Front country is key to protecting High Peaks


Hikers shuttles and front-country education are part of a solution to High Peaks management. Photo by Tim Rowland

By Pete Nelson

In my first column on the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG) Final Report, I focused on adaptive management, the heart of the report and the connective glue that binds together most of the recommendations. In this column I will focus on some of the report’s front-country proposals and how they are a critical part of an adaptive management approach.

First, some clarification is needed. The term “front country” has come into common use in order to complement the term “backcountry” and distinguish between two different kinds of outdoor recreation areas.  Front-country areas are those that are more easily accessible, in particular by motorized vehicles, and cater to a wider variety of uses, from day hiking to boating, car camping or photographing scenic vistas. Backcountry areas are remote, undeveloped and require human-powered access. The terms are by no means exact, but they do allow for obvious, practical distinctions. Under these definitions, my favorite developed campsite in the park, the Lake Durant State Campground, with its vehicle access, trailer sites, hot showers and boat rentals, is front country. The Lake Colden camping area, even with a couple of lean-tos and a nearby ranger station, is backcountry. Indeed, by default, all Adirondack wilderness areas are backcountry.

Photo courtesy of Pete Nelson.

It is well-established that prepared hikers educated in Leave No Trace (LNT) principles have less impact than those who are not prepared and have not learned about LNT. 

Pete Nelson

The HPAG report employs the term “front country” a little bit differently. Given that the entire High Peaks Wilderness is backcountry, “front country” is used to refer to all the areas that are starting points for foot access to the High Peaks Wilderness: trailheads, pull-offs, scenic vistas, parking lots. This distinction has a lot of utility, because front country is where one finds most of the hot-and-heavy contention. The parking, pedestrian and human waste problems that define the crisis along the Route 73 corridor are all front country problems, and they deservedly get a lot of attention in the report.

The downside to using terms like “front country” and “backcountry” is that they can imply separations where none should exist. For example, consider education, a major subject of the HPAG report. The task to educate visitors is not exclusive to one domain or the other. Yes, we need visitor centers, kiosks and staff at trailheads; but we need summit stewards and rangers in the backcountry just as much. The same is true of public safety or permits: neither one is solely a front-country or backcountry issue. 

More than that, front-country and backcountry issues are deeply interconnected. They affect each other; therefore, it is dangerous to consider them in isolation. Take shuttles, for example, which are mentioned dozens of times in the HPAG report and which are the subject of several of the report’s recommendations. They are obviously front-country artifacts. However, consider their impact on backcountry issues. Some critics have pointed out that shuttles will increase the number of hikers accessing the backcountry, thus exacerbating trail erosion, vegetation loss and other problems. That could be true. But shuttles could have the opposite effect. A well-designed shuttle system combined with parking restrictions could function as a limiting device, throttling down to reduce usage at trails when certain thresholds are reached. 

Clearly, which of the two effects we get depends upon how shuttles are managed. That management, in turn, depends upon numerous factors, many of them front country factors, such as available parking and visitor preferences. These factors need to have associated thresholds and they need to be monitored, with impacts measured and adjustments made. In other words, front-country systems need adaptive management just as much as backcountry systems like summits or trails. 

Shuttles provide more examples of interconnectedness. It is well-established that prepared hikers educated in Leave No Trace (LNT) principles have less impact than those who are not prepared and have not learned about LNT. Shuttles hold captive audiences that could be educated on LNT, hiking preparation, current conditions and weather.  Or consider the aggregate environmental footprint of dozens or hundreds of vehicles at a trailhead, a footprint that has a substantial impact on the ecology of surrounding forest lands. A fleet of zero-emission electric shuttles could reduce that impact significantly. 

The HPAG is by no means the first group to recognize the need to apply adaptive management to something like shuttles; academics have been studying links between recreation carrying capacity and transportation carrying capacity for years. But it is to the credit of those HPAG members most directly involved with parking and transportation challenges that they led the charge, arguing persuasively that the group must engage in systems thinking in every aspect of our work. The result is consistently reflected throughout the report. Here is recommendation D-5, from the report’s section on Public Safety, Transportation and Traffic Safety:

D-5: Collect the following additional data that is needed to support system planning for parking and shuttles:

  • What is the “Carrying Capacity” of the trails?
  • What are the available parking spaces at each trailhead?
  • Will additional off-street parking be constructed, and if so, where?
  • Will all additional parking be located at shuttle hubs only?
  • What are the different types of users and what are their needs?

That is a clarion call for adaptive management.

Parking and shuttles represent just one example of the HPAG’s “broad-brush” application of adaptive management to front country strategies. Specific references appear throughout the report’s topics, from the Overall Recommendations (Overall-6) to visitor experience, human waste, public safety and community hubs.  

The call for systems thinking and adaptive management of this breadth is new, despite suggestions by some that the HPAG report offers nothing original. To some extent it can be thought of as an umbrella framework that can and should embrace proposed or existing transportation plans, marketing plans, strategic plans crafted by local towns and hamlets, and DEC unit management plans, not only for the High Peaks Wilderness, but for the Sentinel Range, Giant Mountain and Hoffman Notch Wilderness areas and the Hammond Pond, Saranac Lakes and Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forests. All of these areas are affected by an interconnected web of front-country and backcountry issues. 

I previously wrote about the gratifying way in which the members of the HPAG pulled together to deliver a strong consensus report. But by no means are all the hard questions answered with agreement.

COMING NEXT:  A look at some issues that do not have consensus, plus where we go from here.

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.

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