(Editor’s note: This guest commentary appeared in the July/August issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine.)
By Christopher Amato
The High Peaks Wilderness Area of the Adirondack Park is no longer a wilderness. The State Land Master Plan—the seminal document that guides management of all state-owned lands in the Adirondack Park—describes the attributes that define wilderness:
A wilderness area, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man— where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. A wilderness area is further defined to mean an area of state land or water having a primeval character, without significant improvement or permanent human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve, enhance and restore, where necessary, its natural conditions.
It goes on to say that a Wilderness Area offers “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
The High Peaks Wilderness Area (HPWA) falls short of this definition. In the last decade, the High Peaks have been inundated with an unprecedented increase in visitors. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of hikers registering at the Van Hoevenberg Trail near Adirondak Loj soared by 62 percent, to over fifty-three thousand. During the same period, the number of hikers to Cascade Mountain more than doubled—to more than thirty-three thousand. The Summit Steward program reported that between 2007 and 2017, the number of contacts with hikers skyrocketed from slightly over fourteen thousand to more than thirty-one thousand. And last year, a study found that close to 80 percent of all trailheads leading into the High Peaks and surrounding Wilderness Areas were routinely above capacity and that thirty-five parking lots designed to accommodate fewer than a thousand cars frequently had more than two thousand trying to park at them.
The huge influx of hikers and campers has had catastrophic impacts on natural resources and the wilderness experience. Overuse of trails, campsites, and summits has caused widespread and serious erosion; damaged and destroyed fragile alpine vegetation; and left areas littered with trash and human waste. Moreover, the hordes of users eliminate any chance that the HPWA can provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude.” Most insidious is that, as documented in studies by Dr. Chad Dawson, users are now changing their perception of wilderness to accommodate these dramatic shifts: “wilderness” in the minds of many is now synonymous with packed trailheads, visible and widespread evidence of human presence, and crowded summits.
Overuse of the HPWA is not a new problem. The 1999 unit management plan (UMP) for the area recognized that heavy use was, even then, harming natural resources and diminishing visitors’ wilderness experience. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state agency entrusted with management of the Forest Preserve, has for years sought to address the overuse problem through indirect controls such as rerouting trails, closing campsites, limiting group size, and attempting to persuade hikers to visit other, less-used areas. Indirect measures such as these are important and well-recognized tools of wilderness management; however, a more direct measure—a permit system to control access—is called for when, as now, they prove ineffective.
Indeed, the 1999 UMP called for DEC to evaluate a camping-permit system for the HWPA, but this was never done. Now is clearly the time for DEC to seriously evaluate implementation of a day-use and camping-permit system. Permits are a proven and effective means of preventing overuse. The National Park Service’s successful permit system for Wilderness Areas under its jurisdiction has been in place for decades. And this year, following two years of indirect controls to manage overcrowding at a swimming area on Rondout Creek in the Catskill Park, DEC instituted a permit system.
The advantages of a permit system are clear. Limiting the number of people who access a Wilderness Area preserves the opportunity to experience solitude; reduces impacts to and degradation of natural resources; and allows previously damaged resources to recover. It is a far more reliable method of preventing overuse than indirect methods such as limiting parking or attempting to convince users to go to less heavily used areas. As recent experience shows, hikers who may have driven for hours to hike or camp in the HPWA are not likely to be deterred by a full parking lot. And if the goal is to shift use to other Wilderness Areas in the Park, what better way to do this than by letting prospective users know that they need a permit (limited in number) for the HPWA?
DEC could institute a permit system on a trial basis, say for five years, in order to evaluate its success. My guess is that, once hikers adapt to the permit system, they will appreciate the opportunity to experience this remarkable area free from crowding, trash, and waste.
DEC should take advantage of this important opportunity to reverse the decades-long downward spiral of the HPWA and restore it to its rightful place as the premier wilderness of the Adirondack Park.
Christopher Amato is vice chair of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve. He served as DEC assistant commissioner for natural resources from 2007 to 2011.