Bids sought on determining ‘carrying capacity’ on select forest preserve lands
By Gwendolyn Craig
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting bids on visitor management and monitoring plans for the popular High Peaks in the Adirondacks and Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills.
The forest preserve areas in Essex and Greene counties will be studied for public planning and developing recommendations for managing “high visitor use,” according to the DEC request for proposals. The work will be funded with $600,000 in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Proposals are due Aug. 15. The contract will be for two years with the possibility of a one-year extension.
The call for outside help was one of many recommendations by the state-organized High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group in its 55-page report released in January 2021. The group also recommended the DEC use the National Parks Service’s framework for visitor use management that former Adirondack Park Agency board member Chad Dawson helped develop. Dawson has worked with the DEC for years in an attempt to get the department to create such a program.
Dawson resigned from the APA in December 2020 after the agency approved DEC’s plans to allow campfire rings at primitive tent sites in the Essex Chain Lakes. Dawson criticized the DEC upon his resignation, saying it elevated recreational amenities over environmental protection without studying the consequences.
July’s APA meeting included a DEC presentation that appeared to acknowledge that.
Josh Clague, a DEC staff member and coordinator for the Adirondack Park, said the lack of a park-wide visitor management system was “the elephant in the room not being addressed,” and this year’s state budget provided a boost to get studies rolling. Clague and Kevin Prickett, an environmental program specialist with the APA, gave commissioners an overview of the department’s request for proposals.
APA board member Zoe Smith asked Prickett to explain some of the terms the department and agency have used including visitor use management, carrying capacity and limits of acceptable change. Prickett said carrying capacity is often described as the number of animals a piece of land can have without doing too much damage. The National Park Service took this idea and applied it to parks: How many people can a park hold before there is damage to the natural resources? Limits of acceptable change, Prickett said, set the standards for park visitation. A visitor use management framework helps land managers identify actions that bring a park back to its carrying capacity.
Prickett described it like going to an annual doctor’s exam. If a patient is showing signs of high blood pressure, for example, a doctor might prescribe medication. Annual monitoring and data collection at a park is similar. It helps show if there are declines in natural resource health, allowing land managers to take action to bring a park back to a healthy state. Actions could be trail maintenance, reservation systems, rerouting a trail or stationing more trailhead stewards.
The DEC has never figured out the visitor carrying capacity, also called social carrying capacity, of the High Peaks, Kaaterskill Clove or any other region, despite multiple management plans charging it to do so.
Clague said the third-party consultant hired will help the department understand the social carrying capacity for the two locations. He said it was a long-time coming.
“It makes me cringe to say that out loud honestly, but we need to start somewhere,” Clague said. “We’re going to learn a lot.”
The focus, Clague said, is determining where people are going, what times of day and what days of the week they’re visiting, and how many people are using these trails. While the DEC does have trail registers, Clague said the department has struggled to collect and document that information on a regular basis.
The department will not focus on the carrying capacity of water bodies at this time, though that is a requirement in some of its management plans and the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by former DEC Commissioner Tom Jorling.
The APA has started its own visitor management project at two primitive tent sites in the Adirondacks, Long Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area and Marcy Dam in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. APA staff have collected data on computer tablets about the tent sites including vegetation cover, soil exposure and leaf litter. The survey work is giving the agency baseline data of conditions. That information will help staff determine what the agency wants a primitive tent site to look like and decide if any management actions need to be taken to get to that ideal.
In the Catskills, the DEC is focused on trailless peaks, assessing where hikers have already bushwhacked and seeing if staff can make improvements.
Happening simultaneously at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Huntington Wild Forest is research on the ecological impacts of recreation.
Natasha Karninski-Keglovits, a researcher at the college, told commissioners that she and colleagues have created an Adirondack ecological score card. Scientists collect information on a range of matters, such as sounds heard at a site or the kinds of invasive species growing. The scorecard assigns points to both positive and negative findings. Karninski-Keglovits said the idea is for the scorecard to help link regular monitoring of a place and its management. It could be used in parallel with the department and agency’s visitor use management efforts.
Kierin Bell says
It was reassuring to see the details of the official DEC/APA Visitor Use Management Plan fleshed out in the presentation, but I think that there is still a lot to be desired. For example, too much emphasis on rather arbitrary checklists in the VUMP could become problematic, especially if that were to supplant broader planning objectives. The more specific and focused approach of SUNY ESF’s “Ecological Scorecard” looks to be better in this regard. Targeted monitoring and adaptive management on smaller scales has the potential to inform and complement broader management objectives very well. But — since there will always be too many unknowns for adaptive management to effectively keep up — it’s still worth pointing out that these types of systems only work if higher-level objectives ultimately guide the process.
ADK Camper says
Carrying capacity is a myth.
Any data or studies to support your claim? Science deniers do not get to decide what is myth.
There have been plenty of studies on this. “Carrying Capacity” only becomes “a thing” when a lot of people are backpacking/staying out overnight. And this capacity can be increased with things like composting privies and durable tent pads. The high-peaks are mainly a day hiking area for 99% of visitors. The carrying capacity for day-hiking is near limitless.
Carrying capacity in this case is not simply figuring out how many people can fit on a trail at once.
There is no “science” behind it that can be measured in footprints, soil erosion, parking spaces, etc. when most of the area in question was purchased for public use without numerically defining “use” or having a functional infrastructure plan in place to begin with. It simply cannot be quantified. There’s virtually limitless variables for and against the carrying capacity debate that primarily stems back to a single article written in the early 60s by a guy named Alan Wagar. The paper goes into pre/post-WWII global population growth, 1950s Boy Scouts regulations, and even delves into the post-colonial socioeconomic affects of European nobility in American hunting culture. The finer points have been cherry picked into oblivion and at the end of the day it comes down to funding, politics, and optics.
Saying that carry capacity is a myth in terms of Adirondack land usage isn’t denial of science, its being a healthy skeptic of what has consistently been junk science all along. Even NYS’ DEC published in their WMUs that there hasn’t been a reasonable way to determine appropriate usage, which shouldn’t have needed a statement to begin with since there’s no singular definable way to standardize “usage.” If we cannot put “use” into a matrix, trying to do the same for “overuse” is nothing more than a verbal tool used to sway public opinion to gain financial/regulatory support for so-called “green” lobby groups and private land organizations like the AMR.
I would say that it is science. If you have a baseline in a given
Eco type, then measure the same metrics in a “high use area”, that’s called science.
For example. Watershed quality along foot trail corridors versus non foot trail corridors could be one metric.
The behavior patterns of birds and mammals can be another.
The movement of invasive species Into area with high use versus low use.
Soil compaction of summits of mountains, and how that affects vegetation volume
And hundred other things that can be observed and measured. I’m not a researcher, so I don’t know, but I know that research science is absolutely attainable. It just needs the will and the funding.
Edward OShea says
KISS, keep it simple stupid! If a ranger at every trailhead required every hiker to demonstrate map and compass skills and carried proper equipment over crowding would disappear in a hearfbeat of course that will never happen because that would eliminate lots of commitys meetings and on and on . You get the idea. Ed
Keep it simpler. Just stop “rescuing” people who didn’t bring a headlamp or didn’t bring insulation. A few people die out there it’ll cut down the numbers significantly. Problem solved.
“If we only allowed people to use trails who do things I agree with, we wouldn’t have trail crowding issues.”
Trails are for everyone, not just people who use tools that are familiar and comfortable to you and your life experiences. Lots of people can enjoy the outdoors without needing to be able to pass some kind of arbitrary test to be safe and responsible.
As we’ve seen in recent local and federal legislation – the more people that use trails and the outdoors, the more support there is for funding them. We’re a long ways away from enough funding for public lands, but I attribute some of the recent federal legislation pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into public lands to the explosion of popularity of outdoor spaces post-pandemic.
“Clague said the third-party consultant hired will help the department understand the social carrying capacity for the two locations. He said it was a long-time coming.
“It makes me cringe to say that out loud honestly, but we need to start somewhere,” Clague said. “We’re going to learn a lot.””
I found this statement refreshing. DEC has been asleep at the wheel over the last 50 years in managing high-usage areas with supposed Wilderness protection. Maintaining the status quo is not compatible with their charge of managing the preservation of the resource.
It can, and obviously WILL be debated the “best” way to begin to get a handle on the usage and protection of certain Wilderness areas. But we should not get caught up in debating the DETAILS and miss the opportunity to actually begin gathering data NOW. Methodology can be altered in real-time if needed, but without baseline metrics, there can be no objective measurement of where we are and where we are heading. Without this information, planning for the future — both sort and long-term — is impossible.
We may need to use the “C” word and begin to compromise on timeline, methodology, and acceptance of science – in other words – CHANGE. Enough people are now aware that heavy usage in Wilderness areas like the HPW is anathema to preserving the resource as actual wilderness. Perhaps re-classification of these areas is also necessary to protect the resource.
Seems like that 600K would be better spent making some adequate parking. It’s hard to have an “overuse” problem when nearly all the parking lots hold less than a hundred cars. Give us some adequate parking first.
There’s no such thing as carrying capacity. Land managers either keep up with infrastructure needs, or they don’t.
For those who don’t see what’s happening here, every time “carrying capacity,” “overcrowding,” “overuse,” and other misused terms get thrown into the mix, more people join P2Ps, donate money into political lobby groups posing as conservation organizations, and stop questioning how public land is being mismanaged by people who are abusing the infrastructure funding that NYS is extorting from us to begin with.
Kierin Bell says
We all need to be logical.
First, as some rightly point out, infrastructure effectively expands the recreational “carrying capacity” (however the term is defined) of natural areas. But, even if the extent of infrastructure on Forest Preserve weren’t limited expressly by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (et al), doesn’t all infrastructure have an inherent carrying capacity as well? If we can accept that baseball stadiums have limits on spectators, why shouldn’t mountains?
Second, society evolves (and science should too). The entirety of visitor management research does not rest on J. Alan Wagar’s 1964 monograph about carrying capacity. In fact, despite some obvious confusion about terminology, nowhere in any of the documents released by DEC and APA is there evidence of an inclination towards classical numerical carrying capacities. Instead, DEC is seeking to implement an “adaptive management” strategy that is more in line with George Stankey’s popular “limits of acceptable change” (LAC) than Wagar’s “carrying capacity”. While recreational carrying capacity seeks to establish a priori limits on numbers of visitors and types of use, the LAC contends that it is best to focus on more subjective, experiential criteria that change over time. Even the biophysical component of DEC’s visitor-use management strategy — the area where “carrying capacity” would potentially come into play — seems inherently biased towards visitor experience to the extent that the approach feels out of touch with hard sciences like conservation biology.
But, away from semantics and back again to that logical notion that society changes over time, we need to at the least ask ourselves: If numbers of visitors continue increasing (and they will), and we refuse to incorporate some basic aspects of recreational carrying capacity into management strategies (either out of conceptual or practical concerns), what is likely to happen? Users with lower thresholds for acceptable change will be displaced by those with higher thresholds. Thus, in an LAC framework, there is nothing to stop incrementalism. (This is the argument made by Stanley Plog, Richard Butler, Peter Willams, etc.) This is fine if incrementalism is the desired outcome, but if that is the case, then we have even larger questions that we need to ask — like: Why aren’t we just rewriting the Adirondack Park Act altogether?
In the end, it matters not whether “carrying capacity” is conceptually “a myth” (in this case, a legal fiction, since it is effectively codified into Adirondack law), or whether all aspects of the carrying capacity “matrix” cannot be quantified. It only matters how concepts are applied in practice. We’re getting too bogged down in details and abstractions here for our own good, or for that of future generations.
A system to numerically track/limit usage per carry capacity was indeed published by the DEC. High Peaks region WMUs discussed this issue at some length throughout the years.
In order to define carrying capacity, which must be numerically represented otherwise “capacity” is a meaningless term, one must be able to define use vs. overuse and separate overuse from misuse. None of these things have occurred because the DEC and other organizations are too busy counting cars and measuring trail depth at natural erosion points where engineered trails never would have been to begin with (also discussed in WMUs). Frankly, it might not matter anyway since this conversation wouldn’t be happening if NYS had taken the appropriate steps as land managers as greater needs became evident decades ago.
“Users with lower thresholds for acceptable change will be displaced by those with higher thresholds…there is nothing to stop incrementalism.” If you’ve been listening to the people most ardently driving the carrying capacity debate, they’ve been making it very clear that their end game is to not only stop incrementalism but to drastically reduce current land usage throughout the region. This has already begun happening in one well-known area despite the legal framework in place to keep access open to the public. Most of us probably would not like to see this happen. In fact, the majority vote has been cast by those who show up and use the land for recreational purposes despite being told by lobby groups that its “overcrowded.”
“It only matters how concepts are applied in practice.” I completely agree and many of us have been shouting this from the rooftops for decades. The area needs appropriate infrastructure, not more talking points.