Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Adirondack Park and Rural America

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. 

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

17 Responses

  1. Justin Farrell says:

    It would definitely be interesting to read about other rural areas throughout America that suffer from economic troubles, yet they still refuse to make their existing regional public hiking, backpacking, fishing, and other land & water use opportunities more available to the public. I’d also be intrigued to learn more about other wild areas that continue to have inadequate land & water regulation enforcement & education.

  2. Scott Thompson says:

    Rather than accepting regional losses as par with National averages, we should concentrate on opportunities lost.We may be over protecting and tipping the balance enjoyed in the Adirondacks to an unsustainable, undesireable habitat unhospitable for residents.

    • Boreas says:

      The Adirondacks have never been particularly hospitable. That is why it was one of the last places in the NE to be ‘settled’. This is part of its current appeal – low population density and forests, streams, and mountains. The constitutional protection makes the Park unique. Reduce or remove protection and it becomes less unique and just as troubled as the rest of rural America.

      • Scott Thompson says:

        The Adirondacks are considered the first vacation destination in the county. The natural beauty and open spaces have appealed for centuries. The 1971 Park Agency formation sought to check development and destruction of resources. Though contriversial, successfully, but while the Agency has evolved as more flexible, environmental groups, however well intentioned purchase larger and larger tracts of land “making” the State buy them.The management of these lands reduces the overall income, use and sustainable business and residential appeals and hence the unique balance.

  3. Boreas says:

    “…environmental groups, however well intentioned purchase larger and larger tracts of land “making” the State buy them.”

    The main reason these “environmental groups” are able to buy these lands is because the forest product industry can not see enough profit in recently logged land. They have pockets that are just as big, but when wood products can be imported more cheaply from other regions and countries, the local economies that rely solely on the forestry industry suffers. Bottom line is, if private land is attractive enough to an extraction industry, it can purchase it.

    Another example is the NYCO debacle. The extraction industry managed to get a land swap, then the foreign owners decided it wasn’t profitable enough to mine it. It had many other mines that involved less risk, so NYCO and the local economy was left holding an empty bag.

    The truth is, rural America is not simply a collection of local economies any more. Giant agriculture firms have taken over many farms in the bread basket. Mechanization and consolidation does not increase the workforce or put dollars in the farmers pockets. And with the Park and the forestry & mining industries, the larger the company is that owns the resources, the more the dollars are drawn overseas away from the locals. Sure, taxes are paid, but the actual economies don’t benefit all that much, if at all. Even back when forestry and mining were balls to the wall, many residents in the logging communities had numerous “occupations” to get them from one year to the next. The actual wealth acquired from logging, mining, and transport still largely ended up in the cities and not with the locals.

    So I feel the common argument pitting environmentalism as the antithesis of healthy local economies is basically flawed and another example of the polarizing influence of today’s society. In a global economy, there are MANY more variables to be considered. I feel that is at least part of what Mr. Bauer is trying to say.

    • Hope says:

      This will basically put and end to the small communities around the Park. Only those that cater to tourism, 2nd home development and recreation will be able to survive. Also, govt employment is another economic engine in the Park. Tupper Lake would pretty much cease to exist without Sunmount DDSO. Lake Placid would be seriously hampered without ORDA. If you really want to decimate the Park economically then all that needs to be done is to cut off govt funding and close govt supported facilities. Love it or hate it, Tupper’s ACR development is the backup plan to future of the community should NYS ever close Sunmount.

      • Boreas says:


        I am not sure what you mean – what will put an end to small communities??

        • Hope says:

          The current trend of consolidation of farms/agricultural/forestry/mining into corporate entities. Loss of private sector jobs (manufacturing, forestry, mining etc) have already affected Adirondack communities such as Star Lake, Newcomb, Tupper Lake etc. while this is true across most of rural America, the Adirondacks has a significant level of government jobs to stem the tide, currently. Change is inevitable as we see those jobs starting to disappear with the closing of prisons and who knows what is next. Reluctance to hire needed Rangers, shows me that Cuomo is hell bent on reducing State payrolls and those legacy costs as part of his tax reduction strategy.

      • John Warren says:

        This is the same silly argument that has been used for 40 years.

  4. adkDreamer says:

    The former J & J Rogers Company of Au Sable Forks is a great example of local Adirondack primary business collapse largely due to external market forces. (Iron ore works originally in the late 1800’s and that business ended, then re-tooled for paper pulp and then that business ended around the 1970’s)

    • Boreas says:

      I agree. As much as we feel we can control our own destiny and economy by just doing what worked in the past, it rarely is the case with today’s global competition and cheap transportation costs. The push for broadband internet across the region may help somewhat, but I fear telecommuting from your home in Keene Valley for a large firm in Silicon Valley or NYC or Asia is still going to transfer the bulk of profits and wealth of that business to the corporate offices, not the satellite villages. But it may help somewhat with employment.

  5. Paul says:

    Why is Wyoming and the Dakotas doing well in comparison to other parts of rural America (Figure 12)? Is that because of oil and gas development? This could be the same for parts of eastern CO. Not saying its a good or bad thing just and observation.

    Also, it looks like areas out west where we see ski area development are in the green. Summit county area in CO as an example. Or parts of the Sierra in CA and NV.

    There is a lot more going on here. At best you are probably going to find some correlations but no real answers.

    • Boreas says:


      When I lived for a short time out west 20 years or so ago, there was a mass exodus from California to many states where there was cheap land for sale. These older Baby-boomers realized when they could retire or semi-retire in MT, WY, OR, etc. on a 25-100 acre McRanch simply from the proceeds of their modest properties in coastal CA. Many people of wealth from around the country also bought big spreads – basically their own counties. Many developed working ranches. Some boutique communities sprung up as well. Compared to the median income prior to these migrations, it would seem that there was a gold rush, but more likely it is due to wealthy people simply moving there. It doesn’t mean they are actually producing anything, but a few new residents with multi-million investment and retirement incomes really can make a county with more quadrupeds than people appear to be booming.

      The neuveau riche from the coast paid virtually any price for land in the Rocky Mountain states because it was a bargain based on West Coast prices. This was (and likely still is) a sore point with many second and third generation residents who had been saving for decades to buy 5-10 acres and now found those savings unable to buy much of anything because of the dramatic jump in real estate values. But at least any land they did own increased in value as well.

      • Paul says:

        Yes, I lived in Denver for 9 years at about the same time (we really lucked out as far as real estate went!). I think if you look at the maps now there is something else going on especially in the mountains. As far as Wyoming and areas like that (including Eastern CO) it might be natural gas?

        • Boreas says:


          NG extraction and other mineral rights increasing private land values would certainly be another factor. One would also have to look at proximity to National and State Parks as well as BLM lands, which can also raise land values. As ranching continues to face outside pressures from foreign competition and dietary changes, private ranch land can become more valuable by being subdivided into McRanches. This can increase median incomes, but not necessarily be an economical boost to the community, depending on how the land taxes are changed and the level of community infrastructure needed to support these sub-divisions.

          As you say, the topic is all very complicated and a clear picture of cause and effect may be impossible to ascertain. I am not sure median income alone should be the indicator of the health of local communities.

  6. Brian says:

    The blue line park data as a whole is somewhat interesting. But try comparing a town with, say, 60% state land to one with more than 90% state land. What would that data say?

    • Paul says:

      Places like Cranberry Lake have no where to grow its all state land around them. It’s – figure out how to make it work on an island or its over?

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