By Gwendolyn Craig
Hiker restrictions may come sooner than expected to the Adirondack High Peaks.
In a sense, the coronavirus pandemic has led New York to start imposing restrictions already. New parking limits in place this summer at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve could be a soft opening for further restrictions to manage crowds there and elsewhere.
A state advisory group is considering more, including hiker permits or other measures in future years.
“COVID may end up being the most effective thing for limiting public use in the High Peaks for the last couple of decades,” said Peter Bauer, of Protect the Adirondacks. “It certainly has forced the state into taking a series of actions that it has been slow to take heretofore.”
The parking restrictions are one part of the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group’s plan for managing visitors. The state-appointed volunteers have deliberated in closed meetings this year to propose methods of managing hikers on the Adirondack Park’s most popular trails. They considered about 70 emailed comments before this report, and continue to accept comments.
Their task is to ameliorate the effects of tourism in the busiest part of a park that sees more than one visitor for each of its roughly 6 million acres each year.
More than 12 million people visited the Adirondacks in 2017, according to the Adirondack Council. Counting how many hike the High Peaks trails has been a challenge. The Council’s analysis of trailhead registers suggests massive growth since the 1970s. Ausable Club trail registers, for example, saw fewer than 5,000 hikers in 1978 but 25,000 in 2017.
Not every hiker signs in, though.
The advisory group released its first recommendations in June. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos responded with an outline of state actions already underway and others to be shelved for now. The group will submit a second report in the fall, which will have more information on limits.
Parking reductions at the Rooster Comb and Adirondack Mountain Reserve lots began this summer as outlined in the report. The DEC said those actions were intended to prevent COVID-19’s spread.
But the Ausable Club, which owns the AMR and allows public access through a state conservation easement, has submitted a “proposed pilot project on their lands which may involve limits on use,” a spokesperson for DEC added. “DEC is reviewing this proposal and will continue discussions with AMR (the Adirondack Mountain Reserve) in the context of all actions taking place to address increasing use in this region of the Park.”
Some members of the advisory group, however, have said that pilot project is already starting at the AMR with the new parking restrictions.
The group’s report, while not naming a landowner, suggests a three-year pilot project limiting use on a privately owned public access to the backcountry, starting with education this summer.
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, said more restrictions would begin at the AMR in 2021, with adjustments based on what worked and what didn’t in 2022.
A DEC spokesperson said the agency hasn’t decided whether to advance the pilot project at the AMR, and referred to the parking restrictions as a response to the pandemic.
Lack of parking frustrated some hikers this summer, while others found that arriving early was key to reaching their intended summits.
On a hot Sunday in July, early morning hikers with sturdy boots, backpacks and hiking poles walked down the paved road to the Ausable Club. They were the seasoned early risers who had secured coveted parking spots not far from Ausable Road or in the AMR parking lot itself.
The reserve’s lot was full before 7 a.m., and pull-offs along Route 73 were nearly full.
Sitting in the hatchback of their car, New Jersey residents Tommy Blaney and Kelsie Foy said they got the second-to-last AMR parking spot at 6:30 a.m. A parking attendant had told them the lot was full by 5 a.m. the day before. A traffic gate was up Sunday morning, closing the lot to the public, but with just enough space for club members to drive through.
One part of the AMR lot was full, but an adjacent section was empty. The cars parked in the lot were not spaced at any greater distance than usual.
While Foy and Blaney were surprised by how early lots were filling, they were generally against the idea of hiker permits or limits. More parking, they said, would be a better idea.
With a permit system, Blaney said, the people who would know to register for one would be the same people who know to get to the trailheads early.
“Then,” Blaney said, “you’re just limiting new people from coming out and experiencing nature.”
“(It leaves a) bad taste in your mouth,” Foy added. “Less people want to come.”
Paul Sundquist had mixed feelings about a possible permit system. The Pennsylvania resident secured one of the last parking spots at the closest pull-off to the AMR along Route 73. He hadn’t been so lucky a day earlier.
Sundquist had arrived at the Adirondack Loj parking lot at 6 a.m. that Saturday and was turned away because the lot was full.
“Not knowing (it was full) added 45 minutes to our day, so it’s frustrating,” Sundquist said. “You would expect 8 in the morning to have some parking issues.”
Alysha Proud, Chelsea Wahrendorf and Josh Bornheimer are from Oswego and stayed for the weekend in the Adirondacks. The three friends had intended to park at John Brooks Lodge in Keene Valley to hike Haystack, Basin and Sawteeth. At 6:30 a.m., however, the parking lot was full.
“We had to change our complete hike plan today,” Proud said, after getting one of the last spots at the nearest pull-off to the AMR parking lot. The group decided to hike Gothics.
Even after the parking frustrations, however, the group wasn’t keen on permits.
“I think it’s challenging because, what if you just want to spur-of-the-moment come for the day, like we do?” Proud said. “It depends on the actual process for it (a permit system).”
The Adirondack Mountain Reserve
When you do get up early and have a short distance walk to the trailhead, the AMR is a 7,000-acre haven smack in the middle of some of the most popular High Peaks trails. Parts are accessible to the public through a conservation easement between the Ausable Club and the state.
The reserve includes land around the eastern part of the Ausable River and the Upper and Lower Ausable Lakes. Trails lead to popular hiking destinations like Indian Head and Rainbow Falls, and High Peaks like Sawteeth, Haystack and Marcy.
To get there, hikers have to walk about a mile from Route 73 down Ausable Road and Lake Road, both paved and lined with signs to keep the public from straying onto a manicured golf course. One sign posted on the lawn in front of the four-story clubhouse says “Private Property, No dropping off or picking up,” and another says “Public Hiker Foot Traffic,” with an arrow pointing the way.
If your parking spot is a pull-off on Route 73, the walk to the trailhead is farther. That’s when things can get dicey, especially for inexperienced hikers.
On the same Sunday in July, mid-day hikers just passing the wooden “AMR” gate at the trailhead asked others how far it was to a mountaintop. They had been walking for some distance, and many were carrying nothing but a small plastic bottle of water.
Joe Pete Wilson said the hiking demand at the Ausable Club’s property has been incredible. The Keene town supervisor said visitor traffic equaled non-pandemic years, and that’s with the Canadian border closed to nonessential travel. He hoped it remains closed for now.
John Schuler, general manager of the Ausable Club, said the focus for AMR is to protect the natural resource and improve hiker safety.
“We’re working with the DEC, the Town of Keene and Keene Valley to improve safety along the Route 73 corridor, as well as the hiker experience,” Schuler said, “while at the same time, preserving the ‘forever wild’ of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve.”
Schuler declined to provide any specifics on the club’s pilot proposal to the state, or on parking restrictions.
Data from AMR will help inform decisions. Infrared counters were embedded in the AMR gate and in dead trees along some of the trails.
Many groups have collected hiker and visitor data in the Adirondacks, but there has never been a concerted effort that continues annually.
Pete Nelson is hoping to change that.
Nelson is an Adirondack Park resident and member of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, a nonprofit. He also teaches math and used to work in the data industry. As one of the members of the state’s advisory group, Nelson is helping coordinate an independent body of organizations to collect and share data about visitors.
Some of the groups involved include the Adirondack Mountain Club, Protect the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Council and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Even though the pandemic would seem to throw a monkey wrench into collecting visitor data, Nelson thinks it’s actually the perfect time.
“This is my calling card with the whole project,” Nelson said. “It already was an incredibly dynamic, unpredictable environment. It’s also fair to say that lots of things affect the data that we get, and the more we collect now and next summer, and on and on, the better.”
Kayla White, summit steward coordinator with the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the stewardship program has been collecting user data on alpine summits for years. Stewards are usually at the top of the more popular High Peaks like Marcy, Algonquin, Wright, Cascade and Colden.
“They seem less prepared than in normal years, lots of visitors who have never been hiking before,” White said in an email about the hikers that stewards encountered this summer. “Lots of people wearing cotton, flip-flops, unfamiliar with the area and regulations.”
Cotton clothing is discouraged for its tendency to chill hikers when wet, while flip-flops are considered inadequate footwear for the rugged terrain.
“We’ve already seen hikers camping illegally on summits, having illegal fires and causing resource damage,” White said.
Seth Jones, education director for the Adirondack Mountain Club, said the club is starting to keep track of when parking lots are full. ADK is also utilizing an infrared trail counter this year because not everyone signs in at the trailheads.
The club also hopes to conduct more hiker surveys in partnership with the Adirondack Council and possibly some area schools. Jones would like to ask a number of questions including:
• Do people feel like it’s wild and have that sense of solitude and sense of remoteness when they’re hiking?
• How and where are people getting their planning information?
• How far in advance do people start planning their trips?
“I have a lot of social science questions to help us trying to educate users,” Jones said. “We can put our resources in the right places so we can help users make more responsible choices and protect the High Peaks Wilderness.”
It’s a lot of groundwork for volunteers, like Nelson, to organize. Ultimately Nelson hopes the state will create a visitor information group, fully funded, that keeps the data collection rolling. He would like to see it collect ecological impacts of recreation and measure hiker and vehicle numbers, survey wildlife and measure the health of the forest.
Whether that will happen in the pandemic budget crisis is to be seen. Nelson remains optimistic.
“I want to applaud the state, (and) the DEC in particular, for their commitment to it,” Nelson said. “I have every confidence that it will be … a funding priority.”
Also part of the data collection effort, though under a National Science Foundation grant, is the Wildlife Conservation Society and Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute.
Heidi Kretser, a conservation social scientist with the WCS, is not among the sea of voices pushing to spread visitors out in the park.
Kretser—not a member of the advisory group—is advocating for the opposite.
With a team of four field crew members, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Adirondack Watershed Institute are surveying hikers on 33 trailheads in the northern Adirondacks through October.
Kretser said the goal is to understand peoples’ perspectives on hiking, on the Adirondacks and on wildlife.
“One point, first, is that from an ecological perspective I actually think it’s better to have more people at one trailhead than to spread people out all over the park,” Kretser said. “I know that goes in a different direction from a lot of current thinking.”
Bauer is specifically focusing his organization’s efforts this summer on collecting dozens of recreation options outside of the High Peaks. Janeway has advocated for a plan that “identifies trying to redistribute use.” Even the DEC has published “alternative hikes” in the Adirondacks.
Kretser points to scientific papers that show the impacts recreation has on wildlife.
“There’s a push to spread people out, (assuming) the disturbance would be less,” she said, “but I’d actually argue that there will be more.”
A peer-reviewed 2016 study of scientific articles about outdoor recreation found that more than nine out of 10 such articles cited at least one effect on animals. The PLOS ONE journal study, “Effects of Recreation on Animals Revealed as Widespread through a Global Systematic Review,” determined that most of those effects—59 percent—were negative.
Kretser said as soon as people make any disturbance to an intact forest, the types of species found there will change. In the Adirondacks, for example, a number of warbler species are found in large forest swaths. Break up the forest and you start to see more species like blue jays, crows and robins.
The birds that “tend to thrive really well around people” take over, while “warblers, thrushes and ground-nesting birds” end up suffering.
“You see it when people start walking into a forest for recreation, and there’s a trail cut,” Kretser said of the species changes. “It’s a little tricky.”
As Kretser and her team collect data from hikers this summer, she hopes to find out, too, why people come to the Adirondacks. She thinks that will be important in forming decisions on conservation and management.
“Does it make a difference if this is the most pristine place I could possibly go to?” Kretser said. It is one of the questions her team is asking hikers.
Does a degraded trail deter a hiker, or do they love it anyway? That’s another question.
For visitors like Blaney and Foy, crowds don’t deter them from enjoying the High Peaks.
“I think there’s something to be said for just letting nature be,” Blaney said, “and the people who want it come and get it.”
Read the crowd-management recommendations online at: on.ny.gov/3f8ckZF
Submit a comment to the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group at: [email protected]