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AuSable Club tries to help manage overuse

Indian Head vista, overlooking Lower AuSable Lake, is a view that will soon see more restricted access. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

In the beginning of September, the news that the AuSable Club will pilot access restrictions to Adirondack Mountain Reserve land this coming Columbus Day weekend evoked some frustration in the wilderness recreation community.

This action will see yet-unspecified restrictions to hiker traffic in the roughly 7,000-acre private reserve, which serves as a key access point to the High Peaks Wilderness. The wild popularity of this access point has been highlighted this year as parking limits drove hikers to park in pull-offs up and down Route 73 and march along the road in hopes of getting to their desired hikes. With that popularity, of course, come the ubiquitous challenges of overuse that are being felt across the park. Because of its position as the owner of a unique and massive chunk of land, however, the club is able to take certain steps to limit that overuse, which would be much more difficult to implement elsewhere. Though at first glance the pending restrictions may seem like elitist limits on public freedoms, I think it’s worth taking a harder look at the potential positives to such a move.

There has long been a certain amount of friction between the hiking community at large and AuSable Club land managers and members. The juxtaposition between general hiker culture and the higher-brow aspects of club life can be rather stark. In my personal experience, there have been a few times where it was felt pretty heavily, whether in the form of a gun-toting gate guardian shouting at a 10-year-old hiker for picking raspberries or the club member in the fancy white SUV who loudly derided me while I walked down the side of the road with a group of students. But nothing is one-sided. On the other side of the equation, hikers can frequently be heard cursing the bus which, in normal years, transports club members to and from Lower AuSable Lake or becoming irate and confrontational over the rule banning dogs on AMR land. Many are simply frustrated that only club members have access to places like the AuSable Lakes, all the trail-less wilderness in the valley, and the incredible cliffs on the flanks of Mount Colvin, should they choose to pursue it. With the new, pending restrictions in the works, this frustration has had fertile ground on which bloom.

This all begs an interesting question, though. With hundreds of thousands of acres of publicly owned wild forest on every side of the AMR land, why do we feel so cheated by the limitations on this land?

Being denied the ability to walk through resplendent wilderness when one is normally able to access it freely certainly rubs some people the wrong way. It’s further rankling when that certain access is granted only to those with the means to procure it. That said, the privileges of club members are only a different manifestation of the privilege that many outdoor recreators feel here in the Adirondacks, or in wilderness areas in general. Our access to wild places is a gift that we all-too-frequently take for granted. This is abundantly clear in the way some recreators treat our public lands or the entitlement (even if seemingly benign) that so many of us display in our use thereof.

The pending restrictions may be, in some part, about improving the experience of club members who don’t want to see a bunch of dirty hikers marching up their roads, but having met more than a few members who tend to join this crew of dirty hikers on their own adventures, I’d assume this is a minor facet in the decision. (After all, to join the AuSable Club, you likely must have felt some version of the passion for the Adirondacks that most visitors and residents experience.) I, for one, take at face value the statement that the primary motivation for this decision is that the resource they are tasked with protecting is being degraded by overuse.

The fact of the matter is that the club does work to diligently protect the incredible swath of wilderness in their possession. It also is generous enough to provide access to thousands of visitors every year, in accordance with the conservation easement it has agreed to with the people of New York. In recent years, with the considerable resources at its disposal and its limited mandate, it has been able to focus on studying the issue of overuse on its lands and the specific negative impacts this is having. Though this issue is also thoroughly studied at the state level, the DEC is in no position to unilaterally introduce limits to recreation without considerable and lengthy public debate on the issue. As the number of recreators visiting the Adirondacks continues to swell, the AMR restriction experiment stands a good chance of being a valuable and timely pilot program for addressing overuse across the rest of the state Forest Preserve in the future.

I am, by no means, a regular proponent of imposing limit to people’s access to (or rightful freedoms in) the backcountry. I would go as far as to say continued access to wild land is critical to my mental health and physical well-being. It remains to be seen how the restrictions to AMR land will be implemented, but as we continue to see aggressive over-loving of Adirondack land, new options need to be explored and big steps taken in the quest to find a sustainable balance of recreation and conservation. Hopefully that’s the kind of balance we’ll see come out of this experiment.

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