Plenty still to decide after High Peaks advisory report

Hikers take in an autumn view from atop Cascade Mountain. Photo by Mike Lynch

Viewpoint

By Pete Nelson

In my third and final column about the recently released High Peaks Advisory Group (HPAG) Final Report, I want to review a few issues that remain undecided, or even contentious. As I wrote previously, the consistently positive, cooperative spirit in the room contradicted the “us” versus “them” narrative one always hears about in Adirondack debates. Our consensus was real, and it set the stage for a lot more progress. However, that does not mean members of the HPAG agreed on everything, nor does it mean that all the important issues were addressed. There is plenty left to decide for the next group of stakeholders.

Dispersal

In my first column, I wrote about the state’s promotion of dispersal to ameliorate crowding. I described how even a seemingly simple, commonsense tactic is in fact quite complex. It’s also important: dispersing visitors may do more harm to the ecological integrity of wild lands than concentrating use. The HPAG remained undecided on dispersal as a management strategy, recognizing that more investigation was needed.  

At the same time the HPAG endorsed the concept of hamlets as hubs, including a model that promotes a circle of communities around the High Peaks. That model reflects a consensus on encouraging visitation in lesser-used areas and spreading economic benefits to surrounding communities. This might seem to contradict our indecision on dispersal, but that is not the case. The HPAG consistently rejected black-and-white thinking. Expanding visitation to surrounding communities is not the same thing as dispersing hikers to lesser-used trails. We need to consider both, and measurement and adaptive management is the best vehicle to understand how to do it.

Photo courtesy of Pete Nelson.

“Sure, public participation can be unwieldy. So be it: this park is owned by the people of the state of New York.”

Pete Nelson

Trail standards

The HPAG report has a strong set of recommendations on trails. There’s little controversy on the need for an “all-in” effort. But what kind of trails should we build? Setting aside the current lawsuit over tree cutting (which is scheduled for oral arguments this week) the question of trail design standards still stands. Is the new trail being built on Cascade appropriate for wilderness? What trail widths are acceptable in certain segments, given usage levels and the biology of the surrounding forest? Should we have different standards for the first quarter mile of a trail, which gets much more use than the rest? The HPAG discussed these questions to some extent, but plenty of debate remains.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

       The report’s Guiding Principle #4 pledges:

A commitment to social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of management in the High Peaks region, from education to policies, visitor programs, hiring, and staffing.

However, the rest of the report has virtually nothing to say about this commitment. It is not merely a matter of principle: we know that that High Peaks visitors are overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class.  Preliminary data from scientific surveys taken in the summer of 2020 showed that more than 90% of hikers were white, yet New York State will be majority-minority in a few years. This is a major disconnect and has at its core hard questions about safety and inclusion. A comprehensive strategy for increasing equity is lacking, and some potential management actions discussed in the report could even have a negative effect. For example, studies show that permits exacerbate inequity along racial and economic lines. How can we make a permit system equitable and effective at the same time?

Permits

       It is with a combination of bemusement and frustration that I and some other members of the HPAG have followed the media coverage on the release of the final report. Here’s a sample headline from two weeks ago: “High Peaks Group Recommends Hiker Permits, More Money for Adirondacks.” The problem is, we didn’t do that. There has been a breathlessness over what the HPAG would say about permits, as though nothing could have been more important. But we found lots of things to discuss that were more important. 

The possibility of parking permits gets a brief mention in the report; so does potential overnight camping permits. But as to hikers, the entire fifty-five-page document uses the word “permits” exactly once, saying this:

There are many types of capacity management strategies and actions (e.g., shuttles, dispersal, permits, etc.). Investigation of which types work best for varied High Peaks settings and users must begin. To that end, HPAG recommends institution of a three-year pilot program on private land used to access public lands that places limits on use, employing various methods to help protect the natural resources, provide for public safety, and ensure the long-term preservation of the site’s wilderness character.

This is a recommendation to study a variety of methods to limit access, in a pilot program, on private land. That can hardly be characterized as a recommendation for hiker permits. In fact, I can assure you that had a hiker permit system on public forest preserve been proposed, debate in the room would have been vigorous. Sure, the wording of the above recommendation tacitly acknowledges that permits are an appropriate tool to have in a wilderness manager’s tool kit; I think the group agreed on that. But we knew better than to engage in “silver bullet” thinking, leading with solutions without understanding the problems we face in enough detail to have any idea if or how they could work. For my part, having watched on multiple high-usage days as dozens of people flaunted parking tickets being written feet away from them in order to secure a good spot for the trail they wanted, the notion that folks would pay attention to a permit system in any enforceable way makes little sense. I think we have a lot more to understand about our visitor use challenges before we can determine which methods for limiting use might work.  A pilot – not a permit system – is a good approach.

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       Finally, as to where we go from here, I am hopeful that the state will convene a new Adirondack Advisory Group as recommended in the report. I was proud of the HPAG’s work, but the next group needs more members with wilderness management expertise. Most of all, the process needs to be open. No one at the state will be surprised to read that this is my one serious criticism. I was an early and consistent voice for an open meeting process, not only because I believe in it, but because I know it works: the state I used to live in has one of the strongest open meetings laws in the country. 

Some will tell you that meetings need to be closed so that people are not afraid to freely speak their minds. However, in a previous life I worked in the world of intelligence and law enforcement, often in situations replete with sensitive data, processes and participation. I learned long ago that open processes reduce fear, and they actually lead to more freedom to speak, not less. When the light shines in, fear and mistrust evaporate.  Sure, public participation can be unwieldy. So be it: this park is owned by the people of the state of New York. I call once again for open meetings and an open process, as we take the next steps.   

       It was a privilege to serve on the High Peaks Advisory Group and to see such a laudable display of public service. Now all of us can take that public service further, and together ensure that the High Peaks and the Adirondack Park enjoy the best protection and preservation in the world.

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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