Hamilton County might not survive the next century, according to a statistical analysis conducted by researchers at Cornell University.
Researchers from Cornell’s Department of Applied Demographics recently released a statewide study projecting New York’s demographic future through 2040, based on current trends.
If things don’t change in Hamilton County, in about 25 years, there won’t be anyone left to respond to fires, drive ambulances or plow the roads, officials worry.
“It’s remarkable,” said Jim Martin, a senior planner with Saratoga-based LA Group and a principal author of a similar study — the first of its kind for the region — in 2009. That report was called the Adirondack Regional Assessment Project.
According to the most recent analysis, by 2040, only 28 men and 24 women between the ages of 25 and 29 will live in the expansive county at the heart of the Adirondack Park. That predicts an 85 percent decline for that age group between 1990 and 2040. Similar reductions are projected for residents in their 30s and 40s.
By contrast, the study predicts the vast majority of Hamilton County residents will be older than 60 by 2040. In total, fewer than 3,000 would live in Hamilton County, a drop of nearly 2,000 residents from 2010.
If current trends persist, some 128 Hamilton County men would be between 70 and 74 in 28 years, and 101 would be older than 85, the study concludes.
“What we’re seeing in this data is the baby boomers moving through life,” Martin said. “When they die, who’s going to be left?”
In the 1990 census, 187 Hamilton County men were in the 25-29 age group, and by the 2010 census, that number had fallen to 83.
The demographic state of Hamilton County has been at the heart of political debates between local governments and environmentalists for 40 years because it’s one of only two counties wholly within the boundaries of the Adirondack Park. Local officials see restrictions placed on the Adirondacks, especially the state’s forest preserve, as the prime reason for the population decline detailed in the 2010 federal census.
That report shows towns on the park’s fringe, like Queensbury or Plattsburgh, grew, while those wholly within the park experienced sometimes drastic population drops, combined with plunging school enrollment. As a result, bringing in foreign exchange students is quickly becoming a popular tactic among Hamilton County schools.
Local officials have argued for years the state constitution’s ban on logging is one of the many regulations that will, over time, drive out the park’s residents.
Local officials note the ranks of Adirondack loggers have declined to a fraction of their former strength, with public employees and tourism workers now driving the local workforce.
Where local officials see an issue with regional regulation, environmentalists see national and global trends.
“The global economy has had a drastic impact (on the logging industry),” said Brian Houseal, executive director of the Adirondack Council, a regional environmental group.
Environmentalists note — as have many other foresters, loggers and saw mill owners — that foreign lumber, often from low-wage, developing nations, can produce lumber and ship it to the U.S. cheaper than it can be produced locally.
Essex County, the only other county that lies entirely within the Adirondack Park, wouldn’t share Hamilton County’s fate, according to the Cornell analysis. Its population is aging, but at nowhere near the rate of Hamilton County’s, the report showed.
Essex County is home to Lake Placid, as well as offices for the Adirondack Park Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Adirondack Council is pushing for more state funding for local zoning and better management of neighboring state lands in an effort to boost regional tourism.
A total of 13 counties have some land within the Adirondacks. Counties like Clinton and Lewis have small slivers, while Warren and Herkimer have large swaths in the park.
All have, for decades, been losing in-park residents.
Regardless of the cause, predictions of Hamilton County’s future has regional officials fretting.
“It’s scary,” said Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board.