ADIRONDACKS — More state resources need to be devoted to the heavily used High Peaks Wilderness, with a new entity needed to guide state planning, more forest rangers and natural resource specialists, and a need for visitor management strategies like those used for busy national parks, according to a long-awaited study released late Friday by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group, which included state and local elected officials, business interests and wilderness advocates, has been meeting since 2019 to discuss how to deal with the pressures on the High Peaks and the state Route 73 corridor caused by skyrocketing visitor numbers. Then the pandemic caused the number of visitors to reach a new summit last year.
“(The High Peaks) were already increasing in popularity, and COVID-19 has caused a significant boost in the volume of users,” according to the report. “While this situation can be daunting, it also offers an opportunity for a greater number and more diverse group of visitors to appreciate this area.”
The peaks, however, may be receiving too much appreciation. Good weather weekends last summer had parking lots filled at sunrise, and the popular peaks close to the Route 73 corridor had trails that felt as busy as sidewalks. The study group said maintaining the wilderness as wild was a priority.
The 55-page report concludes that the state needs to invest now to preserve both the world-class wilderness and the quality of the experience that brings people to the Adirondacks.
“While the exponential increase in visitor use caused significant strain on already overburdened trails and resources, it also affirmed the importance of the region’s wilderness character and recreational opportunity to New Yorkers. New users are likely to become new advocates. Yet, this is a vital wilderness and it cannot be properly protected without an ongoing adaptive management and oversight. This requires dedicated, sustainable resources. The time for action is now,” the report concludes.
The committee meetings were closed to the general public, so apart from what was in an interim report released last June, this is the first revelation of actual findings. The release came as publications like the Adirondack Explorer have questioned why release of the findings was taking so long.
DEC leadership praised the study in a release on Friday, but said the final recommendations — which would cost significant money — remain under review.
“With the growing uptick in visitors to the High Peaks region, compounded this past summer by New Yorkers desperate to get outside as a respite from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical that DEC and our partners work together to protect these irreplaceable lands for future generations by promoting sustainable recreation, supporting local communities, and improving the visitor experience, and we look forward to working with all partners to continue and expand our ongoing efforts,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said.
Among the long-term overall recommendations:
— Establishment of a new Adirondack Advisory Group, made up of members representing diverse interests, to guide development of a strategic visitor and resource management plan and its ongoing management.
— Adoption of the National Parks Service’s Visitor Use Management Framework as a guiding tool, a step that could lead to the quietly discussed idea of a hiking permit system;
— The establishment of an outdoor recreation unit within DEC, and more forest rangers and natural resource specialists assigned to the region. Local officials and the rangers’ union have called for more rangers, since visitor management and search and rescue work now pulls rangers away from other duties;
— Real time data collection and information dissemination, so that, for example, people planning a hike could see real time when trailhead parking lots are full;
— Further study and planning for parking and shuttle management, like that already being done in the Keene Valley access area.
The report also recommends that measures DEC has taken to address overcrowding in recent years, and expanded since the group issued an interim report last summer — including aggressively policing trailhead parking lots when they overflow and more-assertive hiker education efforts — be made permanent.
“Commissioner Seggos and DEC experts are reviewing the final report as the agency continues its efforts to promote sustainable use while supporting communities in the High Peaks region and throughout the Adirondack Park, as well as in other popular recreation destinations on public lands across New York State,” the DEC release said.
DEC’s education campaign has included actively encouraging the public to visit other parts of the Adirondacks, since the southern, central and western Adirondacks also offer vast wilderness tracts, though without the dramatic rock-faces of the High Peaks region, where 46 peaks exceed 4,000 feet in elevation.
The Adirondack Council, which was represented on the study committee, praised the report, as did the Adirondack Mountain Club.
“These are consensus recommendations, calling for a broad range of immediate and long-term actions that would protect both wilderness and public safety in the park’s High Peaks Wilderness Area,” said Executive Director William C. Janeway. “There is much to celebrate in these recommendations. If adopted, these actions would be a significant leap forward toward world-class management of this world-class resource. That will mean both a healthier wilderness and a happier visitor.”
“Stewardship programs like the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program have shown that educational messaging mitigates impacts in sensitive ecological environments,” said Michael Barrett, the Adirondack Mountain Club executive director. “ADK is excited to see that the advisory group recognizes the importance and impact of stewardship programs and is advocating for more investment into them.”
The Catskills have seen similar though less dramatic growth in recreational visitors, and DEC officials noted that a separate multiple-stakeholder study group was appointed to look at new management measures for the most-popular parts of the Catskills last October.