Education isn’t enough; permits needed for High Peaks Wilderness

Saturday’s editorial “Permit? No, do these things for the High Peaks” makes some excellent points, particularly regarding enforcement and trail maintenance. However, I believe it misses the mark regarding education and parking.

As a longtime wilderness educator active at the local, regional and national level, I don’t dispute that the state needs to expand education efforts. However, I have to admit to some limits to education’s ultimate effectiveness by itself. We have had wilderness education efforts since the 1970s. Never in the history of humankind has wilderness education information been more available to the public via social media, blogs, print books, e-books and other publications. All this information is not having enough of a positive impact. I spent the better part of my career training wilderness leaders and teaching the public how to use the wild outdoors safely and environmentally responsibly. However, education is not enough. We’re not getting the results we need. To not directly address the key issues of wilderness overuse by simply calling for more education is irresponsible. Education and permits, like the other components you discuss, should not be an either-or proposition.

The editorial and many others, especially those who follow the issue of wilderness use online, miss the point regarding the call for more parking lots. I believe that parking lots should be built that reflect the area’s ecological and social visitor capacity, something the state has been way too slow to do. Just increasing parking lot size, however, is not the answer. Wilderness is a special place. It provides opportunities for solitude and has a wild character. If we increase the size of parking lots without determining visitor capacities, we run the danger of losing the wilderness characteristics we value so much. I should point out that these characteristics are also legislatively mandated. There are those who say, “It is OK that over 500 people a day want to hike Cascade Mountain? They’re having fun. What’s the harm?” The harm is that Cascade Mountain is in a wilderness area, and if we allow over 500 people a day to climb it, that’s 500 people a day that start to think it is OK for wilderness areas to not have wild character and that it is OK to see litter and human waste along the trail. They accept it as the norm. Perhaps there are areas outside of wilderness that can sustain that type of use but certainly not in wilderness.

For many years in early October, I would complete North Country Community College’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership 33-day practicum, where students spent the month practicing their leadership, decision-making and wilderness skills. My wife and friends, understandably, would want to share Columbus Day weekend with me by hiking a mountain in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. After the first year, I politely begged off. The contrast of spending over a month in the wild outdoors, experiencing what wilderness is really about, with the crowded conditions of Columbus Day weekend were too much for me.

As you stated, there needs to be continued educational efforts, more forest rangers need to be hired, and a trail rehabilitation program needs to be initiated. Visitor capacities also need to be determined, parking lots need to be adjusted to visitor capacity, and yes, a permit system with day-use caps for those times during the year that we know visitor capacity has been exceeded needs to be implemented. At this point, it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. We must manage wilderness to protect its wild character. We are ethically and legislatively required to do so. 

Jack Drury lives in Saranac Lake.


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