By Gwendolyn Craig
What’s old is new again when it comes to an advisory group report on managing increasing visitors in the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks. A permit system is also still part of the discussion.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation released a long-awaited report on Friday from the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group. The group was created to suggest long-term strategies for addressing public safety and protecting the environment on popular trails. Their work was completed when they turned over their final report.
But many of the suggestions in the final report circle back to already vetted National Park Service visitor management guides and multiple plans the DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency already created for the High Peaks, but have been slow to implement.
There were some new recommendations in the report, such as creating a whole newly funded state entity to manage the increase in visitors. It’s unclear what new strategies, such as this one, might be implemented considering the state’s nearly $15 billion budget deficit.
“This is all going to take money in a year that it’s really hard to want to seek money,” said state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, about managing visitor use in an interview on Thursday. “The 800-pound gorilla in the room is COVID and the pandemic, and recovering from that, and understandably, that’s got to be the top priority for all us.”
A permit system, a controversial topic among advocacy groups, hikers and state officials, was part of the report as something to “be investigated as an option to limit use.” In some ways, the report suggests, that will happen already through stricter parking enforcement and visitor shuttle use “based on the allowable capacity for the trails.” The report also details a possible parking pass scenario where current trailhead parking could be limited to pass-holders. Scenic overlook parking would be available for short-term spots.
A recommendation from the group’s interim report was carried over for conducting a three-year pilot program that would limit use on private lands. It’s not clear which private property owner might conduct the pilot, though the Ausable Club and the Adirondack Mountain Reserve had said last year they were considering limiting the number of hikers on their property.
Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a news release about the report that the uptick in visitors, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, made it “critical that DEC and our partners work together to protect these irreplaceable lands for future generations.”
In a letter to the advisory group, Seggos said DEC is developing a plan to form such an entity as the advisory group has proposed for managing overuse. There is little detail, other than that DEC would “provide further detail shortly.”
Seggos said the DEC has already started to adopt National Park Service guidelines for visitor management. The APA is also using this, and is expected to present its own visitor use guidelines next week.
Seggos did not specifically comment on permits. In the past, Seggos has said the state will look at a permit system as a last resort, which Stec said he has heard, too, from the commissioner.
Chad Dawson, a former APA board member and expert on natural resource management and recreation, said DEC and APA will have to carefully vet what recommendations in the report mesh with the legal documents to which they are bound.
“You never take an advisory group and just implement,” Dawson said earlier this week.
Here are more of the advisory group’s recommendations:
- Create a new outdoor recreation unit within the DEC;
- Collect real-time data on visitors to determine a carrying capacity of trails and parking areas;
- Study parking and shuttle management;
- Provide more resources and funding; and
- Implement actions already highlighted in state unit management plans. Those are legal documents DEC and APA have already created with projects and regulations tailored to specific areas within the Adirondack Park.
The advisory group’s report highlights some unaccomplished action items in the High Peaks’s unit management plan created in 1999. For example, the advisory group suggests DEC “establish an Area Manager to oversee and coordinate all management activities.” It also highlights action items listed in a 2018 amendment that the group thinks the DEC should pursue including:
- A monitoring program for any new facility built;
- Promulgate regulations proposed in the unit management plan;
- Add forest rangers;
- Develop better parking at Chapel Pond, Ridge Trail and the Round Pond Corridor on Route 73;
- Work on parking opportunities with the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, a private conservation easement that is a gateway to nearly a dozen High Peaks; and
- Establish photo monitoring points of the new Cascade Mountain Trail.
For more on creating a new state entity, the report suggests recruiting a third-party, like The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, to create a management plan. The Adirondack Advisory Group, as the report calls it, would establish thresholds through this plan for things like wildlife, vegetation, remoteness and solitude.
Some efforts outlined in the report, the DEC said, are already underway. For example, DEC staff and New York State Police are enforcing parking regulations on Route 73, the popular thoroughfare to the High Peaks.
The DEC is also partnering with Essex County and the Town of Keene to develop more front country infrastructure, including a pilot shuttle service on Route 73 and help with handling human waste issues.
Seggos and the DEC will continue to review the final recommendations.
In a letter to the advisory group, Seggos said he will continue to look for “opportunities for implementation of the full set of recommendations in the report.” Of the new ones proposed, it’s not clear which, if any, will be implemented.