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Committee had better get cracking — but not just them

We hope Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, Basil Seggos, don’t expect Adirondackers to be impressed that they just appointed a task force to tackle issues caused by an explosion of hiker numbers in the High Peaks region — too many for existing infrastructure to support.

Sure, it’s a step in the right direction, but very little and very late.

That’s not the fault of the new task force’s members, although we do question some apparent oversights in the casting. Why is there no one from the towns of North Elba, Harrietstown, Tupper Lake, Long Lake and Newcomb, which are part of the High Peaks Wilderness, yet Keene has two town board members, a store owner and an environmental advocate? And why doesn’t the committee include the Adirondack Mountain Club, which specifically serves hikers, runs the Summit Steward program and owns the “finest square mile” around Heart Lake that is perhaps the state’s most popular trailhead?

What it will take to impress Adirondack residents and visitors is for this committee and the state to follow up soon — meaning, in time for the 2020-21 state budget — with numerous major, viable steps, such as adding shuttle buses, adding parking spaces and adding DEC forest rangers, foresters (who serve as backcountry planners) and trail work.

Some green groups also want the DEC to start a backcountry permit system, but these advocates are not clear or in agreement on what that would entail: Would you need a permit just to enter the wilderness area? To engage in the activity of hiking, like you need to buy a license to engage in hunting or fishing? Or just to park at the most popular trailheads? Would this be a foot in the door to build up to a more restrictive permit system?

No, we don’t think hiking permits are viable or enforceable, although we do agree hikers damage the wilderness enough that they owe the public some money to repair it. Maybe we need to guilt them into it and start soliciting donations. We also believe a sizable chunk of the tax money spent on tourism marketing should be diverted to help pay for trail work. This should include county occupancy taxes as well as state I Love NY money. We hope our county and state lawmakers will make this happen.

Steps like these were needed a year ago. The time for talking and planning in committee should have been two years ago, when these problems were already obvious and being widely discussed in public.

By November 2017, the parking crunch at trailheads on state Route 73 was already so bad that it was the top campaign issue in the Keene Town Council race. Also that month, the forest rangers’ union started asking municipal boards in the Adirondacks to pass a resolution in favor of increasing ranger numbers. Brighton’s town council was the first to sign on, and more than half of Adirondack towns had done so by January 2019, when ranger union head Scott van Laer brought the issue to the state Legislature in person.

Van Laer, a Ray Brook resident, testified to a joint session of senators and Assembly members about how much more work the rangers are given than when his father was a ranger in the 1970s. The state has added so much land to the Adirondack Forest Preserve since then that the acreage each ranger patrols has nearly doubled, and the number of backcountry rescues now averages one a day statewide. The DEC doesn’t even send rangers out west to help other states fight wildfires the way it used to.

The response from Seggos and DEC spokespeople was to get defensive, to play up minor shuffling to shift two rangers to the High Peaks from elsewhere in the state, and to basically act like things are fine.

They aren’t fine. This year’s trailhead crunch is a direct result of the state doing too little over the last two years. It was problematic in 2017, got exponentially worse in 2018 and got exponentially worse that this year. Next year’s hiker numbers will probably be much greater than this year’s.

This committee had better get cracking — and yet, it’s only an advisory board. Even if it works quickly and wisely and makes excellent suggestions, the job of taking action is up to Gov. Cuomo, his executive-branch departments, and local counties and towns. If they don’t get cracking, too, next summer and fall are going to be rough.

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