ADIRONDACKS — In the Adirondacks, hamlets outside the most popular tourist corridors -- think Indian Lake or Newcomb -- don't have enough people to support supermarkets, and the hallways of their schools get emptier every year.
The population losses and economic struggles of those communities reflect general trends in rural America more than the impact of state-imposed Adirondack Park environmental restrictions, a new report contends.
"Far from unique, the economic and population challenges facing the Adirondacks are the norm in rural America," concludes the report, "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010.
The report was prepared and published by Protect the Adirondacks!, one of the Adirondacks' environmental organizations, with the intention of countering an argument sometimes heard from local governments that Adirondack Park land-use restrictions have dampened the region's economic prospects.
"While the Adirondack Park has an exceptional, internationally recognized landscape of mountains, forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers, there is nothing exceptional about the long-term economic or population trends of Adirondack communities," said Peter Bauer, Protect the Adirondacks' executive director. "What is happening in the Adirondacks is the same thing that is happening across rural America."
The modern-day rules governing development in the park date from creation of the Adirondack Park Agency in 1973, which is why Protect's Bauer said he wanted to go back that far in evaluating population and economic development trends.
The region, with nearly six million acres spread across all or part of 12 counties, has a spread out population of about 130,000, which the report finds didn't start declining until after 2000. However, it has seen an aging of its population and a decline in the number of school-age children, while struggling to attract people in their prime career earning years.
By any measure, the Adirondacks qualify as rural: They have the least-populated county in the state, Hamilton County, which has a year-round population estimated to be less than 5,000. The park's most-populated village, Saranac Lake, has about 5,400 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The burden imposed by state regulations is a frequent complaint of local officials, and the Protect report is unlikely to change that.
"(Bauer)'s trying to make the point that [the] Adirondacks are no different than anywhere else in rural America, and we just don't think that's true," said Fred Monroe of Chestertown, a spokesman for the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, which represents local governments inside the Adirondack Park.
Monroe is a former director of the local government group, and spent years sitting as the local government representative at Adirondack Park Agency board meetings. He said that personally, he thinks state land acquisitions have hurt the local economies more than the kinds of zoning controls the APA administers.
The state owns about half the land in the park as "forever wild" forest land, and nearly 800,000 additional acres are privately owned, but under conservation easements that prevent their development for non-forestry purposes.
"I have long believed, even though I spent many years sitting with APA commissioners, that it's not so much the APA as it is the state land acquisitions," Monroe said. "A century ago, we had an economy that was based on foresting and mines, and now those mines are closed and land (that might otherwise be forested) is forever wild."
"We had a tri-legged economy with forestry, mining and tourism, and tourism alone cannot make up for all of that when the other two go away," Monroe said. "Maybe in some places like Saranac/Lake Placid it can, or Lake George it can, but a lot of the rest of the park, it can't."
Bauer said the 77-page report, written by himself and James Long of Caroga Lake, has been in development -- with various fits and starts -- for the last three years. It includes numerous color-coded maps showing how rural counties across the United States have suffered population declines, which have resulted in businesses leaving, as well.
When compared to other rural areas across the country, in the Northeast and in New York state, the downward trends are less severe in the Adirondacks, according to the report.
"These are not good times for rural America, with population declines across the country. There are whole counties without a supermarket," Bauer said. "The report generally found that from an economic standpoint, the Adirondack communities fared better than a lot of rural America."
Brad Dake, a former chairman of the town of Arietta planning board in Hamilton County who researched the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project reports in 2009 and 2014, said that report predicted continuing significant declines in population, but did so taking a different approach than the Protect the Adirondacks report. The 2014 report, he noted, had assistance from Cornell University demographers.
“We’re comparing in a sense apples to oranges," Dake said. "I just think it is highly irrelevant. Their study looks at 1970 to 2010, and we know the park is in decline right now. It will lose 7,000 people in this decade and probably 10,000 in the decade after that. I think it will drop to 115,000 (residents) in the next decade, and those are significant, significant losses.”
The school enrollment inside the Adirondack Park, he said, dropped from 21,399 in 1995-96, to an estimated 14,605 students in 2017-2018.
Dake declined to get into why the population is declining, saying the APRAP study was only meant to provide information.
Bauer said the Protect the Adirondacks report was written to counter the common narrative that population declines are due to the environmental protections in the park, and in hope of influencing the thinking of state policymakers in Albany.
"We have this constant insinuation that declines in population are due to the environmental restrictions in the park, and that simply isn't true," Bauer said.