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Hiker buses will help with parking crunch

There aren’t enough parking spaces at Adirondack trailheads on state Route 73 for all of hikers’ cars, so they spill over onto the roadsides, despite “no parking” signs like this one seen in Octover 2019. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

We are very glad to hear that Essex County Public Transportation, with help from the state, plans to start a serious shuttle bus system to take hikers to and from trailheads on state Route 73.

The county plans to run buses for 16 hours a day from July through Labor Day, scaling back a bit in the fall. The buses will stop at each major trailhead every half-hour. It’s important that they run so long because hiking up and down the bigger mountains requires hitting the trail early and getting back late. There is no point in starting a bus system that doesn’t meet the need.

With $1.2 million from the state, the county will buy four new, 24-passenger buses for $400,000, and hire no fewer than eight drivers.

This is a big undertaking, but it is simply what it will take to meet the need.

In the last few years, Adirondack hiking has undeniably swelled in popularity, and the most popular places to go are the mountains of the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas. This was backed up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State book, issued Wednesday, which says the three busiest High Peaks trailheads saw a 78% increase in registered hikers between 2007 and 2017.

At the trailheads on Route 73, the swell of cars far overloads the existing parking spaces. People then park on the roadsides, but with the shoulders filled with cars, they must walk in the highway to get to and from the trailheads. It’s scary.

The proposed solutions essentially fall into two camps: Don’t let so many people hike there, or find safer ways for them to do so.

The state has tried directing people to hike elsewhere, but that hasn’t solved the problem. They are hiking elsewhere, in our observation — once-quiet mountains like Jay and Catamount are now busy — but there are so many hikers that they’re still taking up all the Route 73 trailhead parking spaces before 7 a.m. on summer and fall weekends.

The state tried putting up “no parking” signs on the Route 73 roadsides, but people ignore them and spread bad publicity about the area when forest rangers try to issue tickets. Plus, it pulls rangers off of their main jobs, which are needed when so many people are in the woods.

Environmental groups want the state to implement some kind of permit system, although they are vague and divided over what that would look like. Plus, ultimately, how much can we really make people not go where they want to go?

Carving out more parking lots may be needed but can’t be done quickly, especially since the state constitution prohibits cutting trees on “forever wild” state Forest Preserve land.

Buses seem to be the quickest, most cost-effective solution. People can park at the big lots at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg, or at Marcy Field in Keene Valley, and ride to their trailheads.

It’s not clear yet whether there would be a fee to ride one of these buses. It makes sense to us to make them free the first year and then start charging once the system gets established.

We hope the county will take advantage of the buses’ captive audiences and show videos on a loop, educating hikers about “Leave No Trace” principles and other ways to be responsible and protect themselves and their natural surroundings. The buses could also have free educational print materials.

We advocated for this approach in an editorial in October, and we are glad to see it adopted. Thanks go out to all who made it happen, and all who will make it work going forward.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated in his State of the State speech Wednesday that this is just one part of a sweeping vision to deal with all kinds of Adirondack issues. Some of the actions he mentioned we support absolutely, such as more trail work, more effort to educate people on how to protect nature and stay safe outdoors. Neither of those has received enough funding and attention.

However, Cuomo being Cuomo, he can’t just take a few practical steps. He has to go whole-hog. He wants New York to borrow $3 billion — a bond act that would need approval from lawmakers and then from voters in November — to fund the “Restore Mother Nature” program, “the nation’s most aggressive program for habitat restoration and flood reduction.” All over the state it would reclaim wetlands, steams and floodplains to a more natural state, restock shellfish, conserve more forests, resize culverts and dams, expand renewable energy and put $300 million toward flood control on Lake Ontario — to mitigate the flooding that followed the Plan 2014 restoring the lake to more natural rising and falling. The bond money would also increase fish hatchery production to make New York a “top state” for recreational fishing.

All those things sound good to us, but we’re not sure it’s a great time for New York to take on more debt payments when it’s facing a $6 billion deficit for the upcoming year’s budget. Nevertheless, we will defer further comment on that and welcome the much less expensive and much-needed investments in managing the Adirondacks’ hiking growth.

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