A new plan for the High Peaks
DEC hosts first public meeting on Visitor Use Management plan
SARANAC LAKE — The state Department of Environmental Conservation is in the beginning stages of developing its first ever Visitor Use Management plan for the High Peaks Wilderness, and with this plan the DEC is entering into an era of new planning methods.
Last week, the DEC held its first public meeting on its Visitor Use Management plan — or VUM — at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake. The long-awaited plan is expected to address the longstanding and contentious topic of managing increasing hiker traffic in the High Peaks. Though the department doesn’t expect to have a drafted VUM ready for public comment until at least summer 2024, DEC Adirondack Park Coordinator Josh Clague and employees from Otak and Ross Strategic — a research, planning and design firm and a stakeholder engagement firm, respectively, which the DEC has hired to help with developing the VUM — told the around 60 meeting attendees last week that research and public feedback will be the department’s guide through the VUM planning process, from start to finish.
Clague called the VUM process a “paradigm shift” in the department’s planning methods — approaching a dynamic, public feedback-based method and moving away from traditional state-level planning models that often don’t involve the general public until a draft plan has already been made.
Clague introduced the concept and ideal timeline of the VUM process with Susan Hayman, a senior associate with Ross Strategic, and Otak Research Analyst Abbie Larkin. First, there’s the public feedback portion — which started with Tuesday’s session. Another public feedback session is expected to be held in March 2024, though people can send feedback to the DEC via email, mail, and via the project website anytime in between. Clague and Larkin said this public feedback has the power to shift the way the VUM planning process is done and, once the plan is implemented, further public feedback could help Otak and the DEC to tweak what’s not working.
On Tuesday, participants had an opportunity to weigh in on what they cherish most about the High Peaks and ask Clague and Larkin questions. People gathered at tables for facilitated discussion about what they see as “current conditions” of visitor use in the High Peaks against the “desired conditions” here.
The night saw longstanding visitor use management topics come to light once again. Attendees brought up what they see as a need for a comprehensive hiker education system to curb negative effects on the environment and to help hikers feel more safe and comfortable; a need for better maintenance of High Peaks trails; the need to spread visitor use out into areas where there’s less traffic; a need to spread out the DEC’s management responsibilities to other agencies; and the need to create a more extensive hiker transportation system as the DEC crafts this new VUM plan.
For decades, the High Peaks Wilderness has seen steadily rising tourism numbers, and the crush of nature-seekers has contributed to a variety of problems. The wilderness’ diverse web of varying ecological and management zones makes fixes complicated. There have been long-simmering infrastructure and staffing needs to accommodate the influx, and there are hundreds of miles of aging trails in the Adirondacks with long stretches graded steeply, so controlling erosion is impossible.
Otak is tasked with finding ways to manage visitor traffic, with a focus on the “experiential, social, and public safety elements” of a sustainable visitor experience, so Otak’s plans will not include ways to manage degraded trails and other ecological-based management practices, according to Larkin.
This summer, Otak will do some data collection — measuring car traffic, trailhead and summit traffic, among other visitor volumes, Larkin said — to gain an understanding of the scope of current visitor use. Over the next year, the DEC will also hold meetings with a “core team” to discuss the feedback and data collected throughout the year.
Because the planning process is research and public feedback-based, Clague said, details about what the draft plan could include were largely unavailable at last week’s meeting. Clague said that “anything is possible” in the plan.
More information about the product methodology, including ways to submit feedback for the plan, is available at highpeaksvum.com.
Kevin Prickett, an environmental program specialist for the Adirondack Park Agency, facilitated one of the break-out groups at the meeting. His table was filled with a familiar cast of Adirondack characters — many with experience in Adirondack-focused environmental nonprofits: Tony Goodwin, who retired last year after 35 years as executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society; Adirondack Mountain Club Deputy Executive Director Julia Goren; Former Adirondack Explorer editor Thomas Woodman — who also co-authored and -edited the Adirondack Council’s “Vision 2050” with Goren; David Gomlak, the owner of the TMax-n-Topos hostel in the town of North Elba; Pete Nelson, board chair for Adirondack Wilderness Advocates; and Robin Deloria, the town of Newcomb supervisor, who sat at the table with Newcomb’s head of parks, recreation and events David Hughes.
Prickett led the group through two brief exercises — they first wrote the current visitor use conditions in geographic areas of personal concern and how they believe those conditions positively or negatively impact visitor experience. Then, they wrote the desired conditions. Locations of current and desired locations often coincided, and many of the statements were general.
Goodwin vied for the maintenance of High Peaks trails — many of which he built himself — to counteract increasing visitor use. Gomlak argued for a more comprehensive hiker shuttle system with extensive hours. Goren put in a word for a comprehensive, parkwide education system for High Peaks visitors. Nelson said he’d like to see local organizations and municipalities take better economic advantage of the increase in visitor traffic. Deloria and Hughes both argued for better maintenance of DEC’s facilities by involving more organizations and agencies in visitor use and maintenance efforts.
All of these people agreed that the High Peaks are a great place to live and visit, and they want people to feel welcome here. Goren said that increased visitor use also has the potential to boost local populations — the more people visit, the more people fall in love with the area, and the more people make a home here and contribute to the local workforce and school populations.
Goodwin said that he feels the “vast majority” of visitors are satisfied with their experience in the Adirondacks, and the group agreed that trailhead and summit stewards have made a positive impact on the visitor experience. Though some people might perceive popular hikes like Cascade Mountain as overly-crowded, Goodwin said, he’s talked to people there who are satisfied with that kind of experience. If you want solitude, Goodwin said, you can find it.
“There’s no need to over-control or regulate,” Goodwin said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
However, some locals are adamant about regulating the increasing presence of visitors in the blue line as they feel their solitude is intruded upon. Saranac Lake native Jill McKenty, who attended Tuesday night’s session, said she’s watched visitor use boom over the course of her lifetime. She sees the increasing popularity of the Adirondacks as impeding on her own experience in the park — she likes to visit lesser-known spots where she can find some alone time in nature. But that’s become harder and harder to come by, she said.
“My secret spots are no longer secret,” she said, “and that’s troubling.”
McKenty has worked for years as a server and bartender in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and she serves tourists all the time. She said they often ask her about the best places to swim, hike or ski. She steers them away from her “secret spots.”
Otak and DEC instructed people attending Tuesday night’s VUM session to write what they most cherish about the Adirondacks on a Post-it note. There was a theme among many of the Post-it notes, including McKenty’s, about finding peace, serenity, alone time and refreshing distance from “civilization” in the wilderness.
Byron Ordway, a Cadyville resident and avid mountain biker, also cherishes solitude. That’s the only word he wrote on his Post-it note, and he wrote it in all caps. But he’s not looking to keep visitors away — he believes there are opportunities for everyone to recreate in the Adirondacks, and that there’s more to do here than hiking. If people are looking for solitude, he said, Cascade and Porter might not be the place to go looking for it. But there are other places, and he loves them all.
In Prickett’s group, Woodman noted the need to provide a positive High Peaks visitor experience that’s available to anyone — that the Adirondacks should be a more welcoming place to diverse groups of people and people who might have economic barriers to a high-priced tourist experience.
Carrying the capacity torch
Over the last few years, the DEC has placed a heavy focus on what the department calls “visitor use management.” As the number of hikers and other recreationists visiting the High Peaks continues to rise, so has the amount of trail use and degradation, traffic and safety concerns. But Clague said the concept of visitor use management is an evolution of the longstanding concept of “carrying capacity” — the sweet spot between allowing people to use and enjoy the High Peaks without degrading its natural resources and social and psychological benefits.
Carrying capacity is a term noted in DEC documents as far back as the Adirondack Park Agency’s first Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan in the early 1970s and in the DEC’s subsequent High Peaks Unit Management Plans for the park, according to Clague. But Clague said it’s been hard for the DEC to concretely define, measure and implement the concept of “carrying capacity” in the field. Some of these measurements are clear — like how many people can park at a parking lot before it’s at capacity. Others can be harder for to pin down — like how many people can use a given trail without causing extensive damage. But even when capacities are measurable, rules can be hard to enforce, and the problems that arise when they’re broken have proven hard for the DEC to adequately address. Though the DEC has piloted a couple of efforts to mitigate hiker traffic at trailheads — including the state Route 73 hiker shuttle and the parking reservation system at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve — the department has yet to develop comprehensive mitigation methods that address the entire High Peaks Wilderness.
The parking lots at trailheads in the High Peaks were never meant to accommodate everyone who might visit. Many of the facilities, designed in the 1970s, were built to “accommodate a desired capacity commensurate with interior use and to also, alleviate off-highway parking problems,” according to the High Peaks Unit Management Plan, released in March 1999. “This is a passive-indirect management approach to control interior use by balancing road access with the desired carrying capacity of the contiguous wilderness.” Even 20 years ago, parking problems were routine at the Garden, South Meadow Road, the AuSable Club and along Route 73, according to the plan, which says that “in each case, the number of parked cars is often triple the desired capacity.”
The High Peaks Advisory Group — a stakeholder group formed by the state in 2019 and tasked with creating a list of recommendations for addressing increasing visitor use in the High Peaks — “picked up the torch” for carrying capacity, Clague said. The group recommended that the state create a High Peaks “Wilderness Management Plan” in its list of management recommendations in January 2021. In 2022, the state budget included a $400 million Environmental Protection Fund, which carved out funding for “comprehensive planning,” which the DEC interpreted as funding to kickstart the management plan, Clague said. The new 2023-24 state budget retains the $400 million for the EPF.
The DEC hired Otak this past March to help develop and implement the VUM plan, which could go out for public comment as soon as the summer of 2024. This is the first time the DEC has undertaken a VUM project, according to Clague, and the DEC is taking on two plans at once — one for the Adirondacks and another in the Catskills — hence the need for some outside help.
The next public meeting on the VUM is expected to held sometime in March 2024, though people can send feedback to Ross Strategic via email at email@example.com; to the DEC via mail addressed to Josh Clague, 625 Broadway, 5th Floor, Albany, NY 12233-4254; and via the project website at https://highpeaksvum.com/get-involved.html.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included a photo caption with a misspelling of David Gomlak’s name. The Enterprise regrets the error.