As mountain communities grapple with how to best manage increase in visitors, Explorer looks to how other places are dealing
By Gwendolyn Craig
The Mountain Wanderer book and map store on the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire shuttered for three months last year during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses across the country did the same, suffering financial losses. Some merchants closed for good.
But not so for owner Steve Smith, who had a record-breaking year in 2020.
In 1998 when he first opened his shop, people thought he was “nuts” (a map store?). His business’s heightened success during a pandemic showed just how much interest in hiking and the outdoors grew in a short time, he said.
Even before the pandemic hit, Smith had witnessed hiker conga lines up to summits and an increasing amount of trash at trailheads. A member of the committee for New Hampshire’s 4,000-footer club, Smith’s colleagues would normally mail about 250 to 300 patches a year to those who had climbed all 48 peaks. Over the years, he said, those numbers have increased to around 700 or 800 annually.
It’s a familiar story for those who live or enjoy the outdoors in the Adirondack Park, where those monitoring use of popular trails point to problems of “overuse.”
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Though New York has plenty of documents outlining trail and parking projects, it appointed advisory groups—one in the Adirondacks and one in the Catskills—to provide visitor management recommendations. The group charged with addressing crowds in the High Peaks told the state to revisit its own shelved plans (the High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan, for one) and to adopt similar strategies federal parks use.
Jeff Senterman, executive director of the Catskill Center and a member of the Catskills advisory committee, said the state doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel.”
“I think there’s multiple management solutions, and there’s probably no perfect one that’s going to work everywhere,” Senterman said.
The Adirondack Explorer set out during the 2021 hiking season to learn more about visitor management strategies being tried—and some that seem to be working—in other popular recreation areas. Over the course of several issues of our magazine and online this year, the Explorer is delving into shuttle systems, trail maintenance, permits, stewardship programs and more. Some of these ideas are already underway in the Adirondacks.
A pilot parking reservation system at one of the gateways to about a dozen High Peaks, for example, kicked off this year. Several potential users were confused and contacted the Adirondack Explorer asking how to get a reservation for hiking all 46 High Peaks or a reservation for the Adirondack Park—not understanding the reservation was only for the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in Keene. The confusion was prevalent on social media, too, as vacationers tried to make sense of how they could hike and where. A Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics assessment done for the Adirondack Park in 2020 pointed to exemplary digital, print and message board communications from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
The advisory committee’s report for the High Peaks acknowledged that there will need to be more than one strategy to help manage visitors, and not every strategy will work everywhere in the park. The Adirondacks are not unique in this way.
Places like Franconia Notch State Park in New Hampshire are balancing management strategies with input from White Mountain National Forest, the Appalachian Mountain Club, New Hampshire State Parks and private landowners. General Manager John DeVivo has mixed feelings about some of the strategies implemented so far.
For example, in 2019 the park started a shuttle bus system. It helped divert vehicle traffic at popular trailhead lots and kept hikers off the two-lane highway cutting directly through the notch. But was it a solution overall?
“Our concern is that by offering a shuttle and offering more parking, we’re actually inviting more people to come here,” DeVivo said. “We have probably a couple of dozen primary trails within the notch and every single one of them is being hammered.”
In Maine, Acadia National Park’s general management plan originally stated it was not to expand parking on its popular Park Loop Road. The National Park Service is making exceptions now as the park sees an increase in visitation and parking is inadequate, said Stephanie Clement, conservation director for Friends of Acadia.
Nearly everywhere Explorer staff visited had stewards providing education to those heading up the trails or reaching summits.
Education and data collection are important pieces of the puzzle to High Peaks advisory group member Jill Weiss. The National Park Service, for example, collects annual visitor statistics at its locations. The data is easily accessible to the public. Weiss is also a researcher at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is investigating alpine stewardship programs across the Northeast. She has also worked with the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Mountain Club to collect data on the number of hikers in the Adirondacks and to find out why people are hiking.
“I am really concerned about recreational managing based on anecdote. “We need to start finding out who the recreational users really are.”– Jill Weiss, High Peaks advisory group member, SUNY ESF researcher
Inside his store, decorated with maps from all over the Northeast and lined with books and guide pamphlets, Smith dispenses tips while ringing up sales.
“Education is important,” Smith said. “People are going to come. You can’t stop them from coming. And when we all complain about too many people on the trail, of course, we’re all part of the problem.”
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This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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It would definitely be beneficial for us all to do a deep-dive on overuse in the Adirondacks. The current stratagem of developing more expansive trail networks, higher capacity parking lots, larger campgrounds and new regional attractions is truly puzzling from an administration that is supposedly addressing overuse. Hammering away at the proximate rather than the ultimate causes of the problem will only result in uncontrollable “induced demand”, and worse, it is a management philosophy in complete opposition to basic conservation design principles–that is, cluster development and human use in specific locations to leave the larger landscape intact. A start would be to deal with the elephant in the room: amending the HPWA UMP to reflect increased vistorship and enable creation of robust and centralized infrastructure to empower visitors to recreate sustainably in the Park’s most trammelled “wilderness”. An ultimate solution would be for the State to adopt a more sustainable Parkwide conservation ethos as mediator of the commons rather than the outdated usher of a six-million-acre recreational attraction. The meaning of “Property of the People of the State of New York” is not the same as individual ownership extrapolated unto every citizen–it places the Forest Preserve firmly within the commons, in which stewardship trumps exploitative ownership. That is a difficult proposition to revisit now for a nation that, in the time since the inception of the Adirondack Park, has risen to become world’s foremost extractive economy, endowing us all with the exceptional quality of life that we have come to expect. As Henry George put it, “want appears where productive power is greatest and the production of wealth is largest”; we, and our environment, are victims of our own prosperity. We need to look beyond ourselves for solutions to the paradox of modern American conservation–either beyond our borders to other nations, where there are spectacular examples of properly functioning wildernesses preserves, or to the past, where our forebearers set aside untouched land for future generations informed by a wisdom that I fear that we could not match today.
Until the term “overuse” is defined for each trail, the problems will be impossible to “manage”. Politics being what they are, I don’t see it happening any time soon.
It is incorrect to call the fiasco at the AMR trailhead a “pilot parking reservation system.” They would not allow anyone to hike without a permit, whether or not they arrived on foot, by car, by bike, or by bus. It should be called what it was, a hiking permit system that limited hiking to the members of the exclusive club, or members of the local community who are granted special privileges, despite the fact it is a public easement bought and paid for by the citizens of New York State.
That’s how permits work, whether they be hiking or parking. Was anyone denied an available permit? Was there an onerous charge? Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it is still a pilot program. File a suit against the DEC/AMR if you feel strongly enough. That is how you fight the DEC. I am content to wait and see if it is simply scrapped.
That’s not how parking permits work, which this is billed as. Hikers who don’t need to park are still barred from hiking by the fake ranger AMR employs. Zephyr pretty much has it correct.
AMR employed “fake Rangers” long before there WAS a DEC. I am still waiting for someone to do something constructive about the issue other than whine and complain. A handful of people complaining about the same thing hundreds of times does not carry the same weight as hundreds of people complaining once. If so many people hate the system, I encourage you to form a group and gain some leverage – possibly with a lawsuit. I for one would be interested in the eventual outcome!
There are many more issues in the HPW and Park in general than the AMR parking permit system. We should be focusing on what are the biggest threats to the Forest Preserve and coming up with plans to mitigate the most threatening first. In my mind, we should focus on preservation first and methods of access second. Doesn’t make much sense to do it the other way around – such as a shuttle system being set up before comprehensive trail carrying capacity studies have even been started. Decide what you want to achieve before purchasing your tools.
The parking permit system at the AMR has been frustrating on many levels. There are currently 17 day-use parking spots on any given day. The only chance you have of getting a weekend spot is two weeks in advance, in the few minutes after 12 noon when the slots open. You have no way of knowing the weather two weeks from then, but you take your chances and hope for the best.
On my first time there, I arrived and they had no record that I a reservation. Fortunately, I had the printed verification and they allowed me in – but would have been skunked if I hadn’t printed it out.
I heard from others who had arrived without a reservation on a weekday, but they had an almost empty parking lot. The “ranger” told them they couldn’t stay, and couldn’t make the reservation there on the spot, because it had to be done in advance (even though there were clearly empty slots available). Why?
Columbus Day weekend, it was packed! FAR more than the allotted 17 cars allowed. As I walked through the AMR, there were crowds of hikers in groups of up to twenty people (far more than allowed in the wilderness areas.) It turns out, the majority of them were guests of members of the AMR (as one of them explained to me).
So… to clarify, this isn’t an effort to limit the amount of traffic on those trails. It’s an effort of the AMR to limit only 17 cars in their parking lot, so that they can hoard the hiking trails for themselves.
A pretty sweet deal – they were bailed out of bankruptcy in the late 1970’s, and continue to pay very minimal takes on a multi-million dollar assessment – in exchange for hiker access to some of the most pristine hiking in the Adirondacks. However – they want to limit what they seem to consider the “riff-raff” to 17 cars per day, so that they can keep it to themselves – what a joke!!!