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The secret to addressing Adirondack overuse

The Adirondacks have long been a mecca for outdoor recreation, but over the past several years the increase in visitor use has been nothing short of overwhelming.

I know this mainly from friends and colleagues who live and work there, trying to protect its special values, but I also know it from where I lived and worked for 34 years at Acadia National Park, where the park and island communities are trying to cope with the very same and very recent flood tide of people at an already very popular destination. How can you protect the Adirondacks’ natural resource base, continue to provide spectacular visitor experiences and have thriving communities that retain the quality of life that most residents want, those tangible and intangible values that those who live in places like Acadia and the Adirondacks cherish?

It’s not easy. It requires everyone to recognize the challenges and come together dedicated to finding common ground.

Fortunately, there is a visitor use management planning tool designed to do just that: to guide professional managers, communities and stakeholders through a process and along a path towards agreed upon goals. It’s called the Visitor Use Management Framework. I worked with earlier incarnations of the process and participated in early meetings to develop it into the current VUMF.

The VUMF process was designed and agreed upon by five major federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management. It is scalable to any size parcel of public land, from a small village park to an area the size of the Adirondack Park. It’s not a cookbook. It’s adaptable to local needs and conditions such as laws and agency policy. It’s rational and logical. It’s science-based. And via public involvement, it’s defensible, offers transparent decision-making, and brings in new ideas and perspectives.

A successful VUMF begins with establishing a foundation, a common understanding of the purpose and need for action as well as existing conditions and knowledge. Then it asks stakeholders and land managers to define the special features and desired conditions everyone wants to protect or that must be protected by law (wild beauty, ecological health, solitude, public safety, etc.). Once desired conditions are determined, the question becomes one of what strategies and techniques from the visitor use management toolbox (and that have worked in other parks) will help achieve those conditions. Finally, land managers take action and desired conditions are monitored for compliance. But the framework is never really finished. The process is iterative. Results of monitoring feed into reestablishing the foundation and the cycle continues. This is simply good management, and it should always be adaptive. At larger scales, this process is often best led by an independent third party, which can add capacity to land management agencies while remaining insulated from political pressures.

The VUMF is the key to sustainable management of record levels of visitor use, preserving that natural resource base, and the world-class recreation, solitude and scenic beauty it offers. The collaborative VUMF approach was recommended by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s High Peaks Wilderness Advisory Group early in 2021 and is supported by rangers, stakeholder groups and the state legislature. Thankfully, the DEC, the Adirondack Park Agency, local officials and stakeholder groups already know this.

Kudos to the state for committing to follow a VUMF for the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness and producing a draft VUMF. I urge them to hold onto that commitment. It will take a comprehensive, well-funded program of research and monitoring, increased education, infrastructure changes and more.

I understand the state budget approved in April contained $1.5 million in new funding earmarked for “Adirondack and Catskill visitor safety and wilderness protection activities to address issues relating to overuse.” This funding source will enable implementation of an independently assisted VUMF (plus additional actions by Essex County, the state and others). This funding represents a major opportunity for improved management of Adirondack wilderness and a significant leap forward in implementing best practices across the state’s Forest Preserve.

At the Adirondack Park Agency’s May meeting, the agency revealed its own visitor use management guidance document that was then released for public comment. That’s another milestone to celebrate.

Over the next few months, I expect a lot of attention will be paid to the state’s new VUMF proposal as well as the APA’s report. Debate and discussion about these ideas and others so the best ones rise to the top will ensure that the implementation of the VUMF will be successful. And by success, I mean a healthy natural environment, happy hikers (and paddlers) and livable gateway communities. Keep working towards all of these so that I and others don’t opine about the Adirondacks like Yogi Berra, who reportedly said of a popular restaurant, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Best wishes for success.

Charlie Jacobi lives in Bar Harbor, Maine, and is a retired natural resource specialist for Acadia National Park.

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