Monday, December 20, 2010

Commentary: Adirondack Development, Population Growth

I heard some harsh criticism over my last commentary on protecting our open forests. “There are far too many who are willing to buy into the idea that we have enough, or that what open forests we have should be opened to every purpose under the sun, essentially no restrictions except on houses and highways,” I argued, suggesting that the proposed 409,000 acre Bob Marshall- Oswegatchie Great Wilderness Area was a good idea.

One theme that seemed to emerge from the detractors was the imminent death of Adirondack communities in the face of more wilderness. “The problem is yet down the road and the end is coming shortly I fear,” one wrote. What end? “The end of the communities and the livelihood of the most endangered species in the park; the year-round resident.” Another decried “The end of sustainable communities” and “The end of multi-generational, year-round residents.”

This is, of course, all nonsense. In the 70 years between 1930 and 2000 New York State’s population grew by 50% and Northern New York’s by about 35%. Even in the most remote Adirondack towns, those 62 located entirely within the Blue Line, the population grew by 13%. Those are the places some would have you believe are endangered, likely to be wiped out by the next big land owner’s decision to protect their land with a conservation easement rather than develop it.

What is really the alarming trend, is development in the other less remote Adirondack towns, which make up more than half the Park’s population. Development pressure is greatest in the 30 border towns, which have grown by 142% over the same 70 years, a rate far above the state or national average. Add in seasonal residents and the number is much higher.

Looking at the population numbers since the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) was created (1970-2010) shows one Adirondack county ranks in the top three fastest growing counties in upstate New York. Saratoga County is at the top of list with about 94,000 new residents. Ontario County (Syracuse Metro Area), ranks second, and Jefferson County (Watertown Metro Area) ranks third.

In fact, every Northern New York county has seen a population increase since 1970, except two. The most historically industrial county, St. Lawrence, has lost about 1,000 people. Herkimer County has lost about 4,000, mostly from the industrial areas of the county along the Mohawk River, the part of the county outside the Adirondack sphere.

Even the county much maligned as being on it’s deathbed, Hamilton County, saw a steady population increase. In fact, Hamilton County has seen its most robust population growth of the past century only since the APA has been established.

“But it’s the young people we’re losing!” they protest. “Population levels among the productive age groups of 25 to 55 are dropping” one commenter argued. And this is partly true, but it’s not true that “If these hold true the communities will cease to exist.”

Population is increasing everywhere. Sure, younger people are leaving the area, but they are being more than replaced by the baby boom generation, every bit as “productive” as younger people. Those are all new residents who will attract new residents, and so it goes in an ever tightening circle around what remains of the largest, relatively intact deciduous forest in the world.

Younger people are more highly educated than they were in 1970, they attend college more than they did, so they move away. It’s not the end of the world. Young people who have seen the world beyond their doorstep have always sought to explore that world on their own, that’s one reason there were great exoduses from rural areas (ones that far exceed anything we’re experiencing now) after the Civil War, World War One, and World War Two.

There’s a weirdly romantic element to believing that our small towns are under threat of disappearing. That makes us survivors of a lost era, tenacious rural hangers-on in an increasingly urban world. But we’re not survivors, we’re the vanguard of that ever advancing urban world.

Despite the claims of some, the Adirondack resident is not endangered. We don’t, after all, call a species endangered when there is a stable population that is steadily increasing.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

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