New process for dealing with High Peaks visitor use outlined in public meeting
By Mike Lynch
High Peaks management issues related to trail conditions, visitor education, and search and rescue have been widely discussed and debated for years, and they were once again put on center stage at the Harrietstown Town Hall Tuesday in Saranac Lake.
This time though the issues were not part of a discussion about a state unit management plan process, or a media hosted panel, they were part of the first public unveiling of the High Peaks visitor use management project. About 60 people attended.
The two-year project, being led by the consultant firm Otak, will attempt to gauge the public’s perceptions and expectations about what they are experiencing and what they want from a High Peaks Wilderness experience. For instance, the process will examine whether the trail users want a summit outing to be a solitary process or whether they are content being in crowds atop the peaks.
Sociological and scientific data will be weighed to consider impacts to natural resources, such as trail conditions and ecosystems to come up with a set of management recommendations. The ecological research has been underway for several years in partnership with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The project leaders are still developing a plan for data collection.
The process, formally referred to as visitor use management framework, is commonly used by federal agencies to guide decisions in national parks.
“This is a paradigm shift,” said Josh Clague, Adirondack coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s not maybe a huge shift, but it’s us trying to kind of pilot a new way of addressing this issue of visitor use.”
The recommendations will come in a report and may be implemented through an amendment to the High Peaks unit management plan, which can be a lengthy process, while other suggestions could be done in a more timely fashion outside that process, Clague said.
“What we are hoping to do ultimately is … to empower us and give ourselves the tools to be a little bit more reactive in real time,” he said.
At the meeting, Clague presented the project with the help of Otak’s Abbie Larkin, who will be in charge of data collection, and Susan Hayman, of Ross Strategic, the meeting facilitator.
Larkin, based in Vermont, has already partnered with DEC as part of her graduate work at SUNY ESF in Syracuse. She developed a database by digitizing trail register sheets across the park and worked with the DEC to help facilitate the Great South Woods project in the southern Adirondacks, which studied existing and potential recreation opportunities there.
She said Otak, which has its headquarters in Portland, Ore. and satellite offices in Vermont and New Hampshire, has decades of experience working on similar projects and had high praise for the visitor use management framework process.
“It was developed as an approach to be used that is systematic and scientific and transparent and inclusive, and legally defensible, as a process for managing visitors on public lands,” she said.
This initiative is the first of its kind for DEC, and Clague said it “felt like it was good to get outside help to help us navigate the process.”
A similar project is happening concurrently in the Catskill Park.
In addition to the project overview presentations, the three-hour meeting included break-out sessions that divided the crowd into four groups.
During that period, audience members provided feedback on the current conditions in the High Peaks and what their desired outcomes were for those conditions. The themes ranged from trails to education to digital platforms.
“What I heard was a really high level of dialogue this evening, and a lot of enthusiasm for the process itself for trying to see us move us through something where there is science supporting monitoring and moving us towards, you know, a suite of management options that would react to desired conditions,” said Julia Goren, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s deputy executive director.
Jackie Bowen, director of conservation for the Adirondack Council, also gave the meeting and Otak high marks, saying the consulting firm did “an exceptional job of bringing the public together,” but she cautioned against giving the human experience too much weight when compared to natural resource protection.
“The State Land Master Plan clearly dictates that natural resource protection is paramount,” she said.
Some members of the public did express having difficulty understanding the process, while others questioned whether the DEC has a desired outcome such as permits, a tool to limit use.
“What I can say is that the state did not come into this process with an expectation of trying to defend a way to do a permit system,” Clague said. “However, we have not told Otak the permit system is off the table.”
Input and data will determine the recommendations, the consultants said.
This will be the only public meeting until March, but anyone may access information through the new HighPeaksVUM.com website developed for this project. Additional information is being gathered through stakeholder meetings, surveys and data collection.