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New state entity for outdoor rec is good idea

A view from the heart of a “world-class treasure” (Photo provided by Zack Floss)

The Final Report from the High Peaks Advisory Group has been released for public consumption, and if you haven’t read it through already, you should. The document reflects a year-long process of distilling and diagnosing some of the most pertinent issues we face here in the Adirondacks.

For those who live in the region or who pay close attention, most of the issues identified will come as no surprise. The overuse crisis, parking concerns, lack of resources for trail maintenance and education, and the presence of human waste and degradation are all familiar topics of discussion, and the authors of the report duly note that many of the suggestions they make are not new. That said, the potential that this document represents should not be understated. It provides an outline that, if taken seriously and acted upon, could usher in a new era of coordinated action across public lands that could address the crisis conditions it identifies. All that said, I think it would be wise to take a closer look at what challenges must be overcome before any sort of change can occur.

In my opinion, the best starting point for this sort of analysis would be to look at the organizations responsible for the administration and management of the Adirondacks. While many entities are involved in administration, education, trail maintenance and conservation work, the state Department of Environmental Conservation represents the structure that bring all these efforts together. Though the authors of the Final Report are very deliberate with their language and often delicate in their recommendations, they state quite plainly in Recommendation Overall-3 that a “new State bureau,” or a new division within an existing bureau, is necessary to manage outdoor recreation on New York’s public lands.

The claim that the current management structure here in the Adirondacks is inadequate for handling the overuse issue is best exemplified by the authors’ acknowledgement that many of the observations and recommendations in the Final Report are not new. If the same solutions are being put forth again, albeit in an updated format, then I think it fairly reasonable to ask why they have not yet been implemented.

I think it’s fair to say that the biggest hurdle to implementation is the complexity of the experiment that we call the “Forest Preserve.” As you read through the report, note the number of agencies and groups listed as responsible for implementing these suggestions, or even the variety of organizations or institutions that the report authors represent. It’s easy to point a blaming finger at the DEC for whatever isn’t getting done in the Adirondacks, but it’s important to consider the mandate and structure that the department operates within, as well as all the other interests involved.

In so many situations, it seems that the DEC winds up bound in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of conundrum. When tasked with addressing parking issues, for example, their own mandate prevents them from installing a large, paved trailhead parking area, while resources that already exist but are managed by other organizations (such as the many lots at Whiteface) can’t even be considered because of extra-institutional resistance. Another example would be forest rangers, who are pulled in a dozen different directions — acting as educators, forest police, search-and-rescue operators and parking lot patrols all in a day. Yet calls to expand their number meet complicated arguments regarding the purview of their official mandate. Worst of all is considering the conundrum facing any conservation organization. How do you simultaneously expand access while focusing on defending the natural resource from degradation? There are some wonderfully well-thought-out answers out there, but none of them are simple, and all require great effort and coordination between agents of enforcement, education and conservation.

Add to this that, for many would-be recreators, the DEC is a complete mystery. Of all the New Yorkers that I’ve taken into the backcountry, only a handful have been aware of the existence of the DEC. For those who live in the area or are more aware of its responsibilities, the image conjured is often that of forest rangers, land managers or trail crews. If you’ve gone to public hearings on land use or have participated in the public comment process for draft unit management plans, you may have witnessed the bureaucratic back end at work, as well, but that’s only a fraction of what the 24 divisions and offices of the DEC are responsible for.

None of those 24 divisions is specifically tasked with managing outdoor recreation, as their responsibilities are written. That task has been shoehorned into the purview of a few divisions, like Lands and Forests, Forest Protection, and Communication Services, as the bureau tries to improve access, encourage best practice, ensure safety and spread information about all of the above. But as the report indicates, the DEC lacks a dedicated division that could specifically organize and coordinate initiatives to sustainably improve visibility, access, education and recreational opportunities. Of course, cooperation between divisions is required to actualize these opportunities, but to divide the focus on recreation in the present fashion ensures that progress will be slow if it comes at all.

As we look to the future of the Adirondacks and public forests across the state of New York, I think that the suggestion to create a dedicated division responsible for “outdoor recreation management” is one of the wisest single moves that could be made. While the report also proposes an Adirondack Advisory Group to drive this process forward, we should also consider looking to the framework for such a project that already exists. In 2017, the Adventure NY initiative was created for, seemingly, just such a purpose. I’d be curious to know how many people reading this are aware of its existence, however. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, focusing on investing in this existing initiative and the experience it already has across the state of New York could produce results that must more efficiently. To make Adventure NY into something permanent and provide it with adequate resources to take on the enormous task before it would go a long way towards providing a framework within which other recommendations in the report could be considered and addressed.

In the end, we can only hope that the state takes the recommendations made by this report seriously. Whether or not sweeping change is ushered in, something needs to be done to reinvigorate all those who are working to address what is justly called a crisis in the HPAG report. We have a unique opportunity to improve how we manage what is rightly noted as a “world-class treasure.” It would be inexcusable to squander that now.

You can download and read the High Peaks Advisory Group report here:

hpacfinalreport

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