People chased by extreme climate conditions are finding refuge in the Adirondack Park
By Chloe Bennett
Steph Larsen knew what she wanted in a community: A rural, friendly place where she could farm and raise her family. In 2014, Larsen and her husband Noah Weber bought land in Montana and started their farm. But their lives changed just three years later.
“The fire season in Montana was so bad that we couldn’t take our daughter, who had just turned 1, outside for any reason for six weeks,” said Larsen, 44.
The 2017 wildfires spread across 539,026 acres and cost a total of $380 million to suppress. Larsen, who was pregnant at the time, worried that the thick smoke would affect her baby and her unborn child. It was around then that she and Weber decided to move.
“As much as we loved Montana, as much as we loved the mountains and skiing and kayaking and all of the things that we were excited to do with our children, after that summer, we looked at each other and said, ‘what are we doing here?’” she said.
Larsen and Weber now live in Westport. So does their small herd of yak, which they transported from Montana. They raise and sell some of the large animals and collect their hair for fiber. Larsen said she recognizes the privilege of being able to move her family on their own terms.
This family isn’t alone in moving away from extreme weather in the U.S. Since 2008, about 10.5 million people have been displaced within the U.S. because of climate disasters, according to data from the Geneva, Switzerland-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The data only represents people who have been evacuated or sheltered, and doesn’t account for people moving on their own.
There are no legal protections for people fleeing natural disasters or major climate changes as there are for some refugees shielded under standards set at the 1951 Refugee Convention, which established international rights for asylum seekers. But migration is already happening in many parts of the world.
Journalist and author of the climate migration book “Nomad Century” Gaia Vince said countries receiving climate migrants should address the stigma surrounding migration and invest in housing, healthcare and education to accommodate new residents. Otherwise, the movement could negatively affect both existing residents and newcomers.
“The first thing to do is to plan and prepare because this is very much already underway and it’s going to become more of a problem as it starts,” said Vince, of London, England.
What climate migration could mean for the Adirondacks
Climate migrants are already seeking out the North Country.
Although the Adirondacks are experiencing population declines like most rural areas, some people are landing in the park because of its protected forests, biodiversity and the lack of severe weather. With a limited supply of affordable housing, more buyers and renters could add to the challenges of finding homes. Solutions such as a land bank in Essex County that would repair unlivable homes and stricter regulations on short term rentals have the potential to improve market conditions.
Addressing the park’s housing needs while becoming home to new residents from harsher climates could benefit the park, some residents say. The Adirondacks are mostly white with a high percentage of seasonal homeowners, many of whom seek out restaurants, recreation and other amenities. Climate migration could have a positive impact through the potential of growing the Adirondack labor force.
“This region has a major part to play in the state’s future and needs a younger population to be stewards of this place to ensure it continues to thrive,” Tiffany Rea-Fisher, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative said. “Having a potentially younger, more diverse population is a win for the park.”
Some people have felt excluded. The Adirondacks have not always fostered a safe environment for people of color, a basis for the Diversity Initiative, which launched in 2015 and has operated under the Adirondack North Country Association since 2019. Climate migration could lead to a more diverse population and inclusive culture.
“Every ecosystem needs diversity to thrive, and we are no different,” Rea-Fisher said.
Many of those who have moved to the park recently are affluent people from the West, according to real estate project manager Vinny McClelland, who lives in Keene Valley. “They’re coming from states that are getting hammered with drought and forest fires, basically,” he said.
McClelland, who works for luxury real estate agency LandVest, said the movement is also happening in places near the Adirondacks. “Across the board we’re seeing people coming to the East Coast, escaping the situation out West and globally,” McClelland said.
Escaping western fires was a large part of why Echo Only, co-owner of event venue The Station in Onchiota, moved to the Adirondacks in 2020. Only, 48, and his partner Melissa Lambert spent over a decade in Northern California in the cities of San Francisco and Middletown. During those years, they visited Lambert’s family in the Adirondacks to escape summer wildfires.
“We would leave California in the summer and come here, it would be green and 70 degrees, and we would arrive back in California, it would be 105, parched,” Only said.
After experiencing extreme heat and watching their neighbors’ homes catch fire, they decided to pack up and move to Brooklyn and then to the Adirondacks. They found a house in Saranac Lake.
“Melissa and I did not see the point of rolling the dice again every summer,” he said. “It just seemed like a matter of not if you would get burned out, but when you would get burned.”
Coupled with extreme heat, development and water availability was a concern for another resident who factored climate change into her move. Before buying a house near Indian Lake in 1999, Nanci Vineyard lived in Dallas, Texas, and then in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I moved to north Georgia and it just got hotter there, year after year,” Vineyard, 74, said. “And I thought, ‘Okay, this time I’m going to move far enough that the heat won’t catch up to me in my lifetime.’”
A friend who vacationed in the Adirondacks recommended the park, inspiring Vineyard to move without visiting the area first. Vineyard said she has no plans to leave.
“If you really get immersed in the whole big picture, there’s a lot of things besides just the temperature,” Vineyard said. “We’ve got all this water and places like Arizona and Nevada, they’re running out of water.”
The appeal of water, winter
States that rely on the Colorado River Basin, including Arizona, Nevada and California, have faced water shortages from the river’s low levels. Climate change will worsen the river’s conditions as warm and dry trends continue, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Although parts of the Adirondacks have endured dry spells, water is abundant throughout the protected park.
A lack of winter in other parts of the country is another driver for some relocating to the North Country. Andrea Armstrong, 39, and Brian Greene, 39, lived in the river city of Easton, Pennsylvania, before settling in the Adirondacks. Although there were nearby ski resorts where they lived, snow was disappearing from the area. That concerned the couple.
When the pandemic hit, Greene, who now works as an aquatic invasive species coordinator for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, said the family reevaluated their lives and started researching places that had a reliable winter season.
“The Adirondacks, it will change, there will be effects for climate change on us here,” Greene said. “We don’t know all of them, but overall, we have a fair amount of water. We’re not a super high fire risk, we’re not a high severe storm, hurricane, tornado risk area. You add all these things up, it feels like a better place.”
Housing remains an issue
Armstrong is a conservation social scientist for The Nature Conservancy and has kept an eye on climate migration. In the Adirondacks, she said, people with economic means and ties to the area will likely migrate first. To prepare for more climate migration, she said rural areas like the Adirondacks must address housing issues.
“We’re going to feel the pinch in terms of housing affordability and that will ripple in and throughout communities in the park as we see more folks wanting to put roots down here in some way, shape, or form,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong and Greene secured their home after looking at five houses in Saranac Lake, finding only three suitable to them. “We feel like we won the lottery,” Greene said.
Although the park has shrunk in population in the last decade, housing options remains a problem for many Adirondackers. But Greene said the park’s history could play an important role in the future of climate migration.
“It’s this experiment of people living inside a park with nature,” Greene said. “We specifically didn’t want this to be a national park, to wall people out.”
Greene said the park could even serve as a model for other areas of the country: “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Adirondacks could be this leading example and could have a community that is more diverse?”
Climate migration is difficult to track because there are usually other reasons for moving, including economic opportunities and political differences. But more people migrating to the Adirondacks for its climate is likely, climate scientist and Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager said.
“This environment is going to look better and better as the rest of the country looks worse and worse,” Stager said.
Climate projections showing greater safety in the Northeast played a part in Steph Larsen and Noah Weber’s decision to move East to the Adirondacks. The family found their house near Lake Champlain through community connections, which Larsen said was a great advantage. When they landed in Westport, where they operate their yak farm, Larsen said she felt at home.
“People were super friendly and welcoming,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow this is the small-town community that I had been searching for.’”
She and her family have no plans to move anywhere else.
“I wanted to feel embraced and never found that in other rural places that I lived,” she said. “But I found that here.”