Like all who know and love the Adirondacks I have always felt a personal stake in the grand debate over private versus public land and the extent to which the state of New York should support and expand its wilderness holdings. It’s no secret I firmly believe that the Adirondacks’ greatest asset is its mountainous wilderness character and that increasing this asset and leveraging the image of the Adirondacks as a wild place holds the key to gaining its best economic future.
Plenty of people disagree with me. So I laid out my arguments in great detail in a series of Dispatches running from October through November of last year that promoted what I called a wild, mountainous Adirondack Image. All told these Dispatches engendered more than a hundred and seventy comments, which is a wonderful. Meanwhile the same debate raged on in columns ranging from the State’s acquisitions of the Nature Conservancy offering to tourism, Adirondack branding and others. As I read various postings and comments I found myself thinking all too often that people still don’t get it, that so many of the viewpoints are myopic, embracing a very narrow focus at the expense of the bigger picture.
Then two recent items came across the Almanack pages. First – and likely little noticed – was this report, linked-to in John Warren’s Web Highlights post of Friday, December 21st. The report lays out the compelling evidence for the economic benefits of publicly protected wilderness areas. It makes for interesting reading, let me tell you.
Then just recently North Country Public Radio aired this piece by Brian Mann, also linked to by the Almanack. Entitled “Where the Heck is the Adirondacks?” it chronicled Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau’s recent excursion to Long Island with his children and an audio recorder to ask downstate folks if they knew anything about the Adirondacks. Naturally they didn’t.
As an unrelenting advocate for a mountainous wilderness identity for the park I was struck by the congruence of these two items appearing within a couple of weeks of each other. To me the combination offers a stark challenge to those who think we ought to stop protecting more land and develop the Adirondack economy in other ways. This is such a critical issue that I’m going to set my case out one more time, using these two pieces to bolster the argument.
Here it is: first, hardly anyone knows the Adirondacks are a mountainous wilderness on a par with anything in the continental United States, much less Vermont; second, this lack of knowledge is a great opportunity to promote a new identity for the Adirondacks that separates it from its geographic competitors and leverages the increasing national demand for wild lands and the proven economic benefits of protected wilderness.
I contend that a wild, mountainous Adirondack Image will draw visitors and new residents alike. Now there are all kinds of people who believe this contention is dumb on its face. A typical and very frequent comment looks like this: “Oh sure. We’ll get two or three more hikers and a kayaker or two. And by the way those kinds of people don’t spend money in our towns.” Proponents of this point of view need to read the aforementioned report from Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-partisan economic research organization. The report is entitled West is Best: How Public Lands in the West Create a Competitive Economic Advantage. It offers a compelling case based upon hard data to support the very thing I am arguing for in the Adirondacks. I corresponded with the lead staffer on their publication and received permission to quote verbatim the Executive Summary. Here it is:
This report finds that the West’s popular national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands offer its growing high-tech and services industries a competitive advantage, which is a major reason why the western economy has outperformed the rest of the U.S. economy in key measures of growth—employment, population, and personal income—during the last four decades.
In addition, as the West’s economy shifts toward a knowledge-based economy, new research shows that protected federal public lands support faster rates of job growth and are correlated with higher levels of per capita income.
- Higher-wage services industries, such as high-tech and health care, are leading the West’s job growth and diversifying the economy.
- Entrepreneurs and talented workers are choosing to work where they can enjoy outdoor recreation and natural landscapes.
- Increasingly, chambers of commerce and economic development associations in every western state are using the region’s national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands as a tool to lure companies to relocate.
- High-wage services industries also are using the West’s national parks, monuments, wilderness areas and other public lands as a tool to recruit and retain innovative, high-performing talent.
- From 1970 to 2010, the West’s employment grew by 152 percent compared to 78 percent for the rest of the country.
- This western job growth was almost entirely in services industries such as health care, real estate, high-tech, and finance and insurance, which created 19.3 million net new jobs, many of them high-paying.
- Western non-metropolitan counties with more than 30 percent of the county’s land base in federal protected status such as national parks, monuments, wilderness, and other similar designations increased jobs by 345 percent over the last 40 years. By comparison, similar counties with no protected federal public lands increased employment by 83 percent.
- In 2010, per capita income in western non-metropolitan counties with 100,000 acres of protected public lands is on average $4,360 higher than per capita income in similar counties with no protected public lands.
I encourage interested readers to digest the entire report so as to see all the evidence that backs it up. But those kinds of findings are hard to argue against.
Some will contend that there is no analog between the possibilities here and the economic success out West because the Adirondacks lack the grandeur and scope of the great Western parks and forests. Leaving Alaska out of the picture, this is nonsense. This kind of misplaced Western envy is part of our problem, as though we have to apologize for being in the East and having lower mountains. Our forests are equal or superior to most Western forests and vertical is vertical regardless of sea level measurements. One week ago I was in the mountains of Washington State and Oregon. Before that I had a little travel over the Colorado Rockies. A week before that I was in the Adirondacks. Driving through the Cascade Pass in full winter thrall takes a back seat to none of the Western views I experienced.
The findings in this report are nothing new to those who know about this sort of thing. In November of 2011 more than a hundred economists and academics in related fields, including three Nobel Laureates, signed on to a letter to President Obama and Congress which made the same argument. They urged him to support more investment in public lands because of the demonstrative economic benefits. The old, tired trope about locking up public lands may be true if you are an oil or mining company, but it is a fictional dinosaur in the new economy where people in hi tech and service jobs want wild lands and natural beauty in proximity.
Add that to the ongoing projects to bring high-capacity Internet services to the Adirondacks which are moving forward rapidly and you have a perfect case for the significant subset of the hundred million or so people who live in the urban Eastern United States and are looking for a different quality of life, much less those in the Midwest, South and West.
But this tremendous opportunity will count for nothing if hardly anyone knows what the Adirondacks are, where they are and that they are the real thing: wild, mountainous and scenic. This brings us to Mayor Rabideau. I won’t recount his project but it demonstrated how little the Adirondacks are known. My contention is that it is not just a matter of brand recognition, if you will, but also of the failure of the Adirondacks to stand out from the competition. One person lumped the Adirondacks with Vermont. Another mistook them for the Catskills. They weren’t thinking about the Adirondacks as a vast wilderness a la Yellowstone: they were thinking about the Adirondacks as a place with tourist shops, ski hills and spas. You know, like the Berkshires. And they were getting them wrong anyhow.
Let me be clear: I am not blaming current marketing efforts, saying that they are bad or people aren’t doing their job. In fact it seems to me that people are doing a great job and working very hard. They know a lot more about what it takes than most of us. However I am suggesting that they are fighting a losing game because they are on a playing field upon which they cannot possibly complete. It’s not their fault.
Let’s be real: as a “civilized” resort destination the Adirondacks are never going to outcompete with Vermont. I am reminded of this legendary essay by the environmental writer and Adirondack resident Alex Shoumatoff entitled The Real Adirondacks, which contains this sentence: “As one of my neighbors puts it, Vermont is like Austria, while this side of Lake Champlain is more like Bulgaria.” Vermont has more and better ski resorts, more bucolic little towns, superior amenities and legendary cachet. The Adirondacks are not going to outcompete the Catskills either for the dollars of downstate tourists who want to play at at little mountain fun. The Catskills are closer and easier. Connecticut has “Holiday Inn.” Massachusetts has chowder.
Not a one of these places has mountainous wilderness like ours. The closest is the White Mountains, which are magnificent but are a fraction of our area, and Maine which is even further off the radar than we are. If the Adirondack Image was of a big-time mountainous wilderness instead of a nebulous, unlocated poor man’s Vermont, the marketing ballgame would change, both for visitors and potential new permanent residents alike.
The Adirondack region as a whole, with the participation of many stakeholders, needs to continue to think long and hard about the Adirondack Image they want to foster. Governor Cuomo in his State of the State address directly recognized the same issue I have and he opened the door wide for initiatives to address it, including the announcement of a five million dollar annual competition for best regional marketing plans. What makes the Adirondacks distinct is wilderness. Lets look at the facts and trends and get serious about promoting what we have: a wilderness that exceeds anything in the Eastern United States.
Photo: Approaching the summit.