At 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.