By PETE NELSON
The Route 73 corridor running through the Town of Keene from North Hudson to the Lake Placid area has been in the news a lot lately. So has a lot of hot conversation about overuse.
This summer, the parking problems caused by the massive, multi-year spike in hikers will be exacerbated by a new four-mile no-parking zone from Round Pond to the Rooster Comb trailhead, plus the temporary closure of the popular Garden parking area. No one knows what the result might be, but a lot of people are deeply concerned. For some it’s the specter of scores of angry, disgruntled visitors abandoning local businesses and vowing never to return. Others worry about a flood of a drivers turning off the highway and overwhelming private areas like the Adirondack Mountain Reserve. More than a few people anticipate an inevitable tragedy resulting from a multiplicative increase in hikers walking from more remote parking spots to their desired trailhead along a 55 mph highway that was in no way designed to accompany pedestrians.
Many local residents anticipate an increase in the perennial summer problems they face, including blocked driveways, rights of way too narrow for emergency vehicles and even property damage from people trying to squeeze their cars anywhere they can.
But how real are these concerns, and how much is hyperbole? The unprecedented influx of vehicles on sunny summer weekends cannot possibly be denied. Yet pick a day with a little drizzle and the hordes disappear. So are we actually facing a summer with usage spikes that we will not be able to manage? Do we really have a crisis at hand?
These are not idle questions. The State of New York, the Town of Keene, tourism officials, environmental and recreational organizations and even Paul Smiths College are devoting significant time and money to this summer in Keene. State policies to contend with increased use stand to have a critical impact on both the protection of the High Peaks and the economic welfare of Route 73 communities. It is important to have a realistic view of what is and isn’t working.
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As a Keene resident, I decided to find out for myself by spending time on the front lines. Last weekend promised to be the first really big test, with schools letting out, a Canadian holiday and perfect weather. I visited all the hot spots multiple times on Saturday and Sunday, early morning, mid-morning and then again in the middle of the afternoon. I interviewed several dozen people, including hikers, residents, business owners, front-country stewards, forest rangers and Town of Keene officials. One June weekend is too small a sample to draw any sort of conclusions, so I will do this twice more, once in July and later in August when Garden access is restored.
Here’s what I found this weekend: the Armageddon some have feared did not occur, and there was very little angry pushback from visitors. In general hikers were confused but coping. However, the ways in which they were coping illustrate the magnitude of the problem.
It was also clear that a lot of scrambling and hard work from Town of Keene folks was saving the situation from being much worse.
Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson was out at Marcy Field each morning at 6 a.m., interacting with as many people as he could and providing helpful advice and information. Saturday was busier, with a line for the shuttle by 6:15 a.m., and both the Giant trailheads and AMR parking area filled by 7 a.m. Sunday was lighter: I counted about 50 open spaces along the corridor mid-morning (whether that was random luck or the result of word getting out, one cannot say). But both days were relatively smooth.
“The key is having a presence out here. If there are folks to talk to, people will work it out,” said Wilson, contrasting this weekend’s experience with the previous two weekends, when a lack of people giving information to hikers led to complaints at local businesses and more than a dozen angry calls to the Keene Town Hall.
Forest rangers I spoke with echoed Wilson’s message, saying they encountered people who were unclear about options but cooperative. The rangers were stationed mostly at the Roaring Brook trailhead, perhaps the biggest hot spot on Route 73. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking area right across the highway was attended by a front-country steward and the town had a steward at Marcy Field (more stewards will be added as the coverage and shuttle service expand to seven days per week in July). Everyone I talked to reported mostly positive interactions.
This is not to minimize the problems, including some creative coping strategies from visitors. In perhaps the most entertaining violation, a school bus from the Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School District south of Buffalo took the off-limits back route to the Garden parking lot, opened the barrier gate and helped itself to a spot in the otherwise desolate parking area. When confronted by a town employee, the driver at first made up a story about getting special permission from DEC, but ultimately relented when threatened with a tow.
Automobile drivers improvised a double-park configuration at one of the pull-offs near Roaring Brook Falls. A few people vented, including a woman who was angry that she “drove four hours to climb Nippletop and Dial,” only to find no available parking to enable that hike. Supervisor Wilson spoke to a couple of opportunists who, when told that their roadside spots were illegal and would result in a ticket, asked about the amount of the ticket, shrugged at the answer and parked anyhow. Presumably they were towed.
Perhaps the biggest problem I saw was the obvious increase in the number of people walking along the road. On each of my six weekend forays there was a consistent presence of walkers along the entire no-parking corridor, including the narrow, curvy ascent into the Chapel Pond area. On Saturday morning I counted 52 pedestrians spread out along the route. As a driver, I felt their presence to be dangerous.
If there is a takeaway from a first weekend assessment, it is that if there are enough front-country folks stationed throughout the Route 73 corridor to provide information on parking and alternatives, the challenges of a summer weekend surge can be dealt with at a manageable level. One idea repeatedly brought up by officials and local business owners alike was to serve more destinations with shuttles. Even one or two more would make a substantial difference.
But it is also very clear that so far the Town of Keene is on the hook. State forest rangers do great work as always, but they can’t be everywhere at once: a weekend rescue in the High Peaks pulled the Route 73 patrol away. In the meantime it was town employees who handled things, from running the only public shuttle to managing parking, giving advice, ejecting illegal overnight campers and dealing with wayward school buses.
Frankly, their hard work made the problem look more manageable than it really is. It would be pretty obvious to any observer that the Route 73 issues are bigger than the town, and the state needs to step up in a big way. In the meantime, Supervisor Wilson is committed to the town’s role: “Our duty is to get the word out and provide more opportunities for people to get help.”
What will things look like in July? Stay tuned.
Pete Nelson is a founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.