They tend bar, mow massive lawns at palatial lakeside estates or guide high-dollar fly fishing outings. When the snow flies, they work at ski mountains or hunker down and sell pot. They're the local servant class, the end result of a tourism-based economy.
My forebearers stripped the trees from upstate New York's Adirondack Mountains. The old-growth pine was sent down the Hudson River to saw mills, which drove a regional buzzing economy. That's gone now. Almost nothing is made in the Adirondacks. Instead, it's a 12-county, six-million-acre swath almost wholly reliant on second-home owners and cash from metro New York City.
The Adirondacks are now best known for a style of chair, one directly associated with lounging on a dock. But someone has to serve the drinks.
Like the Adirondacks, Southern Illinois is removed from the metro's political influence. The coal industry is retreating and, in decades to come, probably headed the way of the dodo. Agriculture isn't what it was and probably never will be. Like the Adirondacks, the state prison economy is under assault. Like the Adirondacks, environmentally minded locals say tourism is the salvation, as the global economy hammers away at rural America. Like the Adirondacks, the Shawnee National Forest is the largest public holding in the state.
On Sunday, The Southern ran a story about brain drain in tiny communities like Galatia and Grand Tower. College-bound teens leave, never to return. The tale has been told about my hometown, and almost every town in the Adirondacks, in the past 20 years. The dateline could have been anywhere outside of a major metropolis. The Adirondack town of Minerva has one of the highest median ages in the country. No one stays. And the size of graduating classes throughout the park are falling off a cliff. Tourism, while a nice little slice of a larger economy, fixes nothing. A very few get rich. Low-pay seasonal work is the norm.
I'm guilty of bolting.
In the late 19th century, New York drew the Blue Line around the region, creating the largest state park in the continental U.S., in an effort to protect New York City's watershed 250 miles to the south. The "Forever Wild" clause was added to the state Constitution, codifying the principle that any land obtained by the state would become part of the New York's Forest Preserve, never to be sold. The state Adirondack Park Agency was created in the 1970s, a massive transfer of land-use oversight from 106 local governments within the Blue Line to the governor, who answers to New York City and a powerful environmental lobby. Public holdings, following repeated large state purchases from paper companies, now constitutes about 50 percent of the Adirondacks, or roughly three-million acres.
Many of the locals -- old families like mine -- blame the state for widespread poverty and loss of jobs. It's a brash oversimplification, one that reflects populist rural rage more than economic reality. The fact is, all of upstate New York is losing industry. Buffalo and Rochester are shadows of their former selves.
But rusty pickups brandish angry, anti-APA bumper stickers. Early in its history, the APA went on a crusade to tear down the historic, mountain-top fire towers, manned for generations by so many local families, to "protect scenic vistas" and rid the land of "non-conforming structures." That's stopped now. But cell towers were the 21st century equivalent until a snowbound Canadian couple, unable to call for help, froze to death in their car. Whatever the APA's actual impact on the eroding Adirondack economy, its history is peppered with antagonizing the locals and feeding the disdain of people who feel their communities are solely designed to cater to tourists.
Proponents say tourism is the future of Southern Illinois. They're wrong. And, should they succeed, they'll rob the region of perhaps its most significant resource: its identity.