Americans have always assumed that there was a “one-for-all-and-all-for-one” aspect to our country, but watching Karen Moreau’s “The Empire State Divide,” it’s hard to argue that we haven’t become bitterly divided along class lines.
Moreau is the daughter of an upstate mushroom farmer who has taken up the case for fracking in New York. “Today every farm family needs a lawyer so I was designated by my family,” she says. One of nine children, she has returned to her native Catskill to argue the case for embattled farmers by founding the Land and Liberty Foundation. In the process, she has produced a 20-minute documentary that will be show audiences tomorrow morning at the CPAC Convention in Washington just how bad things have become in the Empire State.
“The Empire State Divide” is painful to watch. On the one hand are upstate farmers whose landholdings go back three and four generations and who now find themselves squeezed out by New York’s sky-high taxes and restrictive land-use regulations. Beneath their feet, however, lies the Marcellus Shale, the biggest gas deposit in the country, that promises literally tens of thousands of dollars in royalties — except they aren’t allowed to access it.
“Our town came in with a reassessment and tried to quadruple our property taxes,” Julie Lewis, a farmer in the Southern Tier tells the camera. “We fought it and they were only doubled, but it’s still a struggle.” Lewis and her husband Mark raise free-range chickens while she works two jobs as a photographer and substitute teacher and he drives a truck for a gas company across the border in Pennsylvania. But they still barely make ends meet. “Our tax payment is higher than our mortgage payments,” says Lewis, who has become a local legislator while fighting the fracking ban.
Moreau says New York’s Southern Tier, now often referred to as “Appalachia North,” is full of such hardship cases. “Farmers have been calling me this winter saying they’ve gone back to chopping down trees for firewood,” she says. “One of them had a tree fall on him and ended up in the hospital in Philadelphia.”
So who are the illuminati whose concern for the environment prevents so many people upstate from making a living? Well, the truth is that Upstate is now so depressed that it has become surpassingly easy for wealthy Manhattanites and other affluents from around the country to buy second and retirement homes there for a song. With their smooth manners and fawning from the national media, they have been able to dominate the conversation.
Featured in the documentary is James Northrup, a retired oil and gas investor who has a summer home in Cooperstown. In classic fashion of “pulling up the ladder,” Northrup has become a leader of the local anti-fracking movement. “I’ve got to tell you, I can’t think of a worse industry to invite back into the area,” Northrup tells the camera. “This sort of industry drives out clean industry. It’ll drive out a lot of the things you really want.”
Of course it’s unlikely that Google or Apple will be locating in Cooperstown any time soon. But that doesn’t concern Northrup. In one brutal passage he likens his pro-fracking opponents to the Beverly Hillbillies. “They didn’t make ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ about everybody in West Virginia, they made it about the Clampetts,” he says smugly. “And there’s a good reason for that. There’s going to be some Jed Clampetts come out of this but 98 percent of them won’t be Jed Clampett.”
Meanwhile, across the border in Pennsylvania, Moreau finds people whose rural livelihood has been rejuvenated by fracking royalties. “We’ve been really lucky this happened,” Jim VanBlarcom, a Columbia Cross Roads dairy farmer, tells Moreau. “My son has always wanted to come back to the farm and it’s made an opportunity for him to come home. All my neighbors are in the same situation. They have this windfall that came all of a sudden, out of the blue — out of the ground, I guess.”
Moreau resents the way some of Manhattan’s richest people have come to treat Upstate New York as their private fiefdom. “People have built beautiful homes up here and when they look out their windows, they want to see open space and fields. They don’t want to see any signs of industry. They’ve made their living elsewhere. They don’t have to make a living up here. It’s not just ‘Not In My Backyard.’ It’s ‘Not In Your Backyard, Either.’”