Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: New Adk Image, New Economy

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:

  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 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

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Pete Nelson

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.




9 Responses

  1. I agree that too many dismiss the Adirondacks as “big hills”. I once read a review in OUTDOOR of the St. Regis canoe area and the author commented about “the big hills they call mountains around here”.

    If you want a photographer who can shoot the sort of photos you are talking about though, Nathan Farb isn’t who I’d look to. That 8×10 camera is awful hard to carry to a lot of the places he’d need to go for the kind of photo you’re talking about. Carl Heilman might be a better bet, smaller gear and a very rugged guy to carry it there. You might be surprised to find that the sort of photos you’re talking about already exist. There is an excellent book of bushwhacker’s photos (A Bushwhacker’s View of the Adirondacks by John Winkler & Neal Burdick) that has photos as wild as you can get. There are lots of people shooting the Adirondack High Peaks area. I have been doing so for decades (http://jimbullard.zenfolio.com). What you propose photographically has already been and continues to be done.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Jim:

      I agree with all you say. This weeks’ column was completed under schedule duress – let’s put it that way – and I’m pretty sure I didn’t state many of my points very well.

      What I should have more clearly with respect to the photography was that I had an idea to have an organized campaign to create a portfolio designed specifically to promote the Adirondacks as imposingly mountainous, because that will draw people.

      I have no doubt that there are enough photographs in existence to cobble one together. But the fresh, artistic eye of an eminently capable photographer who went to work with that specific mission would, I think, produce interesting results.

      In the mean time I am familiar with a lot of Adirondack photography – in fact, one well-known photographer is a friend – yet I know of only a handful of photos that, through the use of a perfect angle or perspective, capture a sense of imposing mountain majesty that would impress someone from Iowa, let’s say. Beautiful? Certainly. Majestic in the way that inspires a trip? Not so much. Yet anyone who has hiked in the High Peaks knows that feel is right here, around bend after bend.

      I have always felt that the unique geology and location of this mountain range works against capturing mountain majesty on camera. The dense forests, the cloaking trees to the summit, the close-in, intimate shape of the terrain which leaves most vistas accessible from already high elevations – many of very things I and so many people treasure about this place – make it harder to impress with vertical through a photographic medium.

      Yet it is certainly possible. I have a photograph I got off the net a few years ago. I have no idea who took it but it was a bushwhack for sure. It shows Gothics from over a low should of Haystack. I can’t figure out from where it was taken: it is almost as if someone levitated above Marcy Swamp to get it. But the way that Gothics soars above that shoulder is incredible. It doesn’t look like the Adirondacks, quite frankly. It looks like the something taken in the Canadian Rockies.

      I took a photo of the McIntyre range from the top of Wallface that would have had the same effect were I not an incompetent fool with a camera. The slanting, steep rise from Iroquois up to Algonquin when framed from that perspective is nothing less than Alp-like. Those who know other mountain ranges will get this: the view made me giddy, eve a little queasy, the way that big mountain vertical can. You feel a view like that, you feel and hear the air on the summit you are looking up to even though you are far below it. It is a feeling I don’t have the talent to capture in writing much less on camera. Bushwhack to Indian Pass from Scott Pond, sit on the edge of the cliff and look up to your left. You’ll get that feeling, as full on as if you had teleported to Austria. But I’ve never seen that vista in a photo.

      Speaking of Indian Pass I also haven’t seen a perfect shot of Wallface that captures the vertical. Most shots are square on, making it look more squat than it is. I haven’t seen but maybe one shot from the ridge trail the even comes close to capturing the overwhelming sense of vertical created by that hike, a sense that I get from looking not out, across to the High Peaks, but down, into the chasm where Route 73 is no longer visible. I’ve asked myself rhetorically why someone hasn’t caught that feel. Maybe someone like a Carl Heilman could.

      As to the choice of photographer, I don’t have one and would be the least qualified person I can think of to recommend one. I mentioned Nathan Farb only because to me his work rises to the level of art, which for me almost no photography does. My respect for his artistry is off the charts.

  2. David Gibson Dave Gibson says:

    As usual, Pete, you are onto something very important and fundamental. The Adirondack Park already has its brand as old as its mountains – that image of peace, solitude, and that kind of right order found in wild country that implies and requires restraint in our actions, and feelings of interdependence in our relations with other wild things. That feeling relieves us from time to time of the burden – and falsity – of wild country as chaos and disorder, a view that came to North America from Europian experience. By the way, the Adirondack Park Centennial Committee (1988 to its culmination in the Centennial, 1992) struggled to come up with a brand and logo, and finally arrived very much where you are – with an image of an occupied Adirondack Guideboat on a deep lake against the verticality of a great mountain clothed with spruce, and the motto A Land of People and Wild Nature.

  3. Sandra Hildreth Sandra says:

    I live in Saranac Lake and hike, paddle, ski, and paint the Adirondacks, but I spent over a month this past summer out in Glacier and Yellowstone and what Pete suggests is exactly what the National Parks do. And yet those places are really so much more “civilized” than the Asirondacks! I hiked to the summit of a 10,300 foot mountain in Wyoming, the highest elevation I’ve ever been to, and it was so easy compared to Adirondack hiking! As Pete pointed out, this hike started at well over 8000 feet, so the elevation gain was similar to many hikes here. And it literally went up a road! I saw the photos of Model T’s full of tourists and I could tell it was still used by jeeps that brought supplies up to the fire observation structure on the summit (which was a fully enclosed, 3 story building with flush toilets for the visitors!). Yet the National Parks are marketed as “America’s wilderness”!

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Sandra:

      I appreciate these comments. I have considered writing a separate Dispatch comparing the Adirondacks to other mountain ranges but I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it.

      As much as I love the Adirondack Mountains they obviously don’t compete in grandeur or raw, craggy danger to any of the ranges out West, or many ranges I know outside the US. That is not to say that that the sense of mountainous vertical is absent; it’s to be had but it just doesn’t compare. That’s okay: mountain envy is silly anyhow. Nothing in Colorado, America’s canonical mountain state, even comes close to the view of Mt. Rainer, full-on, in clear weather. I mean that is just one ridiculous sight.

      I’m arguing for a sort-of minimum standard of mountain majesty that would put the Adirondacks on a playing field they are not on because people read sea level numbers and wrongly write them off. If that standard can be marketed, then a much more successful draw on the basis of available wilderness experiences can be had.

      Now on that playing field we have a different story, as you illustrated with your example. I haven’t been to Alaska. But as to the continental US, I’ve hiked and climbed extensively. If the standard is the available experience of primeval wilderness on a large scale, largely absent the stamp of humankind, then almost nothing compares.

      The National Parks do what you say they do, market themselves as wild and wooly, yet in my experience only the Olympic National Park and parts of Yellowstone are comparable. Neither is anywhere near as big, of course, and the forests of Yellowstone are nowhere near as enveloping and enclosing.

      But nobody knows this.

      In all my various adventures the wildest places I’ve spent time in are the Olympics, the vast forests in Idaho going into Montana, forests in Canada and forests along the Northern Urals on the edge of Siberia. And the Adirondacks.

      Heady company.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    I find myself agreeing with all of the above. Long ago I noticed the height comparison problem Adirondack mountains suffer from when compared to the Rockies.
    The same problem exists when comparing the mountain in Hamilton County to the High Peaks.
    To give but one example, Snowy Mnt. is higher than some of the High Peaks in actual height above sea level and is also higher than several in vertical height.
    Speaking of Hamilton County, its official website http://www.adirondackexperience.com/
    bills itself as Adirondack Wild.
    As any good salesman knows, sell what you got and sell the sizzle.
    Even Vermonters come here to vacation for the wilderness we have and they don’t have.

  5. Paul says:

    It seems to me that the real “mountain” parts of the Adirondacks are already quite crowded and suffer the consequnces of this usage. The Rockies, are just that, rocky, they don’t get torn up when you get up high where the hiking is going on. If you really want more people in the backcountry, I would focus on the water. And I think if you want the water and mountains to be an economic engine you have to focus on the “civilized” angle described above. The great adirondack experiment is not to turn the place into a “second to none” wilderness but to have it be a place where people and wild places can coexist. When I go to the Adirondacks it is the people AND the wild places that make it special.

  6. Kim says:

    Hi Pete,

    Enjoy reading your contributions!

    It seems relevant to revisit a blog I wrote almost a year ago on the topic of branding the region. Thought you’d enjoy reading!

    https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2011/11/kimberly-rielly-understanding-the-adirondack-brand.html

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Indeed, Kim, your work was one of the things I was referring to when I said others were at work on much of this. Keep up the good work.