Adirondack Mountain Reserve presses to make system permanent
By Gwendolyn Craig
Trustees of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in the High Peaks want to keep a pilot reservation system permanent, though the state Department of Environmental Conservation told the Explorer it was not ready to make a decision.
Both trustees and the DEC said year two of the three-year pilot was a success, but acknowledged challenges remain. While AMR registrations doubled this year to 34,000, more than 1,800 people were turned away for not having a reservation.
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More education of the system’s existence and better accessibility for those without cars are a couple of things state and AMR leaders are still trying to address. It’s not yet clear what changes could come in 2023 and beyond, but making the system permanent is under discussion.
John Schuler, general manager of the AMR, wrote to several top DEC officials on Aug. 10. He asked Commissioner Basil Seggos, Deputy Director of Natural Resources Katie Petronis and Region 5 Director Joe Zalewski, what “next steps will be or need to be to make our successful pilot program permanent. I know we are all busy and if we wait too long, we will be behind the proverbial eight ball.”
In an interview with the Explorer, Petronis said the system was still in the pilot phase and would not confirm if it would become permanent. When asked about the National Park Service’s decision to end reservations put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic at Yosemite, Petronis said the state wouldn’t necessarily be guided by what’s happening elsewhere. It also wouldn’t use the pandemic to make any long-term decisions. She acknowledged that visitor numbers were down on state lands this year, with some exceptions at swimming holes.
“We’re really going to be guided by what we’re learning through this pilot,” Petronis said. “I know that doesn’t give you a definitive answer. I think we just don’t honestly know yet. We really have to see what we learn from next year.”
The reservation system
The unprecedented reservation system in the Adirondacks is for a 7,000-acre slice of land in the High Peaks. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) is off of Route 73 in Keene, privately owned by a group of trustees, who are also members of the Ausable Club. Trustees signed a foot traffic easement with the state in 1978 that allows the public to cross their lands and access popular hikes like the fjord view over Lower Ausable Lake at Indian Head. The property is a gateway to state-owned lands, too, including nearly a dozen High Peaks like Gothics, Dial and Nippletop.
The AMR maintains a parking area and trails. Hikers walk down Ausable Road past the Ausable Club’s golf course and clubhouse, cradled in the bottom of a bowl of High Peaks. Hikers may then sign in at a trail register before passing by an AMR wooden gate that has a trail counter embedded. Down the few miles are branches to various trails, some of which weave into state lands.
The AMR lot used to fill quickly. Cars and hikers lined Route 73, the 55-mile-per-hour main artery through the High Peaks, until the state and Town of Keene started cracking down with parking tickets, no parking signs and blocked pull-offs and offered shuttle buses and now a free reservation system.
In 2021, the state and AMR began a three-year pilot to address traffic and public safety concerns. From May 1 to Oct. 31, AMR visitors must create a free online account at hikeamr.org and book a time slot in advance. While the DEC and AMR call it a parking reservation system, those getting dropped off, biking or arriving by other means must have a reservation. The system does not apply to other trailheads along Route 73.
Origins of the reservations
Communications obtained by the Adirondack Explorer through Freedom of Information Law show the state and AMR haven’t shared the same views on why the system was put in place. Both have stressed it is for public safety, but AMR trustees also want fewer people on their lands. It’s a strategy they hope will protect the area’s natural resources.
Since 1978, AMR has seen a 462% increase in visitors, records show. Trustees were particularly concerned about Indian Head, where they first proposed limiting hiker numbers.
Petronis said the DEC wasn’t surprised that the AMR wanted to impose some sort of restrictions. It had been under discussion for years. But the DEC did not agree to implement a pilot in 2020. Communications show some tense back-and-forth between AMR and DEC over what was allowed in the easement.
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Robert Davies, the former director of the DEC’s division of lands and forests, wrote to AMR on July 29, 2020 that “the public should be limited to those times where there is an observed threat either to the public or the property itself. Even in those instances where there is an observed threat, the language contemplates the closure of the trails, paths and footpaths shall be temporary until such time as the threat is mitigated.”
Davies expressed the DEC’s interest in developing a plan “to divert motor vehicle and foot traffic.”
It appears AMR officials were impatient with the DEC’s pace and announced in a letter to Petronis on Sept. 2, 2020 that they would implement their own hiker limits on Columbus Day weekend for the Indian Head trail.
Petronis wrote back that the DEC “did ask that AMR suggest logistics for consideration of a pilot program to reduce possible foot traffic on the AMR trails,” but that “it did not anticipate that such a request was a commitment to implement this plan by the Columbus Day weekend. … DEC needs additional data, studies and time to work on a plan that is most effective to address impacts to natural resources, public safety and the recreation experience, while continuing to provide public access on the property as granted in the FTE (foot traffic easement).”
Petronis and Davies noted in their emails to AMR a clause in the easement requiring both parties’ consent to close or limit access to a trail.
“DEC does not yet have the information it needs to make an informed decision about the access impacts to the property, and is not aware of any immediate adverse environmental impact or public safety issue on the property,” Petronis wrote in the September 2020 letter. “Thus, any decision to limit access at this point may be deemed arbitrary and could subject both DEC and AMR to protracted challenges and criticism.”
AMR: More to Explore
Petronis provided AMR officials with information she believed DEC would need “to justify such a pilot.” In response, AMR provided visitor numbers every decade starting in 1978. There were 4,500 people then, which spiked to 25,330 in 2018. Club membership has jumped slightly from 317 to 456. During the summer of 2020, AMR saw 6,000 visitors in July and 7,600 visitors in August, up from about 4,400 and 4,900 in July and August of 2019. There was no data in the document about specific natural resource impacts or public safety incidents.
Petronis told the Explorer that forest rangers, police, town and county officials provided many perspectives about the safety concerns on Route 73. Asked about the AMR’s concerns for the Indian Head trail, Petronis said she was at the start of her job with the department during those discussions.
She felt “from a safety perspective, there was just no question,” about the need for a pilot reservation. “Whether or not there has been a marked impact to natural resources based on our level of assessment, we don’t yet know on the AMR property.” While AMR has provided their own information, Petronis said the DEC needs to do a “next level look.”
Permits in the preserves
While AMR is the first location in the Adirondack Park to institute a parking reservation system, forest preserve neighbors to the south in the Catskills’ Peekamoose Valley have had something similar for a few years.
Of 10,122 reservations, 6,013 hiking parties showed up this year. According to a news release, 3,801 reservations were canceled, and 3,776 were rebooked
Reservation system staff turned away 1,842 for not having a reservation; 635 of those were in October. The weekend of July 2 and the first two weekends in October saw the most number of people.
The AMR and DEC have one exception for allowing people in without a reservation. In an attempt to give access to people without cars, those with Greyhound bus tickets dated within 24 hours may use that as their ticket to hike. The AMR said fewer than five people used that option this year.
The state and AMR are aware of the nearly 3-mile gap hikers using the bus ticket option have between the Greyhound stop at Keene’s Noonmark Diner and the AMR. That’s another thing the DEC is still looking to improve, Petronis said.
Registrations on the AMR’s website doubled to 34,000, according to a news release. Registrants were from all 62 counties in New York, with Saratoga County having the most at 1,955. Albany and Monroe counties were close seconds. Registrants hailed from all 50 states, as well as four Canadian provinces.
Schuler said the AMR’s financing of a digital outreach campaign has helped spread the word.
“While we have had success getting information out to the hiking community through news coverage, we would still have people show up at the AMR lot saying that they had no idea about the parking reservation system and had traveled from Pennsylvania or Ontario,” Schuler said, in a news release. “We never want anyone to show up not knowing that they need a reservation, so we funded a paid digital media campaign to reach those audiences, and we feel like it made good progress toward informing people.”
Petronis said she’s still concerned about no-shows and people turned away. The DEC and AMR have struggled with the idea of same-day and on-site reservations, Petronis said, because that would defeat the purpose of tamping down vehicle traffic. She hopes it’s something they can address in 2023.
Touting the benefits
In a statement to the Explorer, Schuler said AMR is seeing improvements on their property.
“The solitude of nature has returned,” Schuler wrote. “There is less trash and incidents of camping, building fires, etc. on the property.”
Seggos, in a news release, highlighted the collaboration between AMR and DEC. “We continue using the valuable input shared by hikers, local leaders, and other stakeholders to improve the reservation system to better serve Adirondack visitors and continue to protect the Forest Preserve.”
Petronis is proud of how the pilot has gone so far.
“Everybody at DEC and AMR went into this set of discussions recognizing that these are some of the most loved trails in the park and the High Peaks,” Petronis said. “People need to be able to access them, and we want to make sure that they can do it safely.”
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