The tourism “image” of my home state of New York has a lot at stake in our great outdoors. People come from all over to glimpse our fall foliage, to savour the views from atop our mountains, and fish or boat along our freshwater lakes and rivers. All this natural heritage is a boon to tourism and the economy. According to the Trust for Public Land, the tourism industry generates upwards of US$43 billion annually for New York State and a full 25 percent (or $11.3 billion) comes from outdoor recreation. Confident in Mother Nature’s ability to reel in the crowds, our state’s official tourism agency includes more than 40 outdoor activities on their long list of Reasons to Love New York.
Preserving our natural heritage is good policy for supporting and promoting outdoor tourism in the long run, but other interests are often at play. Here in New York, we are currently in the midst of an ongoing battle that pits the gas industry against conservationists over whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing, also called “fracking,” a controversial technique that uses numerous chemical additives for extracting the gas that lies buried under deep shale formations.
On the one hand are the landowners – many of them financially strapped – who could benefit from selling the drilling rights to their land. On the other hand are those who oppose drilling over concerns for safety, environmental degradation, public health and the long-term stability of the economy of New York State.
While the plan to permit gas drilling is currently being reviewed to determine its potential public health effects, its approval could mean tens of thousands of gas rigs cropping up across the landscape, according to a NY Times editorial. To pass such a plan, some argue, could forever tarnish our state’s outdoor tourism brand and threaten the livelihoods of many who earn a living through tourism and the outdoors.
For a number of years now, groups that oppose fracking have argued that it poses significant threats to New York’s existing business infrastructure – threats to food and water supplies and potential impacts on landscape scenery that could have serious repercussions for industries like agriculture, wine production and tourism. One look at the signatures collected for a petition by the advocacy group New Yorkers Against Fracking reveals a groundswell of resistance among tourism industry business owners.
Among the many well-known businesses that have voiced their support of a ban are beer companies such Ommegang and the Brooklyn Brewery, wine producers such as Fox Run Vineyards and Hunt Country Vineyards, and a wide assortment of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants throughout the state. Celebrities such as Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono have also come out in support of a ban.
The gas industry already has a foothold within the Finger Lakes, the state’s largest wine-producing region and a popular destination for its wine-trail tourism and boating. Adjacent to Seneca Lake, despite vocal opposition from more than 140 tourism-related businesses, Inergy has already begun development of a large-scale natural gas storage and shipping facility that could impact the local tourism sector.
“This, in addition to the looming threat of fracking in our area, will most certainly have an impact on tourism and the hundreds of millions of dollars brought into the region on an annual basis by the tourism/wine industry,” says Yvonne Taylor, co-founder of the group Gas Free Seneca. “We are deeply concerned about the negative impact it will have on our local sustainable economy – that of tourism, wineries, and agriculture.”
“From a business perspective I’m very concerned for what fracking would do in the region,” notes Debbie Meritsky, chef and co-owner of the historic Black Sheep Inn in the heart of wine country in Hammondsport, NY, and board member of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. “As a region, our tourism-based businesses and organisations who do marketing need much more involvement across the board. It’s very frustrating to see the powers that be go out and cut deals that don’t benefit the public. As a tourism industry partner, I am afraid of what this will do to the region.”
A report released in 2011 by the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board took a long hard look at the potential impacts of natural gas drilling on the tourism economy in a region that encompasses three counties in New York State where tourism is a key sector of the economy. As the study noted, the area’s tourism brand is defined by ‘rolling hills,’ ‘scenic farmlands’ and ‘rural vistas’ and it has become well known for its rural tourism attractions, waterfalls, outdoor recreation, boating and water sports. Exploring how job growth and the economic impact of natural gas development typically follows a ‘boom and bust’ pattern, the study concluded that natural gas drilling could do real damage to the local tourism economy by “degrading visitor experiences and creating an industrial landscape that far outlives the profitability of gas extraction.”
A report such as this confirms the thoughts of everyone who fears that fracking activities will leave behind unsightly and possibly contaminated brownfields that would make nearby destinations difficult to promote, while also bringing in fewer visitors such as bird watchers, skiers, hikers, shoppers and buyers in search of purchasing a second home.
New York State’s tourism industry is our state’s fifth largest employer and the industry has had a significant impact on our economy. Visitors spent approximately US$53.9 billion dollars last year, contributing to our economic recovery, and the governor himself has often spoken of our natural heritage as an asset for tourism and the economy.
Considering such facts, it pays to ask why we would frack with a good thing?