Saturday, October 20, 2012

Building the Adirondack Economy

Last week’s Dispatch provoked a healthy discussion in the comments section.  The readers of the Almanack proved once again to be light years ahead of your average blog trollers by being thoughtful and respectful.  My arguments about economic reality in the park and elitism in the question of land use were not met with a single angry or accusatory response, but rather thoughtful commentary.  So thanks to all.

In fact, I was a little surprised to see that my economic argument was left virtually unchallenged.  Instead the discussion followed the common theme over whether there is enough wilderness in the Adirondacks, but along two lines so as to apparently dismiss the claim that a local perspective is elitist.  The first line was to question the value of wilderness in the first place (as I strictly defined it for the purposes of this argument).  Is an area of untrammeled Adirondack wilderness really that valuable to anyone, much less someone leagues away living in Cleveland?  The second line was to argue over usage, both locally and from a national perspective: who uses Adirondack wilderness and how much?

I will not address the first line of commentary, for two reasons.  First, I think the answer is self-evident.  America has always had a deep relationship to wilderness, a romance of inestimable value.  Second, in addressing the issue of usage  I think any question of the value of wilderness is rendered moot anyhow.

The argument over usage seems to go something like this:

First, we have enough State Wilderness already, there’s more land than we need.  Wild forests are underused.   When Adirondack land is locked up as Wilderness its usage may well go down (one commenter on another post suggested that if the Finch Pruyn lands were classified as Wilderness there would only be a three or four kayakers and hikers using it at any time).  In the real world only handfuls of people seek out wilderness.  Saving more of it isn’t going to change that but instead just exclude a wider audience such as ATV’ers and trailer-campers.

Second, national comparisons are not relevant to the Adirondacks because most usage is local.  Regardless of our good wishes and happy dreams the folks in Detroit living off of Jefferson Avenue aren’t going to go wilderness camping in the Adirondacks, that’s just the way it is.  Adirondack wilderness makes no difference to them.

Therefore we have enough wilderness regardless of the national numbers.

I happen to think that argument is dead wrong.  But rather than spend another column in refutation I want to wrap my response to this challenge in a larger discussion over the economy of the the park.

Let me start with a declaration: I support vibrant communities in the Adirondacks.  Take Tupper Lake, a recurring subject of mine.  My vision for Tupper Lake is a thriving village center, an influx of youth, a steady or growing population, a national reputation as a dream town.  If given a choice between a healthy Tupper Lake or State acquisition of both the Finch Pruyn and Follensby parcels I vote for a healthy Tupper Lake.  That’s because without a successful balance between exemplary wild communities and exemplary human communities the whole experiment, the grand proposal that the Adirondack Park makes to the world, fails. If we can’t do it here, no one can.  A planet with protected wilderness but rife with human misery is anathema to everything I believe.  With the coming ravages of climate change and environmental degradation I think the issue is that big.  So give me a thriving Tupper Lake, please, and let’s prove we can have our wilderness cake and eat it too.

How do I think we do it?  Protect Follensby, Finch Pruyn and everything else the State can.

You see, not only not only do I think that a troubled Adirondack economy is not the result of wilderness protection, I contend in the strongest terms that a vibrant Adirondack economy is achievable through wilderness protection – of the strict kind, make no mistake.  Now I am hardly the first person to make this argument: the major environmental organizations in the park make it every day and it is a regular feature in the debate.  But I think I can do for his discussion what I did in my two previous  Dispatches: champion a perspective from outside the park that simply gets missed.

First, let’s understand the economic stakes.  I don’t need to do this in detail as the inestimable Joe Hackett has done it for us in two recent articles for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, here and here.  Here are some excerpts:

Despite our increasingly busy lives, or possibly as a result of them, the American public continues to seek wild places to adventure for both recreation and solitude. Annually, it has been estimated that more than 150 million Americans regularly participate in outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, hunting, rock climbing, bird-watching, mountain biking, skiing, snowshoeing, paddling and fishing. We continue to climb the cliffs, paddle the rapids, ski the glades and stalk the bucks because these activities satisfy our innate need for adventure… According to a recent report issued by The Outdoor Industry Foundation, the current economic contribution of active outdoor recreation bicycling, camping, fishing, hunting, paddling, snow sports, wildlife viewing, trail-running, hiking and climbing pumps more than $730 billion into the US economy annually.  Additionally, the report indicates outdoor recreation supports nearly 6.5 million jobs, generates $88 billion in annual state and national tax revenue and generates $289 billion annually in retail sales and services nationwide… Adventure travel and eco-tourism, which are currently ranked among the largest industries in the world, remain dependent upon the availability of wild places, and in a rapidly urbanizing world there is a bull market for such environs.

In short, there is a massive market or wilderness adventures.  That’s a lot of money for us to compete for.  And the market is growing: climate change, worldwide urbanization and environmental degradation is only accelerating that growth.  Millions and millions of people want to recreate in places just like the Adirondacks: really wild places, not just woods.

We need to get a bigger piece of that action.  But here’s the problem as I see it from my outside-the-park perspective: people don’t know the Adirondacks are wild.  This is the part that local-centered arguments miss.

Quite frankly, most outdoor-loving people in America have absolutely no idea what the Adirondacks are.  The typical view I get is something like the Poconos: a quaint vacation destination with a popular chair, some hilly, low mountains and rustic tourist traps.

I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life, in several states.  Trust me, Midwesterners chuckle at the notion that some park out east could really contain wilderness on a scale remotely like, say, the wilds of Colorado (and for the record the Adirondacks blow away the wilds of Colorado as measured by our adopted standard for wilderness).  My waxing eloquent over the Adirondacks typically brings to their minds some little glade in Vermont, not far from a barn and a cheese store, even though the Adirondack Park is no Vermont as we all know.

The Adirondacks  Mountains are lumped in with the Berkshires, Green Mountains and every other Eastern mountain range, categorized as hills, not really mountains at all.  Even Adirondack residents suffer from this mountain envy, as though height above sea level was the sole criterion of importance.  To those folks I have a question: can you guess how many Colorado ski resorts have more vertical than Whiteface?  The answer would surprise you, but I digress.

Furthermore, the Adirondacks are made to suffer by association the usually correct notion that the East is too carved up, cut through by roads and towns and white-steepled churches, and, frankly, too small in size to count as real wilderness.

Like I said, most people have no idea.

So why would very many of these multi-billion-dollar-spending  partakers of outdoor wilderness recreation ever think to head east when there’s no wilderness or mountain majesty to be found there?

Given the reality of how the Adirondacks are or are not seen from outside the region, plus a couple of other important considerations, I have put together a five-point plan for the economic revitalization of the park.   Here it is:

  1. 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?”
  2. Make the centerpiece of the Adirondack Image image real wilderness, real mountains and the experiences, adventures and recreation that go with real wilderness and real mountains.
  3. Develop a strategy to use the Adirondack Image go after the educational/wilderness experience market, which is exploding.
  4. Install state-of-the-art broadband park-wide and use the Adirondack Image to market this region as the number one choice for telecommuting .
  5. Market the Adirondack region as the nexus of American history where the fate of a continent was decided.  But also market it as an unparalleled and romantic historic region for ghosts:  the old history of echoes and imprints, abandoned towns and remnants of grand schemes and pioneer lives.

I know that most of this this is not groundbreaking and that many people are hard at work at some or all of these things.  But from outside the park the picture doesn’t look cohesive or compelling.  All too often It looks confusing, even contradictory, with mixed signals being sent, and it certainly appears contentious.  So next week, continuing the perspective from outside the Adirondacks, I will go through the details of this five-point proposal.

Photo: Charming rustic furniture, typically Eastern

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

16 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Pete,as one who did “live off Jefferson Ave.” my early thoughts of wilderness and where I originally hoped to live was either the UP or the Algoma country in Ontario.
    You are right-on about the Adirondacks being little known. I have even met people from Glens Falls who have never been up here.
    I totally agree with your suggestions for economic growth. There can be more wilderness,wild forest and easement lands without detracting in the least from economic growth and even adding to it, as long as economic development is focused in the hamlets, which in some cases should be expanded.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, You have hit the nail on the head re: The ADIRONDACK IMAGE or, as a Brooklyn friend recently said, “they are in W. Va. somewhere, aren’t they?”
    One of the biggest challenges as i see it is to somehow convince the local business and political (read mostly Republican) people that their REAL interest resides in exactly what you are saying in this dispatch. Until their is basic unity of purpose, the hurdles may be too big to surmount.
    A big issue is how to convince one and all that folks like you and me want the all inclusive success for vibrant communities and wilderness/wild areas that you speak of.
    The Adirondacks are a unique place in this world and, unlike the Vermonts and Colorados elsewhere and it can happen here!
    Bob Meyer
    Cortlandt Manor and Pottersville, NY

  3. The current “mixed use” of the land in the Adirondack “park” presents an economic Catch 22. The same restrictions on development that enhance the outdoor experience stifle job creation. The national spending on outdoor activities that Joe Hackett refers to is really not shared in our region, as most communities (without a ski slope) have a ten week summer season and then roll up the sidewalks (or hiking trails) till mud season ends. The number of people making a truly decent living catering to the outdoor community could hold their meetings in a pack tent. You do touch on the answer – very briefly – in your five point plan. The people who can literally double the economic base inside the blue line overnight are already here – part time. “Weekend” and “vacation” owners are already fans of everything the Adirondacks offer. They have already made an investment here. Polls of this community all suggest that many if not most would spend more time here if they only could work from their home. The one missing ingredient is a fiber optic broad band connection. If you take those ten of thousands of part time residents, and add one day a week, an occasional additional week per month and month per year, the additional revenue generated and spent in each Adirondack town increases exponentially. Broadband is the answer. Some grant money is being made available now, but NY State must make this happen throughout the ADK’s as soon as possible.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good comments. I am a huge fan of broadband, more on that in my next column.

      But I also think that so much more could be done to increase interest in the Adirondacks as a wilderness destination – and not just for ten weeks. Lake Placid doesn’t roll up the sidewalks ever (except maybe a little in the early spring) because it has real outdoors cache, including of course winter. Saranac Lake is now trying to market its hard winters as a strength. There are millions of people in America who would be interested in real winter/alpine adventures.

      More next week.

  4. Big Burly says:

    The saga of contentious points of view has been well chronicled by Ross Whaley.
    Folks like those who come together in the Common Ground Alliance each year, and the several hundred thoughtful seasonal and year round residents who worked on the ADK Futures project are changing the opposing diatribes he described.
    If the silo-oriented tourism promotion sites would stop feeling threatened, there is a comprehensive tactical plan already written to clearly define and promote the ADK regional identity to encourage travelers and residents alike to explore the richness of the history, culture, and traditions, as well as the environment that bind together all of us who live within the region and who continue to make it a desirable place to live — I love our wilderness and use it often — during my life I have come to also deeply appreciate the character and depth of the people who live here — I happen to believe many others are interested in the wilderness, AND the what and why results of our unique experiment.
    Pete, the ADKs are inextricably linked to the gateway communities and areas that you traverse to get to the political choice that is the blue line. Many of the jobs that finance those who have chosen to live inside the line, are in fact outside the line — that is a symbiosis that we ought not mess with, instead promote and extoll.

  5. Paul says:

    “In short, there is a massive market or wilderness adventures. ”

    Pete, I think you mean “for”.

    I have the same outside the park perspective. Yes, not many people know what is there.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Astute and regular readers might be able to deduce that I have been up against deadline several times in the last few weeks, thus sloppy! I run a massive fall project that consumes all my time. Next week’s Dispatch has a much better chance of being typo-free.

      Thanks for finding corrections!


      • Paul says:

        Pete, I think you said you are a college professor out there. I have no idea how you find the time for something like this in the fall. You rarely have a typo, I am impressed. You look at some of these articles in places like the Washington Post and you see typos in the headlines!! Those guys have editors (supposed to anyway).

        • Pete Nelson says:

          Yes, I teach mathematics, but the problem these last two weeks is that I have been consumed by an annual project, the construction and operation of a haunted house for the Green Bay Packers, right inside Lambeau Field. It’s an awesome and ridiculous project which produces a couple hundred-hour weeks for me. Youtube Haunted Concourse if you’re curious, just for the fun of it…

  6. Peter says:

    What do you mean when you use the word “protect”? ” Protect Follensby, Finch Pruyn and everything else the State can.”

  7. Paul says:

    “What do you think when you hear “Rockies?””

    I think skiing, climbing, mining, grazing, agriculture, timber harvesting, and of course skiing.

    A similar balance here is possible. You don’t need more than half the land public and mostly restricted from any sort of development to accomplish it.

    No matter how you market it I don’t ever see folks jetting from all over the world to just go hiking, camping and paddling in the Adirondacks like they do in the Rockies. Maybe if you built some nice remote lodges in places like the Essex Chain of lakes but that doesn’t look like part of the plan. One skier in Vail spends more money in a day than a high peaks hiker spends in a whole season. That is just how it is.

  8. Guest says:

    There are some nice remote, albeit rustic, lodges on the Essex Chain, and the tourists who use them bring a ton of money to the area!

  9. Guest says:

    Perfect for tourism…

    This should bring tremendous revenues to Newcomb!

  10. mark Mark says:

    Tourism, tourism, tourism,
    I agree that the Adirondack Mountains are a destination and promoted properly would attract thousands. One question tho, as we attract the thousands and the small base of housing is bought up by the outsiders, turned into weekend homes or rental units for tourist. Where will the workers live. Tourism is a very low paying profession and eventually because of the lack of other industry in the park the cost of living will drive all the local work force out. What will we do then, replace them with a gov subsidized foreign work force. Can’t wait to get a piece of pie at the Noon Mark dinner delivered by a Russian speaking waitress. If tourism is such a great economic driver then I suggest that the enviro groups that are buying all the land and expecting the sate to buy it from them, open the land to the public and start some biz to cash in on the boom to the economy. Hmm hang on wait their not doing that. That’s right, they buy it turn it over to a TIMO strip the land of all it’s lumber value and then sell it to the state which is broke so they don’t have to pay the taxes. Dam why didn’t I think of that. One other thought, after all of these hunting camps get shut down because now they are on State land where is all that money going to go. I know a lot of hunters that head into camp 3-4 weeks out of the year and spend big bucks doing it. Hey lets just keep hoping that Tourism boosts this poor ADK economy. Good luck with that.

  11. Ann Melious says:

    Promoting real property scarcity has not helped small businesses thrive — or large businesses, for that matter. Certainly second home owners can afford land that is still available for private development, but they also inflate the cost of real estate, making the costs for start-up businesses, particularly lodging properties, impossible. Hamilton County is a testimony to this. With 70 percent of the 1,700 square mile land mass in the Forest Preserve and much of the rest — around 20 percent — under restrictive easement — no one can say our economy is thriving. And as the former director of the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, I can say that millions of dollars are spent annually to promote the Adirondacks. Adirondackers feel that not enough is being done because the advertising is placed in markets outside of the Adirondacks (duh!). Could more be done? Of course, but it takes money. And just bringing people here is insufficient. We need places where tourists can spend money. The NCREDC is trying to address our tourism infrastsructure challenges.

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