Peter 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.