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.