Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Commentary: Adirondack Population Decline Not Inevitable

IMG_0226Peter Bauer recently ran a post reviewing a report that college-educated young people are leaving rural areas in droves for “close-in” living in cities where economic opportunities, cultural amenities and entertainment options far exceed their native communities. Bauer described this as a subset of a larger dynamic, namely the decades-long global trend toward urbanization. At the conclusion of the article he asked leaders of the Park to “understand these dynamics and to develop strategies for ways to tap into these larger trends.”

Adirondack leaders and residents alike have been aware of these trends for a long time, living both population decline and gentrification of their communities as personal experiences.   But while the fact of these changes is unquestionable, Bauer is right in his call: the full dynamics are not that well understood here in the Park.

Some Park leaders would dispute any claim that the issue is not understood. They have a clear narrative for urban flight from the Adirondacks: the economic plight of the region, which is primarily and directly the result of draconian State policies and huge amounts of land protection that put the Park in an economic stranglehold. There are no jobs and no opportunities, they say; of course young people are leaving. The statistics, they say, are obvious.

The problem with this narrative, which is yet another example of the dangers of casual use of macroscopic statistics, is that it is flat wrong.

This debate is nothing new and has been well covered here at the Almanack. In May of this year, the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP) released a five year update to their Adirondack Park Regional Assessment, which documents this population decline and suggests a better “balance” is needed between protection of the Forest Preserve and the economic needs of the Park. Phil Terrie wrote a column shortly afterward that criticized APRAP for implying that Adirondack land policies were to blame.  Peter Bauer followed with a column taking the report to task for supplying “intellectual fodder for the blame-the-park lobby.”

Whatever one may think of APRAP’s research, their narrative is unambiguous. Here are their first three key findings, as quoted directly from their introduction:

  • At this time more than 58% of the Park is restricted from further development including lands owned “in-fee” by the State (45%) or subject to public conservation easement (13%). These are the greatest percentages of each since the Park’s creation.
  • More than 62% of the land in the Park is under some form of State-authorized resource management (forever-wild Forest Preserve, conservation easement or real property tax incentive for forest management).
  • The population of the Park continues to age rapidly and decline in number at an accelerating pace. In the decade beyond 2020, it is projected the Park will be losing more than 900 people per year.

That list of bullets comprises an obvious narrative if ever there was one: all this locked up land is causing people to leave. It’s also an unjustified conflation of two separate and generalized sets of statistics, which (speaking as a mathematician) is entirely unsound. The bullet list implies a connection, yet there is no demonstrated causal relationship at all.

Conflation aside, the problem with general statistics is that they don’t tell you much. They certainly don’t get at causes. Indeed their popular use, which is almost always political, covers up the very details that matter. Take the statistical trend towards urbanization. It may be true generally but that fact is of no use to the Adirondacks because it ignores all the eddies and currents that provide the real detail. Most specifically it ignores counter-urbanization, a well-documented reverse flow from cities to rural areas.  That’s what we ought to be paying attention to.

Here’s an analogy that may seem stupid but is exactly illustrative. Suppose you have an industry – logging in the 19th century, say – that needs water flowing south out of the Adirondacks in order for you to move your materials to your markets. You have in hand a carefully researched set of statistics that demonstrates clearly that the net flow of water out the Adirondacks is overwhelmingly north (indeed it is, as Lakes Champlain and Ontario both drain north/northeast). You have two choices. Your foolish choice is is to accept net flow as a useful statistic, in which case you can either give up or work on engineering a way to turn the net flow south… good luck with changing the direction of Lakes Champlain and Ontario. Your wise choice is to recognize that net flow is meaningless, in which case you can go ahead and float your logs down the Hudson, which robustly flows south in defiance of all statistics.

That this example seems ridiculous begs the question as to why in the context of population loss so many people make the same foolish choice.  We cannot turn back the tide of urbanization nor should we throw up our hands.  The wise choice is to find our Hudson Rivers in defiance of general national trends.

Are these beneficial population trends there to find? You bet they are. And the evidence increasingly shows one of the critical drivers for counter-urbanization is protected wilderness, not land that has been unlocked for development.

The evidence comes primarily from the the American West, where designated wilderness is more common.  I have previously written about studies by the independent, non-profit research group Headwaters Economics that demonstrate a clear correlation between protected wilderness and above average economic performance of gateway communities. Here are excerpts of a short white paper they released in 2011, entitled “Wilderness and Economics: What Research and Careful Analysis Say About the Economic Impact of Wilderness” (the full white paper is here):

There is a large body of peer-reviewed literature that examines the relationship between land conservation and local and regional economic well-being…

A sample of peer-reviewed, tested research on the value of Wilderness to nearby communities includes these findings:

  • Protected public lands can and do play an important role in stimulating economic growth – especially when combined with access to markets and an educated workforce – and are associated with some of the fastest growing communities in the West (Rasker 2006)
  • Wilderness designation enhances nearby private property value (Phillips, 2004)
  • Wilderness is associated with rapid population, income, and employment growth relative to non-Wilderness counties (Lorah and Southwick, 2003)
  • Public land conservation is associated with more robust population growth (Lewis, Hunt and Plantinga, 2002)
  • A study of 250 non-metro counties in the Rocky Mountains found no evidence of job losses associated with Wilderness and no evidence that counties more dependent on logging, mining, oil and gas suffered job losses as a result of Wilderness designation (Duffy-Deno 1998)

In addition to the above peer-reviewed research, a quick review of statistics from the U.S Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce shows that by three measures (average annual net migration, average annual change in employment, and average annual change in personal income) counties in the lower 48 states with Wilderness, on average, do better than those without Wilderness. The findings for these three federal measurements also hold true for rural (non-metro) counties across the U.S.

Let me quote from the abstract to a peer-reviewed scientific paper by BY F. Patrick Holmes and Walter E. Hecox entitled “Does Wilderness Impoverish Rural Regions?” from the December 2004 International Journal of Wilderness (the full paper is here):

A study of 113 rural counties in the American West, 43% containing designated wilderness areas, shows that for the period 1970 to 2000 there is a significant positive correlation between the percent of land in designated wilderness and population, income, and employment growth. New forms of economic activity accompany wilderness: growth of investment income and nonfarm self-employment income are correlated with the presence of wilderness.

Here is a reproduction of a table from their report:

Table 2—Average annual growth from 1969–2000 in growth indicators for the American West, rural counties with wilderness, and rural counties without wilderness.

                                                         Income     Employment     Population

The American West (11 states)             2.0                 2.9                 8.7

Rural Counties with Wilderness           1.9                 2.8                 8.5

Rural Counties Without Wilderness     1.0                 1.4                 7.2

The report goes on to say:

Furthermore, these correlations became stronger as counties adjacent to metropolitan areas were excluded, suggesting that wilderness is strongly associated with successful community economic development in cases of geographic isolation from metropolitan areas.

For those who are gluttons for punishment, here is another well-written report from the US Forest Service with similar evidence.

This body of evidence gives us a lot to work with. Let us go back and look at Peter Bauer’s recent column a little further. The report he reviews shows the choice made by young college-educated people is primarily an economic one. Many young men and women choose “close-in” urban living to leverage their talents in areas that are undergoing economic revitalization and where money is flowing liberally to fund entrepreneurial growth. In fact the report specifically mentions investment opportunities and business start-ups that use these young people’s education and skills. Now note this sentence from the Holmes/Hecox abstract above: “New forms of economic activity accompany wilderness: growth of investment income and nonfarm self-employment income are correlated with the presence of wilderness.” That’s a direct correlation between the appeal of a wilderness area and the desire to be entrepreneurial. This correlation is a repeated feature of these studies and it points to the need for an aggressive strategy in the Adirondacks to promote and fund small businesses and start-ups and to create a climate, through communications infrastructure and transportation options, to support them.

These trends supplement the conventional wisdom that says the Adirondacks can be appealing to retirees with second homes here who, given reasonably modern communications such as broadband and cell service, might opt to move to the region permanently. Now we have another demographic: young people with good educations and a will to invest who want to start a business. Their desire to surround themselves with natural beauty yet do their own thing in the business world is our ticket to tapping counter-urbanization.   These young investors just need the right incentives.  The key incentive is clearly that this is a wild, beautiful region with ample opportunities for solitude and recreation.

Dave Mason, in a comment on Peter Bauer’s article, made an excellent point: our population numbers are small enough that even a minor change in population flow can make a big difference. That’s why Bauer is right: we need to look more closely at these dynamics rather than adopt a defeatist attitude or try to reverse a general trend by appealing to obsolete traditional economic drivers that involve exploitation of the resources that give us an advantage.  We can begin by embracing the evidence that our protected Wilderness is the very asset we need in order to outperform other rural areas.


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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.

44 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Good article. If you want to attract startup companies and the entrepreneurs who start them the key is access to capital. This is one of the main reasons that this activity is focused in certain areas. If the Adirondacks wants to compete the key is access to capital. Right now it is pretty much hard to find.

    • AG says:

      There are very few places in the country that are attracting start up capital in any growing way… They are all in urban areas… One is way down the Hudson where it empties to the Atlantic Ocean. There is a lot of economic activity do to research in the Albany area… That is being driven by companies collaborating with universities…

      Also if one looks north… Quebec and Ontario are doing very well… Mainly because of the Toronto and Montreal metro areas… They are is a whole lot of open and empty land in those Canadian provinces.

      The only places that are not major metros that are “thriving” are ones with an energy economy.

  2. Joe H. says:

    Thanks for a thoughtful, well researched article. One does not have to look too far in New York State to find rural areas without protected land that are much worse off economically than inside the blue line. Our best hope for an Adirondack renaissance will be because of protected wild lands not in spite of it.

  3. Paul says:

    in the inter-mountain west there is decent access to capital. You can also locate a company close to a university and be near the mountains that is helpful as well. I know from starting a company in Colorado myself, these reasons were key for our success. We would have located in the Adirondacks but we just could not find capital like we could out west.

    the reasons these companies are not locating to the Adirondacks has nothing to do with wilderness protection. They just need money and can’t find it here.

  4. Tony Goodwin Tony Goodwin says:

    I think this is a great article, and I agree with Joe H. that it isn’t just here in the Adirondacks with carefully protected public land and private land-use controls where the population is shrinking. Just look at central and western Maine where a drive through shows many inoperative log mills even though there is no restriction on tree cutting. And does anyone know of a family that has recently moved to that area because of the life-style advantages? As Dave Mason reported, several families have moved to Keene for just that reason.

  5. Jim Reinhard says:

    As a part time resident of the Adirondacks, I agree that wilderness can be and has been a compelling draw for the educated, creatives and entrepreneurs. Given the state of contemporary communications, it is possible to function professionally from anywhere, including more remote locations. There are some interesting initiatives in the Montreal/New york corridor that may be available resources for high tech, low impact development. One is New York’s Tech Valley http://www.techvalley.org and another is the North Country EB5 Regional Center http://www.northcountryeb5.com.

  6. Bruce says:

    Can we have “gateway communities” adjacent to wilderness without the massive buildup and glut present at say Gatlinburg, TN, or Cherokee, NC; opposite gateways to the Smoky Mountain National Park. Both communities are heavily dependent on tourism, rather than industry for the support of the local population.

    I live in a nearby county where tourism and gentrification are fast becoming what there is. Industry, and the good jobs provided by it, is only a small fraction of what it once was. The problem with tourism, unless you own a business, is that pay scales tend to be low, while at the same time gentrification drives up taxes and prices. Not a good scenario for locals who like where they live, or others who would like to come in, but simply cannot afford to do so. There has to be a balance.

    • Bill Quinlivan Bill Quinlivan says:

      Very appropriate comment. A out-of-balance reliance on tourism is exactly the wrong scenario for healthy growth within the Blue Line. One of the very reasons I am so concerned with the “vision” of ROOST. We could very easily have the mix of access to wilderness, access to capital, availability of small business incubators, access to Universities/ technology transfer, and true Broadband / Bandwidth capability that is necessary to attract the young, educated, entrepreneur interested in working clean technology and service-based business in communities that have the year-round recreational opportunities offered by our park right at their back door. We do not need more communities like Lake George, Old Forge, Inlet, etc. I agree that the balance is key to healthy growth for the ADKs. Great and important comment.

      • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

        Simply put, Amen.

        Tourism is what in its strengths and weaknesses. It should help to foster economic activity. But it surely is nowhere near the sole answer.

      • Bruce says:

        Bill, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by communities like Lake George, Old Forge, and Inlet. I know how the latter two are in the off season, pretty slow with small permanent populations, but I wasn’t aware Lake George was in the same class, as I’ve only been there once, during the season.

  7. Amy Cortese, in her book “Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing”, highlights the benefits of citizen financing, using the Community Store in Saranac Lake as an example of a proactive business model that helps keep money local, circulating within the community.
    Great article, Pete.

  8. Dave Mason says:

    I am one of about 15 members of an angel investor group called Point Positive, based in Saranac Lake. We look for new companies within a 2 hour drive. Capital is definitely an issue. See http://www.pointpositiveadk.com and please consider joining, or send this info to someone who might. Or become a sponsor. Paul – you’ve done a startup, join us!

    We have held 2 pitch sessions so far. We funded 1 company. A second is coming together now. A third is in due diligence. We are able to find decent ideas, but we need more investors. There is big philanthropy in this region but this is different – it is not a gift to a NGO. We want a tiny piece of your portfolio invested here. And we want your time and business expertise to share with the new companies.

    My learning so far is that this requires more than capital. It requires trained leaders and workers, good ideas with markets here but also elsewhere. There is a whole eco-system needed to support startups in the region. We think that, like internet access and cell service, this is another leg for the local economy to stand on.

    Angel investing is not magic, but it does require money and work. The good news for investors here is that we don’t have competition, we see all the ideas in the region and some are very interesting. Did you know Global Foundries just off I-87 in Malta is the largest semi-conductor fab in the world now? Did you know that Bombardier in Plattsburgh produces all the subway cars for NYC, Chicago and BART (San Francisco)? It is not as if there is nothing going on around here to begin with. But more angel capital is needed.

    • Paul says:

      Another issue to grapple with is how many of these small start-up transactions work. I most cases the exit plan for a start-up is to be acquired by a larger company. So the nature of these businesses is very cyclical by design. People working for the company need additional opportunities when the new company is absorbed and there is a good chance that their job will be lost with the acquisition. Also many entrepreneurial people don’t want to stay tied to one business for very long they are looking to make frequent changes and find new opportunities. Given this dynamic a place like Cambridge MA or south SF works very well a place in the Adirondacks not so much.

      Dave as you know angel funds can get a company off the ground but the next level of investment is key. We have decent angel investor participation around here but most of the companies are going to move once they are ready for the next level.

      Sandy Weil (as in Citigroup) owns a house on one of the lakes near SL (maybe upper or lower, not sure) now he should join Point Positive. I read somewhere that his wife claims that the Adirondacks saved their marriage he needs to invest in saving the Adirondack economy!

      • Dave Mason says:

        Good points Paul

        Point Positive has been working on getting connected to the venture fund communities in Vermont, Albany and Syracuse. There is also an experienced angel group in Vermont that we are connected to, they were very helpful, still are.

        We are geography focused, instead preferring any particular type of business and, there is no one here. This is a blank space geographically in the angel investor map.

        General practice is for angel groups and venture funds work together, referring ideas to each other for financial size and skills. VCs see angel groups as developing a pipeline of businesses that they can buy into on a larger scale as they develop. It lowers risk for them.

        Also, yes, this is likely dynamic, always requiring new companies. I lived in Cambridge MA for many years… a certain kind of people are attracted to the ‘company building’ dynamic. We need some of than sort of energy here. Turnover is good. It means there will be people to hire to start something new.

        Because we are a small region, a hand full of really capable people could make a huge difference.

        So we, Point Positive, are giving this a shot. It would be a shame not try. Access to capital is an oft-cited problem. We’d like Sandy to be a member, you too.

        Angel capital is just another part of the regional economy. No one should think it is any kind of quick fix – it is not. It would be great if we could get this to work here, we are certainly working on it.

  9. Hawthorn says:

    Why is a shrinking population necessarily bad for the area? I can see some benefits, including higher wages for those who stay. In any case, it seems odd to me to focus on reduced population as a problem within a park where we are hoping to preserve a small slice of wildness. Urbanization is actually a boon for the environment of the planet. Urbanized people consume fewer resources per person than non-urbanized. Environmentalists are pro-urban. I say focus on preserving the Adirondacks, and the population will be what it will be.

    • joe says:

      It is not about population exactly, from my perspective.

      The Adk conservation experiment as enshrined by current law is about communities and wild lands thriving together. If the human population here crashes, this experiment will have failed, instead proving communities cannot survive next to wild landscapes.

      I think such a failure would be a bad sign for the planet. It would mean humans have to be ring fenced out of nature. That can’t be a good outcome. So I’d like to prove the opposite.

      China has been working to empty out the rural areas, moving everyone to huge apartment blocks in cites. It is remarkable to see but the stunning pollution of the cities does not make it appear to be a environmental success story. So our experiment is important.

      • Hawthorn says:

        I wouldn’t describe the Adirondack population as crashing. It is becoming more urbanized also–Lake Placid is growing. The many jobs of the past that were scattered around the Park were created by massive scale natural resource utilization, like logging and mining–terrible for the environment. More people = more environmental degradation, so we should applaud the urbanization movement, even within the park. I personally don’t think Hamilton County is ever going to become a hotbed of entrepreneurial start ups.

        • Paul says:

          Logging isn’t terrible for the environment. It is a type of agriculture and trees are a renewable resource. More people does not mean more environmental degradation?

        • joe says:

          Logging will always be around. There are some 700,000 acres of industrial timberland under easements that will always need loggers.

          I like your words “we should applaud the urbanization movement within the Park.” Maybe this idea should become a center of attention. Nice way to put it.

          • Paul says:

            Joe, I hope you are right about logging. The way some of these easement lands are being logged now makes me worried. I was happy to see that the Santa Clara easement lands were recently sold, and sold to another timber interest. (John, surprised there wasn’t any press on this?) I can easily see these lands, if over-logged, sold to the state when they can’t find another buyer that is interested in sitting on the land while it regenerates.

    • Ethan says:

      I question the idea that a shrinking population leads to higher wages. Generally areas with declining populations do NOT see economic gains for those who stay. Think about it. Local businesses depend on a customer base. If that shrinks, and custom at the local restaurant goes down by 10% you really think the waitstaff is getting a raise? Now multiply that across all the businesses. And it’s not like the employees have extra bargaining power.

      • Hawthorn says:

        Many of the existing service jobs are in the tourism business, servicing people from away who are attracted to the Adirondacks for the wilderness and outdoor recreation. That’s where the jobs are mostly–not servicing the local population but servicing the much larger visiting population.

        • ethan says:

          I still fail to see your proposed correlation between lower population and higher wages, regardless. Tourism may be the backbone of much of the Adirondack economy, but it’s hardly the exclusive source of jobs. And your idea pretty much flies in the face of all the data about declining population….

          • Hawthorn says:

            All of the population decline in the Adirondacks is in Hamilton County. All the other counties are growing, with the most growth in the most urbanized areas like Lake Placid, where there is enough of a shortage of workers that they import them from other parts of the park and even other countries. Shortage of workers = greater pay. Law of supply and demand. Declining population is overhyped. I think if you look at the big picture the population actually increased in the last census, just not as fast as NYC.

            • Paul says:

              It is interesting to note that Hamilton county is the one Adirondack county where tourism really is the “backbone” of the economy (50%).

            • Nature says:


              Two problems with your increasing wage theory:

              1. The fact that Adirondack employers are bringing workers from other countries does not mean there is a shortage of workers, or that they are willing to pay more. It means the available local work force is not willing to work in such jobs for such little pay.
              2. Population decline will mean less jobs along with less workers.

              With that said I do not think there is an inherent responsibility to save every little rural town, whether in the Adirondacks, or elsewhere. If towns no longer make sense due to current demographics then maybe it is time to move on?

            • Nature says:


              Two problems I see with your increasing wage theory:

              1. The fact that employers are hiring foreign workers does not mean that there is a shortage of available workers, or that they are willing to pay more. It means that the available local work force is not willing to work such jobs for such little pay.

              2. Declining population will likely mean less jobs along with less workers.

  10. Nate says:

    I would like to try and bring one young persons perspective to the table. That perspective is coming from a 26 y.o. white guy getting, graduate student, and avid supporter of all manner of outdoor recreation.

    From my perspective, Pete Nelson’s hypothesis boils down to: The Adirondack model can survive (relative to other rural areas) if we can attract some subset of young people interested in the Adirondack lifestyle. The last sentence seems to sum it up nicely “embracing the evidence that our protected Wilderness is the very asset we need in order to outperform other rural areas”.

    This doesn’t capture my experience at all. I actively watch for jobs in my field that are close to the Adirondacks. I’ve had hits in Syracuse, Albany, Saratoga, Potsdam. I also get chuckles from colleagues who say, upstate New York where? These are same talented people who I rock climb with, I have white water rafted with, I have hiked with, and one I even taught how to hunt. Friends and colleages seem to fall into three categories: city, outdoors, and roots. A large number want to head for the Bay (whether that be the Chesapeake or the San Francisco) to work on interesting projects, see new ideas, eat Thai-Indo-Russian fusion cuisine. Others see the allure of the big mountain west. Ski resorts, highly educated and towns like Boulder, Colorado, and …erm…progressive policies like those in Colorado. A small number are even more like me: they have strong family and geographical ties to an area and want to return there.

    The problem for the Adirondacks is that water flows downhill. The Adirondacks only have the potential to draw people from two of these pools (and these pools, mind you, only include people that have enough job offers or security to move where they choose. Talk about narrowing the population!!!): outdoors and local roots.

    Here is where I think Peter Nelson’s hypothesis runs into issues:
    * I have never heard a friend or colleague say, well, I would move there if they were only a little bit more protective of the land. Ever. Period.
    Please do not interpret this as my not liking our Adirondack protections because I dearly do. I am just reporting that I have never heard such a phrase uttered in my life. My hypothesis is that we have some “saturation” level of wilderness. As long as the threshold is reached, people seem happy. Look at Vermont.
    * Local roots are still bounded by job opportunities. Here it is with a dash of sarcasm: As a young person, I will never have a pension. The only think I know about social security is that it comes OUT of my paycheck. The only thing I know about houses is that I can’t afford them. Vacation homes: yea, my uncle’s got one.

    I’m sure this will upset some people. Maybe our generation doesn’t know how to invest in something to protect it. Maybe our situation is worse. Maybe we just complain more. But what I do know is that trying to sell young people on the Adirondacks being chock full of wilderness is not going to sell.

    Now I really appreciate Peter Nelson’s article for opening up discussion. These conversations wouldn’t be occurring without his, and others, work. So, to do more than criticize, I’ll offer up my gut-feelings. Please forgive the bluntness, I do think a more sensitive framing is possible.

    The Adirondacks need to figure out what they are, what infrastructure we have, and how we can leverage that infrastructure move forward. Statistics are about the past, which is not what today’s questions and policies are deciding.
    At one end of the spectrum is a wilderness area. Economic considerations are disregarded.

    At the other end is an economic powerhouse that vociferously eats resources and land.

    Tourism lies somewhere in the middle, because tourists do like nice new ski resorts and lake front homes.

    I’d like to end by saying I really appreciate the time and commitment that many of you give to the Adirondacks. It is these discussions and these efforts that have helped preserve the Adirondacks.

    • Penn Hoyt says:


      What a great response! I really think you hit the nail on the head about balance and being a job seeker. I moved out of upstate NY when I graduated from SLU, not because I wanted to, but because there very few job opportunities in the area. For the past 30 years, I continually look for those opportunities, but unfortunately, they have not existed. (And God forbid, we get into the age discrimination issue which is rampant in the tech industry. That is not this forum.) Anyway, until the state figures out that rampant taxation on businesses does not create business, but runs them out of state and the capital markets exist to fund start-ups in areas that are not urban, (I am very interested in learning more about the Point Positive group!! Please contact me.) the job market and opportunities will remain weak. My best friends who run successful, small businesses in NY are continually being squeezed in taxes. A true balance needs to be found.

      I wish you the best of success in your job search and hope you get to remain in one of the best areas of the world! If not, head down here to Texas, we are hiring like crazy and the cost of living is half of what it is in NY.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


      As I write this I see that your comment has two dislikes (ah the joys of social media technology). That’s ridiculous. This is a thoughtful, relevant comment from a direct, immediate perspective. I appreciate what you’ve had to say and I hope everyone reads it. I certainly think it’s more important than what I wrote (though I will tell you that I could write another column right along your lines because I’m doing everything I can to move to the park soon, up to and including starting over in a career).

      What you said makes sense to me but I offer a couple of challenges. First, this foundation: I put it to you that an obvious reason someone might want to find a job here is that the Adirondacks are the Adirondacks – in a word, beautiful. They are also loaded with recreational opportunities. You mention some people seeking out Colorado; why can’t we have an analogous appeal (not so much skiing, of course… we lose there!).

      You talk about having roots but that is not the only driver to wanting to be here. The appeal of the place is an obvious driver. That’s one reason why protected land is important.

      Your counter argument to me has two points that may be correct as far as they go but neither is relevant to the above foundation. The first point, that you’ve never heard anyone say they’d move here if only we protected more land leads to an argument about protecting more land, which is is separate issue from valuing the land we already protect. If the Adirondacks had followed the track they were on as of the late 1890’s – complete exploitation of resources – not many would want to move here for beauty. In any case it is a documented fact that protected land draws some people, enough to make for a compelling counter trend to urbanization. How much protected land we need is a different debate.

      Your second point about jobs is right on the money and I have no argument with it. But it is also not the same issue as protected land. The region needs to do better with jobs regardless (unless you ally yourself with the commenters who have asked what the big deal is if the region loses jobs – I’m not one of them).

      What you seek in a job and what kinds of job opportunities would draw you is a perspective we all need to understand better.

      So keep writing.



      • Paul says:

        In Colorado you can basically live in the mountains and work in Denver or other parts of the front range. That is why I70 has become a nightmare over the past several decades. There you can have the urban and the rural at the same time.

  11. Bill Quinlivan Bill Quinlivan says:

    Great article Pete and it is encouraging to see the comments be so positive. I am 100% in agreement. The right balance is key to the entire ADK situation now and in the future. I have already said what I have to say in my response to Bruce above. Thanks again, Pete.

  12. Running George says:

    Outside the Park in areas that have less land protection, tourism seems to be the last gasp mantra of declining communities and it seems to make things worse instead of better. Local “leaders” are always decrying the loss of the “best and the brightest”. So what do they promote in Lewis County…. more ATV trails. This has not and will not keep young people from leaving. I know from personal experience of a 30 year old woman with a Masters Degree and a good well paying job that left because the culture being created by the so called local “vision” was not what she wanted. We need to be careful of what we promote because some activities will drive away more lucrative and preferable jobs and careers and only accelerate decline.

  13. Running George says:

    Also, this was a well written article.

  14. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    To all above commenters:

    For my money, this is the best collection of comments of the year on this site. Sometimes it is hard to see much if any value to the kinds of commentary that on-line media typically produces. But responses like these change that equation, showing that a robust electronic meeting place for commentary can be worthwhile and can really matter.

    I’ve seen more than one initiative start here in the Park due to a free and thoughtful exchange of ideas. So bravo to you all. Keep it up. Thank you sincerely for making this worth writing.


  15. Bob Meyer says:

    100% agreement on the great quality of constructive thoughtfull comments.
    this is what a usefull dialogue should be!

  16. mike says:

    If you are interested in the most current work on economic development in the area, take a look at this new report. The project was begun a while ago (18 months?) by AATV, the Adk Partnership and Common Ground as a follow on to the ADK Futures Project. It is just beginning to get circulated in final form. It is the subject of the AATV meeting next Monday in Lake George. They have not sought any press about it but now it is floating around as a public document so I will take the liberty of posting the link here. Take a look and see what people have been working on.

    See http://www.AdirondackStrategies.com

    This is one impressive effort. Kudos to the many people who participated and the project leaders.

    So, to the point of this article by Pete, I think continuing population declines are unlikely. Efforts like this show why.

    A lot of work happens around here slowly, and w/o press coverage. It is not done in secret – this has had various public meetings, presentations and all the rest. It just isn’t written about, and hasn’t been on the radar of writers.

  17. Paul says:

    Another thing to consider is the fact that it is so easy to move around these days. You don’t necessarily need to live in the Adirondacks to take advantage of what the place has to offer. It isn’t that hard to live in Cambridge MA and play in the Adirondacks. So if you can have both why move there?

    Pete instead of switching careers maybe you should get a pilots license!!

  18. Greg M says:

    Two cents from someone who would love to move to the ADKs full-time, but knows that will not happen.

    We won’t move, even though my wife and I discuss it every few years. Why? jobs? no…we both could get a job in Lake Placid or Saranac Lake or telecommute without issue.

    So if the environment is great and jobs can be had, why not move? There is much more to this urbanization trend than just jobs, despite many focusing there. My belief is that people of my generation appreciate the social aspect of our lives to a much higher degree than prior generations. Many people started having children by their mid-twenties not too many decades ago, but today I know of only one friend who had kids before 30. Without other like-minded (aged?) people to socialize with, and to a degree social opportunities, it’s a self-fulfilling negative loop. Add to that the fact that many college graduates stay in the location of their school, the outlook is sour.

    The environmental benefits of the Adirondacks cannot be the driving factor to a sustainable population/economy, because it is typically not in the top 3 reasons young people NEED to survive. Jobs, schools [for kids and graduate work] with opportunities, and a socially diverse environment are more important, of which the region is sorely missing all three. It’s easier to vacation in the ADKs and live elsewhere, than live full-time within the blue line.

    Someone asked what is different about Colorado vs Adks. It’s simple, Denver is an urban area while Lake Placid (or LG/OF/TL/etc) are not. Personally, I think many of the small towns will continue to wither, but Lake Placid, Saranac Lake (and surrounding smaller hamlets) have an opportunity to counter that trend, but it requires identifying the needs of the people and putting that first. Start-ups might help, but that will only be useful long term if they can import talent, which is not easy as the competition would be NYC/Dallas/Denver/SF/etc.

    What might help:

    1.) Affordable downtown living. Urban living (walkable) is in high demand as the renting phase of life has been extended compared to years past. Unfortunately this is difficult given the costs of downtown real estate and new buildings are often seen as detrimental to the character of a community.

    2.) While I’m not a fan of ‘Start-Up NY’, a similar very targeted program to bring in new digital businesses to downtown LP/SL/TL would be the NY way.

    3.) Acknowledging that some towns will go the way of Tahawus, and that is okay. Change happens. They just can’t all go this way, or all go tourist-centric.

    4.) Acknowledging that the Adirondack Park is supposed to be a mixture of a viable economy and environment. To me, other than egregious issues, the APA should have no jurisdiction inside the major communities of for example Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Tupper Lake.

    5.) Talking about the issue. Keep it up Pete!

    • Hawthorn says:

      It’s not just the younger workforce that wants to live in walkable urban environments. There’s a growing trend for retirees to move to desirable urban areas too. I would suggest one of the prime reasons this is happening too is the vast reduction in urban crime in recent decades. That has never been a problem in the Adirondacks! Per your point above, Lake Placid is leading in population growth in the Adirondacks. Essex County is growing too. Only Hamilton County is losing population.

    • Paul says:

      “4.) Acknowledging that the Adirondack Park is supposed to be a mixture of a viable economy and environment. To me, other than egregious issues, the APA should have no jurisdiction inside the major communities of for example Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Tupper Lake.”

      APA restrictions in hamlet areas are minimal. But I do agree that there should not be APA height restrictions w/in Hamlets. If you can’t grow your town out easily. Or we want to keep it clustered in town then let them build it up if a developer wants to. They still have to deal with any local zoning issues anyway.

  19. Kevin A says:

    Excellent post and follow-on conversation. I’ve never commented on this site before but feel compelled to now. Couple of quick thoughts:

    -You’re right to call attention to the spurious narrative of the APRAP report. The notion that population decline is solely or primarily the result of land use regulation is nonsense and ignores broader trends at play. It seems to me that if the APRAP narrative were correct, every community bordering the blue line, free of the park’s “draconian” regulations, would be busting at the seams. This doesn’t seem to be the case.

    -While it’s fine to pick on the causality implied in the APRAP report, I’d be careful about the causality implied in your recap of the literature on Wilderness (w/ a capital W, connoting the legal definition) and economic growth. I’m inclined to think that, yes, while management of certain federal lands as Wilderness makes possible recreational and business opportunities that can support economic development, their use/visitation/popularity is also explained by the qualities that drove those areas to be designated as Wilderness in the first place–the “outstanding opportunities” (verbiage from the Wilderness Act) that these places afford. Designating all federal lands as Wilderness all of the sudden would not drive economic growth in those newly designated areas. Their needs to be something really special about those places, apart from their management/protection status.

    -I grew up in the Adirondacks, working summers at restaurants and marinas for minimum wage. I left, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t find a job in the career I chose after college. Of my friends, some did stay, taking on the family business, or more commonly, working just beyond the blue line. But many–at least half, if not more–also left happily, eager to launch a new life in a different (more socially diverse, as one commenter noted) community. All that’s to say that population decline isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Let’s embrace it, and understand and capitalize on the nuances in flow that Pete describes. Also, while I’m eager to move back (and admire, though am discouraged by, the 30-year quest to do so by one commenter), I wouldn’t sacrifice the wildness of the Adirondacks to do so.

  20. Paul says:

    Very few things are inevitable.

    Good article, good comments.

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