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:
- 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 image real wilderness, real mountains and the experiences, adventures and recreation that go with real wilderness and real mountains.
- Develop a strategy to use the Adirondack Image go after the educational/wilderness experience market, which is exploding.
- Install state-of-the-art broadband park-wide and use the Adirondack Image to market this region as the number one choice for telecommuting .
- 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