Keene residents discuss plans for managing influx of visitors
By Tim Rowland
In the calm before the summer storm of hikers, residents of the Town of Keene gathered at the community pavilion on a chilly Tuesday evening wishing for silver bullets but settling for silver linings as they discussed ways to battle the madding crowds to at least a draw.
On the plus side, the Canadian border remains closed due to COVID, so there’s that. Normally at this time Canadian hikers would be flooding into Keene Valley because their own provincial parks close for mud season. “We’re getting a little breather — so I hope you’re enjoying it,” Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson quipped to the bundled-up crowd.
And the state has agreed to pay for two summers of Keene’s frontcountry steward program, which is good because the initiative is credited with being one of the more effective ways of managing crowds.
Nowhere else, however, does it seem that Keene can catch a break. State “No Parking” signs along Route 73 have eliminated the equivalent of 300 parking spaces. Three brand new hiker shuttle buses that were supposed to reduce parking woes have been sitting idle for nearly a year due to the coronavirus — a contagion that itself has driven new waves of visitors to the great outdoors. Even as the virus subsides, no date has been set for shuttle operation, because officials can’t figure out where buses can turn around in the cramped Chapel Pond area without eliminating even more parking spots. The future of Keene’s own shuttle from Marcy Field to The Garden is cloudy because the town hasn’t been able to find a driver.
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Then in late April the state Department of Transportation showed up unannounced and cordoned off even more parking areas with an aesthetically challenged fortress of T-posts. Residents of the hamlet of Keene Valley know from experience that every car forced off of Route 73 has the potential to wind up in someone’s private driveway.
At some point it just seems like piling on. On top of everything the state will be paving and replacing guardrails on Route 73 in July, a necessary project that nevertheless seems likely to make travel on the only route through town almost unbearable.
Even on the day of the meeting, a New York appeals court ruling against copious tree cutting in the forest preserve led to fears that the DEC will use it as an excuse to continue to delay two new parking areas at Chapel Pond.
Keene is aware it has a problem that most American communities, whose attractions frequently go begging, would die for. “We’re the only town in the U.S. that says, ‘don’t come here,’” Wilson said.
But the hikers that drive the local economy also block residents’ driveways, trample their lawns, cause traffic tie-ups and make it virtually impossible for residents themselves to hike in the town in which they live.
Hikers don’t care about tickets, and ignore “surprisingly ineffective” signs at the base of the narrow road to The Garden warning that the lot is full. “The only way (board member Bob Biesemeyer) and I could get people to stop,” said board member Teresa Cheetham-Palen, “was to stand in the road and say ‘it’s full; believe me, it’s really full.’”
Last year the two major trailheads in Keene, a town of 1,100, attracted 150,000 hikers, not counting Cascade. “We have a zoo; we need zookeepers,” said Keene resident Pete Suttmeier. But the town can’t afford a police force, few troopers have been dispatched to the valley and, Wilson said, there are only two DEC rangers responsible for what amounts to 50 miles of highway.
All of it has left Keene residents feeling as if they’re on an island. “If we’re going to improve conditions for visitors and residents of Keene it’s going to be on us to get it done, or we’re just going to be run over,” Wilson said.
Communication is key
Some programs have shown glimmers of success, most notably the frontcountry stewards at popular trailheads, where knowledgeable guides dispense trail information, suggest alternative hikes and diffuse the anger of visitors who have been driving for hours only to find nowhere to park.
Another key is communicating trailhead conditions to hikers before they leave their homes. “The popular destinations get parked-up early,” Wilson said. “So preparedness is not just bringing a water bottle and a compass, it’s having a backup plan (for a hike) and having a backup plan to the backup plan.”
Wilson said the town is also counting on partnerships with organizations such as the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST). The latter has previously focused on attracting visitors, and “is pivoting to destination management,” Wilson said. It’s a big park, and there are plenty of worthy destinations aside from Keene Valley.
So too has the ADK been working on the problem, along with app developers who are planning to introduce real-time trailhead and parking conditions to hikers’ phones. There is also talk of encouraging hikers to bicycle to trailheads, through a “Bike to Hike” passport.
As for resident hiking itself, there seemed to be slim hope, except at least locals are exempt from the permits now needed to hike from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve property.
The state doesn’t permit selective parking, and even though the town can be more restrictive, there were doubts it would do any good. “These people are removing barriers to get into a parking lot,” Wilson said. “Do you think they’re going to care about a ‘Residents Only’ sign?