ADIRONDACKS — The state needs to take immediate actions to address overuse of the Adirondack High Peaks, according to an interim report from a working group that has been studying the issue since last fall.
With the issue of hikers overcrowding the wilderness concentrated along the scenic and accessible areas along state Route 73 between the Northway and Lake Placid, the group recommended permanently increased parking enforcement, that towns work on providing portable toilets at trailheads, and that the state initiate a three-year study of whether use restrictions are needed.
The High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group issued an interim report earlier this month, after determining that a notable increase in hiking activity this year — a possible reaction to the coronavirus pandemic — means immediate action is needed. Concern about overuse of the High Peaks region has been increasing for a number of years, and last fall Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acknowledged the issue and named the working group.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation released the report on Monday, and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos offered words of praise. In a response to the report, he said some of the recommendations are already being pursued.
“With the increase in public use of the High Peaks, it has never been more important for DEC and our local partners to work together to protect these public lands for future generations by promoting sustainable recreation,” Seggos said.
Members of the working group believe the high levels of use in the High Peaks will continue for years, so long-term strategies are needed, and some measures need to be introduced immediately, with the top hiking months — from July through October — still ahead.
“The recommended actions captured in this interim report are components of a larger, long-term strategic planning effort that complement each other to be effective,” the working group members wrote in an introduction. “The recommendations for immediate actions in this report will provide the framework for long-term recommendations in (the working group’s) final report later this summer.”
At least one environmental organization praised the report.
“It is important to protect the wilderness from the overuse that harms forests and wildlife and enforce resource capacity limits that protect people and nature,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council.
The Adirondack Council has a representative on the working group, which was named last fall by Cuomo, and includes current and former state officials, local elected officials, environmentalists and academics, and private tourism and business interests.
The interim report contains seven major recommendations, with actions plans for immediate use and longer-term strategies to better manage the park’s public lands.
The recommendations include better parking enforcement, human waste management at trailheads, more education, restoration of trailhead shuttles, encouraging hikers to practice “leave no trace” principles, assessing trail conditions and recommending maintenance for the most used trails, collecting more visitor data, and beginning a three-year study to determine whether wilderness and trail capacity limits are needed. The last would focus on private land that’s used to reach Forest Preserve land, such as the Adirondack Mountain Reserve lands.
In naming the working group, Cuomo acknowledged that while the Adirondacks benefit from tourism, a balance is needed.
“We want tourism, we want people to enjoy it,” Cuomo said. “We want the economic development, but we want to make sure we’re not spoiling the asset, and that’s the balance we have to reach, and there are legitimate concerns.”
In addition to putting the wilderness areas under stress from heavy use, the increase in hiker use has heightened the workload of DEC’s forest ranger, who on a regular basis need to locate and rescue injured or unprepared hikers.