By Gwendolyn Craig
A High Peaks advisory group on Monday submitted preliminary recommendations to the state for managing visitor use in the popular region of the Adirondack Park, but stopped short of recommending visitor permits for now.
The governor-appointed panel has met privately since last year. Its 43-page document addresses things like parking enforcement, human waste management, trail maintenance, visitor use limitations and data collection, according to a news release.
The long-debated idea of issuing permits to restrict visitor use will be pushed to another day, but it is expected to be addressed in a second report. The current report does implement limits to parking areas, a pilot visitor-use plan for the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, data collection on visitor capacity and adopting all Leave No Trace principles, a set of outdoor ethics guidelines that include use of permits.
Basil Seggos, commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state is already implementing some of the recommendations, in a letter to the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group.
“With the increase in public use of the High Peaks, it has never been more important for DEC and our local partners to work together to protect these public lands for future generations by promoting sustainable recreation,” Seggos said in an undated June letter to the group.
He added, “As we continue to evaluate COVID-19 safety protocols, budget implications, and timing for effective implementation of additional actions this summer, DEC will continue to set the stage for” stewardship programs and trail maintenance and evaluation. “As we evaluate the effectiveness of the measures put into place this summer, we will revisit recommendations involving such things as placing limits on use, increasing parking fines, providing alternatives to portable toilets, and working as a partner in transitioning to an e-shuttle system.”
The advisory group, which switched to virtual meetings once the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing in mid-March, also addressed the coronavirus in its report.
Members released a joint statement calling the report and recommendations “a good initial step in a challenging year.”
Keene Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said that in some ways the pandemic “really highlighted a lot of the issues we’re already dealing with — crowding, human waste, how you do education. It highlighted all the underlying issues the group was trying to address.”
The report is also coming at a time when the High Peaks are perhaps as busy as ever. Even though the Canadian border is still closed to nonessential travel, Wilson said by 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, traffic jams started in the State Route 73 area.
“The Garden parking lot has been filled to overflowing on weekends,” Wilson added. “It’s shocking the level of travel.”
William Janeway, executive director of the nonprofit Adirondack Council, has seen the same thing.
“It’s only mid-June, but the trails are already jammed with hikers and the parking lots and woods and waters are spilling over capacity, showing new signs of wear,” Janeway said in a news release. “All of this is happening in the High Peaks and across the Park, even with the Canadian border closed due to COVID-19. When it reopens, visitor numbers are likely to climb again, rapidly. It is vital that we accomplish the short-term goals in this report right away, and lay the groundwork for the longer-term items that will take a little time to materialize.”
Janeway said that while the recommendations do not call for broad-sweeping permits, they “do call for gradually implementing a resource capacity limit, which requires some form of permits, whether it’s by that name or something else.”
Some of the proposed actions in the report that the state has already started to tackle include:
- Educating the public on the use of face masks and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on trails;
- Increasing the presence of New York State Police and DEC forest rangers and environmental conservation officers on State Route 73 and other roads to enforce parking regulations;
- Reducing the parking capacity at Adirondack Mountain Reserve lots at Roaring Brook Falls and reducing the capacity at Rooster Comb Parking lot;
- Placing portable toilets in high-use areas along Route 73, the Garden and AMR lots;
- Using electronic message boards on the Northway and Route 73 and social media to alert motorists of trailhead parking and closures;
- Using social media to educate the public on Leave No Trace principles.
Seggos’ letter also said the state will work with the Town of Keene and Essex County on a shuttle system, but Wilson said Monday afternoon he does not have a plan for the shuttle yet.
“I’m really struggling with how I could possibly run that shuttle safely, and the county is facing the same questions,” he said. “It’s going to be on hold for the foreseeable future.”
Some Adirondack groups praised the group’s recommendations and the state’s initial response, in news releases on Monday.
“Stewardship programs like the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program have shown that educational messaging mitigates impacts in sensitive ecological environments and empowers visitors to be stewards themselves,” said Michael Barrett, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “ADK is excited to see that the advisory group recognizes this and is advocating for more investment into stewardship.”
The closed meetings of the advisory group have led to some public criticism and internal deliberations between group members. In a letter to Seggos presenting its report, the advisory group said public comments, which were emailed to the group, were considered in the development of recommendations.
The group added that “additional input should be sought as these are presented to the public. A long-term management solution will only be successful with a robust public engagement process. This process must seek broad stakeholder involvement, include voices across the High Peaks region, and have a transparent public meeting/input process.”
Janeway added in a news release that “there is room for a lot more public participation in building the components of a better management system. We think the working group got everyone off to an excellent start.”
Members of the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group include:
- Jill Weiss, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
- Joe Pete Wilson, supervisor, Town of Keene
- Rocci Aguirre, Adirondack Council
- Pete Nelson, Adirondack Wilderness Advocates
- Charlie Wise, The Mountaineer outdoor shop
- Seth Jones, Adirondack Mountain Club
- Teresa Cheetham-Palen, Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service and Lodge
- James McKenna, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism
- Shaun Gillilland, chair, Essex County Board of Supervisors
- Sandra Allen, retired counsel for the DEC
Also at the table are several state officials and staff including:
- Chris Morris, OPHRP statewide trails program planner
- Pat Barnes, DOT Region 1 director
- Rick Weber, APA Deputy director
- Mike Pratt, ORDA CEO, (alternates: Emma Lamy, sustainability officer and Kris Cheney-Seymour, Nordic program manager)
- Rob Davies, DEC director of Division of Lands and Forests
- DEC Region 5 representative
- Mary Roy, Strategic Planning/Performance Management Office director
- Karyn Richards, special assistant to the commissioner
- David Winchell, public participation specialist
- Laura DiBetta, director of outdoor recreation
- Peter Frank, bureau chief, Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements
The group will continue to meet, and is still accepting public comments to [email protected]