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Adirondack Council thanks DEC commissioner for progress

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos holds up a framed photo of the Adirondack Great Range given to him by the Adirondack Council. (Provided photo — Adirondack Council)

ALBANY — The Adirondack Council presented state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos with a framed photograph of the Adirondack Great Range on May 19 as a token of its appreciation for the commissioner’s efforts to improve the management of visitors to and sustain the success of the High Peaks Wilderness Area and other popular destinations in the Adirondack Park.

“The commissioner and his DEC team have taken multiple important steps over the last year to improve the way the state is managing the flow of people and automobiles, address the negative impacts of overuse on visitor safety, natural resources, and wilderness, and provide new and improved access to the Adirondack Forest Preserve,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway said in a press release. “We want to recognize the momentum he has established, applaud the state for starting to ramp up investments in a sustainable future for this national treasure we all love — and encourage continued progress.”

“I’m touched and grateful to my friends at the Adirondack Council for this recognition, which I share with the dedicated team of DEC professionals working toward a common goal of preserving the magnificent Adirondack Park,” Seggos said in the release. “Achieving the delicate balance between protecting the park’s beautiful natural wonders and promoting sustainable and vibrant communities is a challenge that requires careful analysis, diligence and dedication, and a willingness to work with all partners. DEC is fortunate to have a partner like the Adirondack Council on many of these difficult decisions as we work to protect the park for future generations of New Yorkers and visitors.”

Janeway noted that visitors to the Adirondacks increased by 25% over the decade preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, starting at about 10 million per year and rising above 12.4 million by 2018. During the pandemic, the number of visitors and new residents coming to the Adirondacks increased dramatically.

According to the Council, hotels in Lake Placid reported they were busier than they were during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games last summer. Real estate prices escalated as homes were purchased unseen by the buyer, often for cash. All of this occurred as the Canadian border remained closed to visitors. Canadians often comprise 30% or more of Adirondack Park visitors, according to local surveys. Adirondack communities are also embracing the idea of appealing to a broader audience of potential visitors by seeking greater equity, inclusion, diversity and social justice.

“We all know that it will take a multi-year effort to correct some of the problems that have been developing in the Adirondacks for decades,” Janeway said. “This can be a thankless job — one that comes with lots of criticism as the state makes changes to its operations. The Department of Environmental Conservation, in partnership with the Adirondack Park Agency, plays a pivotal role in making changes that will benefit visitors, help decongest overcrowded communities and send visitors to other communities that really need a boost.”

Janeway noted that under Seggos’s leadership, DEC has started constructing new, sustainable trails, while also adjusting parking, adding new signage and offering better information to potential visitors before they arrived. It has added portable restrooms and halted unsafe and illegal parking in several locations. It is helping to fund additional front country trailhead stewards. It has been announced that DEC plans to implement several actions approved in earlier unit management plans, including improved parking and better protections for natural resources and communities. The state has also provided funding to Essex County for hiker shuttles, and advocates are still hopefully that those will operate this summer. Earlier this year, as recommended by the state’s High Peaks Overuse Working Group, the DEC announced a partnership with the Adirondack Mountain Reserve to pilot hiker parking reservations to address safety and other issues. This week, it began a Leave No Trace media and social media campaign aimed at visitor and hiker education based on LNT’s widely accepted standards for ethical behavior in the outdoors.

“The conversation really began when the governor, commissioner and the state recognized there were visitor-use issues that needed correction and appointed a task force to recommend a plan,” Janeway said. “That led to the identification of multiple recommendations to the DEC, Adirondack Park Agency and legislative leaders that recognized the need for and dedicating new funding for a third-party, independent, outside expert-assisted visitor management plan. That plan can evolve into a state-of-the-art Visitor Use Management Framework, such as those used in national parks.”

The state released a draft 98-page wildlands monitoring plan earlier in May. The Adirondack Council applauded the drafting and release of this as another important step towards improved visitor use management, as forest rangers, land management experts, and the diverse membership of the State’s Wilderness Overuse Working Group recommended.

Ultimately a Visitor Use Management Framework would provide a systematic method for determining which areas of the park need new trails, parking, sanitary facilities, planners, land managers, forest rangers, educational programs and limits on use for the most heavily damaged locations, in order to give them a rest, he said.

Independent surveys of New Yorkers and hikers have found that most, but not all, support prioritizing wilderness protection over free and unlimited access, as required in the Adirondack Park. For example, 79% said in a 2019 survey that they would rather see a trail closed to them than have it damaged due to erosion or poor conditions.

“None of the state or public-private actions by themselves allow use to grow while protecting wilderness and communities, and there is no silver bullet to stop the negative impacts of overuse but taken together these actions are a big jump in the right direction, and for that we say thank you,” said Janeway. “We are committed to advocating and providing funding to help sustain the momentum so future generations enjoy access to world class Adirondack wilderness.”

In presenting the award to Seggos the Adirondack Council also reiterated its thanks to the Commissioner and the state for helping the Adirondacks with new clean water infrastructure funding, the 2022 environmental bond act proposal, the $300 million Environmental Protection Fund, the hard work of the dedicated state professionals, and investments in building more vibrant sustainable climate-smart communities.

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