By Jack K. Drury
Finally there’s a serious attempt to collect data on how a permit system might provide a higher quality wilderness experience. But what were we waiting for, New York City’s Central Park to provide a higher quality wilderness experience than the High Peaks?
From reading the online forums you’d think a permit system ranks up there with mask wearing as an infringement on life, liberty and the pursuit of a Wilderness experience. A couple of things to keep in mind; first, this is an experiment that, even if made permanent, will leave over three million acres of forest preserve and conservation easements accessible without a permit. Second, the worst case scenario is that permits will be required for specific, overused areas, during the times of year when that overuse occurs. But is that really bad?
The idea of a permit system in the High Peaks Wilderness Area has been around for ages. In 1977 the High Peaks Wilderness Advisory Committee Report recommended permits as an educational means and a method of statistically analyzing camper use. The committee acknowledged that permits may be inevitable in specific areas or in sections of the Adirondack Park. But hey, that was over 40 years ago.
In 1999 the DEC’s High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan required possession of a self-issuing permit. It didn’t last long. My guess is that the Department didn’t have the personnel to crunch the data collected and it’s too bad because the data would have been invaluable in addressing today’s challenges. In the modern world decision making is data driven. It’s time for the DEC to do the same.
Perhaps solitude is not something you value. Perhaps you don’t mind seeing hordes of people in our Adirondack Wilderness areas. But that misses the point. There’s a legislative mandate to avoid visitor crowding and conflict, and to maintain natural conditions and solitude. Hordes cause the first, and permits help the latter.
Why do I feel that the whining is more about a sense of entitlement than about a permit system? Folks want to hike where, when, and with whomever they want. For example I’ve seen folks on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) riding their bike or bringing their dog, even though both are prohibited. It’s private property, folks. The AMR is entitled to regulate it as they see fit.
The problem is relatively simple; We have too many people, too uneducated, and too unprepared venturing into the wilderness. The solutions are complex. A required parking permit to access these lands however, will allow the state; to collect much-needed data, improve public safety, provide equitable access, and protect the resource. It is a laudable effort that we should all celebrate.
So what does requiring a permit demand? It demands only adopting the primary principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. We all know the stories of visitors who, due to poor planning and preparation, not only put themselves at risk but also damage the resources we all love so much.
I’ve had the opportunity to travel through numerous wilderness areas around the world and many of them required permits. One of the most inspirational places I have ever visited, the backcountry of the Navajo Nation, required a permit. Did requiring a permit take away from the transformational experience. No, it allowed it. It would have had no impact if we had shared it with throngs of others. Its spiritual nature required solitude.
A permit was required for our two-week paddle through a portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Did it detract from our experience? No, it allowed us to experience the area without fighting crowds for available campsites and experience Wilderness’ greatest attribute, solitude. Without permits our trip would have been less than the wonderful experience we had, and, more like a paddle down Manhattan’s East River.
Permits will allow the state to make better decisions about management of our Adirondack wild lands. Myself, I’d trade needing a permit for a higher-quality Wilderness experience any old day.
Jack is Professor Emeritus of North Country Community College having founded the college’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program and has spent his career training educators throughout North America, the United Kingdom and the Middle East. He has been an Adirondack guide for 45 years, is past president of the Wilderness Education Association, and is the co-author of five books.