Putting in the effort to mitigate tourism
We in the Adirondacks are in an experimental stage of dealing with an increased number of hikers that exceeds the capacity of our infrastructure — roads, parking, trails, etc. — around Lake Placid and Keene.
In a small-ish way, it’s part of a global issue of overtourism — tourism that exceeds an area’s ability to absorb it and causes unintended consequences, such as damage to beloved sites, physical danger to visitors, and squeezing out year-round residents.
The infrastructure we’re talking about here is New York state property. The staff of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 seem to recognize the seriousness of problem and are trying to do something about it, but state leaders in Albany will not give them the resources to do so properly. While the governor and legislature spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing and construction projects to draw in more tourists, they refuse year after year to let the DEC hire more forest rangers, planners and trail workers.
The bottom line is that, under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York spends lots of money to attract tourists but very little to mitigate their impact.
We are grateful that people in the Adirondacks are stepping up to do as much as they can with whatever resources they have to address the problem — and that the DEC is letting them. Two years ago, the Adirondack 46ers started stationing volunteer stewards at trailheads of the most popular hiking mountains, such as Cascade. These stewards greet hikers, tell them what to expect, check if they have needed things such as water, good shoes and weather-appropriate clothes, and teach them a little about how not to harm the natural environment. And just this week, new stewards are coming in to help this effort. The town of Keene and Paul Smith’s College are teaming up to have what they call frontcountry (as opposed to backcountry) stewards who will perform a similar role, and also explain to people about a new parking ban on the roadside of state Route 73, except for designated parking spots.
And they’re not the only ones contributing. The Adirondack Mountain Club manages the Summit Steward program, runs a trail crew and provides hiker parking, outfitting, advice and other services at its Adirondak Loj hub at Heart Lake. The Student Conservation Association also does trail work, and lately, the Adirondack Council environmental advocacy group has done studies of hiking trails and parking — fact gathering projects no one else seemed to be doing.
The need for this has been growing as hiker numbers increased exponentially in recent years, fueled by the growing popularity of list-checking and social media photos. Some people complain that the DEC is too slow to keep up with the times. They’re not wrong, but we think it’s not the fault of the individuals who work for DEC Region 5. In general, we think they’re acutely aware of the problems and eager to address them.
For the DEC, managing the Adirondack Forst Preserve involves a bureaucratic process of unit management plans and review by the Adirondack Park Agency. That important process should remain, but it can be sped up if the DEC can hire enough foresters to write and adapt plans in a more timely manner. Consider: It took 17 years to develop the recently completed plan for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.
So it comes back to funding — but part of the problem is how we come up with the money. Many people, including town supervisors in Essex County, suggest it’s time for charge hikers the way the state charges for fishing and hunting licenses. Many others are outraged at the idea of taxing people to walk in the woods. There certainly would be some practical problems with it, but on the other hand, hiking is demanding more of the taxpayers than ever — much of which we’re not paying, which means the cost gets taken out of nature and people in some way or other.
The Essex County occupancy tax should probably be part of the solution. The state recently agreed to let the county raise this tax on visitor lodging from 3% to 5%. We think the extra 2% shouldn’t go to tourism marketing, as the 3% does; it should be used to mitigate tourists’ impact. It could provide shuttle buses to trailheads, add trail crew workers or build workforce housing in places like Lake Placid where vacation rental units have driven up rent and house prices.
Again, this is the experimental phase of dealing with these problems. There will be some trial and error along the way, but thank goodness we have people willing to try. People here are resilient and resourceful, and the models developed in the Adirondacks may well be used to help other places.