By BRANDON LOOMIS
The Adirondack economy has mostly held its own in comparison to the rest of rural America since New York created the Adirondack Park Agency to regulate land uses, according to a conservation group’s demographic analysis.
Answering long-held criticisms that environmental protections have caused park communities to stagnate, Protect the Adirondacks reviewed 40 years of U.S. Census Bureau and other data that show park towns and their 130,000 inhabitants mirror national trends in some economic categories while outperforming most small communities in others.
The organization compared the cluster of 62 towns that lie entirely within the 6 million-acre park to 1,347 counties with the same median population density—a swath of rural America spanning nearly two-thirds of the contiguous 48 states but containing just a 15th of the population. The idea was to judge the small-town Adirondacks against similarly populated communities instead of the metropolitan centers that have driven most of the nation’s job and wage growth.
“There have been a lot of bogus and unfair comparisons that the Adirondacks have been held up to over the years,” Protect’s executive director, Peter Bauer, told the Adirondack Explorer.
Others who have participated in previous analyses blaming overregulation for economic stagnation were eager to see the findings, but unconvinced that strict environmental rules are economically benign.
Park communities lost opportunities when the state purchased “massive quantities of formerly productive forest lands,” said Fred Monroe, former executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. “Mines closing. The restrictions of the Adirondack Park Agency.”
Monroe was on the steering committee for the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project, a state-supported 2009 study that gave voice to local leaders’ frustrations and has been updated occasionally. In it, 49 percent of surveyed local officials blamed lack of developable land for economic stress.
To satisfy academic peer reviewers, Bauer’s report does not claim that wilderness and wild-forest protections such as the park has enacted cause economic growth. But Bauer does argue that the results suggest that development restrictions have not hurt.
“If what was happening in the park in any way stood out because of environmental or land-use controls,” he said, “we would see it.”
This comparison found the Adirondacks excelling in employment and income growth, but lagging in population retention—especially among young people. The park attracts 30-somethings with professions better than most rural areas, but not in sufficient numbers to replace the college-age kids who leave.
The following data from Protect’s report—“The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010”—track each of the five 10-year census reports generated since the year before the Adirondack Park Agency’s creation.
Over 40 years, Protect found:
- Inflation-adjusted median household income in the park grew 7.5 percent—better than 1,087 counties that are home to 67 percent of rural America’s population. New York as a whole saw income growth of just 0.7 percent. (The park household median of $49,681 in 2010 remained more than $12,000 behind the statewide figure, but grew faster. Park incomes were higher than 72 percent of all U.S. counties.)
- Of 80 rural Northeast counties with comparable population density from northern Maine to southwestern Pennsylvania, only 16 saw better median income growth than the Adirondacks. Ten of those were in scenic destinations in coastal Maine, central New Hampshire or north-central Vermont.
- The park’s employment rate for people 16 and older—53.8 percent in 2010—grew by more than 12 percent, a faster clip than the state, rural America and all but 12 of the rural Northeast counties. (The actual employment rate, though, was higher statewide and in 10 of 11 rural Vermont counties. It was lower in just over half of the nation’s rural counties.)
- The park’s poverty rate started out 2.5 percent higher than the state’s in 1970, but grew by just 1.6 percent while the state’s, nation’s and most of rural America’s rates surpassed it. New York’s poverty rate grew by 6.9 percent; the nation’s by 4.5 percent. (The study defines poverty in 2010 as an income of less than $22,050 for a family of four.)
- As the U.S. population grew by half, the Adirondack population gained just 11.6 percent. A little over half of rural American counties grew faster than the park towns did.
“Our population numbers are not as strong as other rural areas,” Bauer acknowledged, “but we’re in the middle of the pack.”
The Adirondacks are aging in some ways that don’t mimic much of rural America—and in others that do. During the study period, the park’s median age rose by almost 14 years, to roughly 46. The national median age was 37.
Self-employment grew in the park while it shrank in most of rural America in numbers reflecting the decline of family farms. Scenic rural areas of New England also outperformed rural America, Bauer said, perhaps signaling opportunities for such growth in natural settings within a manageable distance from the Northeast’s metros. He noted that Vermont—a state just slightly larger than the Adirondack Park—pays people to relocate from other states if they bring a remote job with them.
“Self-employment is something that the Adirondacks certainly should focus on,” he said.
Vermont’s record at attracting a rural work force and restocking rural schools is mixed, though the state’s economic development chief said the new payment program shows promise.
In the decade since the Great Recession—an era that won’t be in Protect’s study until an update with the 2020 Census—rural Vermont has not recovered the population and school-age children it lost, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said.
“We need more people,” she said. “We need more work force. We need more students in the schools.” Otherwise, fewer people bear the burden of paying for services with fixed costs.
Like the Adirondack Park, Vermont carefully scrutinizes land uses, Goldstein said, to the point that some people and communities complain that it inhibits growth. The state has a land-use law, on top of any local zoning, and the layers can affect everything from the placement of a church steeple to a cellular tower.
Scenery and environmental protection add value, she said, but there’s no knowing what regulation might cost.
“How do you measure the growth that (otherwise) would have happened?” she said. “It’s impossible.”
Still, peace and quiet clearly are an economic draw in Vermont. Since January, when the state started paying up to $10,000 over two years to remote workers who relocate there, 26 employees in families with 66 people had moved for it by April. Most are well-paid and under 40, Goldstein said, and they have chosen rural towns—just as Goldstein did when she moved from New York City.
“Everyone thought they would move to Burlington. Not true,” she said. “Most of them moved from urban, metropolitan America. I’m also an urban refugee, if you will. I wanted to move to what I think of as Vermont.
“You want the space. You want the beauty.”
The payments are reimbursements for moving and business expenses, and are available only for people who bring full-time, remote-work jobs with them—not freelancers. Goldstein said there’s now a push to get the state to make similar payments to workers moving to Vermont to take jobs with local companies, who are struggling to recruit.
Over the last few decades Adirondack families have had fewer children, Bauer found, declining from more than one child per adult of child-bearing age to just over one per two adults in 2010. Less than a tenth of U.S. counties saw such a precipitous decline, and nearly nine out of 10 rural counties had higher birth rates.
“We behave like New York City,” Bauer said.
Like much of rural America, though, the park has lost 20-somethings but gained mid-career 30-somethings over the years. Those numbers have not balanced—the lost youths have outnumbered the older workers—though the park has continued to grow in part by attracting young retirees better than other rural places.
Protect’s report suggests creating a dedicated fund, perhaps through lodging or real-estate transfer taxes, to promote the kinds of community assets or Vermont-style incentives that can attract more retirees and self-employed professionals, while boosting local college and training options for young people.
Mostly, though, it asks Adirondackers to stop blaming environmental protections.
“Adirondack economic and population trends are fully consistent with the experience of other rural areas across the U.S.,” the report concludes.
Monroe believes a 2014 update of the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project shows otherwise. Especially troubling was its finding that hundreds of school-age children leave the park each year—he believes because of lack of jobs for their parents. Surrounding communities do better, he said.
“It’s very obvious that there’s something different going on inside the blue line than there is just outside the blue line,” he said.
Properties just outside the park benefit from the best of both worlds and have values to show it, a Clarkson University economist has found in his own studies. Properties throughout the park gain value by proximity to pristine lands, Prof. Martin Heintzelman said, and those just outside the line may gain even more because they enjoy that proximity without the restrictions.
Overall, Heintzelman said, environmental protection plays up the park’s assets, while remoteness is the primary economic impediment.
“The Adirondacks have a level of natural amenities that are (the park’s) main comparative advantage,” he said, “and those natural amenities are what drive the Adirondack economy, not restrain it.”