Adirondack Council reveals results of High Peaks hiker surveys
KEENE VALLEY — A recent survey revealed that hikers in and around the High Peaks Wilderness Area overwhelmingly want the state to prioritize its time and money toward protecting the area’s wild character and opportunity for solitude — for current and future generations — over accommodating, expanding or intensifying recreational opportunities.
Hikers favored wilderness protection over accommodating unlimited recreation by a margin of 70 percent to 20 percent, according to a survey of more than 1,000 High Peaks area hikers conducted by the Adirondack Council, with Colgate University’s Upstate Institute.
“We spoke to a broad range of hikers and found most prioritized the health of the wilderness itself, its water quality and its ability to support wildlife, over their own access,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway said. “Hikers were least likely to support wider trails or bigger parking lots, and favored protection over recreation, knowing that it might mean they might have to be more flexible regarding which of their favorite locations to visit on peak-use days.”
“Hikers also felt the state could be doing more outreach and education to promote alternative destinations and to protect the places it is encouraging so many people to visit,” Janeway said. “More education, more rangers and land managers were top priorities, along with restrictions on parking, better maintenance and targeted trail reconstruction. Application of improved management such as this would benefit small, less visited communities.”
Previous studies found more than 5,000 hikers jamming select trails and parking lots on popular weekends, exceeding state carrying capacity targets by 200 percent, while other destinations were underused. A preliminary analysis of Adirondack High Peaks region hiking trails found over 130 miles of trail that needed significant redesign, reconstruction and/or repair of old drainage or stabilization work. The state and partners both redesigned and rebuilt almost 1.6 miles of trail up Mount Van Hoevenberg in 2018.
The High Peaks Wilderness Area is a more than 275,000-acre, motor-free forest containing most of the state’s tallest mountains and wildest rivers, as well as rare wildlife. It is the largest of 20 wilderness areas located on the Adirondack Forest Preserve, which consists of nearly 2.8 million acres of public lands, protected as “forever wild” by the state constitution. The preserve is located inside the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park.
Experts stress that the Park, with investments, can handle further increases in use, and that while some areas are overused, other destinations and communities are not.
High Peaks hikers also want increased funding for rangers and other state land staff, who provide critical Leave No Trace education and outreach in addition to performing trail and other maintenance. A small vocal group prioritizes unlimited access over saving wilderness.
Janeway noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had done a good job of promoting the Adirondacks as a tourism destination, helping to increase visitors from 10 million to 12.4 million since 2010, and expanding access. Sustaining that success and allowing the Park to grow and distribute use requires an investment that protects the wildness and ecological health that create such beautiful landscapes and lasting memories, he said.
Hikers had some complaints about the damage being done by throngs of visitors to some areas of the High Peaks Wilderness Area, leading to overuse and crowds in the most popular locations. Chief among them were concerns about trash and unburied human waste. “Trampled vegetation,” “crowded summits” and “overcrowded parking lots” were the next most-common complaints.
In-person hiker surveys
¯ By a margin of two-to-one, hikers agree that the number of hikers should be limited at specific locations on high-use dates;
¯ About 80 percent of hikers want more information made available/accessible to them regarding appropriate trail use, etiquette and safety, by the state and other stakeholders; and,
¯ By a margin of two-to-one, hikers agree that trailhead parking should combine reservations and first-come-first-served options to control the maximum number of vehicles.
Hikers who identified themselves as “experienced” or “expert” were more likely to be found on a remote trail than one that is popular and crowded on busy weekends. Experienced and expert hikers were also more likely to say they knew of places where “overuse” was a problem, and more likely to say the state should take action to discourage overuse.
The hiker survey consisted of 11 questions, administered at 10 trailheads in and around the High Peaks Wilderness Area. Surveys were conducted from June to early October. One person, age 18 and above who could read and write in English, in each hiking group was asked to respond prior to the planned hike. Surveyors approached 1,209 groups; 1,004 hikers completed the survey (response rate of 87.5 percent).
Most hikers (55 percent) live in New York. Participants came from 31 states and six countries. Their average age was 37. More than half identified themselves as “experienced” hikers. Male hikers outnumbered female by 1.5 to 1. Eleven percent of hikers identified their race as something other than “white/Caucasian,” a significant increase over previous surveys.
The Adirondack Council shared a condensed version of the 2018 Hiker Survey via email and social media to reach a wider audience. More than 1,500 participants responded.
Most answers mirrored the in-person survey, except that online respondents were more likely to favor protection of the wilderness over recreation. More than 90 percent of online participants agree that “more information should be provided to hikers” and “the Adirondack Park should receive additional funding as well as hire more staff and forest rangers.” About 70 percent of hikers had the same response.