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Adirondack Council pushes for hiker permits

Leave No Trace report recommends permit system; DEC: it’s not feasible

A hiker hops between rocks on Dial Mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness in September 2019. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

The Adirondack Council, an Elizabethtown-based environmental group, is again pressing for a hiker permit or reservation system that would let the state manage the number of hikers traveling through busy wilderness areas.

The Council backed the creation of a hiker permit or reservation system in a news release on Wednesday, citing a recent report from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics on Wilderness that was commissioned by the Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The idea of some type of permit system has been around for years. Last summer, during a closed-door stakeholder meeting in Keene Valley hosted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the idea of implementing a pilot permit program in the High Peaks Wilderness was ranked most popular among a slate of potential actions voted on by roughly 60 representatives from nearly 40 state and local organizations.

“Visitor limits based on capacity combined with robust education and outreach are the best way to ensure that the places people are flooding the Adirondacks to see will survive and be available to future visitors and future generations of visitors,” William Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said in a statement. “The state has been authorized to use permits or parking reservations in the High Peaks Wilderness Area since the first management plan was approved in 1999. It has resisted taking that step here. The time has come to stop resisting.”

The DEC has been hesitant to implement a permit system for hiking. Earlier this month, during a virtual press conference, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos told reporters that he saw permits as the last thing the department would do.

“Whenever you talk about something as rigorous as that, you want that to be the last place you go,” he said. “There’s very passionate feelings on both sides. There may be some places where it’s warranted, but there might be some places where it’s not.”

Seggos cited the unique layout of the Adirondack Park — vast swaths of protected land with multiple entry points, interspersed with roads, towns, villages and patches of private property — as a reason why managing user access isn’t simple.

“It’s difficult to envision a very effective permitting campaign,” Seggos said.

The Leave No Trace Center addresses this point in its report.

“Though not an appropriate option for every location, permit systems, when well thought out, well designed, and soundly impemented, can serve an important function in parks and protected areas,” report author Ben Lawhon wrote. “Depending on the nature of the resource in question, permitting use can benefit the natural resources and the visitor experience. Additionally, a permit system allows for an educational touch point with visitors before they depart on their trip. Many parks and protected areas have existing permit systems in place such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

The Council questioned why the state has implemented a reservation system at its campgrounds but is hesitant to do something similar to wilderness areas.

The DEC has implemented various plans in an effort to lessen the impact of heavy use of the High Peaks Wilderness.

Hiker traffic in the Adirondack Park has reached historic levels — including many new visitors looking to get outdoors this summer following months of stay-at-home recommendations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with that, the DEC set up three new information stations in Lake Placid, Keene Valley and North Hudson this month. The state also started sending out 511 alerts about trailhead parking along state Route 73.

In recent years the DEC has tried to spread out the impact by recommending alternate trails for hikers.

In May 2019, the DEC extended, and began enforcement of, a roadside parking ban along state Route 73. The ban was designed to address public safety concerns — mainly numerous hikers walking along the road from their vehicles to trailheads — but it ultimately caused confusion and frustration as visitors arrived with nowhere to park. Many parked illegally despite posted “no parking” signs.

The DEC created a High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group last year to look at ways to address the impact of high levels of hiker traffic in the High Peaks region. Improved communication and hiker education programming were among a slate of recommendations included in the group’s preliminary report this summer.

Seggos said the department wants the advisory group to “look at everything, from A to Z, before (a permit system).”

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