At trailheads and summits around the Northeast, stewards provide some words and a welcome
By Gwendolyn Craig
Stephanie Ley looked like she had just heard a sour note.
The 32-year-old watched one hiker after another weave through the trees at the base of Gorham Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park, bypassing the rocky trailhead. They were following a path called a social trail, an unauthorized offshoot eroded by foot traffic. Ley, summit steward coordinator for Friends of Acadia, said it probably started as someone’s quick bathroom detour.
“It’s just really astounding to me that this has cropped up,” Ley said. “It’s so obvious and so bad, and through this lovely mossy area, and it’s only taken a few weeks!”
She approached a couple emerging from the social trail and asked them to stick to the rocky areas to protect the moss.
“We were just following the well-worn trail,” they said.
The interaction was one of many Ley had with hikers as she climbed less than a mile to the top of Gorham on a sunny September day. Though she is technically a summit steward, Ley and her colleagues also enjoin people to use the paths “before they get that chance to walk off trail on the mountaintops, where there are actually rare and fragile plants.”
Like stewards in the Adirondacks and other parks across the country, Ley is at the frontlines of managing more people and their impacts on the environment. Whether at trailheads or on summits, stewards are helping popular outdoor destinations handle the visitor influx by providing hiker education, safety tips, trail maintenance and research. Many preach an outdoor code of ethics created by the organization Leave No Trace, meant to protect the environment and keep hikers safe.
Kayla White, stewardship manager for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), said stewards are instrumental to changing how people act outdoors. They’re a solution to crowd management, helping bring back alpine vegetation to once trampled summits, she said. They are also reducing the number of hiker rescues, said McCrea Burnham, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s Catskill Park coordinator.
White hopes there will be funding for more stewards as state lawmakers look to pass a budget this April.
“It’s effective. It’s cheap. It’s a really great way to help protect the park,” White said.
The makings of a steward
Before there were stewards, New York had fire wardens. Created in 1885, the positions were under a precursor agency to the DEC called the Forest Commission. It wasn’t until 1912 that the title “forest ranger” appeared. Rangers are responsible for public safety and state land protection “through expertise in wildland search, rescue, fire, law enforcement and incident management,” according to the state’s website.
In the 1970s, New York created an assistant forest ranger program so that part-time seasonal rangers interacted with the public in the backcountry. It was “the start of the DEC adding resources beyond permanent staff to educate the public about the proper use of state lands,” a DEC spokesperson said. Last summer, the DEC hired 23 assistant forest rangers. Eleven covered the department’s Region 5, which includes most of the Adirondack Park. Four were assigned to the Catskills.
One of the oldest stewardship programs in the Northeast is within the Blue Line, the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Steward Program. It was developed in 1989 with ADK, the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the DEC.
“It is seen as the gold standard,” White said. ADK trains stewards for other groups including those stationed at Adirondack fire towers and in the Catskills.
Today, the program involves nearly three weeks of training. Summit stewards learn the rules and regulations governing the High Peaks, and about botany and how to interact with the public. They also receive wilderness first aid training through Wilderness Medical Associates. DEC forest rangers teach safety and radio protocols. Once stewards head up into the clouds for a day on the job, White joins them, providing guidance.
In 2021, the ADK had six paid summit stewards and 29 volunteers during the hiking season. Stewards rotate five days a week on Wright, Cascade and sometimes Colden.
A summit steward is based every summer day on Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak at over 5,000 feet in elevation, and on Algonquin, the second highest. White said both High Peaks account for about 50% of the state’s alpine zone and thus need protection.
The Alpine Zone
The zone starts above the tree line. That’s where Edwin Ketchledge noticed in the 1960s and 1970s that the High Peaks’ summits were going bald—too bald.
The professor emeritus at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry was alarmed at how quickly the alpine plants were disappearing.
“The fragile life zone on these mountaintops is but two feet thick, the distance between the impenetrable bedrock and the killing winds tearing over the ground above,” he wrote in a foreword for ADK’s “Adirondack Alpine Summits: An Ecological Field Guide.” “This is no place for unknowing visitors to lower the survival odds by trampling rare plants and delicate habitat.”
White said Ketchledge realized the need for education.
Unlike trailhead stewards, summit stewards have more time to engage with people, White said. At trailheads, hikers are anxious to get going, but on summits, they relax and enjoy the view.
Summit stewards will generally wait for a hiker to catch their breath, find a good spot to sit and get some food and water before approaching. Then, they’ll start up a conversation about the alpine ecosystem. They’ll talk about staying off the plants, properly burying waste and other Leave No Trace principles.
ADK summit stewards have also photographed their outdoor office over the years, and those photos document a return of the plants. Since the summit stewardship program started, plant growth has “turned around incredibly,” ADK Executive Director Michael Barrett said in 2021.
“Here we are, a nonprofit, partnering with the state to protect the most rare ecosystem and also to provide data points that will help the decision makers and the policy makers draw conclusions and allocate resources appropriately,” Barrett said.
The summit stewardship program is also part of a research project under SUNY ESF Professor Jill Weiss. Weiss has studied alpine stewardship since 2010.
“Above the 4,000-foot mark we have this whole other network in the sky telling people not to walk on plants,” Weiss said. “How did that happen? I found that fascinating.”
She’s currently working on a three-year project, sponsored by the Waterman Fund, studying the trends and characteristics of Northeast hikers including recreational goals, outdoor experience level and demographics. She hopes the data collected at alpine stewardship locations will help lawmakers make decisions based on evidence rather than anecdote.
On crowding, for example, Weiss said there are just as many people who say they are happy and excited about their hiking experience as those annoyed because there were too many people in their way.
“People are hiking for lots of different reasons,” Weiss added. “It’s not just us, them, classic, new, loud, quiet. It’s like, here’s 30 new reasons that people go hiking, and we only comprehend 12 of them. … All we know is that something is changing and we need to figure out what’s causing that change so the education and management efforts match the people and their intent and interests.”
The pandemic derailed some of the data collection, but field work is expected this year.
In June at the Falling Waters trailhead to the Franconia Ridge Loop in New Hampshire, Stanley Bujalski set up an information canopy. He hung up his favorite homemade sign, a plastic pink flip flop with a circle and line through it.
“Flip flops are not shoes,” the sign read.
Bujalski is a volunteer with the White Mountain National Forest’s Forest Service. The 70-year-old retired civil engineer started volunteering as a kind of trailhead steward in 2018.
Volunteers set up shop at trailheads around 8 a.m., but Bujalski generally tries to get to the Falling Waters trailhead much earlier. The parking lot tends to fill up around 6:30 a.m., he said.
Bujalski and his colleagues also display the temperature and weather forecast at the summits along the ridge. When Bujalski moved to New Hampshire in the 1970s, one of the first things he heard was the saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”
“And that’s very true,” Bujalski said. “Just sitting here, we could see a beautiful blue sky, and then all of a sudden see clouds coming in, and there wasn’t anything in the weather report about it. But that’s what happens.”
Set up at the same trailhead was 70-year-old Peter Kailey, head of Franconia Notch State Park’s hiker interaction team, or “HIT squad.” Together, the forest and park stewards size up hikers, give them a paper map of the ridge trails, and send them on their way.
“We can’t say no,” Kailey said about directing hikers who show up unprepared. “But we can definitely advise people, and I think that’s really helped a lot and people seem to appreciate that.”
John Marunowski, recreation specialist for trails and wilderness with White Mountain National Forest, started the forest service’s volunteer program primarily for public safety reasons. Search and rescue teams were getting overwhelmed with unprepared hiker incidents. Now, about 150 volunteers help staff five trailheads, giving hikers an elevator pitch about what to expect.
On average the forest service volunteers talk to 30,000 hikers a year. About 10% of hikers will change their behavior after talking to a volunteer, Marunowski said. For example, a hiker might talk to Bujalski about the weather and return to her car for an extra layer. That counts as a change in behavior. It also counts if hikers rethink plans and choose a different hike.
“Trailheads, it’s a great bottleneck,” Maru- nowski said. “It’s a great way to have a captive audience, even if it’s 30 seconds to a minute and a half.”
In Acadia National Park, Ley demonstrated one of the jobs of stewards.
On a September day looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, Ley spotted a stack of rocks on the ridge. It wasn’t a cairn, rocks intentionally piled to guide hikers along the trail. Ley often finds people adding to the cairns she and her colleagues have built, mistaking trail markers for works of art.
“They think it’s something they can add to or create on their own,” she said. “It’s not that they’re trying to be malicious; it’s just that they’ve never been in this kind of climate before, and it’s all new to them.”
She sighed and walked to the rock pile, avoiding the summit grasses and flowers. She dismantled the stack.
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