Report: Adirondack economy is like much of rural U.S.

Shows population, income trends sometimes better in Blue Line, but also that Adirondackers are older with fewer children

The back cover of Protect the Adirondacks’ “The Adirondack Park and Rural America” report features Tupper Lake’s Park Street. (Image provided)

Earlier this month, the Essex County Board of Supervisors repeated a common, woeful refrain as it passed a resolution calling on the state to not close prisons in the North Country.

“The County of Essex has during the past 50 years experienced a sharp and extreme loss in industry due to the closure of mills, mines and other heavy and light industry and the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency and stringent conservation laws which have made it cost prohibitive for industry and most businesses to operate within Essex County,” the resolution read. “The County of Essex … is one of the most underdeveloped, remote and economically depressed counties in the State of New York with 42% of all land located within the county designated as ‘Forever Wild’ … which leaves little or no opportunity for economic growth.”

Protect the Adirondacks, an environmental advocacy group, is challenging that longstanding assertion that environmental protections have limited the economic opportunities within the Adirondacks. Over the last two years, it compared and contrasted decades of census and economic data on the Adirondack towns and counties with rural areas all over the U.S. Protect’s new report, titled “The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010,” shows that while the Adirondacks have declined in some ways, those changes are largely in line with other rural areas that don’t have stringent environmental protections.

For instance, Protect found that the poverty rate in the towns and counties in the Adirondacks has gone up, but not as much as in other rural areas since 1970, just before the state established the Adirondack Park Agency to regulate land use. The group also found that the Adirondacks had better population growth than the rest of New York state, and that median household income has increased more than most of the other rural counties in the Northeast.

Adjusted for inflation, households within the Adirondacks saw their income rise by 7.5% from 1970 to 2010. In the Northeast, other low-density counties saw household income fall over the same period by 5.4%.

“From 1970 to 2010, the poverty rate of the Park Towns increased by 1.6 percentage points,” the report says. “This was less than the New York State increase of 6.9 percentage points and the U.S. increase of 4.5 percentage points.

“The Park Towns’ 2010 poverty rate was lower than that of 2,261 U.S. Counties, home to 69% of the U.S. population.”

The most recent census data for Protect to look at is from 2010. Executive Director Peter Bauer said his group, based in North Creek, will revisit the report after the next census.

While the findings show that economic growth hasn’t been as bad in the Adirondacks as it has in much of rural America, the age of the Adirondack population has risen more than most of the rest of the state and country.

“The median age of a region is an important measure because it is informative about the needs and activities of the population,” the report says. “A younger median age shows, potentially, a high number of families with children and young people who can grow the work force. An older median age shows a high number of people at the end of their working careers or in retirement.

“The Park Towns’ 1980 median age of 31.8 years was higher than all other regions studied in this report, except for New York State, which was 31.9 years. Thirty years later, in 2010, the Park Towns saw its median age increase to 45.7 years, which was the highest of all areas in this report. Whereas the Park Towns showed consistent or better economic performances than national averages, its median age is an outlier.”

The park is even more of an outlier in that it is losing children faster than most of the country. From 1970 to 2010, the ratio of children to adults of childbearing age decreased faster in the Adirondacks than in all but 7% of U.S. counties. Compared with 80 other rural counties in the Northeast, only four, all in Pennsylvania, had seen that ratio decrease more.

In its Final Thoughts, Protect argues that their findings rebut the arguments made against environmental regulation, and notes that there are some bright spots in population growth.

“The Adirondack Park has been held up as a bold experiment in conservation and environmental protection,” it says. “At the same time, the impacts on the local economy and population have been argued about with anecdotes or limited data, such as comparing some indicator for an Adirondack county with that of the New York State average.

“Difficult questions have seldom received thorough examination. Through careful analysis in this report, we have shown that the economic and population trends of Adirondack communities over the past 40 years are consistent with those of other rural areas, even as environmental protections have advanced significantly.”

The full report can be found at www.protecttheadirondacks.org/adirondack-park-and-rural-america.

To read the complete report, visit https://protecttheadirondacks.org/adirondack-park-and-rural-america/.

Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.

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