Cuomo: High Peaks overuse ‘legitimate issue’
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, calling High Peaks overuse “a legitimate issue” at a press event in Colonie Wednesday, acknowledged problems roiling the region as a result of increased tourism.
The governor’s comments, first reported by the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, come after one of the busiest hiking seasons many residents and local officials say they have ever seen.
“It’s a legitimate issue, we have to work on it,” Cuomo told reporters at a briefing on a Northway project in the Albany area. “It’s not black and white. We want tourism, we want people to enjoy it. We want the economic development, but we want to make sure we’re not spoiling the asset, and that’s the balance we have to reach, and there are legitimate concerns.”
The influx of tourists seeking summit views this summer, paired with a roadside parking ban along a highly-trafficked route serving multiple trailheads into the High Peaks Wilderness, at times created confusion, frustration and anger as visitors arrived at ever-earlier hours and were faced with nowhere to legally park.
Local officials, like Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. and Keene town Councilwoman Theresa Cheetham-Palen, have voiced concerns about the potential impact on their small town’s economy as the circumstances create the potential for bad visitor experiences.
The Park’s four biggest green groups, on the other hand, have repeatedly issued rallying cries for more funding to manage Forest Preserve lands, protect the natural landscape, study user impacts and bolster the number of forest rangers on hand to respond to the increasing number of search-and-rescue calls from unprepared hikers.
Tourism “creating issues”
Cuomo acknowledged the problems that have arisen in the Adirondacks this year as the Park continues to draw more visitors every year, many of them — according to an annual Leisure Travel study commissioned by the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism earlier this year — coming here specifically to hike.
Along the trailheads leading to the High Peaks Wilderness in the hamlets of Keene Valley and St. Huberts, and at the Cascade Mountain trailheads in North Elba, existing parking infrastructure has been ill-equipped to accommodate the influx, causing vehicles to spill out onto the shoulder of Route 73 and generating safety concerns as hikers walk in the roadways to reach their desired trailhead.
The problems have increased in tandem with state advertising efforts designed to draw more visitors to the Adirondacks, the most recent, a $1 million global digital advertising campaign to entice athletes to visit Lake Placid, announced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul at the state’s promotional I Love NY Adirondack Oktoberfest event last month.
“The bad news is the tourism increase is actually creating issues,” Cuomo said. “Parking issues, traffic issues and there’s a real question of what’s the maximum use of the resources without damaging the resources. And it is a very real issue and a real concern for us.”
DEC works on solutions; locals react
Cuomo told reporters that he’s spoken with the DEC about concerns raised by local officials and environmental advocates, the Gazette reported Wednesday.
The DEC continues to work on a number of initiatives to deal with the impacts of heavy hiker traffic. Among the solutions and projects DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald referenced last month in an email exchange about the department’s plans to address these issues were the roadside parking ban, a pilot hiker shuttle that transported visitors from Lake Placid to trailheads between the village and Whiteface Mountain, the ongoing construction of a new trail at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg and ongoing hiker education efforts through social media and newsletters. She did not mention any plans for additional bus routes, more parking or a permit system.
“Degradation of natural resources, increased rescues and roadside safety are just a few of the issues associated with the increase in visitors to the High Peaks and other areas in the state that DEC is working to address,” Ringewald said last month.
After reading Cuomo’s comments Wednesday evening, Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, referenced “an old adage in politics.”
“‘Don’t tell me what you believe, don’t tell me what your feelings are, show us in your budget,'” Bauer said. “We’re pleased to see the governor talking about the challenges in the High Peaks and other parts of the Forest Preserve and we look forward to working with him to make improving the management of the Forest Preserve a priority in the upcoming state budget.”
After reading Cuomo’s comments Wednesday, Wilson was heartened.
“I’m so happy to see the governor making comments directly about this issue,” he said. “It really reinforces how important the issue is and how complex the issue is. I really think, from reading Gov. Cuomo’s comments, he’s cutting to the heart of it. The importance of the tourism economy, the importance of protecting the environment.
“In the middle of that is how we give visitors a safe, good experience in the mountains.”