By TIM ROWLAND
To limit the swelling numbers of High Peaks hikers and the environmental damage they cause, New York plans to close roadside parking on four more miles of Route 73 this year, from the Rooster Comb trailhead east of Keene Valley to Roaring Brook Falls.
The state will also complete a longer, sturdier trail up the popular Cascade Mountain this year, add more privies and trailhead toilets, and expand education and outreach programs to guide hikers to lesser-used trails.
Speaking at an Adirondack Park and local government conference in Lake Placid, state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 Director Robert Stegemann said Thursday that if all of the above still isn’t enough, a permitting system for hikers might become necessary.
“All options will be on the table,” he said. “This problem has been developing for years, and all of a sudden it’s hitting us right between the eyeballs.”
Should permitting became necessary, Stegemann said the state would “go slow” and begin with test areas to study the effects. If permitting makes sense, it will require a change in attitudes in the park, where current restrictions are minimal. “People may have to get used to the fact that you just can’t go anywhere you want sometimes,” Stegemann said.
Panel moderator and Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson acknowledged that permitting has remained “a loaded question is some aspects,” but that the state and communities need to find solutions that will strike a balance between protecting the environment and providing a welcoming atmosphere for tourists. “It’s not an issue we want to solve by putting up fences and chasing people away,” he said. “It is going to take a process of complex planning and a lot of partnerships.”
Brian McDonnell, who operates Mac’s Canoe Livery in Lake Clear, said he’s not against permitting, but it should be limited and strategically applied. He also said the state needs to teach and the public needs to be willing to learn. “People have to be smart enough to know where not to go,” he said.
From a paddling standpoint, McDonnell said it would help if the state would add portages, docks and overnight parking to encourage people to go farther afield. He also warned that state efforts to limit parking have a potentially negative effect. “Orange barrels and state police and lots of things that are saying ‘no-no-no,’ that’s not a positive message to the tourism business.”
Along with parking restrictions, which the state began enforcing last year in the Chapel Pond area, Stegemann said the DEC wants to rate hikes for their degree of difficulty and get this information into the hotels so tourists will be less likely to attempt climbs that are beyond their capabilities.
With the opening of the Frontier Town campground and trail system just off the Northway at Exit 29, Stegemann said the state will encourage hikers to take advantage of the North Hudson-Newcomb corridor, which has trails approaching the High Peaks from the south. In the north, the state also has plans to increasingly rely on shuttles, which either exist or are proposed at the Van Hoevenberg Olympic sports complex, Marcy Field and the intersection of Route 73 and 9N—commonly known as “malfunction junction.”
Vinny McClelland, founder of The Mountaineer outfitter in Keene Valley, said “permitting is a bad word,” but that the same result can be achieved in other ways, such as limiting trailhead parking. “When the lot is full, you have to go to a different place, he said.
McClelland too suggested more state investments, including trails up currently trail-less peaks, clearing brush to open vistas that make lesser-known trails more attractive, and connector trails between towns.
“The problem is obvious,” he said. “We’re getting loved to death up here.”
Conservationists in the audience said it’s becoming apparent that some sort of hiking restrictions are needed on the most-visited trails. “People seem to agree that there’s a need for a line, but they differ where that line should be,” said Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. Janeway said the Council backs a restricted parking plan where half of the lot is first-come first-served, and half of the spaces are reserved online.
Janeway added that he hopes the state will address the problem comprehensively and spread the message of the Adirondack conservation ethic parkwide. “With world-class stewardship, we can invite more and more people to come, but also preserve the park,” he said.