Last week I ended my Dispatch on the Adirondack economy by suggesting the outlines of a five-point economic proposal. This proposal is based upon that idea that the most valuable Adirondack asset that can be leveraged is wilderness itself.
This week I will briefly describe core of the proposal, the creation of a new Adirondack image as a mountainous wilderness area second to none.
But first let me offer a couple of disclaimers. Chief among these is that the following is not a plan of any kind. First of all I am in no way qualified to craft an economic or marketing plan; I am not an economist, a marketing professional or anything related to either profession. Second, nothing I have to say is particularly original; there are already plenty of smart people thinking about and working on similar ideas, in most cases people who know a lot more about economics and marketing than I do. Rather than ignore those efforts I’d like to acknowledge and compliment them right up front.
Given these disclaimers, what I hope to offer is food for thought, a perspective from outside the Blue Line and a continued advocacy for protecting wild land to the greatest extent possible. In doing so I have spoken or corresponded with a number of subject-matter experts whose ideas and knowledge in their given areas easily exceeds my own. I thank them for helping to clarify my thinking.
Here are the first two points of the proposal I offered last week:
- Create one park-wide Adirondack Image or brand and promote everything that is available in the park and every event in the park exclusively as that one Adirondack entity. What do you think when you hear “Rockies?”
- Make the centerpiece of the Adirondack Image real wilderness, real mountains and the experiences, adventures and recreation that go with real wilderness and real mountains.
My proposal rests upon the fact that there is a growing demand for wilderness in America. I have gone through enough data in past Dispatches to demonstrate the truth of this fact from a quantitative point of view, especially with respect to tourism and recreation. So I’d like to explore it a little more from a qualitative point of view.
Wilderness has allure on multiple levels besides recreational: as a place for solitude; as an ideal experience of America’s past, of America’s “imperishable freshness,” as Paul Jamieson once put it; as a hope for the present and future of the environment; as an inspiration for art and writing; as a place of health and healing. This demand is not satisfied by mere woods or state park campgrounds; it necessarily requires wild places that satisfy our yearning for the primeval, the very thing that enchants and envelopes me every time I hike up to Lost Brook Tract. People who seek wilderness do not envision mountains with houses on them or brightly lit resorts or ATV’s careening down the trail. People want a true wilderness experience.
Lest you suggest that this is wispy talk, go look at the numbers from last week again. But the demand is more than is measured by hard numbers. I think it is important to explicitly point out that the mere existence of wild places makes a significant difference in people’s lives all over this country. There’s a reason that Ansel Adams calendars have outsold almost every other type of calendar over the years. People dream of wilderness, aspire to it; and as we who love the Adirondack Wilderness know, even one visit can be life-changing. Read the comments to my previous two dispatches by Bill Ott: he states the case well. The numbers of current wilderness users is not the only important measure. The potential availability of a wilderness experience is equally relevant and can be marketed to. There are a lot more people to attract than just recreational users.
The problem therefore is not that there is not a market for Adirondack Wilderness. Rather the problem is basically brand recognition. As I mentioned last week, most Americans have no idea that the Adirondacks offer not only wilderness but in fact some of the best wilderness in the world.
It’s a bit of an odd twist, since the word “Adirondack” is quite well known. Everyone I ever talk to has heard it. After all it is such a distinctive word, both visually and aurally. People recognize it unmistakably, but they don’t know what it represents. The closest they get is a bucolic image of something like Vermont.
In my thinking to correct the misconceptions about the Adirondacks is to take advantage of the word recognition in a big way. Everything about the park – every local initiative, every marketing program should promote the word “Adirondack” before anything else. No one knows about Saranac Lake or Tupper Lake or Piseco Lake. So don’t market them. Market the Adirondacks and subdivide from there.
Next, tie the word “Adirondack” to an ideal image of wilderness. Intense, dense wilderness with the freedom to travel where one will? We’ve got it. Unspoiled vistas and pure water? We’ve got it. The most protected land in the United States? We’ve got it. Old growth forest? We’ve got it. The largest wilderness park in the continental United States? It’s right here. A place that has real winters with snow and some of the coldest temperatures in the country and White Christmases? You bet! All of those things are assets that will pay huge dividends if people are given to see that the Adirondacks aren’t the Berkshires.
To my mind too much of current marketing is geared toward the rustic and the comfortable. While the “Adirondack style” is historically unique it does not have much cache with anyone I know except those who live regionally near the park. The sole exception is the chairs and those were long ago co-opted. You can get plastic Adirondack chairs at just about any Box store for God’s sake. This is actually counterproductive to marketing the true nature of the park: “They’ve got nice chairs. I want the Sierras.”
There are lots of places with rustic charms that compete with us. There are few places than can compete with our wilderness. Change the game.
If an Adirondack image as the premier wilderness in the continental US is to be convincing, two assets need to be leveraged to the hilt. One is no problem: water. The Adirondacks constitute a water recreation “no brainer” and we do a great job of promoting that already. The other one is more important, and it’s a big problem, one that I think is overlooked: mountains.
No outside of the immediate vicinity thinks that the Adirondacks are real mountains. Heck, even many Adirondackers don’t think that the Adirondacks are real mountains. By the standards of elevation about sea level they certainly don’t see to be. This is a big problem because of the fact that the equivalence between wilderness and mountains is so strong in most people’s minds. Mountain vistas are the defacto standard for promoting wilderness. The idea of Adirondacks as wilderness is a non-starter as soon as they are dismissed as hills. Job one in crafting an Adirondack image is to convincingly portray the Adirondacks as real mountainous.
If I had a hundred-thousand dollars to throw at crafting a new Adirondack image the first thing I’d do would be to hire a great photographer – a Nathan Farb, say – to create a portfolio of photographs for marketing purposes that show the Adirondack High Peaks as serious mountains. Winter shots, bare rock vertical… there are lots of possibilities. The perspective of the McIntyre Range from the side of Wallface is imposing and lofty, alpine to the core, especially in a winter shot. Gothics from Upper Ausable is a famous view but it deserves a Farb-level photograph to capture all its grandeur. There are dozens of other places where the sense of vertical and rise, the shape of the escarpment, dazzles.
I think we discount the scale of these of these mountains because of height above sea level. So we should talk about vertical instead, trumpet it. Marcy rises a mile above Lake Champlain. The Whiteface Ski Resort has as much vertical as Vail and more than Aspen. Indian Pass has one of the largest walls in the country. If people think the Adirondack mountains are the real thing they will be more ready to believe that they are wild and imposing – which they certainly are.
A successful wilderness Adirondack image will resonate in a much different way than current conceptions of the term bring to mind. It will become more unique, more valuable, more appropriate for answering the demand for wild places.
This Adirondack image can be a powerful tool in promoting wilderness tourism and recreation. But it can be applied to additional strategies that can boost the economy of the park. Next week I will cover the last three points of my proposal, which illustrate the potential reach and power behind a wild Adirondack image.
Photo: Giant, imposing and wild