By Francesca Krempa
New York State should do everything in its power to manage visitation in highly trafficked areas around the High Peak’s Wilderness before resorting to permitting, according to the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).
The environmental conservation and advocacy group made the announcement in a statement this week, taking an official stand on the controversial issue that has been brought to the forefront again with recent closed door discussions by the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, of which ADK is a participant. Those conversations have been around how to manage resources in view of increased use.
“It is the position of the Adirondack Mountain Club that before the state seeks to impose restraints on the freedom of the public to use and enjoy the forest preserve, such as a permit system, it must first make the appropriate investments to mitigate the effects on the resource,” the statement said. Suggested “appropriate investments” include building stronger trail infrastructure, increasing the Forest Ranger force and ramping up public education, according to the release.
As recreational use increases, especially in popular regions like the High Peaks Wilderness, the Department of Environmental Conservation has contemplated implementing new management tactics to minimize trail overuse, including a permit system.
“For a long time, ADK has maintained guidance, but not a specific policy that addresses limiting use,” said ADK’s Director of Advocacy Cathy Pedler. “We considered it timely to formalize our position and use it to help find solutions to high use and resource impacts.”
In June, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos announced the State was planning to leverage short-term strategies recommended by the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group to avoid restricting trail access. Adirondack Mountain Club’s statement aligns with many of these strategies, calling for an increase of public stewardship programs, ongoing data collection and reinforcing trail infrastructure before the State resorts to a pay-to-play format.
“Many of the recreational impacts that we are seeing in the Adirondack Park, which include trailside erosion and human waste at trailheads, are exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure,” said Ben Mastaitis, ADK environmental conservation committee chair, in the release. “Before the state considers restricting access to areas like the High Peaks Wilderness, ADK would like to see and be involved in a concerted effort to create impact-minimizing infrastructure, such as installing pit privies at trailheads to contain human waste, hardening trails that withstand erosion, and so on.”
ADK also calls for increasing the Forest Ranger staff assigned to the Park’s trails.
“Currently, we do not have enough Forest Rangers to cover the high visitation rate that we are experiencing, especially in the Adirondack High Peaks,” said Pedler. “The shortage of Forest Rangers curtails critical time spent in the backcountry, that not only ensures compliance with important regulations, but also serves to educate visitors on how to be safe and utilize Leave No Trace principles.”
While many agree the state should step up trail management, not all agree that a permit system should be totally off the table.
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said that limiting trail use–be it under the moniker of “permitting” or another–is a strategy that can help reduce trail degradation while ensuring hiker safety. A reservation system, similar to the one public campgrounds use around the Park, could help stagger traffic on peak days.
“The bottom line is we have wilderness resource capacity limits,” said Janeway. “We could have a lot more people visiting and enjoying the Adirondacks without negatively impacting it if we brought some sort of world-class management system into play.”
The Adirondack Council currently outlines six best practices for stewardship of the park on their website, including using permits or fees “at various times and locations when education, outreach, and infrastructure management fail to address carrying capacity.”
“The question now is how exactly do we tailor those systems to apply to the Adirondacks to try encourage people to come share the benefits… without degrading the very resource that everyone comes to enjoy,” said Janeway.