Sunday, October 18, 2015

Adirondack Demographics: Don’t Blame the Park

Census Rural CountiesAt the conference on Adirondack demographics recently held in Albany (described last week by Pete Nelson), there were some familiar faces and some familiar facts. And there were also some familiar but unsupportable conclusions.

The speakers reminded us of two main demographic trends: First, the average age in Adirondack towns is going up. And second, the number of school-aged children in Adirondack school districts is declining. These numbers are not in dispute. They are derived from unimpeachable research conducted by the Center for Applied Demographics at Cornell University (CAD). They suggest a serious challenge to the welfare of our friends and neighbors who live and work in Adirondack towns.

Schools are the cultural center of Adirondack town life. While anyone who has attended a local school board meeting knows that they can be contentious and even divisive, the very fact that their agendas are so contested demonstrates how vital the public schools are to small towns everywhere.

What was almost completely absent from this conference was any effort to contextualize the data, to make comparisons. No one is arguing that the data are not ominous. They clearly are. But too many people are too quick to conclude that the reason Adirondack demographic numbers can be depressing is the existence of the Adirondack Park, or the Forest Preserve, or the Adirondack Park Agency, or the very fact of protected open space. Such claims are routine, and they were not absent at this conference.

If you dig a little deeper into the available data (you can start here, with the excellent maps available at the CAD), you’ll quickly find that Adirondack communities are doing no worse — and in some cases are doing a little better — than similar towns in other parts of rural New York and rural America. (Before someone jumps in, let me say that acknowledging this does not mean that we can therefore ignore the challenges to Adirondack towns. It merely means that we have to be careful in attributing cause.)

At the conference in Albany, one heard routine claims that it was the Park Agency or the blue line itself that explained the travails of Adirondack towns. There is no evidence whatever for this. Go down to the Southern Tier, take a look at northern New Hampshire or northern Maine, and you’ll see the same aging population and threatened school districts. Again, these are serious issues, but so long as we keep blaming the Park for demographic reality, we are wasting our time and energy.

The problems faced by rural communities constitute a crisis of national dimensions. Rural America is in trouble. The more rural a town is, the more likely it is to experience these demographic challenges. Across the United States, towns without any regulatory apparatus like that overseen by the Park Agency, or far from protected open space like our Forest Preserve, are dying. The globalization, mechanization, and digitization of our economy concentrate jobs in or near cities. That is a fact of 21st-century reality.

What is the answer? I don’t know, but we must begin our deliberations with the understanding that protecting open space does not cause economic decline. In addition to the predictable jabs at environmentalism, several people who spoke at the Albany conference noted the positive steps that the state can take to help rural New Yorkers. These include obvious things like expanding broadband availability. A serious effort to help small businesses both in the Adirondacks and throughout the state, perhaps through regulatory reform and tax relief, also seems logical. But don’t blame the Park. The blue line and all it means is not the problem. It’s probably our greatest asset.


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Philip Terrie is an Adirondack and environmental historian, and the author of five books on regional history, including Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks (2nd ed., Syracuse UP, 2008) and Seeing the Forest: Reviews, Musings, and Opinions from an Adirondack Historian (Saranac Lake: Adirondack Explorer, 2017).

32 Responses

  1. Brian Mann says:

    I generally think the premise of Phil’s article is spot on. Rural America faces a vast, long-running and perilous demographic decline. There is no clear evidence that the Adirondack Park’s various land-use rules and protected space areas have marked us out in any way that is particularly different. The fact that some people continue to insist that there is a link between the 1970s-era creation of the modern Park and our present demographic decline appears to be a classic case of correlation without causation.

    That said, it is startling and problematic that decades into the Adirondack experience we have so little good data on exactly how open space preservation and zoning affects Park population, the economy, and demographics. The debate over the Finch conservation deal was a case in point. The Cuomo administration promised in blunt terms that the new Finch lands would serve as a significant economic engine for some of the most challenged parts of the Park, including Newcomb and Indian Lake.

    But it turns out that while there is no evidence that deals like this one will hurt those communities, there is also no evidence (that I could find, and I searched) that they will help in any meaningful way. In fact, many of the conservationists, development experts and academics I spoke to acknowledged being skeptical, and acknowledged that there is a huge void of missing information.

    My point, I suppose, is that the Park is often described as a laboratory for the policies put in place to protect it. As a reporter covering the Adirondacks, I would love to see much better work exploring rigorously the positive or negative impacts on human communities brought by these decisions. It’s kind of astonishing that we know so little after nearly half a century.

    -Brian Mann, NCPR

    • Paul says:

      Brian, it is funny here you start by saying how Phil is spot on. Then you go on to describe how there isn’t enough information regarding any of this to know one way or the other.

      As the US has shifted from a manufacturing based to a service based economy larger numbers of people are vital for the success of those businesses. Tourism based assets like we have here in the Adirondacks can help to keep certain service based enterprises floating that may be the reason for the slight boost we see in the Adirondacks versus other similar rural areas without such assets.

      But is the Adirondacks and other rural areas want to thrive economically they gotta come up with something other than an economy based on us “cutting each others hair”.

      • Brian Mann says:

        Fair point, Paul. So let me clarify.

        Phil is right that the demographic trends we see in the Park closely parallel those in rural areas outside the Park and in some cases our demographic trends are actually superior or better.

        So those who argue that our challenging demographics are a unique product of the conservation experiment here are on very thin ice.

        But it remains true that a significant experiment is underway here on a very large and dramatic scale and really good data about what that experiment is actually doing (pro and/or con) is overdue.

        –Brian, NCPR

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Exactly right. That was the point of my piece covering the demographic workshop. We need more research and a better understanding of the impacts of the choices we made. Preserving the Essex Chain was the right thing to do by my value system, but believing it will have the promised positive economic impact is a stretch, in my view. At the very least, different policies for marketing and promotion might be called for. But how to know what approaches are best? The more study the better, I say. We need more than anecdotal information.

      • John Warren says:

        “Preserving the Essex Chain was the right thing to do by my value system”

        I’d like to make something clear about what we’re calling preservation. Since the state has taken it over, there has been MORE development of The Essex Chain not less. DEC’s plan calls for adding and repairing motorized corridors and a boat launch, new parking lots, campsites, at least one major bridge, and numerous other structures such as privies, equestrian platforms, etc.

        So in the Essex Chain there will be more structures, more roads, bridges, and parking lots – that should be called development, not preservation. After NYCO’s taking of Forest Preserve land classified wilderness, even the Forest Preserve and NYS Constitution protections are no longer certain.

        • Pete Nelson says:

          You’re right, of course, yet even with this development the economic effect is uncertain at best.

        • Paul says:

          I would have to disagree with some of John’s comment. It just doesn’t fit the facts. If you want to see all the roads that are being closed on the Essex Chain tract you can see it here in the UMP. Look at the Map V right after the table of contents. Most of the existing roads are being closed to vehicular traffic. There will not be MORE roads. Yes the few they are leaving open are probably going to be upgraded. You would need to look at an inventory of the exiting buildings on the property to fully understand how many structures are being razed. The idea that there will be MORE structures is probably also incorrect. The numbers might be higher if you want to include privies but overall there will be probably be a smaller footprint than what is there currently. The reason for needing parking is that (as you can see from the map) where they are gating roads shut people will now need a place to park since they cannot drive beyond all the gates. There will also no longer be logging trucks, log skidders, bulldozers, or ATVs on the property as there was in the past.

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      If the Cuomo administration made economic promises about the Finch Pruyn purchases, then that’s just a case of the Cuomo administration not managing expectations very well… and of an environmental community that lost control of the wilderness narrative. Never, ever, has a purchase of a tract for the Forest Preserve been pegged to economic growth until now. Conserving resources… protecting open spaces… preserving habitat… leaving a legacy for future generations… but never “economic engine.” Isn’t that how the easement lands should have been billed?

      • Brian Mann says:

        Bill, from the time I first arrived in the Adirondacks, green groups were talking about the idea that you could attract tourists and other visitors and build healthy economies around the idea of open space preservation. Joe Martens, remember, has been an active player in land conservation in the region for a very long time with the Open Space Institute. His arguments about this didn’t begin with his time as DEC commissioner. He had a close relationship with local leaders and economic development officials in the Park long before heading to Albany. The Adirondack Nature Conservancy also worked very closely on this project with local government leaders to look specifically at this idea of economic development. The Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club have both played active roles in connecting the dots between open space and active economies. This Cuomo administration may have upped the rhetoric on the Finch deal, but the language is hardly new. –Brian Mann, NCPR

        • Bill Ingersoll says:

          But I don’t recall “economic development” being the motivation for past landmark land purchases, such as, say, Little Tupper Lake in 1998. In the past, the tendency of environmentalists (including ADK and the Council) was to push for as much designated wilderness as possible, and with wilderness the key talking points are the ones I listed above.

          So if those groups were talking about boosting local economies through wilderness expansion, they were talking about attracting more paddlers and hikers at best, because they certainly weren’t advocating for more motorized access. When I was in ADK I got an internal policy passed through the board of directors that prevented ADK from advocating for increased motorized usage of the preserve, including motor vehicle access roads and snowmobile trails–a policy that has been conveniently forgotten, I’m sure, now that I’ve moved on. That policy stated that ADK envisioned a reduction of motorized recreation in the Forest Preserve over time, not an increase; it was passed after the conservation committee learned that the ADK pro trail crew had contracted to build the Alice Brook snowmobile trail through the Five Ponds Wilderness.

          Therefore the moral of the Finch Pruyn story is the retreat from the idea that wilderness is the best possible use of “forever wild” among environmental spokespeople–I hesitate to call them leaders, because in recent years they have espoused a vision for the Adirondacks that I refuse to follow. In my view, groups like ADK and the Council have tacitly conceded the point that wilderness is a hindrance to local economies, not a boost, otherwise they’d be making stronger arguments in favor of their core ideals. Although the non-controversial portions of the Hudson River Gorge were made a wilderness last year, and we’ll probably get the remoter regions behind the Boreas Ponds in the future. But a few years ago environmentalists would have gone for the whole shebang. When you read Neil Woodworth’s advocacy for keeping motors out of the Perkins Clearing exchange lands 30 years ago, and his rhetoric now, you would find it hard to believe that this is the same individual.

          So my contention stands, environmentalists are losing control of the narrative of the Forest Preserve. The state influences them in 2015, not vice versa.

          All of which deviates from Phil Terrie’s original point, of course…

  2. Boreal says:

    It would be interesting to compare this map with another showing the availability of high-speed internet. I suspect 1980-2000 may be a little early to show it, but 2000-2020 will likely show more net loss in areas without high-speed internet. Certainly not the only factor, but something to consider.

  3. Ed Zahniser says:

    Thanks, Phil, for your fine corrective to the usual finger-pointing when anything is not up to snuff.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Agree with Phil and all of the above.
    I will add this.
    An old tried and true maxim in sales is to sell the sizzle, not the steak.
    It is also true you don’t want to emphasize the negatives while ignoring the positives.
    But this is what is so often done here in the Adirondacks. We shout from the roof tops what’s wrong here.
    I don’t take issue with the facts in the Cornell report but it ended up sounding like a litany of reasons not to live and work here.
    The true Adirondack Challenge is figuring out a way to live and work here.
    Having said that, we need to start selling the reasons why someone should take up the true Adirondack Challenge.
    Here are a few of my reasons for living here.
    I love the four seasons, the mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and streams.
    I love the fact this is not Glens Falls or Clifton Park. If I want to live someplace with lots of people, I’ll pick Manhattan.
    I like not getting caught in traffic jams. I love the fact there aren’t any stop lights in Hamilton County.
    There aren’t a lot of kids in the local schools but they do get a great education that allows many of the them to go on to higher education which sadly results in many of them moving away after high school.
    You can actually see the stars at night.
    Since moving here in 1987, thanks to satellites you can watch more TV than you should and internet service is rapidly improving,
    Whatever outdoor activity you might like to do, it’s all available a few feet or a few miles from where you live and most of it is free.
    Up here, you actually know on a personal level who your elected and appointed official are. You can thank them or complain directly to them.
    The people in the bank and stores know you and you are not constantly being asked to identify yourself.
    You want privacy? You have as much or as little as you want and you are not constantly being monitored on cameras.
    There are more reasons but those are just some of the reasons why I like living and working here.

  5. Blaikie Worth says:

    Thanks, Phil. I have also heard recently of beautiful abandoned small towns in
    rural France and Spain because of no jobs. All this while the migrants desperate
    for housing pour into Europe…If only we could make a match!

  6. Hawthorn says:

    Some think the solution is to build a snowmobile trail up Mt. Marcy and allow spot zoning on the summits for beer pubs–that will bring crowds of young people apparently! First, the demographics are much better in the Adks than in many rural areas. Those of us old enough to remember the days when almost every small Adk town looked like a slum, with broken down cars in front yards, ramshackle homes, and barely surviving businesses, wonder if the loss of population is at the poor end of the economic ladder. There’s a lot of moaning about the loss of jobs, like timbering or mining, that didn’t pay all that well, were dangerous, and provided little hope for the future. And, we should be happy that children are getting such good educations that they go off to major colleges, get great-paying jobs with the best companies, and then hopefully come back on vacation or to retire. One reason they never left before is that they couldn’t!

    • Paul says:

      “much better”? That sounds like a big stretch if you look at the data. But it is good to be optimistic.

      • Hawthorn says:

        Check out the map provided with this article and notice where the majority of the net out migration is happening. There are a lot of towns in the Great Plains area that are just about empty. Also check out “Depopulation of the Great Plains” on Wikipedia. There’s a long list there of counties that have lost 60% of their population.

  7. mike says:

    I accept Phil’s points that the Park is not the problem and is indeed the asset that will save the place. It is a tired old boring discussion. Even Phil says he has no ideas to offer to help the place. I am bored with all this usual back and forth that gets us nothing except comment streams. Zzzzzz.

    But the facts are the facts. If we do nothing, the trends will slowly continue. The better places will do alright. The weaker places will slowly decline to nothing.

    Assume for a minute we do something. As far as I can tell people are looking to a mix of tourism, local food, local energy, broadband and cell service. The mix will vary across the Park. Will this be enough? Any other ideas? We especially need ideas for the smaller, or somehow disadvantaged, places.

    Lake George, Lake Placid, Old Forge seem like they will be ok. County seats like Elizabethtown and Lake Pleasant will likely be ok too.

    • AG says:

      Cities/towns/villages have risen and fallen all throughout history… Sometimes it is better to cut your/our losses.

  8. TM Thomas says:

    I grew up in the Adk area being told how the APA/DEC were ruining things and making it so I couldn’t stay to raise my family in my hometown. The people that were so hot to trot on this issue never stopped to ask if any of us wanted to stay. And I’m already hearing those same voices being raised as this post circles on social media, beating their tired claims.

    I applaud Dr Terrie for this and hope we can have more social science, especially sociology, applied to the Adirondack experience, instead of letting tired old shibboleths steer the narrative.

  9. Tracey says:

    Perhaps a reason why there are less children in the Adirondacks is that more environmentally responsible people, who wish to live off the grid, are moving there. Those same people are likely to have fewer children.

    Also, some people may choose to spend their wage earning years in the cities and then retire to the Adirondacks when they have the time to enjoy it.

  10. Paul says:

    The data they have at the Cornell site is really very interesting.

    For example I looked at Essex county specifically since some areas there seem pretty vibrant.

    If you look at population for kids 5-17 in 2000 there was just under 7000. In 2014 it had dropped to just about 5000. That is a huge drop in just 14 years. If you look at age 25-44 in 2000 there were about 11,500 people who met that definition in 2014 it was 9000. These are big slides down. 45-64 went from 9500 to 12,000. 65 and older went from 6200 to 8100. 85 and older went from just under 800 to just over 1100. These trends are amazingly steep.

    Pete Klein, what was going on in Hamilton county in 2010? For some reason the death rate there went from its normal rate of about 70 per year to less than 20 and then shot back up to 70 right after that? Weird.

    • Pete Klein says:

      Paul, the answer concerning numbers in Hamilton County is that the low population numbers create wide swings in all of the data.

      • Paul says:

        I am sure that is true but if you look at it there is this one anomaly on that graph only at 2010, otherwise the data was very consistent. Is there some sort of elixir of life that you guys discovered around 2010 and are holding back from the rest of us? You are a writer right, there must be a story idea here for you!

  11. Craig Gilborn says:

    What Philip Terrie says applies as well to Vermont, the Adirondack Park neighbor to the east: the Vermont legislature this year ordered the start of consolidation of many school districts into fewer ones:
    Declining school population accompanied by a tax base that is aging motivates the search for ways to hold down the cost of education. New York gives princely amounts to school districts in the Adirondack Park based on Forest Preserve lands in state hands. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses Vermont towns with Green Mountain National Forest lands far, far less generously than does New York. More than 90% of the Vermont town of Mt. Tabor is in the GMNF, yet the Feds have been paying roughly $60,000 a year, unguaranteed. I think that is okay and that Adirondack elected official should lay off scapegoating the APA.
    Craig Gilborn, East Dorset, Vt.

    (Craig and Alice sent their two children to schools in Indian Lake and Long Lake, and they resided in those two Adirondack towns for 28 years before moving to Vermont about 1999.)

  12. AG says:

    This is not even unique to the U.S. ALL OVER THE WORLD people are moving more and more into cities. This should not be a surprise at all. Actually – as long as the transportation networks are good – it’s better for the overall environment. Wilderness areas all over can heal – and city dwellers use less resources per capita. As far as the U.S. overall – the only cold climate rural areas that are growing are ones with oil and natural gas. That growth will probably be only a generation or 2.

  13. Bruce says:

    I believe HS internet, more cell towers, and wireless will be far more beneficial to those already in the park, than it will be as a big economic draw. Just look at the primary reasons cities draw people away from rural areas: virtually everything else having a significant impact on their daily lives, is either close by or within easy reach, Take away electronic communications and cities will still function as they always have, albeit a little slower.

  14. Charlie S says:

    John Warren says: “Since the state has taken it over, there has been MORE development of The Essex Chain not less.”

    Thank you for clarifying John. The State is not the protector some people believe it to be. The corporate state!

    • mike says:

      The old private preserves were probably better at protection than public ownership ever could be. Adding places like Follansbee and Boreas public space carries a lot of risk.

  15. Charlie S says:

    roamin with broman says: once you have it, it will be hard to live without.

    Tis not true roamin. There’s sucha thing as letting go and discipline. Practicing is another story but nonetheless there’s sucha thing i’m here to say!

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