Tourism no cure-all for Adirondacks
Over Memorial Day weekend, I spent a couple nights camping in the Adirondacks, at the state campground on Paradox Lake.
I camped a lot growing up, but it had been quite some time since I’d slept in a tent, eaten food cooked on a little camp stove or campfire and shared a small, Spartan bathhouse with complete strangers. And though it was a short trip, it was long enough for me to rediscover the joys of camping: the immersion in nature, proximity to lakes and mountains, nightly campfires. We canoed and hiked and read and cooked lobsters and steaks over an open fire.
There were other people at the campground, but it never felt crowded, and our site was fairly secluded. And on our hike up the less-traveled Treadway Mountain, we didn’t see anybody at all. It was great.
For me, one of the more appealing aspects of a sojourn in the woods is the peace and quiet it affords.
But there’s a big difference between being a visitor and a resident, and the very qualities that might make the Adirondacks appealing to outsiders such as myself — the remoteness, lack of people and the huge expanses of wilderness — might pose a hardship for the people who call the region home. And a new report paints a grim portrait of life inside the Adirondack Park — of an area that has been in decline for decades.
It finds that the park’s population is dropping at a steadily increasing pace, and that fewer young adults and families are living there. It notes that school enrollments are decreasing by about 2.5 percent a year and that volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services are struggling to recruit members. If current trends hold, by 2030 the park’s population will drop to 115,000, which is about how many people lived there during the early 1970s. Back then, the median age of park residents was 31; in 2030 it is projected to rise to 51.
The report was put together by the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project and is a follow-up to a 2009 report. The research team included Brad Dake, a Hamilton County resident who helped oversee the study, and community planning experts from The LA Group of Saratoga Springs.
The release of the report comes at an interesting time.
One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s big initiatives is boosting upstate tourism, and he’s been a big cheerleader for the Adirondacks, even bringing a group of lawmakers up there for a day in March.
I have nothing against tourism — in fact, I love being a tourist — and I think upstate New York has a lot to offer the discerning traveler or outdoor enthusiast. But I’ve often wondered about tourism as an economic development tool, and whether communities that depend on a steady influx of seasonal visitors can thrive. I’m sure there are people who visit the Adirondacks and spend a lot of money. But my weekend on Paradox Lake was really cheap. If tourism is going to revive the Adirondacks, it won’t be because of people like me, whose purchases are limited mainly to firewood and trail mix.
After looking over the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment report, I caught up with Dake. He identified the loss of young adults as the Adirondacks’ key problem, and suggested that only full-time, year-round employment will be able to stem the tide.
“I’m not too enthusiastic when I see government pushing tourism as a quick way out,” he said. “You can’t be totally reliant on tourism.” Even communities that appear to be thriving, such as Lake Placid, are seeing a drop in school enrollment. And for college graduates, the area has little to offer beyond jobs in education and government.
“The loss of young adults is the most alarming trend,” Dake said. “In any community, you need a certain number of people to form a critical mass.”
Dake has lived in the Adirondacks for about 30 years and has seen school systems merge and restaurants, stores, hotels, entertainment venues and other businesses close over the years. He described the pleasure of living in a rural area — “I’ve got 100,000 acres of state land in front of me and behind me, too” — and also the frustration: “Having to drive between 35 and 40 miles to get to a drug store or a Price Chopper, that’s a long ways to go.”
Land tied up
I asked Dake whether he felt that too much of the land in the Adirondacks was publicly owned.
“The biggest single problem is not that there’s too much public land, but that there’s too much land that can’t be used,” Dake said.
According to the APRA report, state-owned “forever wild” lands now account for 45 percent of the Adirondack Park land area, while state-owned conservation easements account for another 13 percent, which means that about 58 percent of the park is restricted from future development. Transferring forever wild lands to another owner or user requires an amendment to the state constitution.
I regard New York’s undeveloped wilderness as an asset and generally believe that the state’s commitment to maintaining and acquiring public land is a good thing.
But the APRA report raises important questions that need to be addressed, about how best to balance environmental and ecological concerns with the needs of park residents.
I’m hoping to return to the Adirondacks soon to hike and swim. It’s an area I love to visit and try to get to three or four times a summer. But could I live up there? No, I don’t think so.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at email@example.com or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.