2037 A:  Wild Park

This is what the Adirondack Park has always been in the minds of the rest of New York State and indeed the world: open, green, wet, with incredible vistas and deeply silent.  It is an island of wild, a haven of peace and tranquility located within a days’ drive of some 100 million people.  New Yorkers are notoriously proud people and, as NYC is the greatest city in the world, this is the world’s greatest achievement in wilderness preservation.  Article 14 remains its foundation and the courts have continued to provide protection against shifting public attitudes and opportunistic politicians. This is the goose that laid this golden egg and the APA and especially DEC are clear that preserving this wild experience is their mission, with economic and even ecosystem health secondary. It is not about balance. They have recommitted to limiting human structures, motorized, noisy vehicles, large developments, and any encroachment on the Forest Preserve. Land use regulation for the Forest Preserve is designed around a hands-off approach that maximizes old growth forest and natural processes. The Forest Preserve is larger and more contiguous. Private land use regulation is tighter with fewer exceptions for developers. The people who live here want to live here and love the wild nature of the Park.

Many treat this special place as ‘their secret’ that would be spoiled by too many visitors – better not brag about it too loudly lest it get too popular.  It never has supported lots of people.  Even the Native Americans in pre-historic time only visited here; they didn’t live here.  “Leave no trace” is a long-standing tag line with real meaning.  From an environmental point of view, too many people mean more generalist species that go where humans go and crowd out the rarer wild species.  The Park’s diverse ecosystem has turned out to be a resilient one, better able to fight off invasives and adapt to climate change than other parts of the State.

Today, in a world of water wars and a warmer climate, people realize there is economic value in large scale ecosystem services: water filtration and carbon sequestration.  The Park produces amazing amounts of fresh water – it can flush salt out of the Hudson when needed.  Old, untouched forests are different from managed forests that require roads and machinery. 

The Park, largely, built from land abandoned in economic crises in the 1890s and 1931 is a symbol of recovery – proof that man-made insults to the land do heal, if given time.  The healing of nature seems to heal people spiritually too. The citizens of New York State and those in its government entrusted with this treasure take the long view of what they are doing.  They won’t exploit this place for short term gain.  The forest will adapt to the threats around it because it is larger and less populated than any other in US.  No less wild, the ecosystem in 2150 will be fine, just different - as different perhaps as 2037’s ecosystem is from that of 1900.

People got really scared when water quality began to tangibly decline in the Park.  Large late summer algae blooms in lakes and streams became pervasive, ugly and stinky.  Many stream-side farmers, lake front owners and Town road crews voluntarily organized to clean up septic, runoff and road salt problems.  In Adirondack style, they did it themselves because they had to, to enjoy the life they wanted, not because the government said so.  The Park continues to be a major research center for impacts of climate change, acid rain and invasives.  Leading NGOs in the region are more unified to protect the Park. NGOs nationally have collaborated to eliminate mercury deposition and other ecosystem threats. The Park’s communities suffer from the same problems as those faced by other northern forest regions: poor infrastructure, difficult transportation, abandonment by extraction industries, and an aging population.  But, the Park is not the problem. 

2037 B:  A Usable Park

The idea is to put PARK back in this place.  The Park is not a museum piece or a time capsule.  In fact, the economy and the environment beneficially re-enforce each other.  People come to this world famous Park because it is such a beautiful place and a place with amenities that support people living and playing in harmony with nature.  Even in a bad economy, people will take time off for recreation and people will retire.  These two big trends are the engine of the Park economy’s upturn.  It is a vibrant, robust place where human energy is harnessed in the form of recreation.  The wild parts of the Park have become more wild and the developed places, like the major highway corridors, more developed.  Huge improvements in fuel efficiency allow cars to remain cost effective for transport even in such a spread out area.  Expanded flights at airports around the edges of the Park have facilitated access by visitors from afar.

The Park’s integrated recreation plan spreads out different types of uses for different users. From limited mobility golden agers to the multi-tasking next generation of youth, there is something here for everyone. It is still easy for silence seekers to avoid motors, but fewer people are looking for that kind of vacation.  There is a very large interconnected snowmobile trail system that most backpackers aren’t even aware of.  Hunting, mountain biking and horseback riding areas are well separated from other uses.  Some lakes are reserved for canoes and kayaks, while others allow jetskis and water skiing.  Uses are separated seasonally as well – bike trails double as snowmobile trails or x-country ski trails.  Overused areas are protected by online permitting systems (with fees) that allow appropriate numbers of campers, hikers and skiers at any given time.  

Indoor attractions, ranging from ice rinks to arts complexes to themed shopping centers and even a casino or two, appeal to visitors who aren’t up for climbing mountains or other hearty athletic activity.  The sports culture is a major draw, even for those who just want to watch. Particular attention is paid to both attracting visitors to the deep interior of the Park and development of sporting and cultural events in all seasons. 

There is a major increase in visitor-oriented “product” in the Park, i.e. things and services people pay for.  Places to eat, sleep, shop.  Adirondack-branded recreational equipment, some made here, some not, is a Park industry cluster.  Boats and skis are successful. Many entrepreneurs start recreation-related businesses. Like Parks worldwide, people pay user fees to park, camp, hike, fish, etc., which are used for global promotion and event development.  Global visitors increase.  Canadians love the place.  This is a world class destination.

All these investments have made living here more attractive for year-round residents, too. Many visitors and seasonal residents move here to retire. Retiring boomers are active, healthy and often still working part time over the net They move into their vacation homes in the areas with better access to health care, internet, cell phones, arts and other modern amenities.  New retirement communities situated near the healthcare centers enable a more elderly population to stay here, among their friends, later in life, instead of fleeing to warmer climates.  The active retirees bring money, energy and volunteer time to strengthened non-profits.

Government has managed its downsizing effectively.  The relatively small resident population, combined with the number and diversity of opportunities for developing the recreation-based economy, made the Park the perfect model for how to convert from a government dominated economy to a private one.  All the other ideas like biomass and local food, although a part of the region, never could make up for the big drop in government employment the region experienced.  Using the Park is what saved the day.

2037 C:  The Sustainable Life

What made this Park different from the beginning is the life of the communities inside it.  It is not a ring-fenced Park with no one home.  Our cultural human values are just as important as our natural values.  A healthy diverse economy supports a healthy environment.  A sense of community is important here, living close to the land respectfully, not separately; living better without big growth.   The old divisions between natives and newcomers have faded as the values they shared became more apparent.

The diversity of employment and the shortening of supply chains have made the Park more sustainable and resilient.  Local food and local renewable energy create a more closed-loop economy, keeping money in the Park.   Eco-friendly recreation and agro-tourism bring in people and income. The other new sector is telework - people working here, often at home in creative and professional jobs, but the employer is somewhere else – they export online work, thereby bringing money into the Park.  Overall these strategies reduce our population’s carbon footprint significantly. The Park is a model of sustainable community and draws in green businesses and a new generation of young people who find the vision attractive.

Widespread broadband, cell phone and global delivery services make it easy to live here and stay connected. In the modern mobile society, people move regularly.  The Park’s brain gain more than compensates for the departures, however. People who already know the Park move here, as friends join friends. Fine small, networked schools are a feature, not a problem.  Hamlet life has more walking and biking, more local stores, and, in general, healthier people. Inter-village bus transport is heavily used.  A greatly enriched arts scene thrives.  Construction focuses on reuse of existing structures and energy efficiency retrofits.

Most of the money spent on fossil fuel-based heat used to leave the Park.  With widespread installation of biomass heating systems in homes, institutions and municipal buildings and the sourcing of fuel from local resources, that money now stays here. Agricultural and private forestlands hold plenty of fuel stock resources that are sustainably harvested. The forests also yield enough saw logs that new small saw mills have popped up.  Community solar farms, retrofitted old hydro dams, home-scale wind, geo and solar thermal, and private solar all round out the renewable energy picture.  An upgraded smart grid supports distributed power production and local use.  It takes a lot of new production to make up for the old fossil fuel infrastructure, but people have become much more aware of the real cost of their energy use in the process and use less.

The local food industry in the Champlain and St Lawrence Valleys adds a lot to existing commercial farms.  Regional cooperatives allow scaling up and bring prices to an affordable level, often in year-round CSA arrangements.  Extended season farming fits well with the renewable energy efforts.  Products of these farms now reach northeast cites.  Most schools have gardens, teaching the next generation about healthy eating.

The State helped with more flexible regulation and investment in key infrastructure.  It avoided crashing small town economies by gradually reducing employment and at times shifting government jobs from prisons to information processing centers. Land use regulations have been updated to encourage clustering in expanded hamlets. DOT is more environmentally conscious, finding substitutes for road salt and changing culverts to improve wildlife migration. Climate change has reset priorities for environmental non-profits.  It is stressing the forest and more active management is helping it to adapt.  Invasives require clearing of dead trees even in the Forest Preserve.  The forest is changing gradually but we have kept it healthy.

2037 D: Adirondack County

The Blue Line was declared a single county, and State Agencies were required align to it.  More than money, this was about giving residents an identity associated with the whole Park and a voice that can be heard above the din of Albany.  All county leadership is directly elected. For the first time, the people of the Park think of themselves as a group and have stopped fighting village vs. village and town vs. town.  Together, they wrestle with its future and define a path ahead.  Instead of playing the victim of rules imposed by an elite population elsewhere, residents have a sense of “us” and take responsibility for sorting out their affairs internally.

A “Pride in the Park” program, aimed particularly at young people, is changing the negative stigma associated with youth who stay here.  A “Buy in the Park” program encourages purchasing of products and materials made in the Park. To the extent there was any loss of local identity, it was offset by adoption of a Park-wide identity.  Cooperation between towns based on arts, sports and education adds to a sense of identity that was for so long tied to narrow local concerns.

A new NGO became the flag bearer and force behind the movement to create the new county.  The politicians and bureaucrats certainly didn’t want it, but common citizens could easily look around and see that the duplication of layers and services was wasteful, expensive, and cumbersome.  The NGO took the data to the residents and to Albany, and the data showed a compelling need to shrink government by consolidating most functions and departments. The key was a Governor who forced it through because he knew Park residents were behind him.   Redrawing county boundaries turned out to be close to revenue neutral for the slightly smaller counties now outside the Blue Line.

The transition was largely about privatization.  Campgrounds, golf courses, county timberlands, ski resorts, nursing homes, nursing services, road maintenance - all sorts of things - are now private enterprises, run much more efficiently and without the burden of the old big State worker unions.  The government jobs didn’t all disappear; many ended up in the private sector, but subject to the logic of profit and loss.  A lot of time and energy was saved simply by aligning various State Agency Districts to the Blue Line.

School system consolidation started with superintendents and business operations.  As benefits became clear, the next step was District consolidation that allowed creation of specialized Charter schools. By focusing State special education mandates on fewer schools, it became more cost effective to meet them.

Pooling of purchasing drew lower cost bids from suppliers. E-government put many services online that used to require office visits.  Data-centric government (e.g. Mayor Bloomberg) put focused resources like police and health care in areas of clear need rather than blanketing the whole Park equally.  Standardization and simplification of processes and policies across the county, from building permits to signage and property value assessments make things easier for businesses and citizens.  It’s not just smaller government, it’s smarter government that uses information and technology better and puts more emphasis on integrated planning.

Even the Forest Preserve has been consolidated and rationalized through numerous land swaps.  The core has been expanded and made more contiguous while removing small parcels elsewhere that created headaches for utilities and communities.  It was a win-win situation that required constitution changes, but in the heady day of big changes this became possible.

2037 E: Post “Big Government” Solutions

One size does not fill all for the Park. It’s just so big and diverse. Figuring out what works in each town is largely left to local leaders.  There isn’t much of a “Park” identity.  The Park is not one economic region and it’s natural that different areas have better success with tailored strategies. 

Towns and villages make a variety of different bets.  Many succeed and, of course, some fail.  This approach appeals to local strengths and the Adirondack spirit that “we take care of our own”, which tends to stop at the Town line, not the Blue Line.  There have been so many disappointments with big government efforts that Towns depend on local strengths and local government focus, although some towns partner on projects. With all the big State land purchases done, loud harangues against the State don’t get the traction they used to.  Most people have moved on from the old debates, electing leaders that have a vision for the future of their communities.  Overall, local communities survive by caring for their own, as they always have.

An infusion of private capital into the stronger towns is invested in housing, retail and office space.  Private citizens contribute talent and money to infrastructure like broadband, as well as the arts.  They want government help, but they don’t wait for it, or count on it.  Land owners and towns spend on combatting invasives and cleaning up septic systems in order to protect land values and the recreation they cherish. Private groups like ADK do more to maintain trails and campgrounds.  Areas with better amenities and health care attract new residents, mostly retired boomers.  Poorer towns don’t do as well, and the gap widens. 

The areas around the Park have actually grown much faster than other rural areas of the State, building on early successes like Global Foundries and Laurentian Aerospace.  The Park towns near the edge leveraged that success and encouraged sub-supplier businesses to build there and workers to reside there. Other towns leveraged special amenities like Lake Placid’s Olympic facilities, Old Forge’s View Arts center and Tupper Lake’s Wild Center, or special geography like the High Peaks and the western lake chains.  Ski resorts with condos work in some areas, gateways to deep wilderness in others.  Some towns leverage nearby educational institutions to attract entrepreneurs as well as the cultural amenities that students support.  The most common theme is to leverage the Park as an asset and use balanced regulation to preserve that advantage.

But some areas did not thrive.  Certain parts of the Park just didn’t have the assets needed for success in the 2020s and the government didn’t have the money to create them. The interior of the Park, isolated far from transportation, remains depressed, just barely hanging on. Interior tourism largely consists of day-trippers and tent campers.  With interior lake fronts fully built already, there isn’t much new construction.

There is bottoms-up, opportunistic work on consolidation of government functions, particularly business operations of towns, villages and schools where the savings opportunities are obvious,  but none of it is forced by the State.  The Local Government Review Board works more closely with the APA, has more say in decisions, and actually nominates three commissioners.  More towns have professional planners. Clarification and simplification of APA jurisdiction and process have facilitated investment in the Park, since investors have less uncertainty about delays or potential approval.  Overall a pragmatic, can-do attitude prevails, getting things done where you can and not waiting for the ultimate solution.

2037 F: The Adirondack State Forest

External conditions have overwhelmed the Park from all sides.  Climate change brought invasive species that killed large swaths of the forest and filled lakes with undesirable aquatics.  The outdoor winter sports season is much shorter.  The maples are fewer and fall foliage is muted.  Repeated storms and flooding leave infrastructure in tatters all over the Park.  It may be a wild place, but it is far from what it was and pristine wilderness is not what it brings to mind.  Meanwhile, healthcare costs have eaten up government budgets and buried businesses and families. Political stalemate prevented good solutions to this and other problems.  The gap between the haves and have nots has widened here and in America as a whole, hollowing out the middle class.  Sure these are bigger problems, but we are not immune to them here.

The economy in the Park split.  Some edge towns and the so-called gold-coast seasonal resort areas did OK.  But the economy of the deep interior of the Park simply collapsed and people left.  Poverty deepened in the Park and, with it, alcoholism, drug abuse and family and health problems.  A downward spiral that couldn’t be stopped ensued, as no one wanted to invest in an area that was obviously imploding. The crashes in the 1890s and 1931 were what created the Park originally and most view the current plight of the interior as the 3rd great collapse that will define a new core Park for the next 100 years with almost no residents.

The demographics of NYS have skewed toward non-white and urban.  Now Park residents feel like victims again, but instead of the city elites keeping them down, it is the ever-growing young, non-white, urban masses that just are not motivated by a 19th century ideal of uplifting wilderness.  These voters look at the loosely organized “Park” to the north and wonder how it ever got so big and cost so much for the benefit of so few, and with residents who always seem to be wrapped up in some arcane feudal conflict of their own making.

The lower taxes demanded by voters reprioritized all government spending.  Parks versus pensions/healthcare for aging boomers was a major battle.  Campgrounds and other public facilities fell further into disrepair and visitors have noticed. The Park had come to disproportionately depend on State jobs, so when the axe fell, the Park got nailed.  Towns and counties were consolidated.  Prisons were simply shut.  School systems were forced into consolidations that meant closure of lots of small town schools as populations shrank.  The downward spiral was unrelenting.  The theory was that, with lower taxes, the private sector would grow, but it didn’t materialize here.  Something had to fill the gap for the towns and the State had to take action.

Management of State land in the Park was restructured, following the National Park versus National Forest model. The half of the original Article 14 Forest Preserve that had been already classified as wilderness was unchanged.  The other half become a managed State Forest under a multiple use regime (forestry, fish, wildlife, grazing, etc.).  Local towns share income from activity on it, like user fees and logging, but receive no payments in lieu of taxes, which are still paid on the remaining Forest Preserve. 

The new model was presented to voters as being more like the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, but better, with something like a National Park in the middle of it. The dominant voting bloc: urban, non-white and unfamiliar with the Park, passed it despite a desperate campaign by aging environmentalists.  There has been widespread loss of support for environmental issues nationally in the age of constant economic crises.  Environmental regulations are weakened or just ignored.  Not just the APA but the State Environmental Quality Review Act is much less followed.  How can DEC enforce it when they have so few people?