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Report: Adirondack Park On Par With Rest Of Rural America

Long Pond Adirondacks
The Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the United States.

A new report by Protect the Adirondacks says the region’s economy and population from 1970 to 2010 largely mirrored that of the rest of rural America, despite environmental protection efforts. 

The 62 Adirondack communities studied outperformed rural America in some measures. According to the report, the upstate New York region had a higher median household income than 85 percent of the country’s rural population in 2010. Protect the Adirondacks Executive Director Peter Bauer says that’s not all.

“From a number of economic standpoints such as median household income, per capita income, the poverty rate, the employment rate, the self-employment rate – Adirondack communities generally were consistent with state and national trends, but in almost all cases, exceeded the trends of other rural areas in the country," says Bauer. 

The Adirondacks maintained a small, older population. Like many rural areas, it lost some 4,000 to 4,500 young people each decade to colleges and the military. But Bauer says the area was able to get at least some residents back. He says the region is particularly capable of attracting retirees, 35- to 45-year-old workers, and some young families.

“We actually saw that the Adirondacks recruits young people and recruits young people with young children in a way that’s different from other rural areas," he notes. "We don’t recruit many, but it is a positive uptick."

Peter Bauer
Credit Jesse King
Executive Director Peter Bauer presents the new report by Protect the Adirondacks in Albany, New York.

Aside from this, the report largely concluded “nothing exceptional” about the Park’s economic or population trends. Bauer says 1970-2010 was economically stagnant for all of rural America, as jobs increasingly moved to cities. If anything, he says the Adirondacks may have fared slightly better.

“Some of the rural areas in the Northeast in general are experiencing some stronger economic factors, and it probably has something to do with their proximity to major metropolitan areas up and down the East Coast," Bauer explains. 

But what’s so special, then, about being nothing special? The report dismisses a long-standing narrative in the Adirondacks: that environmental conservation efforts decimated the economy and chased away residents. The Park is largely protected by the Forest Reserve, while private land development is regulated by the New York Adirondack Park Agency and local governments. Local leaders have long said this limits the region’s community viability, but Bauer says it’s time to stop “blaming the Park.”

“The prevailing popular political narrative does not work to the long-term benefit of Adirondack communities because it misdiagnoses the realities of the Adirondack population trends and the Adirondack economy in a way that leads political leaders and community development leaders to chase false solutions, to make poor long-term investments," he explains. 

Bauer says self-employment recruitment strategies would be a good long-term investment.

“We also think that there are opportunities for collaborative efforts, where employers in the Park, and the private sector, and the government, and non-profit sector who have career-track employment opportunities can pool together to create some type of clearinghouse so we can help identify those people out there who may want to build a life in the Adirondacks," Bauer adds. 

Jerry Delaney is executive director of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board. He doesn’t completely agree with the assessment. He sees it as a response to the 2009 Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project, which he insists didn’t “blame the Park,” per se, but recognized how environmental protections factored into its economy. As a Saranac town councilman, Delaney says he’s witnessed the obstacles facing interior Park communities first-hand.

“I see a lot of resistance [from] people to move inside the Park. And that resistance has stymied growth to some extent, and it’s made it a lot easier for industry – even small industry that you would like to have inside the Park – to avoid the Park," Delaney explains. "They’re gonna set up where there’s one less layer of restrictions.”

Delaney questions some of the report’s more optimistic findings. He notes the Park’s median age increased from 31.8 years in 1970, to 45.7 years by 2010.

“The report goes on to say that we have a very low unemployment rate back in 2010," he notes. "My question is – I wish there’d been a deeper dive in this – do we have a low unemployment rate because we have a much smaller pool of employees, because we have older people in the Park and therefore they’ve taken themselves out of the workforce?”

Ultimately, Delaney would like to see a more current analysis, and both he and Protect the Adirondacks are looking forward to the 2020 Census. The Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the United States, stretching over 6 million acres and housing roughly 130,000 residents.

You can read the full Protect the Adirondack report here

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast, "A New York Minute In History."
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