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.”
Lea Cullen Boyer says
Hmmm…. kind of wondering if these comments are taken out of context to support a “pro-tourists take all” opinion. Quotes do point to reduction of noise, and crowding because of basic, low cost, parking regulations.
The photo of folks parked all along the roadway points to the need for vigorous enforcement. With social media’s stellar speed and accuracy of communication, you only have to tow 1 car to make an impact.
Having worked in the Westchester County Parks System for 21 years, we saw amazing success with basic enforcement. Of course there has to be a willingness among the administration to stand behind their commitment to steward the land. NYSDEC is charged with this task. On the back side of government it seems the culture is about creating more visitation, which leads to failure to steward land.
Tom Lyng says
This makes a lot of sense. I think he is correct. I also think that most local hikers cringe at the thought of permits and the current parking problems. And most don’t mind the extra people and some even like it. But it’s getting too difficult to enjoy what we used to enjoy so easily, solely due to the parking. Trail work is surely needed and it sounds like they are preparing to do that. The next piece of this puzzle is to simply build more parking lots. If they want to get cars off the roadways, how else can it be accomplished? Shuttles work, but more parking is still needed. Most people would rather park at the trailhead for free than take the extra time, money, and hassle to take a shuttle. The local hikers and those that do their homework know when and where to go if they want relative solitude.
David Riihimaki says
Refreshing perspective. People want to experience nature. North country communities want visitors. Sometimes more demand needs to be met with more resources—improved trails, education at trailheads, rangers for safety and more parking or transportation where parking can’t be improved.
Paul Foley says
I agree. Harden the select few trails for the crowds that they want to go to and leave the remaining relatively remote peaks and water features for the more adventurous. I have been to Zion and hiked the crowded trails because the experience is so spectacular but I have also been to the back side of Zion and experienced the solitude of other special canyons.
I feel the tourist marketing should still be aimed at the more popular peaks and water features where there is less expectation of peaceful enjoyment. it seems like the effort to spread out the crowds keep pushing the crowds out to the smaller peaks and ponds that where a louder group can have a larger impact on the quieter users.
The term “Forever Wild” probably needs to be struck from Article XIV since people no longer seem to grasp its meaning. If an interstate highway here, a few ski centers there, and a network of snowmobile trails throughout are considered acceptable exceptions to Article XIV for the sake of commerce, then why should we place any restrictions on the HPW? Change its classification to Intensive Use and manage it as such. Exploit the peaks as if they were timber. Let some other state or nation attempt to create and preserve some wilderness and solitude. Why should we bother to preserve lands as Forever Wild here if the concept and definition of wildness is no longer understood and solitude no longer appreciated? Let’s face it – modern New Yorkers no longer seem to have the same conservation principles as the people who created the Forest Preserve. Things change, except mankind’s inability to see they are part of a natural world, not the masters of it.
Dan Plumley says
Your title was in fact much of my point that Professor Pete Pettengill failed to recognize or even address. Too bad Tim that your article was too short and shallow and did not convey the many valid points and concerns expressed by the public whereas the presenter did not offer much of value to the equation beyond the issue of shuttles and crowding. Front country solutions or actions alone will almost always fail both the wilderness resource and experience in the wild interior if wilderness management and necessary controls do not exist or are reviled by a timid NYS-DEC whose mission is, like it or not, to have “care, custody and control” over the “Forever Wild” Forest Preserve and apply wilderness management principles and have failed to do so for decades in the Eastern High Peaks and elsewhere. It’s mindless if not dangerous and certainly irresponsible to suggest that simply because – as is so often stated like fact these days – that “Millennials” or whomever the user public is don’t see a problem in summit or wilderness over-crowding, that allowing that should just become the new norm. No. Sorry. We have wilderness law, regulations and stake-holder developed regulations and requirements under the State Land Master Plan to preserve the wilderness in resource integrity and wilderness experience for solitude and sense of remoteness, etc., etc. – and that is exactly how the NYS-DEC is supposed to secure “care, custody and control” for the benefit of the wilderness and alpine wild land resource each and every day of the week. And sadly, they continue to fail their mission in doing so and they only profit in their weakness from parties that blindly suggest there is not a problem. We need the true Adirondack borne wilderness ethic restored and recognized as our true legacy and the media – including your valuable writing and wisdom – must play a leading role.
Jack Drury says
I was at the presentation. My takeaways are:
1. Transportation isn’t going to solve your problems if you don’t deal with visitor capacity. We have a legislative responsibility to maintain a wild/wilderness character. Managers’ jobs is not to worry about visitor satisfaction but to manage as Wilderness.
2. Having good data is essential (Adirondack Park data is woefully inadequate-See Peter Bauer’s recent article on the Adirondack Almanack)
3. We MUST educate regarding Wilderness ethics/values.
4. There are some good opportunities to use technology and social media to help manage visitors
Yes. I’ve had that “Zion experience” too. So the letter is:
Show the crowds where you want them to go and how you want them to get there, and make it simple: Give them parking where it’s safe and out of the wild, provide shuttles to the selected trailhead(s), put a hardened trail in place. The shuttle provides a means of metering the flow. Put credit card readers at the parking, on the shuttle and at the trailhead and persistently suggest generous donations. (A few will freeload, but the average, I’ll bet, will be adequate.)
For example, park hikers at the Frontier Town in North Hudson; run a shuttle fleet to Boreas Ponds, Santanoni and Goodnow. Suggest a $5 donation for parking and at each trailhead.
Ron Miner says
It might work for them but it sure doesn’t work for me. Solitude is better than crowds… but I understand both the problems of parking and the love of a hike.
Bret Martin says
I have said for years that part of the solution is to start charging people for use of state lands, just as we do for fishing, hunting and trapping. Do it like we do with fishing where 16 yoa and under are free, and then charge them $25 for a land use permit. You either have a land use permit, fishing, hunting or trapping license to use the state land. Look at all that funding you’d have to build these hardened trails (which of course violates Forever Wild), pay the Rangers, build the parking lots, etc. It could even offset the obscene costs that rescuing people entails. Seems entirely fair and common sense to me. I’m pretty sure the National Parks all have a usage fee and it seems acceptable there.