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.”
JOIN A COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT ADIRONDACK JOURNALISM
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 the next several issues of our magazine and online, 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.”
Be one of the first to know
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
Sign up to receive 7 issues a year in your mailbox and/or inbox