School enrollment in most Adirondack school districts has dropped over the past decade, many by more than 10% and some by more than 20%. (Source: Attracting New Residents Report)

The Adirondack region of New York has 3,000 lakes and ponds, 30,000 miles of waterways, and millions of acres of stunning views and productive forests. 

What it doesn’t have enough of is young people to fuel the region’s economy, according to a report from a nonprofit organization that works with forest communities in four Northeastern states.

“The crisis today is that there are simply not enough young people to sustain Adirondack communities,” says the report, produced by the Northern Forest Center

The document’s goal is “to provide community leaders and local, regional, and state nonprofits and public entities with a guide for creating the conditions that may help attract a new generation of residents to the Adirondacks and encourage young people who have left to return.”

Concern about attracting young people will sound familiar to most rural residents, but especially to “public-lands communities.” These are populated areas – towns and small cities – that lie near large swaths of publicly owned land like national parks, Bureau of Land Management holdings, and national and state forests. 

The Adirondacks, a state-managed region that is one of the earliest examples of a public-private conservation effort, is unique. But we’ve heard many “public-lands communities” asking the same questions this report raises:  

  • How do local residents earn a living when the forest industry shrinks? 
  • How do you build an economy that is more than low-paying, seasonal tourism-industry jobs? 
  • How do you attract working families who can sustain local schools, build a new generation of leadership, and create new forms of economic opportunity?
  • How do rural areas address issues of diversity and inclusion?

To discuss these questions, the Daily Yonder spoke with Maura Adams, director of community investment at the Northern Forest Center. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

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Tim Marema: Can you describe the Adirondack region and the park? What is unique about it and how is it similar to other public lands areas in the United States?

Maura Adams: The Adirondack Park was established in the 19th century [1892] for watershed protection and for a general recognition that it’s good for people to have parks and that open space is good. It was one of these early recognitions of this intrinsic value in having protected land. One of the most unique things about it is that public land and private land are all right in the [park]. There are many, many towns and villages and hamlets within the park, and there’s still an active timber harvesting industry. So you run up all the time into what you can do on this public land. What you can’t do on this private land. The Adirondack Park Agency has a lot of sway over rules and regulations, over what can occur on private land. There’s been some tension there. You’re living in private spaces and private lands within some public governance even if the land you own is not itself protected.

Marema: A recipe for complexity, it sounds like.

Adams: It is very much the recipe for complexity and occasionally conflict.

Marema: Geographically, what are the Adirondacks?

Adams: It’s nearly 6 million acres of mountains. There’s high peaks. [The highest point is Mount Marcy at 5,344 feet.] There’s really tremendous waterways and lakes. The towns and villages are quite spread apart. Any one place, generally you feel really remote. You have to drive a long way to get to the nearest grocery store or anything like that. But once you get into those towns and villages, many of them have a really strong community feel, really have identified themselves as special, individual places. Many of them are very much seasonal tourist destinations with a very high percentage of second homeowners and tourist traffic. But there are many year-round residents [approximately 130,000] who are making their livelihood in this place as well. Who have been having an increasingly difficult time doing that in the past few decades with the changes and decline of the forest industry.

Marema: Your report focuses on bringing young people to the region. Why is this so important for the future of a community?

Adams: Well, for one thing we are not against old people, we are very clear about that. But if [that’s] all you have … if you hollow out this generation of people with kids and people who are filling the active workforce, you don’t have people who are keeping the schools going. You don’t have enough people who are being on town boards or volunteering for the fire department or who are there to spend money in local businesses. The civic institutions that just require a younger, active population just aren’t there. You can’t keep a community going without them. If everyone is aging and there’s no one in that core demographic to fill jobs, to keep kids in schools, etc., you don’t have the prosperous future as a community.

Marema: I assume that the many of the year-round residents might be people who have retired there?

Adams: Yes. There’s a lot of retirees. They bring a lot of capacity. They do volunteer for things, they get involved, but they aren’t filling jobs. They’re not having kids in schools. They’re not meeting those same needs.

Marema: With the unique land-use restrictions in the park, what kinds of economic activity are likely or probable or advisable? What are the economic options for communities within the Adirondacks?

Adams: Well, the greatest employer is public sector. Most people work in the public sector in schools, in healthcare, in prisons. There’s a large prison at the very northern part of the Adirondacks near the Canadian border. There still are forest industry jobs. There’s sawmills. There is some timber harvest allowed on private lands within certain constraints developed by the Adirondack Park Agency. There are lots of seasonal businesses or tourism oriented businesses. Increasingly, there are people working remotely. That is a thing — something that we would like to see and anticipate increasing as broadband allows, which we know is a kind of a chicken and egg problem, but if there’s not enough people then there’s not quite enough demand, and there’s not as much motivation to make it happen. But people absolutely need broadband, if they’re going to try to move up permanently and work remotely.

Marema: Among different suggestions in your report, you lay out a way communities can start to talk about these issues and plan for the future. You have questions in there that they should be asking. I thought that was an interesting approach and not always one that we see in community and economic development planning. It often runs kind of the other direction — from the top down. Why do you think it’s important for the communities themselves to be at the center of this planning process?

Adams: If a community’s going to succeed long term, our feeling is that there needs to be broad community buy-in, that there need to be diverse employment opportunities. There need to be multiple ways for people to make a living, to plug into the community, to make it thrive. If you don’t start exploring that and building it as a community with diverse interests and talents and motivations, you’re not going to achieve that. If the top down approach is more like someone says, “I know what should happen for this place, I’m to put a ‘whatever’ here, and that’s going to be the solution.” Well, that’s well and good, but just having jobs, let’s say you put a prison in a town, which a lot of people have thought of as an economic development tool. If you put a prison in town, OK, now you have jobs, but do you have a place that people want to live?

Do you have a place that’s going to attract people and make them want to raise their families there? Maybe not. If you start with, how do we create the conditions that attract a diverse and motivated group of people who want to dig in and make this their place? You start by looking at who’s in the community now. Who’s motivated to do what? What are we doing well? How do we differentiate ourselves from other places? What are our strengths? What can we say, we are really great at this? People should live here because XYZ.

Then keep asking those questions of themselves and saying, “OK, well, yes, this is great. We’re wonderful in this and that way. But our downtown looks pretty shabby or there’s really no quality rental housing or we really need to do more work on getting trail access to town, because we know that people like recreation so much or whatever that may be.” We’re really encouraging towns to take a critical and objective look at their strengths and weaknesses that is going to help them start prioritizing. “If we know this is where we are now, here’s how we can amplify the things that we’re doing well, and here’s the gaps we need to fill. Let’s create a really specific work plan about how we can draw on our existing talent and capital and connections to build out those things that we’re not as strong at yet.”

Marema: Given that each community is going to have its own assets and areas for improvement, is there anything you can say about what success might look like for the region? Is there anything in common these places would have if they are successful?

Adams: It’s interesting to scale up between the community and the region. What we’ve seen in other places in the Northern forest is that communities really need to capitalize on their natural assets. Not every town is going to have the same secret to success that some have really excellent recreation amenities and are going to do better if that’s what they emphasize and they really say, “Let’s become a world-class destination for whatever that recreation activity may be,” versus, “OK, we don’t have the best trails or the best waterways or the highest mountains, but we are a really great small town to live and raise your family.” Those are not necessarily the same place, but all the places that are doing well, I think acknowledge and celebrate what they are. When you scale up and start looking at this region, you see this constellation of places that are right for certain kinds of people.

Some people don’t want to just live in a small town that’s great to live and raise a family. They want to live in the absolute recreation hub, where you can go downhill skiing at lunchtime and other people are not going to need that so much, but need something else in a town. I think regional success means that there’s a diversity of communities that are thriving in their own way that give potential new residents a wide option of great places to live and really create for a richer landscape. Because we know that any one community is not going to have everything for everyone. But if there’s lots of communities that are doing well, it creates a much richer and more appealing region.

Marema:  Is there anything [in the report and its recommended process] that you think might help other rural areas that are dealing with some similar issues? How to thrive when much of your land is held by the public or controlled by public agencies?

Adams: Yeah. I think one way to do that is to focus on those public lands as being an asset that, “OK, we know they are publicly held. They’re going to be publicly held.” Instead of continuing to think of that as a barrier to growth. How do we start recognizing that this is appealing to so many people, and it’s not just, “this public land is going to attract tourists.” We need more answers than tourism. I think there’s national studies on recreation counties really attracting younger generations to live there. As remote work picks up, people are going to want to live near places that have great natural scenic amenities, where they can live, where they play essentially. If we can start building up more recreation assets on public lands, that’s going to be very attractive to a new generation.

We know that people who would be interested in moving to the Adirondacks, that’s really a major, major draw is the recreation opportunity, which there are constraints on what you can do on public land there, but on most of them recreation is pretty available. I would say that’s the thing to play up is that, activate those public lands essentially as really excellent recreation destinations, not to the exclusion of local community. This is where you don’t want the state or the, the federal government necessarily coming in and popping down a bunch of money and saying, “Hey, we think there should be a XYZ here.”

But it’s more about the community saying, “we need an opportunity to have this kind of amenity.” Or you have a really passionate, involved group of mountain bikers. You say, we want to make this a quaint mountain biking destination. They start putting in the capital and the, you know, their time to developing that economy. Gradually you can see that built. But I wouldn’t suggest, again, coming from the top down. 

Marema:  What did I not ask about that you think is significant and should be mentioned or reinforced?

Adams: I think just that the notion of diversification on the landscape is really important. We can’t just have conserved lands. Conserved lands are really important in the Adirondacks and in general. [But there is also value] in maintaining some land in private hands to continue the forest economy. There still is a thriving forest economy in the Adirondacks. It’s a lot less than it used to be, but it is still there and very important. As is the recreation economy and the emerging work-from-home economy.

When these things are held in balance, we’re going to see much stronger communities than if they’re dominated by any one sector. To that end, I think it creates a natural opportunity for common ground between different sectors, people holding different kind of values, perhaps, and priorities where conservation is going to work better if it has buy-in from everyone. There’s going to be more people wanting to work in the forest economy and be part of that and live here and keep your communities going if the natural assets are intact. I see this diversification of the rural economy and balancing uses as really, really important to continue attracting new people, making these communities viable and sustaining that the landscape and it’s places indefinitely.