By Gwendolyn Craig
Despite record numbers of hikers in the Adirondack Park High Peaks this summer, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said that hiker permits and more forest rangers are not on the docket for now.
Seggos said until the state gets a better handle on its budget, and until other methods for managing visitors are explored, both efforts would be premature. The commissioner’s comments were part of a video press conference on Friday about crowds, unprepared hikers and trash in the Adirondacks and Catskills.
The state is facing a $14 billion budget deficit, due to the pandemic. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pulled the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act from going to a public vote, leaving local leaders and environmentalists wondering the fate of the $300 million Environmental Protection Fund. That fund supports a number of projects in the Adirondacks, including trail maintenance.
Seggos said Cuomo has been a “stalwart defender of the EPF,” and he expects it to be a “core component” of funding for projects this year.
“The bond act is a different animal,” Seggos said. “The cancellation of the bond act this year, I think there’s no one who has taken it more personally than the governor and myself, but it was an important decision to protect the state’s financial picture.”
The pandemic is also getting more people outside, which Seggos said the state is thrilled to see. But, a small percentage of individuals are leaving large amounts of trash. Others are hiking unprepared.
“Hiking in flip-flops—I’ve seen it myself this summer—is totally unacceptable,” Seggos said. “It’s dangerous to the hiker, and it’s a real tax on the state’s resources when we have to perform these very difficult rescues.”
Forest rangers, especially in the Adirondack Park High Peaks, have been calling for more staff for years. Scott van Laer, a High Peaks ranger and union delegate, posted on Twitter July 22 that he responded to three search-and-rescue incidents in the High Peaks on July 23. “It was a Tuesday,” van Laer wrote. “Staff is completely overwhelmed. We can’t ignore that this area is equivalent to a National Park any longer.”
The crowds are coming even with the Canadian border closed.
Seggos pointed to the “massive hole” in the state budget and said leaders in Washington need to backfill some of the state’s budget gaps. Partner agencies and divisions have helped with policing and resource management, he added.
The commissioner said it’s too early to say what 2021 could bring as far as staffing levels. Seggos said he doesn’t know when the Canadian border will reopen, but he hopes it does. When and if that happens, the state will work on English and French Canadian messaging to educate visitors on Leave No Trace, principles focused on outdoor recreation ethics.
Another strategy environmental organizations have suggested for managing crowds is permits. A proposal for limits on use was part of the state-appointed High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group’s report, issued last month.
“Whenever you talk about a permit system, something as rigorous as that, you always want that to be the last place you go,” Seggos said. “Here in the Adirondacks, you’ve got roads, dozens of communities and lots of people living there, so it’s difficult to envision a very effective permitting campaign.”
For now, the commissioner is hoping the public will do its part by being safe and smart.
“This is a plea for people to use common sense,” he said.
The DEC released a number of reminders on Friday about recreating in the High Peaks. They include:
- No campfires in the Eastern Zone of the High Peaks Wilderness
- Group Size Maximums: Day Trip maximums are 15 people. Overnight maximums are 8 people. Permits for oversized groups are not available in the High Peaks Wilderness
- No camping on summits
- No camping above 3,500 feet (except at lean-to)
- No camping in areas with “No Camping” signs present
- Whenever possible, camp in designated sites. If necessary, at-large camping is permitted as long as campsites are at least 150 feet from any road, trail, water body, or waterway. Place your tent on a durable surface, such as hardened soil, leaf litter, or pine duff. Do not place your tent on vegetation.
- Bear canisters are required for all overnight campers in the Eastern Zone of the High Peaks Wilderness
- Carry out what you carry in. Properly dispose of waste and pack out all gear and garbage. Do not leave waste at trailheads.
- Dogs must be leashed at all times in the Eastern Zone of the High Peaks Wilderness and at trailheads, campsites and above 4,000 feet everywhere else. If accessing the High Peaks from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) trailheads, dogs are not allowed on AMR property.
- Bikes are prohibited
- Drones are prohibited
- ATVs are prohibited
- No fixed anchors for climbing on Forest Preserve at this time
- Adirondack Mountain Reserve-specific rules for this property include no camping, no dogs, no drones, and no off-trail travel.
The DEC is also promoting a number of Leave No Trace guidelines, including:
- Carry out what you carry in. Don’t leave trash, food, gear, or any other personal belongings behind.
- Trash your trash. Use designated receptacles when available or carry your trash in a small bag so you can throw it out at home. Never put trash in outhouses or porta-potties.
- Use designated bathroom facilities when available. If traveling, use the rest areas closest to your destination before you arrive. Learn how to dig a cat hole (leaves DEC website) and properly dispose of your human waste for the times when nature calls and a bathroom is not available.
- During the COVID-19 public health crisis, take extra precautions when picking up trash you find on the trail. Wear gloves and make sure to hand sanitize when you are done.