By Gwendolyn Craig
Owners of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve said they may test out recreation limits on a portion of the property this Columbus Day weekend, and they plan to definitely place restrictions on the entire reserve next year.
The AMR is privately owned by a group of trustees, who are also members of the Ausable Club. They allow public access through their property via easements with the state. The AMR is 7,000 acres and is a gateway to a number of High Peaks and iconic trails like Rainbow Falls and Indian Head.
Ausable Club President Roland Morris said the club has kept detailed records of hiker traffic over the years, and it has increased. Within the last decade, the club trustees have talked about imposing some sort of restrictions to protect the natural resources.
“We’re trustees of that property,” Morris said, “and we have an obligation to protect that property in partnership with the DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation). And it’s become clear, from our point of view, the AMR, that limits will have to be part of that program.”
Morris said the DEC had suggested testing a recreation limit program this season, but “they subsequently had second thoughts about it.” Morris said he thought it would be a good idea to test something for Columbus Day weekend, but the club has not committed to doing that yet. He expects a decision will be made within the next week, and Morris said the public will be notified.
A DEC spokesperson responded Wednesday evening that the agency is working with AMR “on efforts to promote sustainable use over the Columbus Day weekend. Once we have made a determination, we can provide more information.”
If there are restrictions this Columbus Day weekend, Morris said it would not be on the entire reserve. Trustees are still working out details about limiting use next year, too, but Morris said the plan is for limits on the entire reserve at that time.
Asked about the state’s role in the club’s plans, Morris said that is still being worked out.
“But because of the point of entry, it’s something that we can handle ourselves,” Morris added. “We don’t need the state to commit resources, at least in our view.”
Parking restrictions are already in place at the AMR lot this summer, limited to 28 vehicles. The DEC had told Adirondack Explorer the reduction was due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Visitors who don’t get a spot at the lot on Ausable Road can park across the street at Roaring Brook Falls or on one of the pull-offs along Route 73. Competition for parking is fierce, especially on weekends, with the AMR lot typically closing before 6:30 a.m. and the closest pull-offs filling up shortly after.
From the lot on Ausable Road, hikers walk about a half-mile past the Ausable Club’s golf course and clubhouse to get to the AMR trailhead. From there, they walk down the road until they branch off to their respective hiking trails. Depending on where one is hiking, the trails can stay on reserve property or switch to state forest preserve.
The agreement between the Ausable Club and the state for public access dates back to 1978, Morris said. It includes a conservation easement and a public foot traffic easement. John Schuler, general manager of the Ausable Club, said the easement was donated. At the time of that agreement, according to an Adirondack Council analysis of trailhead registers, some 5,000 hikers a year crossed the property. By three years ago, the Council’s estimate had grown to 25,000.
Adirondack Explorer filed a freedom of information law request with the DEC in July to see the agreement, but it has yet to receive any records. The club said it would consult its attorney about sharing the documents.
“That was essentially a gift of ours,” Morris said. “The most important thing is that the agreements were to protect the resource, and unfortunately, what’s happened has sort of gone beyond that, and both parties, which are obligated to protect the resource, need to act to do that.
“And that’s really where we’ve arrived, and that action will start next season. It will be the whole reserve next season.”
Morris said hiker numbers this season have been consistent, but he called it “remarkable” that the visitation has been what it is with the Canadian border closed to nonessential traffic. Estimates have shown Canadian hikers account for around 30% of traffic during a typical season in the Adirondack Park.
“You can envision if the border had been open, we might have had numbers that would have been astronomical,” Morris said.
Overall, Morris hopes imposing limits will actually make visiting more enjoyable for the public while protecting the area’s natural resources.
“These are important for the current hiking public and for generations to come, and we’ve reached a point where at least in the AMR’s case we are seriously degrading the resource,” Morris said. “I’m a two-time 46er (referring to the 46 High Peaks). I’ve been hiking for over 50 year, 55 years. It’s such an important, just remarkable resource that we need to protect.”
The AMR news follows the release of a report suggesting recommendations for managing crowds in the High Peaks. It was written by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and commissioned by the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Mountain Club.
The report suggested a permit or reservation system limiting use could be an option. Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, had said in a news release that “the time has come to stop resisting” visitor limits.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos had told Adirondack Explorer during a July press conference that permits and limits were “the last place you go.”
In an interview Wednesday, Janeway said the AMR appears to be the perfect place to try out a pilot program for limits.
“We’ve tried everything else,” Janeway said. “It’s time to try this.”
Janeway added that his family were among the original purchasers of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in 1887. Every generation of his family, including himself, has been a trustee of the property and a member of the Ausable Club. Janeway said he is only speaking for the Adirondack Council, however, and not the Ausable Club or the Adirondack Mountain Reserve trustees.
Michael Barrett, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), reacted to the news on Wednesday.
“ADK is a strong proponent of public access to public lands, but we acknowledge that the Ausable Club is private property and are delighted that they are including data collection as part of their proposed limits,” Barrett said in an email. “The data gathered there will help inform future decision-making in the High Peaks Wilderness as the state and local partners, including ADK, work together to develop and implement management strategies in the region.”
In the meantime, the state-appointed High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group continues to meet. The group released an interim report with recommendations on managing crowds in June. The report included a three-year pilot program for implementing limits on use. The group, which includes the Adirondack Council and the ADK, is expected to release a second report later this year.