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Whose land is it anyway?

Cars overflowing the Sewards trailhead parking lot. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

I have never been an advocate for commodifying access to the Adirondacks, but the last few weeks have started to make me consider things from a different angle. This week a hiking buddy and I took a trip into the Seward Range. A few years ago, that trailhead was one of the most reliably quiet spots in the park. It was rarely full, weekend or weekday. On this particular trip, we came across a sight I’d never seen before.

When we arrived, despite one spot being left in the parking lot for us, cars were parked along the entrance and down along Coreys Road. It must have been completely packed the night before. This was a bit of a shock but not unpredictable, given people’s itch to get outdoors during the pandemic, the recent surge in aspiring 46ers and so on. After checking the trail register and noting that most people were hiking Seymour that day, we decided it was still alright to set out on a hike, if a bit reluctantly.

This decision produced an unwelcome feeling of competition for the space and a sense of guilt for adding to the numbers on the trail that day. I’ve thought a lot about why I still guide trips here if overuse is such an issue. My goal is to educate people regarding best practice and to inspire an abiding love for the Adirondacks, whether in clients or students or just other hikers, but how do I balance that against the fact that I’m adding to overuse even if I recreate with the utmost care? As we walked, my friend and I mulled over various options for addressing the inundation of the Adirondacks.

We talked through some previously discussed ideas: Should the state further limit parking? I suppose they’ve already tried, and people seem to break that rule with impunity. Should there be a cost associated with parking? Should we create a permitting system? What would access to the Adirondacks be priced at? Would that be fair to New York residents who already pay to protect the Forest Preserve through their taxes? Maybe we could give a free permit to any person with a New York address if they apply? Well, then how would we spread the word about the change, and what would happen to people parked in lots to hike without a permit? Do we want Adirondack parking police? What about locals? Do they deserve special consideration (given that half the cars we saw parked that day were from out of state)? Should those who know better just give up on hiking until overuse is resolved? If so, how is that fair? Does it do any good to have the conservationists stay at home while the uninitiated run roughshod over the High Peaks?

The conversation took a few more twists and turns before we arrived at the Ward Brook lean-to. The village of tents that greeted us, specifically those planted beneath the “Camping Prohibited” signs in the revegetation areas around the lean-to, was much more disheartening than the crowded parking area. It is this kind of blatant disregard for common-sense regulations and environmental sanctity that makes overcrowding in the Adirondacks particularly intolerable.

As we continued hiking, we saw more tents right alongside the trail. We happened upon one young couple setting up their tent right next to the brook and recommended they move the required 150 feet away from the water, which they did. On top of Seward, we had lunch next to someone sporting a 46er patch. They told us, proudly, about the trail work projects they’d been part of, and we talked at length about overcrowding inside the Blue Line. When they told us they were camping for the night, we mentioned the abundance of tents by the lean-to, assuming they’d be as bothered about it as we were. “Oh, some of those are ours” was the response we got. They planned to plead ignorance if they were confronted about it by anyone, despite being camped directly beneath a “Camping Prohibited” sign. I was stunned that someone who claimed to care so much for the Adirondacks could still act with such blatant disregard when it came to respecting the land itself.

It may be hard for some to understand why this is a big deal. These rules and regulations don’t just exist for some random, frivolous reason, though. They are part of an ongoing effort to help preserve natural ecosystems and repair damage that people have done (and continue to do) to the land here. One of those rules states that, if you’re setting up a primitive campsite that isn’t at a designated tent site, you must be 150 feet from trails, roads or water bodies. It’s a rule that exists not only to preserve the wilderness experience of other people recreating in the woods but also to protect the wilderness itself. If you can’t have that baseline amount of respect for the regulations that protect this place, I would argue that you don’t deserve access to it.

Conversations in person and comments on posts about this issue on social media confirm a widespread sense of entitlement. Many people seem to feel they can act however they want in the woods. Whether it’s on the trail or online, people who are similarly concerned with land preservation struggle with how to address this sort of ignorant disregard for the rights of other recreators and the protection of our local ecosystems. More often than I can tolerate, the responses they receive are some variation of “Mind your own business.”

The right to access the Adirondacks is one we all share. For those who come to visit from out of state, please remember that you have the incredible privilege to access this land essentially free of charge, and all we ask is that you respect the rules designed to protect these lands. For those of us who are residents of New York and foot the bill for the protection of the Adirondacks, please bear in mind the responsibility this entails.

Our shared access does not entitle any one person to pursue a decision or action that negatively impacts the rights or experiences of any other person in that common space. It certainly does not entitle anyone to cause unnecessary damage to the land or anything living on it for their own amusement.

Confusing the abstract notion of “freedom” with a personal right to disregard regulations or the rights of others is an endemic problem in this nation. “Freedom” doesn’t mean you have the right to put a tent wherever you want on public land. The Constitution may allow you to spout mindless vitriol in the comments section on Facebook posts, but before you tell someone to mind their own business, remember that it is, quite literally, everyone’s business who chooses to live, recreate or work here.

So at what point do we say enough is enough? At what point do we give up the act and accept that some people can’t be trusted with the amount of freedom they are currently allowed in the Adirondacks? What sort of barrier would still allow people access but would filter out those who abuse their privilege? More to the point, how much more damage will have to occur before such a barrier is implemented? I don’t claim to have any answers, but I’ve come around to the feeling that something more has to be done to protect this place from people who just don’t care enough to do it themselves.

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