Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How Do We Make The Adirondacks More Relevant?

getting ready by the riverRecently, Pete Nelson opened a conversation on a social level many of us have been thinking about and working on a professional level.   This conversation about the challenges facing a park whose population of residents and visitors does not reflect the shifting demographics of our larger society is keenly felt in the conservation, education and resource management professions.  There is a famous quote, paraphrased, that says you will only commit yourself to what you know and love, and you will only come to know and love that which you feel is relevant to your life.

So the question Peter opened for conversation – and if you check out the comments on his January 11th post you will see he stimulated quite a conversation – is how do we make the Adirondacks more relevant in the lives of those who do not currently find it so. 

Stated as The Problem this is often reduced to “increasing diversity” in the Adirondacks, a statement that tends to serve as short hand for racial diversity, but true diversity is significantly larger and more nuanced, touching on not simply racial but gender, ethnic, social-economic and ability considerations, among others .  Attempting to cast a wide net semantically, and to do justice to a broader definition of “diversity,” is to consider that the Park would benefit from a stronger connection to our ever-increasing urban populations.

This is a complex and obviously very challenging connection to forge, with few if any shortcuts to success.  A key indicator of just how difficult is to acknowledge that to achieve success means more than just advertising the Adirondacks to potential new users.  In this context, “if you advertise it they will come” is a fallacy.   To achieve a sustained and systemic shift in the demographics of Adirondack visitors and supporters we must start in the communities where those we wish to attract to the Adirondacks, and other natural and wild spaces, live.  And this effort will need to take place on many integrated levels over both the short and long term.

A critical measure of success level is tied to increasing our society’s connection with the outdoors and nature, and doing so early in life and on a regular basis.   The individuals who have the greatest ability to help foster an early and regular connection with nature, those who most influence our youngest generations are usually their immediate family members, either parents or grandparents.  However in many urban communities the parents and grandparents have limited if any experience with nature to pass on to their children and grandchildren.  The scope of the challenge is highlighted when we look for the generational guides and mentors in these communities who will reveal to the next generation the beauty, power and enjoyment of being outdoors.

A goal therefor is to address this gap and provide more first-hand experience for youth, creating over time members of the community who have a life-long connection to nature, and who can be “home-grown” role models, to pass on their experiences.   This would create a peer, near-peer and inter-generational pipeline of personal experience with nature, creating within communities mentors “who look like me”, where “look” is considered from any of  many perspectives.

But creating a personal/mentor pipeline is not enough.

When considering the goal of fostering a stronger connection to nature in urban populations another important question is to consider where nature-based experiences can happen on a daily or regular basis, because one does not become a climber by starting out on Everest.  So a pipeline of nature spaces and access to them, emanating from these communities, must be created as well; one that leads from an abandoned lot transformed into a button park or community garden, to a municipal park, to a regional park, to a state park, to the Adirondacks, and beyond.

Those experiences of nature need to be supported on an informal educational level, stimulating a pipeline for youth that might flow from community summer programs to a regional day camp, to overnight experiences as their interest and age increases.

This informal education pipeline should be complemented by a pipeline in the formal educational system, directing interested students to the public educational opportunities, internships, collegiate programs and graduate work leading to nature-based careers.

And if you ask anyone working with this demographic, the clarion call from today’s youth (urban or otherwise) is “where are the green jobs?”  Can we create a career pipeline?  For example, from attending a nature-based summer camp, to working there, to interning with an NGO or natural resource agency, to an entry level job and a career?

It might seem this concept of pipelines has nothing specific to do with the Adirondacks, but by creating a much larger population with a passion for nature-based experiences, regardless of what form, we will be increasing the pool of people who will be inclined to visit and potentially move to the Adirondacks, inclined to support the Adirondacks  recreationally, economically, and politically.

The great news is that many of us have been working on creating these pipelines on national, state, regional and local levels.  Advancing on leading work by state agencies like DEC, and NGO’s like the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (now Adirondack Wild), we are linking the work of many organizations to broaden our impact from individual efforts into a braided stream of initiatives.

In May 2012 ESF and DEC brought together here in the Adirondacks 17 organizations working throughout the Hudson River watershed on issues related to increasing several forms of diversity at recreational, educational and professional levels.  At that meeting we began the work of establishing an informal network to increase the impact and success of our collective work.

Creating a pipeline from urban communities to rural places, to wild spaces, from the harbor of the Hudson River to its headwaters in the Adirondacks is not the work of a season, or a year, but a commitment across our careers; creating a robust braided strand of pipelines, conduits running through all of our professions, through all our lives, and through all our communities.  This work is complex, but there is a movement to address it, professionally and socially, and an encouragingly powerful perspective is many hands make light work.  If you are interested in this work and the evolution of the network we are creating please be in touch.

Photo: Brother Yusuf Burgess with the young men from Albany he brought with him to the Ausable in 2011. Photo by Dave Gibson.

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Paul B. Hai is Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).

Paul is passionate about creating interdisciplinary programs using natural history, inquiry-based activities and outdoor experiences as the foundations for teaching the process of science, exploring the Adirondack experience, and for getting children outside. This commitment to using informal science education as a vehicle for reconnecting children to nature is a key programmatic theme of programming at ESF’s Adirondack Interpretive Center.

11 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    Well said. Keeping the park and maintaing the special bond it has for those that love it is not something that is easily handed down. There isn’t a lot of money to be made in the park. Ask a resident there. Small businesses, minor logging, minor mining, these are not really what the park is about.
    A good example is the watershed. But it is hard to convey the worth of the water. How do you put a number on a thousand beaver dams, for example. It starts at the high peaks and ends up in the rivers. We get power from it. We drink it. The Adirondacks is rich with it. The actual worth of that water? Who can say? It is beyond simple dollars. We can never fully comprehend what the ADK’s is worth to NY. Look at the millions of dollars spent on Hoover Dam and the Colorado river. This is simplistic, I know, and meant to be easily understood.

    Yes, my children know this. As we hike and paddle through the ADK’s, we know that no one can ever really understand the value of it. The grand kids will have the same chance at confusion. No, it isn’t about dollars.

  2. John L says:

    What are the goals for this ‘project’. More residents in the Adirondacks? More tourists? Both? Do your goals include having certain percentages of each race, socio-economic group, etc living in and/or visiting northern New York. I’m sorry for thinking this way, but whenever I see the terms ‘increasing diversity’, I think of people trying to be social engineers, making this imperfect world into what THEY think it should be. Certainly, it’s a good idea to tout the Adirondacks as a good and fulfilling place to live, work and play. And certainly the more people aware of this, the more informed decisions they will make regarding the usage of this wonderful resource. But, in my opinion, however this is done, it should be done universally, and certainly not in any form of a targeted way.
    The downside of all of this, of course, is higher populations, more traffic, and more pressures on already limited resources in an outdoor, semi-wilderness environment whose charm is that it’s an outdoor, semi-wilderness environment. Just a thought.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Five likes and one dislike… hmmm… a ways to go here…

      Whenever I hear the term “increasing diversity” I don’t think any of that stuff.

      I for one applaud people who try to make this imperfect world better, into more what they think it should be. We celebrated one such man just Monday. Or should Dr. King have just minded his own business or stuck to a generic message of “let’s make Alabama a good and fulfilling place to live, work and play”?

      The motive to reduce inequity, to make the world better for all, is not a matter of percentages, or even “certain percentages.” That language brings to mind the word “quotas,” the perversion of the methods and goals of affirmative action raised by opponents who usually don’t understand affirmative action in the first place.

      I don’t know about the term “social engineering” either but I think (hope) we can all agree that the reason poor urban areas are dominated by people of color is not because people of color are lazy or criminals or lesser in some way, right? There must be a reason, right? And it must be a bad, unjust reason, right? It’s not coincidence, right?

      So let’s continue to work to change it, even in the Adirondacks and not write that work off as nefarious – social engineering – when it is exactly the opposite.

      • Paul B. says:

        “…I think (hope) we can all agree that the reason poor urban areas are dominated by people of color is not because people of color are lazy or criminals or lesser in some way, right? There must be a reason, right? And it must be a bad, unjust reason, right? It’s not coincidence, right?”

        All of the programs implemented in the last several decades to address those in poor urban areas have been predicated on these assumptions. They haven’t worked. By several measures, things have gotten worse. Even becoming the dominant political power in their city governments has not helped. Meanwhile, even illegal immigrants who come to this country without even speaking the language are able to find work and improve their standard of living.

        Either the assumptions are wrong or the solutions tried so far have reinforced counterproductive behavior.

      • John L says:

        I’m thrilled to have elicited a direct response from you, Pete. However, whatever the ‘score’ (5-1, 2-0, 1-7) on the likes/dislikes, I’m not writing what I think will be popular, just what I think. And please Pete, don’t try to marginalize my thoughts by insinuating that I’m anti-Civil Rights or anti MLK. That’s an old trick by the way. I merely suggested that lots of people try to impose their wills on others. What I thought could be left unsaid was that some are good (e.g. MLK) and some aren’t. That’s why I, for one, am always a little skeptical when someone tries to do that.
        By the way, I still haven’t heard what your goals are (see the 1st few sentences in my original comments).
        P.S. Also, I’m not sure what your point was about the poor urban areas/people of color comment and how it’s relevant to this discussion.

  3. adkmike says:

    I am thinking this is about NY State voters, of all sorts. NYS voters collectively determine the future of the Park.

    Whether they are residents or visitors is a detail.

    What matters is that they vote to support the future of the Park, whatever they perceive to be good for it. If they become disinterested, disengaged, then the place is at risk. If feel it simply does not matter much, it’s lost.

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    2 issues here:
    the 1st is the disconnect with the real world, especially the natural one, in almost all the population; especially youth. the virtual world rules.
    the 2nd is what Pete Nelson is writing about. i suggest some of the commenters above re-read his posts more carefully.
    whether you like it or not, the Adirondacks and all other places dominated by the natural landscape will be negatively affected in all the ways discussed by Pete and others unless the support base expands beyond white America. I, for one, hope for, work towards [in my diverse circle] and welcome this.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Like it or not, when it comes to a statewide vote on an Adirondack issue, carrying about the Adirondacks does matter.
    Forget for a moment about how you felt and voted on the two propositions that passed in November, did they pass because most of the yes votes cared or did they pass because most of the voters didn’t care one way or the other?
    When it comes to buying land up here or investing in jobs and schools up here, do a majority of those living in urban areas want their tax dollars going up here?
    Please let us not forget that when it comes to tax dollars and voting power, we don’t have it.
    We New Yorkers like to complain about how we don’t get back what we pay in federal taxes while a state like North Dakota gets back more than it pays out. We are North Dakota when it comes to state taxes. We get more than we pay out.

  6. Pete Nelson says:


    Hear hear! I think you are right on the money, right down the line.

    This work you describe is important, I’m glad you are involved. More of it is needed, along with many other things we need to do, but we can get to all of it.

    Let’s keep the discussion rolling!

    Thanks much,


  7. Nature says:


    Good article. One thing I took away from your article is a need to provide more opportunities to experience nature near where people live. This seems like the only way to provide a more consistent, day-to-day connection to the natural world for most people.

    Since most New Yorkers live outside of the Adirondack Park, might it make sense to have a greater focus on public land acquisition outside of the park?

    • Paul says:

      Absolutely, land outside the park closer to urban areas is far more threatened by development and other pressures than land up here. Adding more public land in the Adirondacks is like giving money to a rich man so he can throw it on the pile! I would put my money on protecting things like marine environments around long island before spending money on things like Follensby Pond.