By Gwendolyn Craig
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has delayed for months releasing an advisory group’s recommendations for managing visitors in the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks, leaving the public with piecemeal information about what this upcoming hiking season could look like and causing confusion among group members.
The High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group drafted its final report and sent it to the DEC at the end of last year. The advisory group is made up of state staff, advocates, local officials and business representatives. The group has been meeting privately several times a month since late 2019. The group is not subject to Open Meetings Law, but in a nod to the excluded public, the group also collected and reviewed comments submitted to DEC.
The advisory group released an interim report over the summer, which focused more on addressing safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A final report, the DEC and group members had suggested, would include long-term strategies for addressing the increasing flocks of hikers to popular High Peaks trails. One controversial move some members have suggested, and several commenters either opposed or supported, includes limiting use through a kind of reservation or permitting system.
At first, advisory group members had suggested final recommendations could be released to the DEC by October last year. The advisory group delivered their recommendations to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in December. Throughout January and February, some group members told Adirondack Explorer their final report would be released soon, but more than two months into 2021, the DEC has yet to release it.
This has posed a conundrum for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), which published an article in its latest membership magazine about the final report. Seth Jones, ADK’s education director, is on the advisory group. ADK said they published the article with the understanding that DEC would release the report and its response by February.
ADK said the report is still embargoed, and other group members declined to talk about it, even though some information is already published in Jones’s article. This also appeared to be a tricky situation for some group members during a webinar Thursday night held by North Country Community College.
Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council; Pete Nelson, cofounder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates; and Joe Pete Wilson, town supervisor of Keene, were all part of the webinar focused on visitor management in the High Peaks and all are on the advisory group.
“Since the report isn’t public yet, we all agreed we would honor a sense of privacy, and I can’t speak to specifics until the report is public, but there’s still a lot to talk about,” Nelson had said during the webinar.
In a statement to Adirondack Explorer, a DEC spokesperson said the report would be released “soon.”
Chad Dawson, a former Adirondack Park Agency board member and an expert on natural resource management and recreation, had some insight as to why it may be taking DEC time to review the report. Before DEC agrees to any of the recommendations, Dawson said “it must fit your rules and regulations.” There are a number of legal documents already about the High Peaks, he noted.
It’s not clear, however, why the DEC would not release the report separately from its own response to it. This isn’t the first time the advisory group and DEC have had transparency issues and confusion. The group’s meeting summaries, which are posted online, were out of date for months last year, and what little does get summarized includes no names attached to ideas. Several Adirondack groups, including the Adirondack 46ers, have also asked to be part of the advisory committee. The Adirondack 46ers promote the hiking challenge for all the Adirondack’s 46 highest peaks.
Jones’s article provides some insight to what the final report will show, including that the advisory group wants “a commitment to an ongoing open and transparent process.”
The article also suggests that the state should create an “Adirondack Advisory Group” that would develop adaptive management strategies for visitors. The group also recommends the state adopt management initiatives in the National Parks Service’s Visitor Use Management Framework, a guide for federal lands created by a federal council. That council includes the Bureau of Land Management; the Forest Service; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the National Park Service; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jones’s article also includes recommendations that the DEC create an outdoor recreation unit, collect more data and conduct more planning for parking and visitor shuttles.
Nelson did mention adaptive management during the Thursday night webinar.
“What we need to do is more science and more data, and there are people working on that, but we need more people working on that,” Nelson said. “The state needs to make a commitment to it.”
Janeway also suggested during the webinar that limiting use is on the table. He pointed out how it has worked in the past in the High Peaks with already imposed group number limits and campfire regulations. He called those “incredibly controversial” at the time they were implemented, but adding that “they worked.” Some free options should be available to residents, for example, Janeway said, but otherwise he thinks a permit or license system could work.
“People pay for a fishing license,” Janeway said. “That doesn’t guarantee a fish.”
In an interview Thursday, state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, did not seem keen on funding large-scale visitor use management projects in the High Peaks at this time, considering the state’s finances. He also said he was not involved with advisory group and had not been invited to attend any of the meetings over the past year. Stec’s district spans over a great deal of the Adirondack Park, including the High Peaks.
Stec would like to see the discussion be more transparent, he said. He would like to see a report that shows what a permit system would generate for revenue, what it would cost to collect that revenue and what it would cost to enforce and administer it.
“I’m leery that one, this would be some financial windfall that would fix our infrastructure improvement needs and number two, that it would actually go to the Adirondacks anyways,” Stec said. “I think we have other tools before we surrender and say let’s limit the number of people that are in the High Peaks.”
Based on past conversations with Seggos, too, Stec said he does not think the state is ready to try a permitting system.
Adding to the number of plans and recommendations swirling around in the state’s hands is an upcoming presentation by the Adirondack Park Agency, also on visitor use management. The agency has been separately developing its own document on monitoring the Adirondack Park’s wildlands and visitors. That presentation will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, March 12, according to the APA’s agenda.
Dawson, who is also new member of advocacy group Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, had assisted the APA with the document staff will present later this month. He thinks the delays in releasing both the APA’s findings and the advisory group’s findings stems from whether or not both fit within unit management plans. Those are legal documents the APA and DEC created for specific Adirondack regions that include project plans and regulations.
“You never take an advisory group and just implement,” Dawson said.
The DEC will also have to hash out whether the advisory group’s recommendations fit the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, another legal document that takes planning and regulatory precedent for both APA and DEC.
“These are decisions the department has to make, which is why they’re taking so long to review that advisory report, and why it’s taking so long to review the wildlands monitoring (the APA’s report),” Dawson added. “People will expect them to implement both of them, but they have to do it in their planning and management context because that’s their legal documents.”