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Familiar advice for fixing hiker crunch

DEC releases committee’s recommendations, including High Peaks permits

Cars in a trailhead parking lot along state Route 73 are seen here on Labor Day weekend in 2020. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has released a committee’s recommendations for how to address ever-increasing hiker traffic in the High Peaks.

The 55-page report — which was more than a year in the making — mostly includes suggestions that look familiar to longtime Adirondack residents. The report suggests the DEC explore a hiker permit system as a way to limit use — something DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has described as a “last resort” for mitigating use issues. It also suggests the state divert more funding to addressing overuse impacts, create a strategic plan for visitor use management, implement management plans that are already in the books, put together an online system that can provide visitors with real-time information on trail conditions and parking, start a pilot shuttle service on state Route 73 and a pilot visitor management plan on private land, and increase the number of forest rangers and stewards in wilderness areas.

The report also asks the DEC to create another committee to “guide development of the strategic plan,” to establish a new outdoor recreation unit under the DEC umbrella, and to adopt some of the visitor management policies used by U.S. National Park Service.

These recommendations come at a time when the state contends with a multi-billion-dollar budget gap. Though the federal American Rescue Plan — the latest coronavirus aid package — would provide the state with $12.6 billion in unrestricted aid if it passes the House and is signed by President Joseph Biden, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the state needs $15 billion. Representatives of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative Albany think tank, have claimed that Cuomo’s estimate is overstated.

This report wraps up the work of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, a committee the DEC created in November 2019. Its formation followed summer and fall seasons that saw waves of hiker traffic on good-weather days overwhelm local resources. The effects of the busy seasons were compounded by a roadside parking ban along Route 73 the DEC implemented in May 2019. The ban was designed to address public safety concerns, but it ultimately caused confusion and frustration as visitors arrived with nowhere to park, or parked illegally despite “no parking” signs.

Despite the closure of the U.S.-Canada border, those preexisting problems were compounded this past summer. Rather than deter out-of-town visitors from making the trek to the Adirondacks, the coronavirus pandemic brought even more visitors to the High Peaks region as people looked places to escape after months of being indoors. An influx of first-time visitors also brought more instances of littering and misuse of public lands. The DEC established pop-up hiker information booths in Keene, Lake Placid and North Hudson last summer to help educate visitors.

The High Peaks advisory group was asked to formulate a “strategic planning framework” that would include policy recommendations designed to accomplish five main goals: ensuring the public’s safety, protecting the trails and natural resources, providing visitors with a good outdoor experience, supporting the local economy and making decisions based on science and data.

The group included former Adirondack Council Director of Conservation Rocci Aguirre; lawyer Sandra Allen; Teresa Cheetham-Palen, Keene town councilor and co-owner of the Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service and Lodge; Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland, R-Willsboro; Adirondack Mountain Club Education Director Seth Jones; Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism; Pete Nelson, co-founder of the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates; SUNY ESF professor Jill Weiss; Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr.; and Charlie Wise, owner of the Mountaineer gear shop in Keene Valley.

The group submitted this report to the DEC late last year, but the department waited until last week to release it. A smaller interim report was submitted to Seggos last summer. The department also waited weeks to release that report.

Some of the recommendations in this report are more than two decades old — they were outlined in the 1999 High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan and never came to fruition. Others have already been included in subsequent amendments to that plan but haven’t happened yet. Some of the recommendations the DEC is already doing, such as enforcing parking regulations along Route 73, partnering with Essex County to launch a pilot hiker shuttle system, and putting out information on social media and state websites about parking availability and closures.

In a news release, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates said the “bottom line is that the High Peaks need to be better protected as wilderness.”

“We are concerned that others are crying ‘overuse’ and leading with solutions before the problems and challenges with visitor use are understood and measured,” the release reads. “We believe science, data and planning need to come first, even as short-term strategies are tried.”

In a statement, Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway praised the report. Before becoming head of the environmental advocacy group, he was a DEC regional director for the Catskills and Hudson Valley.

“If adopted, these actions would be a significant leap forward toward world-class management of this world-class resource,” he said. “That will mean both a healthier wilderness and a happier visitor.”

Janeway highlighted a three-year pilot program testing out use limits on private land first, having the DEC adopt National Park Service policies, and the call for a new outdoor recreation unit. He also echoed the recommendation for more funding.

“The Adirondack Council and partners have called for an investment of $500 million over the next five years for this effort and other Park protection, clean water and community assistance efforts,” a news release from the Council reads.

Seggos did not say which of the committee’s new recommendations the DEC would ultimately implement.

“I absolutely, 100% believe that the DEC … their heart is in the right place,” said Wilson, the committee member and Keene town supervisor. “They were committed to the process, committed to giving us all the tools we needed to have these discussions and make these decisions. They stand behind the recommendations that we came to for the report.

“There’s a lot more going on in the world than just managing high use in the Adirondacks and the High Peaks,” he added. “I think those larger forces are really going to dictate how much the state can tackle right away. On an optimistic note, we’re engaged in discussions on how to move forward with stewardship in Keene, transportation, more toilets, more robust outreach to education and visitors. I really feel like the DEC has gone right into the work of doing this as we gear up for the summer. With that said, it’s a big issue to address. It’s going to take a lot of work, and there’s a lot of demands for managing the ongoing public health crisis and recovering from it. I’m prepared to continue the work we’re doing and be patient.”

A full copy of the committee’s report is available here:

hpacfinalreport

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