By Tim Rowland
An expert in the field of environmental planning challenged some of the conventional wisdom about hiker crowding at a public forum in Keene Valley Monday evening, and suggested that a key problem is that the throngs of people enjoying natural wonders tend not to see throngs of people as a particular problem.
Specifically, studies of national parks show limited success with commonly touted solutions such as parking limitations, shuttle buses, and other attempts to divert tourists from the destinations they have traveled miles to see.
Certainly there are degrees of success, but persistent crowding problems tend to remain, said Peter Pettengill, an assistant professor in environmental studies at St. Lawrence University.
“I wish I had better news for you,” said Pettengill as he flashed a slide of a jam-packed trail in Zion National Park, which has worked to limit vehicle traffic and send vacationers to other nearby attractions. “But this is still the experience.”
Pettengill was brought in to speak by a Keene citizens committee that’s studying overuse and seeking ways to mitigate the damage that crowds do to the community and to the environment.
About 50 people attended the talk, which included analysis of crowds of people at Acadia, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, who still swarm around trailheads, roads and parking lots despite efforts to manage them.
And perhaps most vexing to Adirondack conservationists, the people who come to the parks seem a lot less bothered by crowds than are the conservationists themselves.
The old Yogi Berra saw that “it’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore” may hold for a small subset of locals and solitude seekers, but it’s not the prevailing sentiment at the nation’s natural attractions. On satisfaction surveys, tourists at national parks give their experiences glowing reviews, no matter how crowded the trails. There is even some indication that people are not so much in search of solitude, but actually enjoy exploring with their fellows.
Surveys indicate a tolerance for crowding that goes beyond the trails. For example, a relatively crowded shuttle bus is perceived in a more positive light than one in which everyone has their own seat.
This jibes with a 2019 Clarkson University survey that indicated hikers on holiday weekends didn’t mind sharing a mountain summit with dozens of others.
That mindset presents a bit of a pickle for conservation groups trying to impress upon visitors the virtues of solitude and wilderness. It does, however, tend to validate the Adirondack protectors’ belief that education is a key component to protecting the mountains, forests and waterways. To that end, Keene has aggressively pursued a front-country steward program that greets hikers at the trailheads, sharing the principles of Leave No Trace and suggesting alternate destinations if the parking lot is full.
But even here, Pettengill urged caution. Sometimes it’s better to harden and protect the most popular trails and let the hikers have at it than it is to send them to less traveled mountains whose ecology may be more vulnerable to hundreds of boots, he said.
An example is Jay, a once-untrammeled yet spectacular mountain that is now being sold as a High Peaks alternative. It’s worked, audience members said, as it’s become crowded in its own right, despite a long, open ridgeline vulnerable to erosion and a lack of parking that has cars squeezing along the shoulder of a narrow mountain road.
Pettengill said that even if it is not a silver bullet, transportation and recreation are “inextricably linked” and managed parking and shuttles can be used as a management tool. A shuttle to all area trailheads may not be practical, he said, but experimentation can zero in on the most popular destination and become cost-effective.
At Zion — a park where thousands of cars do battle for hundreds of parking spaces — shuttle buses simply moved the crowds from the trailheads to the bus stations. But even this had a benefit since it eased noise and commotion in the canyon itself.
At the Grand Canyon, a backpacking permit system had the unintended consequence of encouraging day users. Hundreds of hikers are disgorged by private buses at 4 in the morning who may or may not be in the condition to hike down — and back up — the mile vertical to the canyon floor.
And even with these limitations, the canyon trails remain packed on peak days. On a 1.7-mile stretch miles from the nearest trailhead, rangers have recorded passing 142 hikers in an hour’s time.
But wall-to-wall hikers didn’t seem to bother those awed by the wonders of nature. On one of the most crowded weekends, a hiker scrawled on the survey, “don’t change a thing.”