Editor’s note: This story from the Explorer’s November/December magazine has been updated to reflect the state’s creation of an advisory group.
By MIKE LYNCH
It was a perfect fall hiking day with blue skies and peak foliage.
The first Saturday in October also brought peak traffic to Route 73 and nearby trailheads.
“If you were a traveler, it was a great day,” Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said. “If you were running a small town, it was tough.”
Short on seasonal staffers who left after the summer, Wilson said he and two other Town Board members spent the day directing traffic and doing other duties to ensure hikers were able to get to the trailheads and the parking lots, which were overrun. He also had a few cars towed.
Wilson said it was the busiest day of the season up until that point, and one of the three busiest days he has witnessed.
The town shuttle from Marcy Field to the Garden parking lot in Keene Valley normally has between 70 and 120 riders. That day, there were 246 riders. Cars were parked illegally on the highway—a common problem on busy hiking days this season—creating unsafe driving and walking conditions. The same occurred on town roads, blocking the path for emergency vehicles.
“I can’t go through another day like this past Saturday,” he said later in October. “It’s beyond the capacity of a town of 1,100 to deal with. It’s just beyond our capacity. How do we protect the resource, keep hikers safe, but still give them a good time so they continue to visit our town?”
Wilson said staffers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been willing to help but he needs more. He wants the DEC to develop a long-term comprehensive plan to deal with the issue.
“DEC tends to look at things in unit management plans and that leaves out the actual road, the highway, the towns, the travel route all the hikers take, the parking lots, the bathrooms,” he said.
DEC has held a half dozen or so “stakeholder meetings” over the past few years, including one in Keene Valley in July, to gather advice. Last week, the department announced formation of a High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, to include Wilson and others who called for a plan.
The Adirondack Council, also included in the meetings and the new advisory group, had seconded Wilson’s call for a comprehensive plan to address “overuse” in the High Peaks, and then park-wide.
“It’s time for the DEC commissioner to tell Governor (Andrew) Cuomo that after two years of trying to address this with the resources they have, they have failed,” Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said earlier this fall.
A comprehensive plan must identify and coordinate management goals, and address education efforts, front-country and backcountry infrastructure, Janeway said. It should include a permit or reservation system. He said the creation should include the input of the public.
Not everyone favors a hiker permit system.
“The answer is not to arbitrarily enact a short-sighted permit system to ‘keep people out,’” hiker Keith Kogut told the Explorer in an email. “The many parties involved just need to continue the process that is already underway, a process of taking responsibility for what we can directly control, improving education, and promoting the many underused but incredible parts of our massive park.”
Matt Carbognin, of New Jersey, who hiked in the High Peaks on the last Sunday in September, seemed lukewarm about paying a fee for parking—something that’s already required at parking lots owned by Keene and the Adirondack Mountain Club. He did say he would support a hiking permit system under certain conditions.
“If there was an annual membership and a fee that went toward maintaining trails, I would support that and pay for it,” he said from the Cascade summit.
In written statements, the DEC told the Explorer it is aware of the issues associated with the increase in hikers, including “degradation of natural resources, increased rescues, and roadside safety.” The DEC statement said the department is “formalizing its next steps to address sustainable use in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, as well as other areas like the Catskill Park, using input we continue to receive, and is actively engaged in discussing options with stakeholders and the public.”
The meetings were invitation-only, and the department did not allow the Explorer to attend.
DEC said it has addressed many of the issues, including striping parking areas, creating the no-parking zones in unsafe areas and placing portable toilets at trailheads. It’s also working to collect data from trailheads and building a new trail for Cascade Mountain from the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sporting Complex. It worked with Essex County to create a shuttle system for hikers to access trails between Lake Placid and Wilmington. It promotes hikes outside the High Peaks.
With partners including the Adirondack 46ers, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, Paul Smith’s College and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, it provides education for hikers.
But not all of DEC’s plans have worked out. On busy days, hikers at Giant Mountain are ignoring the no-parking signs, and others are parking in the small lots uphill and southeast of the Roaring Brook Falls Trailhead. Those lots have traditionally been used by rock climbers and drivers pulling over to catch a glimpse of the scenery, but they now fill up early on busy hiking days. It has also created what some say is a safety issue because the hikers will walk alongside the narrow and windy highway on the way to and from the trailhead.
Jim Lawyer, a rock-climbing guidebook author, said he has seen as many as 50 hikers walking next to the road between the Roaring Brook Falls trailhead and Chapel Pond.
“If anything they’ve made the problem worse,” Lawyer said.
Safety issues extend to the backcountry. Inadequate staffing and a spike in rescues leaves each forest ranger less time to patrol the backcountry on busy days, said Scott van Laer, a forest ranger speaking as a union representative.
“It’s almost like we’re the fireman being ready to jump down the pole and respond,” he said. “We’re kind of held hostage by that. It’s not just those numbers of incidents but it’s the daily possibility of multiple incidents.”
This fall, DEC announced it is taking two forest rangers from other parts of the state and reassigning them to the High Peaks, bringing the region’s total to eight. The region could still use four more, van Laer said.
Shaun Gilliland, chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, agreed that more rangers are needed. He would like DEC to have more personnel in the field addressing the overuse issue.
“I’d like to DEC take some concrete steps and actually enforcing the parking issue. The issue of rangers continues to be one (they need to address). There is simply not enough state personnel out there working this problem at this time,” he said
Gilliland said the state needs to craft short-term and long-term plans and consider adding a state bus for hikers. Keene is taking on too much responsibility, he said. “That little town shouldn’t have to shoulder all this weight.”
A few days before Columbus Day weekend, wilderness advocate and photographer Brendan Wiltse posted to his Instagram account a call-out to the state to deal with the issue.
“This is the largest wilderness area in the northeastern United States,” he said. “It deserves a commitment to proper planning and investments in infrastructure, staff and education necessary to protect and properly manage it.”