Protect the Adirondacks has published a new report The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010. This report has been widely circulated around the Adirondacks. It was mailed to all local officials, loads of non-profits, elected reps, school districts and local libraries. It’s available online. Through the end of the year, we’ll be undertaking a number of public presentations on the report and we’ll be publicizing those as they are organized.
The report is long, complicated, and not easily distilled to talking points. I’ll be writing a series of essays this spring and summer for the Adirondack Almanack that take a deep dive into the major findings. This article is the first and it provides an introduction and overview.
The purpose of The Adirondack Park and Rural America is to examine the belief, long held by many across the Adirondacks and in state government, that environmental protections have negatively impacted Adirondack communities. This argument holds that regulation all of private land use and extensive land protection through purchases for the Forest Preserve or by conservation easement have hampered economic development. This, the argument goes, has forced people to leave the Adirondack Park in search of employment and a better life. Have these management efforts helped or harmed the Park’s communities? To explore this question, our report presents analyses and comparisons of the economic and population experiences of the Adirondack Park with those of other rural areas.
At its heart, this report compares long-term economic and population trends between Adirondack communities and other rural areas in New York, the Northeast U.S. and Rural America. The period coincides with the establishment of regional land-use zoning with the creation of the regional land use plan of the Adirondack Park Agency and formalized management of the Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in the early 1970s. These actions were followed by a sustained period of public land protection, including three state bond acts, that saw over 1.2 million acres of new Forest Preserve and conservation easement lands protected in the Adirondacks. In many ways the era of the modern Adirondack Park that we know today came into being in the early 1970s.
This report analyzes standard economic indicators, including median household income, per capita income, the poverty rate, and the rates of employment and self-employment. It looks at standard population indicators, including population growth, median age, and the ratio of children to adults of childbearing age. The report also examines age groups to compare the experiences of young adults of college age, career age adults, and retirees. We relied heavily for most of our analysis on U.S. Census data from the five decennial censuses in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Census data allowed us to examine various indicators over the long-term, from 1970 to 2010, and to use both county level data across the U.S. and town-level data in New York, which helped us to get a deeper, more nuanced look at trends within Adirondack communities.
In all cases, we compared the experiences of Adirondack communities with those of New York State, the U.S., and Rural America. Other reports in recent years have compared economic or population indicators of Adirondack communities with New York State or the U.S. While this report makes those comparisons, it also compares Adirondack communities with other rural areas across the U.S., both with those areas categorized as rural by federal agencies and with those areas with a population density similar to that of Adirondack communities.
The period 1970 to 2010 was a period of stagnant economic growth in Rural America. Across the U.S., wages were flat, and economic and population growth largely consolidated in major metropolitan areas. It’s an odd juxtaposition here in the Adirondacks that the period of significant changes, with major economic and population re-alignments across Rural America, was commensurate with the creation of the modern Adirondack Park. By 2010, 68% of the land area in the lower 48 U.S. states was categorized as rural, yet this area was home to just 14.9% of the country’s population. Adirondack communities share a similar population density of around 14 people per square mile with rural communities that stretch across 61% of the lower 48 states, a vast but thinly populated landscape that is home to just 6.4% of the U.S. population. To understand what’s happening in the Adirondack Park today, it’s important understand that we occupy a geography where 6.4% of the U.S. population, some 19.6 million people, live in tiny communities spread across 61% of the American landscape.
Our thesis is this: If there were negative economic impacts from environmental protections in the Adirondack Park, the region would stand out as significantly different from other rural areas in trends for median household income, per capita income, poverty rate, and rates of employment and self-employment. Any negative trends due to environmental protection would be clearly evident over the past 40 years. We ran this same test for a variety of population indicators, including population gain/loss, median age, the ratio of children to adults of childbearing age, school district enrollment, and age group analysis. Far from unique, the economic and population challenges facing the Adirondacks are the norm in Rural America. In many cases, Adirondack communities experienced economic growth that was far better than that of vast areas of Rural America. On the population front, we were consistent with Rural America.
Adirondack communities are experiencing population patterns similar to those of other rural areas, including decreased school enrollments, the loss of college-age young people, low recruitment of career-age people, and a large older population. Median age, for example, has been one of the most controversial data points in the debate over the Adirondack Park. Our median age of 45.7 years in 2010 was unquestionably at the high end, but it is important to understand that Americans in 525 other U.S. counties, one out of six in the country, had a median age as old or older than our’s. These counties, though massive in land area, were home to just 4% of Americans, some 13.4 million people. In Rural America one out of every four counties had a median age as old or older than the Adirondacks. This is important context for evaluating the condition and experience of Adirondack communities. From 1970 to 2010, one quarter of all counties in the U.S. lost population, but fully one-third of the counties in Rural America lost population. From 2000 to 2010, nearly half of all counties in Rural America lost population.
While the Adirondack Park has an exceptional, internationally recognized landscape of mountains, forests, wetlands, lakes, and rivers, there is nothing exceptional about the long-term economic or population trends of Adirondack communities. What is happening in the Adirondacks is the same thing that is happening across Rural America.
The findings in this report are eye-opening. Far from unique, the economic and population experiences in the Adirondacks are the norm in Rural America. It must be recognized that when the conventional wisdom or popular narratives insist that socio-economic difficulties so common throughout Rural America are caused in the Adirondacks by environmental protections, the remedies most often proposed threaten the open-space character and ecological integrity of the Park.
Protect the Adirondacks is dedicated to protecting the natural resources and open spaces of the Adirondack Park. Healthy and viable human communities living in mutually sustaining relations with the intact and recovering ecosystems and wildlands around them constitute the rare and essential identity of the Adirondack Park. In the years ahead, it is our aim to use the findings of The Adirondack Park and Rural America to help shape investment and public policy to stabilize and strengthen Adirondack communities.
Note: This article was updated to correct an error in the original edition of the report. The original edition of The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010 incorrectly classified the town of Lake Luzerne in Warren County as a town that is 100% within the Adirondack Park Blue Line; it is split by the Blue Line. There are 92 towns within the Adirondack Park; 61 are 100% within the Park’s boundary, while 31 are split. The original report had 62 towns entirely within the Blue Line and 30 split by it. This mistake has been corrected, and all the statistical analyses have been re-run. The updated edition of this report is published in PDFand linked here. A 2nd print edition will also be distributed. While scores of numbers saw minor changes, the various analyses throughout the report—the sum and substance of the report—remain substantiated and unchanged.