervention in the environment.  He discusses the push of civilization into the natural world and posits that modern nature is much more of a man-made construct than earlier scholars have acknowledged. A New York Times opinion article by journalist Christopher Solomon from earlier this month about the 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act indicates that in a world of anthropogenic climate change, all areas perceived as wild still face impacts from human activities. Additionally, the recent public television documentary Fredrick Law Olmsted: Designing America describes how the nation’s most famous landscape architect built Niagara FallsThe feature of falling water predates human influence, but the look of today’s falls is the result of Olmsted’s vision.  While Norris Lake required an engineering project for its creation, Mount Marcy also rises above New York State in the present day with features of human development of the natural world.

Today’s lakes, streams, mountains and valleys may not be the pure wilderness of poets and philosophers. Untouched nature is a quaint ideal incongruous with a resource intensive global population of over 7 billion, with barely an unexplored frontier on any corner of the globe. The nature of today and the nature of the future is the responsibility of human society. In many instances, public administrators are society’s agents in maintaining, and even enhancing, the natural features of the planet to benefit flora, fauna and the natural resource needs and recreational desire of people.

The anthropogenic influences on natural systems are a reality and the facts, from depletion of critical ecological resources to irreversible climatic damage, are often bleak. Mount Marcy and Norris Lake, however, are triumphs of public administration and the efforts to improve peoples’ relationships with the natural world. Summiting Marcy may not be the same challenge as it was in the early 20th century, but opening this mile-high peak to the public can preserve most of the integrity of the terrain and foster a conservation ethic among hikers young and old. While dams cause ecological perturbations, protecting the Tennessee Valley and providing economic opportunity in East Tennessee is a means to support the community through its great- albeit diverted- water resources.

The function of public administrators in leading the human role in maintaining a sustainable environment is a key responsibility for consideration in courses, seminars and articles in this field. Now that human beings have influenced nearly every natural process, it is critical that the public and nonprofit sectors provide the efforts, expertise, and representation to keep the planet functioning. As you enjoy your summer vacations in the mountains or along a body of water, bear in mind that this relaxation is our profession’s responsibility, and the longest lasting legacy of contemporary public administration.


Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman, Ph.D. MPA, is a visiting assistant professor of public policy in the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is an avid Adirondack hiker and recently learned to water ski on Norris Lake. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @BHDRIT (http://twitter.com/bhdrit). 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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