The new study The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010, published by Protect the Adirondacks, took a deep, nuanced look at leading economic and population trends in the Adirondacks. While most of the U.S. population grows increasingly urban and connected to the digitized, global economy, Rural America is engaged in a struggle to maintain viable communities, to provide essential services and institutions, and to plan for a future with smaller populations, lower birth rates, and low-growth economies.
The Adirondack Park faces the same economic and population challenges experienced by most of Rural America.
To confront the challenges facing the Adirondack Park, we need good data and good analysis to support public policy. This report aimed to provide a fresh understanding of the realities of the Adirondack condition. First, this report compared the Adirondack Park economic and population experience with the overall statewide and national experiences. Second, this report compared Adirondack Park communities with the experiences of other rural areas in New York and U.S. Third, this report analyzed the Adirondack Park experience over the past 40 years, a period when the modern Adirondack Park was established.
We were fortunate that U.S. Census data starting in 1970 allowed us to analyze economic and population trends at the municipal level in New York and at the county level across the U.S. This enabled us to make comparisons both across nine different geographic areas and also across time periods. Data at the town level in the Adirondacks were important. In the past, economic and population studies about the Adirondacks were hampered by the fact that 10 of the 12 Adirondack counties are divided by the Park’s boundary. This makes it difficult to accurately analyze the Adirondack Park.
The challenges to structure an Adirondack study are many. The Adirondack Park is spread across 12 counties. The Blue Line (the Park boundary) splits 10 counties and only two counties, Hamilton and Essex, are completely within the Park. Hamilton and Essex counties are often used as surrogates for the experience of all communities within the Adirondack Park, but combined they have less than 1/3 of the Park’s estimated 130,000 residents and for a number of reasons Hamilton County is a statistical outlier. Of the 92 towns spread across the Adirondack Park, 61 are completely within the Blue Line and 31 are split by it. It’s exceedingly difficult to determine economic performance, and even some population trends, for the areas split by the Blue Line, which has led to guesswork and crude estimates in past research.
We made two decisions that structured our analysis in The Adirondack Park and Rural America. The first major decision that we made was to largely use U.S. Census data. This is the nation’s database and provides an array of raw data, though there are challenges to using them to study certain factors decade to decade. One advantage was that Census data is available at the town level starting in 1970. We would have loved to go back further in our study, to 1960 or 1950 or earlier, but the data that were comparable over time that was available from these periods were limited. The period from 1970 to 2010 was the best long-term time period we could assemble and it still allowed us to accomplish one of our major objectives, which was to evaluate changes over the long-term and a 40-year span accomplished that. We focused on a five primary economic indicators because the Census data allowed us to make meaningful comparisons decade to decade. We had to adjust some for inflation, which is a standard research method, such as median household income and per capita income, but others such as the poverty and employment rates were measured consistently over time. We used some other data, which we obtained from various New York State agencies, for things like property tax assessments and school district analysis.
The report is already facing criticism for being published in 2019 yet ending its study period in 2010. Some have argued it’s outdated and doesn’t deal with the here and now. Dealing with the here and now was not our objective. Our objective was to examine long-term economic and population trends of Adirondack communities compared to the experience of other rural areas to see if Adirondack communities stood out from other similar places. We only used data from five U.S. Census decennials (1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010) and not mid-decade estimates. The data gathered for the decennial Census is much more robust and extensive than data gathered for the various mid-decade estimates. We’re looking forward to the 2020 Census, where complete datasets will likely become available in 2022 or so, and we plan to undertake a 50-year analysis at that time.
As mentioned in the first article in this series, the period from 1970 to 2010 also coincided with the formation of the modern Adirondack Park through regional land use zoning and sustained land protection. It was very much our intent to evaluate the experiences of Adirondack communities during these critical and important decades to see if economic and population trends of Adirondack communities were fundamentally different from other rural areas.
The second major decision was in how we organized Adirondack communities for this comparison. Here, we aggregated the economic and population data of the 61 towns that were 100% within the Adirondack Park. These 61 towns go far beyond the towns in Hamilton and Essex counties, and includes many notable towns often left out of Park-wide analysis, such as Webb (Old Forge) in Herkimer County, Northampton (Northville) and Caroga in Fulton County, Franklin County towns like Tupper Lake and Vermontville, and a number of towns in Washington, St. Lawrence, Saratoga, and Clinton counties. The population of these 61 Park Towns was around 100,600 in 2010, which is 77.4% of the Park’s estimated population. We felt that a study that focused on 77.4% of the Park’s population was an excellent surrogate to examine long-term Adirondack economic and population trends.
We believe that the decision to aggregate the economic and population data for the 61 towns completely within the Blue Line was a sound one. By doing so we were not cherry-picking the data; a town was either 100% in or split by the Blue Line. The focus on the 61 towns, with 77% of the Park’s population, also provided a more nuanced study of the Adirondack experience and allowed for meaningful comparisons with other rural areas with similar population densities.
Throughout the report we referred to the 61 “Park Towns” (the 61 towns 100% within the Blue Line) and the 31 “Split Towns” (towns split by the Blue Line). We compared the experience of the 61 Park Towns to the experiences of eight other geographic areas in the lower 48 states (we omitted Hawaii and Alaska from our analysis). In all cases we aggregated the data in these areas. The areas were: 1) the 31 Split Towns; 2) the 47 towns in New York State with a population density similar to the Park Towns; 3) New York State; 4) the lower 48 U.S. states; 5) the 1,941 U.S. counties that are classified as non-metropolitan and rural under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Rural-Urban Continuum Codes” county classification system; 6) the 80 USDA counties in the Northeast U.S., from Pennsylvania to Maine; 7) 1,333 U.S. counties with a similar population density as the Park Towns; 8) the 15 counties in the Northeast U.S. with a similar population density as the Park Towns. This was our analytical framework and we felt that by using the USDA classification system or population density to organize regions to compare to the Adirondack experience we were free of any bias.
At its heart, this study compares the Adirondack Park experience to other places. There have not been enough studies in the past that examined long-term economic and population trends of Adirondack communities, and there have been even fewer that have attempted to make meaningful comparisons to other places. We believe that the Adirondack experience can only be understood when it is compared not only to what is going on in New York State or the U.S., but to other rural areas as well. Other studies have been very thorough in their study of different factors or indicators in the Adirondacks, but have not made comparisons across the country. It is one thing, for example, to compare the median household income of Essex or Hamilton county with the national median. A better analysis is to compare the median household income of 77% of the Park’s estimated population with not only the state or national medians, but also with that of other rural areas. The absence of context has bedeviled economic and population research in the Adirondacks. Here’s another example of the importance of context. It is one thing, for instance, to evaluate Adirondack Park school district enrollment and report that it is declining. It is another thing to look at declining Adirondack school districts and also look at school district enrollments across New York State and find that 88% of all school districts in the state are experiencing declining enrollments, with fully 64% of districts dropping by 25% or more.
Throughout the report, we use this framework to compare the Adirondack experience with other regions across the U.S. in two ways. First, we analyzed long-term changes in the Adirondack communities 1970 to 2010 for a variety or leading economic and population indicators. What was the rate of growth, for instance, in the median household income of the 61 Park Towns from 1970 to 2010 and how did that growth compare with other areas? Second, we analyzed how the 61 Park Towns compared to other areas in 2010. This was what we called a “snapshot” analysis. What was the median household income of the 61 Park Towns in 2010, for instance, and how did it compare to other areas? These are the standard questions and formats that we used throughout the report for the various indicators.
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 PDF and 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.
The map (above) showing the locations of the 61 Park Towns, 31 Split Towns, and 47 Rural New York Towns analyzed in this report was also updated.