Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: Promoting Wilderness

Looking up the cliffs to Adam's Ledge and the summit of Burton's PeakLike 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.

General findings:

  • 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.

Specific points:

  • 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.

Related Stories

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.

14 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Very convincing, Pete. Question is, do we really want more people in the Adirondacks? More houses? More hotels? More cars? More people on the trails? Another Six Flags? More boats on the lakes? I kind of like it the way it is.
    A derelict restaurant was recently renovated near us. At first we thought, oh, that’s nice: a restaurant we can walk to. Turns out, the food’s not that good and now we have light pollution–dusk to dawn–where there was none.

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Dear Tim:

    Those are good questions and they need to be addressed. To do justice to my own point of view I’d have to write a whole column, but in a word it’s about balance. It’s not either-or.

    It seems to me that you can think of the issue having many different parts: poor economy in many communities, dwindling towns, more second homes, excessive lakefront development, tourism, telecommuting, clustered development versus more dispersed development and on and on. Given all the complexity I say we want our towns to be robust but we will have to be very smart about it.

    I like the idea of a balance wherein the population is relatively stable but the towns are healthier, tourism is greener and more land is wild. I think all that is possible if we challenge and change the paradigms about the circumstances in which we coexist with this wilderness we cherish.

  3. An interesting parallel: As a landscape photographer I have noticed a distinct editorial bias in nature and wilderness photography toward western wildlife and locations. In one recent photo contest I counted only 6 photos out of 50-60 which were not obviously western and 2 of those were from Hawaii. There was not a single Adirondack photo in the bunch. Look at Outdoor Photographer magazine sometime and see how many articles you find about photographing Adirondack wilderness. They aren’t there.

    In the autumn of 2011 NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals) held an autumn foliage photo workshop based in Lake Placid. One of the workshop leaders was Moose Peterson, a well known wilderness photographer, who expressed surprise at the beauty of the Adirondack landscape. Even he didn’t know about the Adirondacks.

    Somehow we need to raise our visibility for what we have and are rather than trying to be what VT or Colorado is.

  4. Paul says:

    “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”

    We can and should do both.

    That is the basis for how much of the public land in the west is managed.

  5. Paul says:

    Given the ratios of public to private land in the Adirondacks the place should be well positioned. I moved to Colorado (Ft. Collins then Denver to be closer to the Mts.) around the “tech boom” of the early 90s. Seems like each decade they have boom. Oil in the 80s.

  6. Wayno says:

    Great article Pete, we don’t need to scale back the Park to meet some old economic model we need to embrace what the people of the new century value. The Adirondacks have everything that most new economy tech savvy entrepreneurial enclaves have to offer and in many ways more. Places like Fort Collins, Portland, Seattle etc have large expanses of public land and parks nearby and attract people and start ups by the score. In the Adirondacks you’re not near the parks you are IN the Park. The two main missing ingredients are access to a major airport and connectivity. Plattsburgh, Montreal, Syracuse, Burlington may suffice for airport access but the fact that internet access and cell phone service are so sketchy has to be a limiting issue. There should be a major push to get the park and especially the communities up to 21st century standards for access to the web. If 4G (or 5G?) service was widely available and affordable it could be transformational. The beautiful environment and abundance of outdoor recreation are incredible assets if people feel they can access the new economy and enjoy all the ADK’s have to offer the area will thrive for everyone.

  7. Paul says:

    Tim raises a good point. The article on the fact that folks 6 hours away don’t have a clue about the Adirondacks raises the same issue. I had a friend of mine and his wife stay at my camp a few years back. They are from here in the Finger Lakes (he is a Cornell professor). They asked me if the roads up there were plowed in the winter or does it shut all down. Do we want to let the cat out of the bag? For selfish reasons I would lean towards no. But I think it may be essential for the survival of the area if we want it to be a wild place where people can make a good living. Colorado became a zoo when I lived there and the population and the jobs came in. We had a development sw of Denver that was building 1500 new homes per year. One development! The front range communities (the non-metro stuff) were losing their identities as they all merged together as development sprung up like wild fire (no pun). Boulder was merging with Longmont and Loveland and up to Ft. Collins. There is a price for prosperity. One reason I was happy to leave was that it had become a 4 hour commute to the Mts. from a place like Ft. Collins with the traffic on the weekends.

  8. Paul says:

    “Lost Brook Dispatches: Promoting Wilderness” Pete, lets be clear. We have a ratio that trumps the places out west. So the title here should be “promoting economic development” based on the wild public land we already have.

    • Paul says:

      Hey we have two Paul’s I guess I better get another pseudonym.

      • John Warren says:

        Or you could encourage better discussion by everyone by using your real name!

        • Paul says:

          Actually I am not sure that is such a good idea. For example in these “gun control” discussions going on at NCPR if you use your real name and you identify yourself as owning a number of firearms, a quick “people pages” look and a thief knows where to go. If you use a pseudonym you can feel free to describe more about yourself.

          How do you think it encourages better discussion? You can be a jerk more easily but if you are not acting like that what is the difference.

  9. joeh says:


    You’ve raised a number of legitimate issues regarding exposure for the park… we all know the Adk’s contain the ‘finest wilderness nobody will ever know’, and I expect there’s a lot of people who’d like to keep it that way. Selfish? Yup! … Understandable? You betcha!

    Despite Mayor Rabideau’s video survey, there are a lot of New Yorkers who know where we are. In fact, Plattsburgh State was once dubbed Long Island University, North Campus, when the student body was nearly 30% Long Islanders. I expect most of them recognize we have a great wilderness. However, it is very inconvenient, since there are no Exit ramps on the LI Expressway for Ray Brook, Speculator or Childwold.

    It is interesting to note the scenic Adk’s s were recently featured in both the Fall 2012 and the Holiday 2012 LL Bean catalogs. They shot the images last summer, in the mountains, on the lakes and in numerous old, camps all across the Park. The fact the Adirondacks hosted the shoot was a huge compliment, especially as LL Beans was celebrating their 100th Anniversary. I guess we look better than Maine?
    And, the company really liked the look, the landscapes and the people. As a result, they have committed to return to the Park this spring, with plans to shoot their entire 2013 Summer Catalog on location.
    Many of the images not used in the catalogs, appeared on their website. Some scenic shots were later enlarged and used as wallpaper in their retail outlets. An entire Adk mountain-scape was used to drape the walls of the LL Bean Store at The Mall of Prussia, near Philadelphia. Debbie may have done Dallas, but Marcy did Philly!

    LL Bean is recognized as the world’s largest mail order operation. Maybe local tourism officials should work out a deal so the public can just mail order a piece of the ‘Daks.
    In 2004, the 40th Anniversary Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was also shot in the Adks, Soon after its release, it broke all records and was recognized as the largest single selling publication in the world for 2004.
    With a theme of ‘America’, the opening spread featured models posed on wooden boats, in Adk chairs while enjoying the lakes and the hills of the Adirondacks.
    Even though the photos provided great exposure for the park, I expect most readers were more interested in exposures other than the scenic wilderness. Like the rest of the men who purchased that issue, I got it for the excellent articles, yeah,.. or something like that.

  10. catharus says:

    Thanks, Pete — good post! Yeh, my own selfish thought is “Do I want to see more people in the Adirondacks??”, but yes, it’s this tremendous public resource that needs to be reimagined in an “Adirondack Image” to advance economic growth of many facets. The benchmark of the west makes the argument compelling.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox