In 2009, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages sponsored a report, the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP), full of important, often-distressing data on the demographics of all 103 towns and villages in the Park. In May of 2014, a five-year update was released, with a spurious—if not downright deceptive—explanation for why our towns are in trouble.
Let’s get the problems on the table first, for they are indeed real and pressing. The overall population of the Park is declining. More important, as the report correctly observes, the population of young families with children is declining even more rapidly than is the overall population, while the median age is rising (and rising faster than the state average).
Because the number of young families with children is declining, school populations are falling off to the point where some districts may not be viable.
Finally, the report assesses the current status and future of emergency services. Just as the decline in young families means fewer students in the schools, it also means fewer people in their twenties, the key demographic for volunteer fire departments and rescue squads. Given the aging population in the Park, this means fewer first responders, with ever greater demands on their time and expertise.
Buried in the report is this critical admission: these data are not unique to the Adirondacks. In fact, “one in every 10 counties in America is currently experiencing this kind of aging.” In other words, although this report completely dodges the importance of this comparison, what is happening in the Adirondacks is typical of much of rural America. By failing to adequately acknowledge this, the report departs from a clear statement of empirically collected data and enters the shady realm of promoting a dubious political agenda.
The essential argument of the report, implied in considerable detail in its opening section, is that the explanation for these dreary statistics is the enlargement, over the last two or three decades, of the total acreage of protected open space within the Blue Line, either through fee acquisitions for the Forest Preserve or conservation easements. In fact, there is no evidence whatever to show that the amount of land protected for the people of New York is a factor in the pain of Adirondack towns. It should be pointed out, moreover, that title to these lands changed hands because woods-products companies were not making money with them and dumped them, either to the state or to a not-for-profit like the Nature Conservancy.
This report uncovers a genuine concern—mainly a declining and aging population—and then suggests an explanation, a villain, committing in the process a fundamental error in logic, the confusion of cause and association. The statistics are there; no one disputes that Adirondack demographics are less than cheerful. But if you look around the country, or even around the state, you will see that rural America is in trouble, with or without protected open space. The jobs, the kind of jobs that will support a young family with children, are largely elsewhere.
The data used in the report were assembled by statisticians at the Cornell University Program on Applied Demographics. If we go to their website and fish around, we can see that what’s happening in the Adirondacks has nothing to do with the Forest Preserve. For example, let’s ask which New York counties have experienced the greatest population decline since 2010. Schoharie, Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Madison—no Forest Preserve there!—have all suffered a greater percentage drop than has any Adirondack county. Indeed, the Adirondack county with the greatest percentage decline, Saratoga, is the one with the least Forest Preserve acreage.
What if we look at poverty levels? Outside of New York City, the worst is Chatauqua, with Cattaraugus, Allegany, and others in the Southern Tier all showing depressing percentages of people living in poverty. Again, no Forest Preserve. The same Southern Tier counties show population losses equal to or even worse than those across the Adirondacks. The farther a New York town is from an urban center, regardless of how much local land enjoys some sort of protection, the more likely it is to experience the levels of poverty and aging that this report exposes.
In 2010, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report showing the economic benefits to local communities of protected open space (it’s on his website). Among other things, it documents the economic benefits of natural areas as well as this important fact: open-space protection reduces local infrastructure demands and helps keep taxes down. In the Adirondacks, we should add that every acre in the Forest Preserve generates tax dollars for local schools and government while needing no roads, no water or sewer, no school-bus routes.
The APRAP authors and everybody else concerned with the future of Adirondack towns are correct to note that the trends are not good, that our towns are threatened. All of us who appreciate our Park need to be ceaselessly aware of this. But there is nothing to be gained by putting the blame on conservation; let’s focus on what can realistically be done to create jobs and opportunities.