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Troubles in the Adirondack Park

September 26, 2009
Joe Hackett, Enterprise Outdoors Columnist

In recent months, there have been a number of articles written about the recent Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Report, a research document that investigated issues concerning Adirondack communities, population trends, employment opportunities and the economic state of the region.

The report revealed a number of disturbing trends that will affect life in the Park in coming years. One of the most alarming concerns the aging of the Park's year-round residents.

According to the report, the Adirondack population is aging at a pace that is roughly three times the national average. Indeed, the average age of year-round, "inside the Park" residents is nearly five years older than the state average.

Communities inside the Blue Line have experienced a median age increase of nearly nine years, while the median age of out-of-the-Park communities has risen by only three years in the same time frame.

Possibly of greatest concern is the ever-declining population of residents under the age of 10, which is compounded by an exodus of residents between the ages of 20 and 35. For young families, these are typically the child-bearing years.

On a national level, students in grades K-12 make up 18 percent of the population. In the park, K-12 students represent only 13.5 percent of the population.

This exodus is reflected in the fact that school enrollments in the Park have decreased by more than 325 students annually throughout the current decade. This loss represents the equivalent loss of one average-size Adirondack school district every 19 months.

The loss of our youth is a wound that is hemorrhaging in nearly every town. At stake are local schools, community identity and the future of the Park. One of the most unique aspects of the Adirondack Park is the mix of wilderness lands surrounding small, working communities. It is a park that includes people on the inside rather than excluding them to the periphery of its borders.

Many of the region's smaller communities are shrinking as young people leave to seek educational or employment opportunities. Compounding the situation is the realization that second-home owners and seasonal residents are rapidly becoming a majority in many of these communities.

Hal Ketchum, a country singer hailing from Greenwich, a typical small town in upstate New York, captured the mood on his hit single, "Small Town, Saturday night." It is easy to relate to the lyrics as he laments, "You know that the world must be flat, because once people leave town they never look back. ... They go 90 miles an hour to the city limit sign and put the pedal to the metal before they change their mind."

Whether it is Greenwich or Tupper Lake, the outlook of opportunity for our young people is not terribly promising. One out of every three jobs in the Park is with the local, state or federal government. Tourism and the service industry fuels employment opportunities for another third of the population.

Issues such as production capabilities, transportation deficiencies and restrictions on construction and development continue to limit the scope of alternative opportunities.

Go back to see the future

If Adirondack communities are going to grow rather than continue to condense, there must be a future that holds the promise of a decent wage to earn a living that can support a family.

Rather than search for a mythical star in the sky that will instantly bring prosperity to the region, I would argue that we look backward.

During the time frame of the heydays of the Adirondacks, the late 1880s through the early 1900s, most of the communities in the Park thrived. It was a time of grand hotels, guides and Great Camps. It is our heritage and history; it is hard to deny.

With the growing number of colleges in and around the Park now offering degree programs in outdoor recreation, ecotourism management, expeditionary studies and wilderness recreation leadership; it may be time to consider future opportunities for local youth to fill the ranks.

With the development of vocational-education programs to serve as feeders through a BOCES-level program that offers caretaker services, nature interpretation or guide training rather than auto repair or cosmetology, students could be better prepared for regional employment.

If there such courses and a career path available, it may serve to alleviate the perceived "Adirondack brain drain" that is plaguing our local communities. Additionally, a program may offer nontraditional students and opportunity to pursue a higher education. In a region with such a long and storied history of service industries devoted to tourism and summer camps, outdoor recreation and winter sports, why try to reinvent the wheel?

This is an industry that has fed the Park's residents for over a century. With the proper enhancements, it is an industry that can benefit future generations.

Consider that Plattsburgh State offers a bachelor degree program in expeditionary studies, North Country Community College has an associate's degree in wilderness recreation leadership, Paul Smith's College offers two- and four-year programs in outdoor recreation and ecotourism management, Potsdam State has a minor in outdoor recreation management, St. Lawrence University also has a minor in outdoorrecreation and students in Adirondack Community College's Adventure Sports Program finish with an associate's degree that includes certifications for National Ski Patrol, ski instructors, New York state guide licenses in rock and ice climbing, whitewater rafting and more.

The outdoor recreation industry is also currently experiencing a re-genderfication of the field. Outdoor leaders are no longer strictly men.

There are numerous female guides currently working in the region. Indeed, the Association of Naturalist Interpreters is now composed of more women than men, and I believe the trend will continue.

Female caretakers are becoming more common as well. Camp owners have explained that women are preferred because "they're more detail oriented" and "can be usually be located when needed, even during the hunting season."

A very successful Adirondack guide program has been offered to Warren County youth for several years. Organized by the 4-H program at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Education Center in Warrensburg, the program gives teenagers an opportunity to gain knowledge in the biological sciences and develop teaching and leadership skills.

Participants advance from the apprentice guide level through intermediate to full senior Adirondack guide status. Activities include field trips and classes, canoe and hiking trips, and community-service projects. Participants learn map-and-compass and GPS navigation; canoeing; tree, plant, wildflower and wildlife identification; environmental education techniques; woods lore and safety; Red Cross first-aid and lifeguard training; outdoor clothing and equipment preparation; wilderness trip coordination and more.

Participants have the opportunity to work with licensed Adirondack guides, forest rangers, fish and wildlife biologists, foresters, and skilled woodsmen.

The program is conducted in an informal atmosphere, conducive to building confidence and self-esteem. It may provide a model for the development of a similar, vocation-education program to be offered on a BOCES level in local school districts.



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