Three new interesting data points have recently come out from the US Census and the NYS Department of Education that provide a state and national context for the Adirondack population debate. In previous posts I have argued that we need to look at Adirondack Park population trends against a backdrop of state and national rural demographic trends, especially those impacting rural America. Others disagree and argue that Adirondack Park population trends are immune to national forces and trends, but rather are shaped by the distinct and negative impacts of the Forest Preserve and Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act regional land use controls.

I think that the blame-the-Park lobby could benefit from a hard look at state and national trends because a better understanding of what rural areas in the US are facing will help develop a long-term population retention and recruitment strategy that might work for the Adirondack Park. The controversial APRAP report was notably devoid of larger state and national trends in its population analysis.

I believe that the Park’s modest population decreases, which are much less than many other rural areas in the US, have been eased by the protected landscape of the Adirondacks, which supports active tourist-small-business-public sector economies.

Some efforts are underway to craft a long-term plan for Adirondack Park communities, but I think these efforts fail to fully grasp the structural challenges facing the rural Adirondack Park population. As I’ve stated in earlier posts on this subject: If we don’t understand the realities of the Adirondack population trends, we’re sure to undermine our community development strategies for the future.

The first interesting data point is in the findings released this month from the US Census, which also included new analysis about demographic trends in rural America.

The big message in the US Census “2012 National, State, County and Puerto Rico Population Estimates by Demographic Characteristics” is that rural America has experienced an overall population drop (14% of the US population now live in rural America, which covers more than 75% of US lands). Previous US Census reports found that a large percentage of counties in rural America had experienced population losses, that the percentage of the Americans living in metropolitan areas continued to increase (it’s well over 80%), or the percentage of total jobs in metropolitan America continued to increase and concentrate (it’s well over 85%). But, now the US Census estimates that the rural US population as a whole is seeing an overall ever-so-slight population drop.

The other newsworthy part of the US Census 2012 estimates is that they have taken a closer look at rural American demographic trends and report several factors that may make recent rural population losses an irreversible long-term trend. Protect the Adirondacks has reported on these population dynamics before, but this new analysis by the US Census brings these issues into sharper focus.

It’s important to note that the Adirondack Park population generally grew modestly 1970-1999, when New York and the Northeast US population was stagnant, but experienced a slight downturn 2000-2009. The US Census is now reporting on population estimates over three years 2010-2012, with a closer look at the down trends in rural America.

Consider these four big items from the new US Census findings, which have bearing on the Adirondacks. First, the 65-and-older US population grew by 4.3 percent between 2011 and 2012, and now tops 43 million, which is 13.7 percent of the US population. When PROTECT tried to call attention to the fact that the whole country is aging to broaden the perspective on the Park’s aging population, the blame-the-Park crowd was quick to say it’s not national trends that drive the Park’s aging population, rather it’s the fault of the Forest Preserve and APA.

The US median age rose to 37.5 in 2012, up from 37.3 in 2011. This increase is amplified in rural America. In the Adirondacks, PROTECT has shown, based on national demographics, that the Park’s population will continue to age for some time. Others have made a similar prediction. I don’t dispute the Park’s aging trend, but I see opportunistic linkages to lay blame at the Forest Preserve and APA as a dead-end for a meaningful dialogue about crafting an Adirondack Park population retention and recruitment strategy.

Second, in 2012, the US Census reported a 0.01 percent loss for rural America in the years 2010-2011, which it saw at that time as insignificant. Now, in 2013, this trend has continued with the 2011-12 estimates. 2010-2012 may be the beginning of a larger trend of sustained rural population loss when coupled with additional information about the demographics of rural America and the migration patterns of older Americans.

Third, 2010-2012 also saw more deaths than births among the US white population. This is a first, but demographers project it could be the beginning of a long-term trend. This could have an outsized impact on the Park’s population, which is 97% white. Some have discounted the meaning of the overwhelming white population in the Adirondack Park. But, right now the population of rural America is overwhelmingly white and it’s these areas that are experiencing population loss. Areas with higher racial diversity are seeing population growth.

Fourth, “US migration data show that older Americans are most inclined to live in rural counties until about age 74, before moving closer to more populated locations. The oldest of the nation’s 76 million baby boomers turn 74 in 2020 (born in 1946), meaning the window is closing for that group to help small towns grow.”

What this means is important. Retirees moving to the Adirondacks have always been seen as a self-replenishing pool, sort of a human artesian well of emigrants to the Park. They move here, are financially secure, get deeply involved in local communities, and some start businesses.

As we’ve shown in other posts the baby boomers generation is a huge, bulging cohort in the American population and two trends in this cohort could strongly impact long-term Adirondack population trends. First, this group is now in the beginning of a period where they will age-out beyond an active retirement age for living in rural America. Second, this population will also begin to die off. The next decades could well see a contraction in total retirees living to the Adirondacks.

Town of Webb from the air. Hamlet of Old Forge with the Middle Branch of the Moose River (left).

Another wrinkle is that the baby boom generation is overwhelmingly white. This is important because the US Census reports that white Americans are more likely to live in rural areas. Over 85% of people in the US today 65 years old and older are white. As the pool of older Americans starts to shrink or age out of viable living in rural America so too will the pool of Americans most likely to move to rural areas. This will impact the Park too.

On a side note the racial differences of the age groups in the US is fascinating. The US Census states, “For the first time, America’s racial and ethnic minorities now make up about half of the under-5 age group.” Conversely, as stated above, the over-65 population is over 85% white.

What does this mean for future political conversations and decisions as political power starts to shift with the country’s demographics? We’re not so good at talking across racial lines. We’re now moving into a prolonged period where we’ll see young and old Americans not just separated by age, but largely by race too.

Back in the North Country, what does it mean for an Adirondack Park population that is 97% white that larger American demographic trends see half of all births being nonwhite citizens? If recent trends continue to play out, one thing it means is that areas dominated by white populations are going to keep getting older and are going to keep gradually losing population.

All of this should help to inform a population retention and recruitment effort for the Adirondacks. These long-term structural trends create dynamics that will make it even more difficult for rural areas to maintain or increase their populations, but there are reasons for hope, and better yet, to undertake good planning that recognizes these challenges.

What will offset the population loss in the Adirondack Park compared with other areas? Traditionally recreational and scenic rural areas have faired better than other rural areas, especially those areas heavily focused on agriculture where the typical farm has become enormous and heavily mechanized. In the Great Plains the average farm size is well over 1,000 acres (in New York it’s 200 acres, in Vermont it’s less than 200 acres).

Recreational and scenic communities generally provide a wider array of natural amenities that retirees are looking for and generally are tourism centered areas that have an attractive array of social amenities of restaurants, movie theaters, art centers, and arts and crafts culture, and a variety of retail outlets and other services, among other things. Some Adirondack communities meet these tests, such as Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Old Forge, Bolton, Lake George, Keene, Westport, among others. Other communities are trying to build this infrastructure, while other communities are unlikely to assemble this economic and social infrastructure anytime soon. The areas in the Park that are experiencing population gains are these types of communities.

The two other data points to focus on are from the NYS Department of Education. These are important because they shine a light on the status of young adults who grow up in the Adirondacks. The two biggest population factors that shape the Park’s population more than anything else are that old people die, or move away for advanced aging services, and young people go to college.

These factors are not unique to the Adirondack Park — they are also major trends facing rural America.

Graduation rates are an oft-used metric for the performance of a school district. Sadly, in 2011-12, the New York State average for high school graduation was 74%, up from 69% in 2003. High school graduation alone is an imperfect metric, but it tells us something about the extent of a particular student body that is prepared to go on to college.

In previous online discussions I had raised the fact that Adirondack schools generally do a good job in educating local students and these students leave for college, both 2-year and 4-year institutions, in higher numbers than the state average. This is not unique to the Adirondacks. In fact, this has been seen in many other rural areas and is often amplified in communities facing population decline.

The blame-the-Park crowd did not want to hear this and, in fact, laughed it off. But, consider these numbers from 2011-2012 (the most recent stats available). The Crown Point school district graduated 82% of its students, Elizabethtown 90%, Keene 83%, Minerva 90%, Moriah 87%, Newcomb 87%, Schroon Lake 90%, Ticonderoga 81%, Westport 100%, Willsboro 92%, Saranac Lake 88%, St. Regis Falls 91%, Tupper Lake 84%, Broadalbin-Perth 87%, Mayfield 83%, Indian Lake 89%, Long Lake 87%, Lake Pleasant 85%, Wells 82%, Saranac 87%, Chazy 91%, AuSable Valley 80%, Beaver River 91%, Webb 93%, Poland 89%, Colton-Pierrepont 87%, Parrishville-Hopkinton 93%, Whitehall 82%, Queensbury 90%, Warrenburg 81%, North Warren 81%, Lake George 92%, Johnsburg 89%, and Bolton 91%. These are not every school district in the Adirondacks, but include some of the biggest or most visible.

This is not the story for every district. A number of other school districts were right around the state average, including Lake Placid, Northville, Oppenheim-Ephratah, Peru, Northern Adirondack, Beekmantown, Harrisville, South Lewis, Corinth, Fort Ann, and Hadley-Luzerne, among others. The Glens Falls City School district was 73.5%.

And, there were a handful of North Country school districts below the state average that I won’t name.

Why is this an important data point? Because a kid isn’t going to college if they don’t graduate from high school. Schools that are graduating high percentages of kids are the most likely to send a similar high percentage off to college. College-bound student data is hard to come by, but the graduation rate, especially in the era of statewide standards in New York, lets us get a sense of what communities are producing kids most likely to go to college. In general, based on this metric, Adirondack school districts are doing pretty well, with many strongly outperforming the state average.

Since the vast amount of universities and colleges are not part of the rural American landscape, kids will continue to leave the Adirondack Park — and rural America — to go to college.

Now, the blame-the-Park crowd doesn’t want to hear any of this because successful Adirondack schools do not fit their narrative of an impoverished Park beset by myriad challenges due to the Forest Preserve and APA Act. Consider this statement on this topic by one of the blame-the-Park lobby’s loudest voices: “According to Peter, then, young people move away from the Park because the schools in the Park are so good? I’ve never heard that before, perhaps because it’s such a ridiculous thing to say. Most of the public schools in the Adirondack Park are starved for funding and can only offer the basics. Some do a good job with scant resources, but to cite their ‘excellence’ as a reason young people are moving away (because they’re well educated, and therefore, want to leave?) is a head-scratcher.”

I think that the data shows that far from being a head-scratcher it’s a reality. Further, it’s a rural US structural population demographic reality. It explains the sharp drop in the 20-year old population cohort throughout the Park. And, as such, it’s an important factor in the Adirondack population retention and recruitment debate. This same phenomenon is seen all across rural America.

The next data point is school district enrollment statewide. The APRAP report showed starkly that Adirondack school districts are losing students. They reported, “The average decline in enrollment from 2000 to 2007 is 329 students per year. At this pace, the Park is losing an average sized Adirondack school district every 19 months.” I’m not disputing APRAP’s findings on this matter. School populations are indeed declining in the Adirondacks. But, in the interest of context, they’re also declining across New York.

In fact, if one looks at the statewide school district data they’ll see that from 2005-06 school year through 2012-13, New York State lost over 100,000 students. Of the more than 675 schools districts in the state, fewer than 80 remained even in their enrollments or gained population. Those that gained were school districts in the suburbs around New York City and some upstate cities that have become refugee centers, like Utica.

The key factors driving Adirondack school populations is that we’re a largely white aging population and we experience an absence of women of childbearing age. Adirondack women in their 20s, the time of highest reproduction rates, are away at college in a disproportionately high number and they are not replaced in high numbers by people emigrating here in their 20s. Before you yell “gotcha” and go and blame the APA and the Forest Preserve as critical obstacles barring 20 year olds from emigrating to the Adirondack Park, be prepared to cite a rural area in the US where 20 year olds are emigrating in high numbers. (Please list these places/sources in the comments.)

The two biggest trends facing the Adirondacks and rural America is that kids go to college in areas outside of rural America and that old people in rural America die or move away for advanced aging.

The Adirondack Park is facing major structural population challenges rooted in American demographic realities of the aging baby boom generation, 50-year growth of metropolitan areas, and vast racial composition changes.

For a population retention and recruitment strategy for the Adirondack Park to succeed it will have to somehow buck a half-century of American population structural realities.

I’m an optimist who wants to see Adirondack communities thrive at the same time we preserve a wild landscape. You can’t be an environmentalist in the Adirondacks if you are not an optimist.

I think that the Park’s protected landscape has lessened the impact of these national trends and forces as overall the Park’s population decline has been slight. We have a number of very successful communities that are seeing modest growth. The blame-the-Park crowd will tell you the opposite. But we deny at our peril the important realities shaped by larger national population forces that have a direct bearing on Adirondack Park population trends.

This article was originally published on the Adirondack Almanack.