Groups work to make sure everyone can get outside
By Gwendolyn Craig
Camp Dudley is a 19th-century Adirondack camp for boys on the shores of Lake Champlain. The complex of cabins and impressive lodges are tucked on a hillside off state Route 9N on a namesake road. The camp’s motto is “The Other Fellow First.”
Camp Director Matt Storey typically welcomes visitors in the summer, but on a cloudy March day, MacLean lodge was filled with the toasty smells of breakfast, the warmth of a crackling fireplace and the laughter of 20 students from SUNY Potsdam.
It was spring break in the Adirondacks.
Clifton Harcum, director of the college’s Center for Diversity, watched his students perform icebreaker games instigated by Claudia Ford, chair of Potsdam’s environmental studies. After hitting roadblocks during the coronavirus pandemic, the two were thrilled the one-week trip was happening. Many of the students are from New York City, and though they attend college about 20 miles outside the Blue Line, most had never heard of the Adirondack Park.
Ford, who grew up in the Bronx, said she didn’t know about the park either when in her youth. Her parents would take her to the Catskills, but it wasn’t until she moved to Potsdam that she realized there was a park nearby the size of some New England states.
“For these students, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I just want to help them enjoy the outdoors, but also know that even if they grew up in the city, they can be nature people. You don’t know that when you grow up in the city.”
A July 2020 study by the Center for American Progress reported that communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature-deprived areas and about 70% of low-income communities in the United States live in nature-deprived areas. Without a car or means to rent one, many New Yorkers are unable to visit public lands in the Adirondacks.
Initiatives like SUNY Potsdam’s alternative spring break are helping bridge a visitor gap. Across the country, organizations are looking at how to make green spaces more accessible and inclusive for all, but happening parallel to these conversations are the less welcoming characterizations like “overuse” and “crowds.”
The word “overuse,” is found in state budget bills and legislation describing the increase in visitors to the Adirondacks and Catskills. The Adirondack Council’s “Overuse in the Adirondack Park” site describes a “sense of solitude lost” from “the impacts of overuse such as trail widening, overcrowded parking lots, the number of people on trails or summits, trampled vegetation, and visible human waste and trash.”
Researchers warn that words like “crowds” and “overuse,” are subjective, “a value judgment,” said Stewart Allen, a Bureau of Land Management socioeconomic specialist.
“The number of people in a recreation setting is simply a measurement and, as such, has no psychological or experiential meaning, whereas crowding is a subjective and negative judgment about a given amount of visitor use,” he wrote. “People seeking solitude as part of their experience are more likely to be negatively affected if they encounter other people.”
Aaron Mair, director of the Adirondack Council’s Forever Adirondacks campaign and former president of the Sierra Club, said the two conversations are separate but continued to use the word “overuse” to describe what is happening in the park. But the “overuse,” he said, “in the Adirondack Park is not coming from low-income and diverse communities. It is the current system and people who benefit from it who are “loving it to death.”
“The conversation of overuse is very serious, and needs to be monitored,” Mair said. “But the fact is, the number one issue is about access.”
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Building a pipeline
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, a 35-year-old Brooklyn Democrat, is a lifetime New Yorker. It wasn’t until four years ago that he had ever heard of the Adirondack Park.
At the end of 2021, Myrie and fellow members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, traveled to Lake Placid. The caucus met in the Adirondacks for the first time, and members spent three days exploring places like Heaven Hill, John Brown Farm State Historic Site and Timbuctoo, where Brown and a number of Black men seeking suffrage settled in the mid-1800s. The visit, Myrie said, made him “shocked and disappointed” that he had not learned about the Adirondacks’ historic significance, let alone its role in conservation.
“There is something almost spiritual about being up there, and I would really love for as many of our kids, as many New Yorkers period, who grow up in urban centers, to have that experience,” Myrie said.
Myrie and state Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages are advocating for the creation of the Timbuctoo Summer Climate and Careers Institute. It would be a partnership between the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the City University of New York Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. The institute would host annual, two-week courses for students interested in climate science with “the dual benefit of beginning to address the systemic issues of access to the Adirondack Park from an equity and justice perspective,” according to a description of the project.
Mair, who has been a lead advocate for the institute, said it could foster the next generation of trail builders, researchers, land managers, journalists, mappers and foresters.
“The answer, at the end of the day, is investing the dollars to help deal with the tragedies of the moment and the loss of opportunity,” Mair said. “The issue of access and inclusion has to be part of the deeper thinking and planning of any academic institution.”
Starting with one spring break
The access pipeline is starting with a number of different colleges and organizations, including Harcum’s and Ford’s alternative spring break. The Adirondack Diversity Initiative, Camp Dudley, Adirondack Experience Museum and SUNY Potsdam’s Center for Diversity, Wilderness Education, Venture Outdoors and Counseling Center all helped sponsor the program.
“It’s bringing together a bunch of people from different walks of life for this memorable experience,” Harcum said.
Fabian Turpin, a 20-year-old SUNY Potsdam student from Brooklyn, said the spring break was his first time in the Adirondacks. He is studying criminal justice and wilderness education, and when he graduates, he wants to become a police officer. He also hopes to participate in a similar program to the Adirondacks spring break, volunteering to bring inner city children to outdoor experiences.
Darlin Liranzo, an 18-year-old freshman studying creative writing, said she would like to bring her family to the Adirondacks. She fell in love with the quiet, calmness and remoteness. Her family lives in the Bronx. Liranzo wasn’t sure how she would get up to visit. She doesn’t drive.
But she was dreaming of seeing Camp Dudley in the summer.
“That water, it’s frozen right now, but if it’s melted and it’s hot, and the leaves are here, it’s probably really pretty,” Liranzo said. “I want to see how it looks.”
Rosalin and Rosemary Batista, sisters from the Bronx, also didn’t know about the park until this March. On longer school breaks the 20-year-old Rosalin and 18-year-old Rosemary rent a car to drive the six or so hours home. They’ve researched public transportation routes, but it involves a three-hour layover in a bus station and multiple transfers.
“I feel like this was a good way for us city kids to see the woods,” Rosalin said. “Even though we couldn’t really go home, I feel it gave us an opportunity to find a new place to call home.”
Lessons learned elsewhere
State officials are trying out a shuttle system in the High Peaks to help manage visitors during the busiest seasons and provide access to popular trailheads. Harcum would like to see an improved public transportation system between colleges and Adirondack Park destinations so students can experience the outdoors, too.
Jackie Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Campaign, said there are examples of successful shuttle systems that are providing more inclusivity and access. She pointed to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in California, just outside of Los Angeles. Working with a coalition of groups, Outdoors for All helped test a transit line to trails there.
“It’s not like it automatically saw millions of visitors hopping on the bus,” Ostfeld said. “Community members that needed it most were aware of it.”
In the same area, Ostfeld said partners are working on putting up more bilingual signs.
Matthew Shook, director of development and special projects for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said the approximately 27 parks he oversees have a large number of Spanish, Korean and Hebrew speaking visitors. Parks have signs in those languages.
There are many things to consider beyond language and transportation barriers when implementing new ways to manage visitors and ensure equitable access, Ostfeld said.
For example, senior citizens may not have access to the internet to book reservations or permits. Ostfeld suggested parks could implement a senior citizen pass. Permits and reservations should be consistent across a state, she said, so the public knows what to expect. There should be places for people with disabilities to experience nature. The Sierra Club is also working with the 890,000 military veterans in New York to make sure they “have ample opportunities to explore and enjoy the outdoors.” That work through the Outdoor RX Coalition, is also helping provide access for other underserved populations.
“Equity doesn’t mean the same for all people,” Ostfeld said. “It means focusing on those who are most likely to be left out and finding ways to make sure they’re not.”
Also for land managers’ considerations are cultural practices and sensitivity, and different ways people enjoy the outdoors.
Shook has heard stories of Dominican families bringing a grill for a cookout in a state park and leaving it not as garbage but as a kind gesture for another family to use, Shook said.
“If you don’t understand that that’s what’s going on, you’d be upset,” Shook said.
If there are people leaving trash then maybe there needs to be more receptacles or signs, Ostfeld said. That’s what happened in the Catskills at the Peekamoose Blue Hole, a popular swimming destination. Online reviews show people used to a quiet wilderness experience were alarmed by families picnicking, playing music and leaving trash behind.
Ultimately this led to the state adding more trash cans and bilingual notices. But it also led to a paid permit system to limit the number of people and cars.
Ostfeld said the Sierra Club supports site-specific management actions as long as they “don’t perpetuate the status quo.” The Outdoors for All Campaign opposes raising fees, something the state did last year when it began charging $10 for the once free Blue Hole permit. Ostfeld said the Sierra Club polls show that fee increases in parks discourage low-income communities and communities of color from visiting.
Instead, the campaign supports more investment in park staff and support, more education of the public and more signs to make sure people are recreating responsibly. There is also a need for educating white people, Ostfeld said.
In the Sierra Club’s work in the Bronx, Ostfeld said she’s heard from colleagues about Black women they work with visiting Harriman State Park. Some have been approached by white people about park rules. Some have been asked if they are new park visitors.
“There’s an assumption white people have that people of color don’t get outdoors, and it’s just false,” Ostfeld said. “This is a bigger issue. This is a bigger conversation that’s happening in our country around privilege, power and learning about your privilege and power and the things you take for granted.”
Harcum has firsthand knowledge. When he moved to the Adirondacks to teach at Potsdam, the park was overwhelming, he said. After writing an article about hiking alone, the community reached out to him. He has many people to hike with now, and he wants his students and his 10-year-old son to have the same opportunity.
“This spring break right here, for me personally, means a lot,” Harcum said. “It means a lot being up here in this place, and not knowing anyone to now having a community within a bigger community.”
Harcum wants students to pass the word and “get more people of diverse backgrounds out into the outdoors.” It’s already working. Rosalin Batista said she will tell her friends, and get them to tell their friends about the Adirondacks.
“It’s a continuous cycle,” she said.
They bundled up and ran outside to play games beneath the trees.