By Gwendolyn Craig
The Adirondack Park and Catskills saw an impressive number of hikers this year, and with the season winding down, state and local organizations are assessing what to do to manage crowds next year.
The flood of new people experiencing the state’s two forest preserves has been a blessing and a curse for those managing the land. Many say they’re glad to see people outside and enjoying the wildlands protected by the state Constitution. At the same time, the crowds mean more trash, more human waste improperly buried, more trail degradation, more search and rescues, more parking problems and more evidence that the state cannot handle it all alone.
Last year the state Department of Environmental Conservation formed the High Peaks Strategic Advisory Group. The group is made up of representatives from hand-picked organizations, local governments, businesses and state organizations. A freedom of information law request asking how those people were picked turned up letters from DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, asking participants to be in the group. No other documents for how the state brainstormed choosing participants were included.
This month, the state announced it would be forming a similar group for the Catskills.
The advisory group members are volunteers, unpaid (except for the state staff) and devoting hours to drafting recommendations on crowd management. The High Peaks group released an interim report in June. Since then, it met 12 times, privately. Advisory groups are not subject to open meetings law.
But the DEC has said public input and transparency is important. Its attempt to bring the public to the table has been through meeting summaries posted online and an email to collect comments.
The meeting summaries do not show what group members attended what meetings, and their level of detail is summed up by the fact that there are about six pages for 12 meetings. As in the past, the summaries do not identify who suggested what ideas.
The advisory group is expected to release a final report of recommendations by the end of this year, and limiting use in some private lands of the Adirondack Park is on the table.
The public perhaps learned more about what is being discussed through a webinar Thursday night, with representatives from the Catskills, Adirondacks, National Park Service and DEC.
Katie Petronis, formerly of Open Space Institute and the new deputy commissioner for natural resources at DEC, said visitation to the Adirondack Park has grown 78% between 2007 and 2017.
Rocci Aguirre, deputy director of the Adirondack Council, added that his organization and others collected visitation numbers this year. While they’re still crunching the data, Aguirre pointed to social media photos of crowds, earlier times parking lots were filling and how this was all with the Canadian border closed.
Petronis said before the coronavirus pandemic, the state was particularly focused on operating its pilot shuttle system to the High Peaks along the Route 73 corridor. It is conducting a transportation study in the High Peaks and asking hikers how long they would be willing to wait for a shuttle.
“This season we couldn’t have reconstructed parking lots, employed shuttle programs, (implemented) capacity limitations so quickly,” Petronis said. The state did put up barriers to certain no-parking areas, put up highway message boards about parking, reduced speed limits and reduced parking numbers in some areas, however.
The state and the advisory group, Aguirre said, is looking at a number of different places to potentially construct visitor centers for the Adirondacks, including possibly in the parking lot of Mount Van Hoevenberg or off of Exit 29 on the Northway in the Frontier Town area.
Right now, Petronis said, the state is working on trail reconstruction at Mount Van Hoevenberg and Cascade Mountain to accommodate the increased visitor use. For a big picture look, Petronis added, the state is considering “visitors centers, parking, launching shuttle point, parkwide.”
“I just want to emphasize without increased staffing and the resources for management agencies to handle these issues, it will remain a crisis moment,” Aguirre said. He emphasized throughout the webinar that the state should hire more forest rangers, planners and foresters.
The Adirondack Council, which is part of the High Peaks advisory group, is known for its advocacy on some sort of limits or permit system. That was discussed, too, including how permits are already in place at Peekamoose Blue Hole in the Catskills.
In 2018, the Blue Hole saw about 15,000 visitors between May and October, to the ¾-acre park. In 2019, the state implemented a permit reservation system to visit on weekends and holidays.
Andy Mossey, a steward at the Catskill Center, said it worked, at least in 2019 when visitation dropped to about 11,000. But this year was “completely extraordinary,” Mossey said. About 24,000 people visited the Blue Hole, even with the permits in place.
Aguirre talked about how a similar limits plan could work on private lands in the Adirondacks, something the advisory group suggested as a pilot in its interim report.
“I don’t think capacity limits will be a solution everywhere,” Petronis said. “Capacity, user limitations are a tool of last resort and only work in very, very specific circumstances at a specific point of entry and daily monitoring. … I will say, every tool is on the table, and we have to be looking at all of them, and we are.”
Aguirre pointed to three private lands that are major points of access to many of the High Peaks and popular Adirondacks hikes including the Adirondack Mountain Club’s land, the Adirondack Mountain Reserve and Elk Lake. Ben Brosseau, communications director for the mountain club, said in an email Friday that “at this point, we do not have any plans to limit use through out trailhead.”
This summer Adirondack Explorer spoke to members of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, which also owns the Ausable Club in Keene. The public is allowed to cross some of the reserve through a foot traffic easement with the state.
Ausable Club President Roland Morris had said, “we’ve reached a point where at least in the AMR’s case we are seriously degrading the resource.”
“We’re trustees of that property and we have an obligation to protect that property in partnership with the DEC. And it’s become clear, from our point of view, the AMR, that limits will have to be part of that program,” Morris said.
During the webinar, Petronis said the state has to “be really mindful that these lands are inclusive and open for access to all,” when considering permits.
“It’s also at the forefront of our minds that we need to make sure that if we’re implementing a permit system or access limitations that it doesn’t affect inclusivity,” she said.