Adaptive management for the High Peaks

high peaks
Hikers descend Cascade, a popular destination in the High Peaks Wilderness, a zone for which a state advisory panel has recommended adaptive management. Photo by Mike Lynch


By Pete Nelson

Last Friday, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released the long-awaited Final Report from the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG). The HPAG was convened in November 2019 to address critical issues for the High Peaks Wilderness in the face of increasing use. The report represents the HPAG’s consensus recommendations to ensure that this world-class wild treasure has the world-class protection and management it deserves.

I was asked to serve on the HPAG, and I had the privilege to be a part of a dedicated team that worked together for more than a year. The result of our work was a report with a set of guiding principles and recommendations that, while not perfect, should please everyone who supports the protection of the High Peaks Wilderness and the welfare of the region. This report is good news for the High Peaks and for the Adirondack Park.

pete nelson
Photo courtesy of Pete Nelson.

“Growing scientific evidence indicates that dispersal is worse for the ecological integrity of a wild area than concentrating use at a few sites and providing the infrastructure, both in front-country facilities and improved trails, to support the heavier use.”

Pete Nelson

 I am writing a short series of articles for the Explorer to review and analyze the report from the perspective of a participant who was “in the room” for every meeting. My purpose is threefold:

  • First, I want to help build understanding of the most important ideas in the report, as there is a lot to digest. 
  • Second, I want to promote the “big picture” thinking contained in the report, lest its core ideas get derailed by focusing on specific topics that get sensationalized. For example, I’ve noticed that media coverage so far has lasered in on permits. Whatever you may think of permits, the fact is that discussion of permits and other methods of limited entry occupied relatively little of the HPAG’s time.
  • Third, I want to help encourage public engagement, discussion and debate. If this report merely sits on the shelf it will have no value. Everyone who loves the Adirondacks should have some investment in it and be able to advocate for the things they find important. I do not doubt the state’s sincerity in wanting to implement our recommendations, but the state has many priorities and difficult budget challenges. Making these recommendations come to fruition will require public advocacy.

About the report

Read about the High Peaks Advisory Group’s final report,
which was released Friday by the NYS DEC

Before I delve into the report, I want to say something about the HPAG process itself. It was, in a word, exceptional. I cannot recall one moment of anger, acrid debate, mistrust, dissembling or political gaming during the entire year. Instead, the process with conducted with integrity, purpose and camaraderie. It is fair game to take issue with any of the conclusions of the report, but the manner in which the group went about their work gives lie to the usual fault lines that supposedly characterize Adirondack policymaking. That is important, as we look toward next steps. My only quarrel was that the process was not open, a topic to which I will return in my final column.   

In order to marshal public and institutional will for this report, it is important to embrace the core concept binding many of the recommendations together: adaptive visitor management, driven by science and data. This is not a new concept. It has been used in many places around the country.  Here in the Adirondacks, the basic ideas can be found in the existing High Peaks Unit Management Plan (UMP) dating from 1999. It is also at the core of the current APA/DEC Visitor Use Management/Wildlands Monitoring plan. A particularly brilliant version is reflected in the success of the Summit Steward program, where strategies to reduce hiker impact and protect vegetation, coupled with ongoing measurement of the health of plant communities and soil loss, then adaptation based upon changes, has led to the reversal of native plant loss, even in the face of greatly increased usage.

What is new about the HPAG report is the scope being proposed. Recommendation “Overall-3” proposes that the state implement a world-class visitor management system for the High Peaks Wilderness, and ultimately the entire park, using adaptive management to apply to every aspect of park management. We propose this be formalized in a new bureau or incorporated into an existing bureau. 

So what does adaptive visitor management really entail, and what does it mean to put science and data at the center of all aspects of High Peaks Wilderness management? Let me offer a helpful example. Currently the state employs dispersal as a tactic to deal with crowds at popular trailheads. If there are hundreds of people planning to hike Cascade Mountain on a busy day, why not encourage some of them to try other destinations, perhaps Hurricane or Baxter? This seems to be a commonsense notion, a winner almost by default. The problem is that it may actually be a bad idea. Growing scientific evidence indicates that dispersal is worse for the ecological integrity of a wild area than concentrating use at a few sites and providing the infrastructure, both in front-country facilities and improved trails, to support the heavier use. 

But the fact is that we don’t know, and we don’t have the science, the measurements and the data to know, and to adapt to what we learn. Not only that, the problem involves more than the forest. Sure, we need to measure and adapt to the biological and ecological impacts of visitor use if we’re going to make smart decisions about dispersal. But we also need to measure and adapt to visitors themselves, to their motivations and experiences: How do visitors feel about going to another destination? What would motivate them to do so? Are they really here to bag one of the 46? What about parking? Shuttles? All of these are essential issues, and all of them can and should be subject to adaptive management. 

The problems we face with these tremendous usage surges are highly dynamic. Only a dynamic, adaptive management approach will address them. A state bureau with formal responsibility is needed to develop a comprehensive plan, to establish priorities, execute them, and to bring in outside expertise as need. Scientists, researchers and a growing number of citizen scientists are already working on surveying, collecting data and measuring both ecological and visitor information here in the park, and many have generously offered to join this work. In my view we have a generational opportunity to give the Adirondacks a world-class management system, dedicated to protection of this wilderness.

COMING NEXT: A review of the front-country recommendations and how they relate to High Peaks management.

Pete Nelson is a co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and a member of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

Reader Interactions


  1. Bob Hogan says

    I’m certain this was a great effort by this group. However, it’s too bad examining a permit system was only a small part of the time dedicated by this group… permit systems work VERY well in NP’s and should be studied and understood with plans to implement in the very near future in anticipation that other options may not succeed. It’s our responsibility to not allow our park be “trampled”… Has any member of this group discussed or reviewed the NP management process with NP Service? Given the increased foot traffic, if the Adirondack Park were a National Park, it almost certainly would have instituted a back country hiking permit system by now.

  2. Bob Meyer says

    Once again Pete Nelson cuts through the emotional baggage that unfortunately permeates much of this discussion. He presents the issues evenhandedly and the methods toward knowledge and action based on the reality on the ground. In the end this is the real common sense.

  3. Julie Moran says

    The hyperlinked reference, “Growing scientific evidence indicates that dispersal is worse for the ecological integrity of a wild area than concentrating use at a few sites …” provides no data of “overuse” or of any use at all — it barely even references specific anecdotal discussion. In the slippery slope towards permitting, fines and fees and outright access bans against the hiking community, Adirondack Explorer has joined this growing fact-free chorus stoking overuse fears I feel certain are being wildly overstated.

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