DEC hires firm to help plan High Peaks visitor management

A crowd of hikers looks at the High Peaks from the summit of Giant Mountain on Labor Day weekend 2017. (Photo provided — Vin Maresco, summit steward, Adirondack Mountain Club)

(Editor’s note: This story was first published on AdirondackExplorer.org.)

A Portland, Oregon-based research and planning firm will help the state address increased visitation in parts of the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks and the Kaaterskill Clove area of the Catskill Park, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced earlier this month.

The work could lead to long-awaited studies on the areas’ social carrying capacities — or how many visitors these natural resource areas can withstand before seeing negative impacts — and what to do when those limits are reached.

Otak Inc., which has helped various national parks with managing crowds, won the contract to create a visitor use management framework for the department. It is financed by $600,000 through last year’s Environmental Protection Fund. The DEC expects work to start immediately and continue through the end of 2024, according to a news release.

In a statement, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the High Peaks and Kaaterskill Clove are “two of New York’s most popular outdoor destinations because of their outstanding beauty. DEC is excited to partner with the experienced team at Otak Inc. to explore strategic, innovative, and data-driven ideas and solutions for balancing conservation and public access in these beloved areas of forest preserve.”

The state-organized High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group recommended the DEC hire outside help for this work in its 55-page report released in January 2021. The DEC released its application for bids in August.

At an Adirondack Park Agency meeting also in August, Adirondack Park Coordinator Josh Clague said the lack of a park-wide visitor management framework was “the elephant in the room not being addressed.” He told commissioners that the contractor, once hired, would examine things like where visitors are going, what times of day, what days of the week and how many people are using the trails.

The area of study is in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness in Essex County. It includes more than a dozen mountains and some of the more popular High Peaks including Cascade and the state’s highest mountain, Marcy. Smaller peaks like Rooster Comb and Mount Van Hoevenberg are also included.

Otak will work with state and local officials, as well as the public, about what they’d like to see at these locations, also known as “desired conditions.” DEC said the second half of 2023 will include measuring and analyzing visitor patterns, as Clague described to APA commissioners. This data collection will allow Otak to compare on-the-ground conditions to the desired conditions.

In 2024, Otak is expected to develop a suite of management strategies that DEC would potentially implement to get to the desired conditions for both forest preserve places.

The DEC said there will be public meetings in both the Adirondacks and Catskills “to highlight the project goals and timeline and solicit feedback on management objectives.” DEC has a second round of public meetings planned for 2024 where Otak’s draft management recommendations will be presented.

“The Adirondack High Peaks and the Kaaterskill Clove area in the Catskills are significant landscapes in American conservation history and world class destinations for wildlands recreation,” said Otak Project Manager Steve Lawson, in a news release. “We are excited for the opportunity to support the DEC in this project to develop data-driven strategies for the long-term enjoyment, appreciation, and conservation of these areas.”

Lawson has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a Ph.D in natural resources from the University of Vermont, as well as a master of science, natural resource economics and policy from the University of Maine, according to his biography on Otak’s website.

Lawson and Otak have particular experience with another one of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Council’s recommendations — use of the federal Interagency Visitor Use Management Framework. This is a process used by the National Park Service and other federal agencies for “setting management goals and relies on data and analysis for determining the success of management actions,” according to the DEC.

Lawson worked on a transportation and visitor capacity study for Acadia National Park and a wild and scenic river study for the U.S. Forest Service. The study for Acadia National Park in Maine led to the Cadillac Mountain vehicle reservation system to see the sun rise, a permit system the Explorer tested in the late summer of 2021 and reported on in 2022.

Adirondack Park environmental organizations have been advocating for this type of framework for years. Former Adirondack Park Agency Commissioner Chad Dawson worked with DEC staff for about two decades in an attempt to get the department to create such a program. He resigned from the board in December 2020 after the agency approved DEC’s plans to allow campfire rings at primitive tent sites in the Essex Chain Lakes, arguing the two state organizations were elevating recreational opportunity over environmental protection and not studying the consequences.

“I am very supportive of this DEC initiative to move forward on visitor use management,” Dawson told the Explorer on Wednesday. “I think it’s very, very important to the future of the forest preserve and visitors’ experiences.”


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