The Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP) recently came out with a 5-year Update. The APRAP Update provides new data on land protection in the Adirondacks, the Park’s demographics, school district enrollments, and the delivery of emergency services in local communities. The main theme of the APRAP Update is that the Adirondack Park is out of balance. This lack of balance is depicted by a 2-page cartoon where an upended seesaw has flung children and loggers out of the Park, while waitresses, birdwatchers, EMS staff, and retirees, among others, stand firmly on the grounded end of the seesaw.
The APRAP Update has some useful information, but continues to try and make the case that the root of the problems and challenges facing the Adirondack Park are the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act and the growth of the Forest Preserve. We are asked to assume, because the Park is growing and the population is aging and shrinking, that the former causes the latter. (No note is made of the fact that the population grew along with the Park for most of the post WWII period.) Thus, the APRAP project continues to supply the intellectual fodder for the blame-the-park lobby.
The basic premise of the APRAP Update is that land protection has resulted in overall population loss, is responsible for declining school district populations, and has impaired the abilities of local communities to provide essential emergency services. However, it provides no argument for these claims. It provides no analysis of population dynamics or of the economy of the Park, and it fails to provide any context whatsoever for its data points that could help to provide an understanding about the challenges facing the Adirondack Park.
As I’ve written before, and it stands true with the APRAP Update, this project critically misdiagnoses the problems facing the Adirondack Park and puts Park leaders on a course to chase false solutions.
For the purposes of this article, I will not focus much on the APRAP Update’s data on protected lands in the Adirondack Park – they track closely with the numbers that have been organized by various research projects over the years – or on the data provided about emergency services. Nor do I challenge the demographic projections presented. They rely on data from Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics (PAD). We trust the competence and integrity of Cornell. What is at issue is the implied interpretation of the facts presented.
The APRAP Update talks a good deal about the need for growth in the Adirondack Park. The only thing that the APRAP team documents as growing, as it shows in its charts on pages 7-8, is the size of the Adirondack Park, the size of the protected land base in the Forest Preserve, now over 2.6 million acres, and the conservation easement land base, now over 788,000 acres.
One serious omission is that of the built environment. APRAP provides no accompanying data about the number of new or renovated buildings over the past few decades. Nor is there data about the total financial investment in the thousands of new or renovated buildings. This is important data. The APRAP Update implies that state land protection has hurt the Park’s population, but then makes no effort to assess the level of development in the Park over the years. If we are concerned about balance, then these data must be part of the equation.
The APRAP report implicitly raises the question of how much Forest Preserve or conservation easement lands should exist in the Adirondack Park as a key part of seeking balance, but fails to ask how many houses and other buildings should exist in the Adirondack Park? Like much of the APRAP Update, this section is incomplete and tells only a partial story about land use trends in the Adirondacks.
The population section is no better. Here, the central failings of the APRAP Update are the absence of a national context, appropriate points of comparison, and the false conclusion that young families are being forced out of the Adirondack Park. There’s but one offhand reference to national data and no reference to any data about other rural areas around the U.S.
APRAP’s major point is that the Adirondack Park has an older median age at 45.2 years old than the rest of New York (37) or the U.S. (35) at large. APRAP probes the graying of the Adirondacks by comparing the Park’s age distribution with that of other North Country counties. For some reason, APRAP tries to compare counties with significant metro areas like Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, Watertown, and Plattsburgh (and places with a combined population of 875,000 and a half dozen colleges and universities) to Adirondack Park communities.
All over the U.S. many metropolitan areas are growing and rural areas shrinking. What is required to illuminate the Adirondack context is comparisons with communities with similar demographics.
APRAP’s comparison of the median age to that of the U.S. and rest of New York is similarly flawed. There are enormous differences between the Adirondack Park population compared with the New York and U.S. populations.
The reality is that rural areas across the U.S. are experiencing population decline and aging. The Adirondacks gained population steadily since the 1950s, but experienced a small decline from 2000-2010. Projections see a continued decline. The APRAP report implies that the cause of the Adirondack Park’s population decline is the loss of young families forced out by land protection. The reality is that the Park’s population decline is largely the result of two facts: baby boomers die and a high proportion of Adirondack kids leave the Park to go to college or into the military.
APRAP acknowledges that 10% of counties in the U.S. are “experiencing this kind of aging” similar to the Adirondacks, yet dismisses these as counties that are “scattered about the rural Midwest” implying that these counties are largely farming areas and that they have little light to shed on our circumstances. But they also note that 19 such counties are in the Northeast, including three Adirondack counties — Hamilton, Essex and Warren.
The reality is that there are many places in the U.S. that are as old or older than the Adirondack Park. ARC GIS has put out a very good interactive website that shows median age based on 2012 US Census data on a county-by-county basis across the U.S. This map shows many counties with a median age between 43 and 52. Many of these are in Northern Forest areas from Maine to Minnesota. Others are in rural heavily forested areas in western Pennsylvania and Appalachia. Aging is not just a phenomenon of the Adirondacks and the agricultural Midwest. It is a characteristic of many heavily forested areas that are remote and sparsely populated. A useful analysis might have found these facts an occasion for exploring the population dynamics of these areas rather than merely insinuating that we are unique and blaming it on the Park.
The original 2009 APRAP report claimed that the Adirondack Park was destined to be the second oldest region in the U.S. outside of Florida. They abandoned that hyperbole in the Update, but still failed to seriously place the Adirondack experience in a national context. Here’s a chart of 25 regions as old or older than the Adirondack Park population. These “regions” range from around 800,000 acres to over 27 million acres, from areas with scant populations of 31,000 to regions with populations of nearly 600,000.
What do all these regions have in common? Not the APA or the Forest Preserve. They share the facts that they are rural and white. Look up these counties at the US Census and you’ll see they’re overwhelmingly white folks. The baby boomer population was an overwhelming white population bulge in the American demographic profile. Today, over 80% of Americans over 65 years of age are white, whereas half of all Americans born today are minorities. This skews the median age upwards for any place in the U.S. that is dominated by a white population.
Lets look at some other regions in the U.S. that are as old or older than the Adirondack Park. We don’t have to go far. The Berkshires region, stretching from Litchfield County (CT) through Berkshire and Franklin counties (MA) into the southern Vermont counties of Orange, Rutland, Windham and Bennington has nearly 600,000 residents across almost 4.2 million acres. The median age is 45.1.
In southern Maine there are 235,000 people spread across 5.5 million acres with a median age of 46.6. In northern Michigan there are 282,000 people across 9 million acres with a median age of 48.4. Along the Wisconsin-Michigan border there’s a region of 200,000 people across 9 million acres with a median age population of 48.2. In central Texas there are 141,000 people across 5.2 million acres with a median age of 49.3. In west Oregon there’s 275,000 people spread across 5.3 million acres with a median age of 48.1. The list goes on.
The failure to provide a national context and to make appropriate comparisons are critical failings of the APRAP Update as they were of the original APRAP report. In short, the APRAP team learned nothing from criticisms of the 2009 report. The reason why they did not provide a national context is that this would undermine their attacks on the APA Act and Forest Preserve.
It’s important to point out that many of these other rural areas around the U.S. that are experiencing populations challenges far greater than the Adirondacks do not possess intact, protected landscapes with an abundance of wild lands, wildlife, lakes, mountains and forests.
There are two key factors that shape Adirondack Park population trends: 1) a high rate of young people in the Adirondacks go to college; 2) old people die.
Populations are generally replenished from the bottom up through births. In the Adirondacks, our population is also replenished through retirees who start to emigrate here after age 55.
The APRAP Update implies that young families are being exported from the Park – children are literally being flung across the Blue Line. It makes this case through Census data and from declining school enrollment data. This is a misreading of the data. Had the APRAP team undertaken a more sophisticated analysis of the 2000-2010 population change in the Adirondacks reported by the US Census, it would have compared 0-9 year olds from 2000 to 10-19 year olds in 2010 and so on. It would have attempted to follow these cohorts as they age. This type of analysis allows us to see the reality of population changes.
Here’s such a comparison for Essex and Hamilton counties, two counties fully with in the Adirondack Park.
What these charts show is that the loss of young people occurs not when the young families leave the Park, but rather when young people go to college where they generally train for and take jobs elsewhere. In part, this out migration explains our low per capita birth rate. We export women of child-bearing age. The other part of population loss, as you can see from these charts, is the loss of people after age 60. Here, they either die or move from the Park, often for health reasons or to be near family.
Here’s a chart for the net population change for Hamilton and Essex counties 2000-2010 grouped by age. The loss of population is for college aged young people and older people.
Two other national trends will continue to shape the Adirondack Park population. As mentioned before, more than 50% of babies born in the U.S. are minorities. Minority populations are both younger and have more children. Almost all the babies born in the Adirondacks are white. If we want to grow like the rest of the U.S. we need to reproduce like the rest of the U.S. We’re not doing that. Hence, like the rest of white rural America we’re not replenishing our population from the bottom through births. We have a small group of white babies, but unlike the parts of the U.S. that are growing, we don’t have an equal number of minority births.
The second national trend that we can’t escape is that baby boomers will continue to die over the next 30 years. This is a population that was overwhelmingly white and a population that had a large group of people who made their careers in metro areas and retired to rural America. White retirees will continue to come to the Adirondacks for another 20-30 years, but as the baby boom population dies off, this group will become smaller in the decades ahead.
The APRAP Update employed a fairly simplistic analysis of population trends. As a result, this analysis misdiagnoses the population issue in the Adirondacks and will lead leaders to adopt mistaken strategies for how the “correct” this problem.
As mentioned above, the APRAP Update stakes its claims of long-term population loss on projections made by Cornell’s Program for Applied Demographics. We have confidence in Cornell’s competence, but it is also worth noting that such projections are not like the laws of physics. The longer the time period for the projections the greater the chance that some change in the culture, public policy, or the economy will alter the trends. The population change estimates used are also noted to have higher accuracy for areas with large populations than for areas with small populations.
APRAP seized on Cornell’s projection that the Park could a drop in population to 115,000 by 2030. But once again, APRAP provides no context. A look at the Cornell PAD projections adds some context. Note that by 2030, Cornell projects an increase statewide of 416,000 people. But in its county-by-county projections the real growth is found among the seven downstate counties clustered in and north of New York City (Bronx, Kings, Queens, New York, Richmond, Westchester, and Orange), which are predicted to grow by 546,000. Add in a projected net gain of 60,000 in the Hudson Valley counties of Dutchess, Rockland and Putnam and that means Cornell predicts that the rest of New York State could actually drop by 190,000 people by 2030.
Cornell predicts a roughly 11% drop in the Park’s population by 2030. They also forecast similar drops in the populations of Chautauqua, Chemung, Chenango, Delaware, and Columbia counties. Many other Upstate counties see a 5-9% drop. A prediction of population loss by 2030 is hardly unique to the Adirondacks.
Second, APRAP uses Cornell’s numbers again to says we will gain 17,000 Adirondack Park residents 65 years and older by 2030. Fair enough. But, note that Cornell estimates that the number of New Yorkers 65 years and older in 2030 will increase by over 1 million, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 3.6 million in 2030, a whopping 38% growth, by far the largest of any age cohort. While New York is expected to see a net gain of over 1,000,000 residents over age 65 in its demographic composition by 2030, Cornell also projects a net 266,000 person loss for ages 0-24 years old across the state.
Again, future predictions of more older and fewer younger residents in New York is hardly unique to the Adirondack Park.
The APRAP Update reaches wrong conclusions based on a misreading of various trends, such as population dynamics. As such, it puts Park leaders on a course to chase false solutions.
Adirondack Park leaders should:
- Put energy into identifying and investigating rural areas in the U.S. that successfully experienced economic growth.
- Investigate other rural areas in the U.S. that have racially diversified.
- Look at other forest communities in other regions of the U.S. to search for models for prosperity.
- Look closely at employment areas that are growing in the Park and rural America and assess the viability of similar strategies.
- Study the communities in the Adirondacks that are growing for lessons about their successes.
- Ask how the Adirondack Park can be made more attractive as a place to work and live for the college educated and how we can retain more of our seniors.
- Investigate strategies to diversify our population. Rather than importing thousands of foreign workers each year for year-round and seasonal jobs, Adirondack communities should look transition to a sustained recruitment campaign for Hispanics and other minorities to diversify the population.
- Ensure that the historic levels of public investments coming to the Adirondack Park today in infrastructure, businesses assistance and promotion will truly provide expanded and sustainable economic activity.
In my mind taking a hard look at the questions above by a professional research institution (or two or three) is a far better investment for the Adirondack Park of several million dollars than a new High Peaks chairlift at Gore Mountain, among other items similarly funded in the millions of dollars by the Regional Economic Development Councils.
The APRAP Update is a seriously flawed portrayal of the Adirondack condition that points Adirondack leaders in the wrong direction. It is a great opportunity missed. Perhaps the next update in 2017 will make an effort to do it better.