By Michael Barrett
For The Daily Gazette
Over the last decade, summer in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks has come to carry two meanings.
On one hand: beautiful mountain views, glistening waterways, and starry skies.
On the other: overflowing trailhead parking, a taxed ranger force, and crowded summits.
More people are exploring New York’s Forest Preserve parks than ever before.
This, in itself, is something that should be celebrated.
More people getting outside means more people connecting with nature and engaging in activities that improve mental and physical health.
But this dramatic increase in use has brought with it a host of challenges which, from many angles, may seem insurmountable.
Compounding this is the fact that these issues go beyond our local parks.
Whether you visit the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Acadia National Park in Maine, or Rocky Mountain National Park halfway across the country, the scenes are remarkably similar.
Despite this, change is on the horizon.
New York state has been making positive steps over the last several years to begin addressing high-use issues.
Furthermore, I see the door opening for opportunities to develop stronger public-private partnerships between the state and organizations devoted to education and stewardship.
Things began to change in the late 2010s after visitor usage reached unprecedented levels in both the Adirondack and Catskill parks.
With forest rangers breaking rescue records every year, roadways clogging and trails degrading, the state Department of Environmental Conservation convened two planning groups composed of local organizations, towns, and other partners to recommend solutions: the High Peaks Strategic Planning Advisory Group (HPAG) and the Catskill Strategic Planning Advisory Group (CAG).
By 2020, HPAG submitted its final report, and just this past fall CAG released its interim one.
The state’s response to these reports has been swift.
Over the past year, the governor and the DEC have checked off important recommendations, including creating positions for park coordinators in both parks, funding additional educational stewards, and moving forward with Visitor Use Management proposals.
Additionally, we saw important funding earmarked in the state budget this past spring, including nearly $50 million for state land stewardship. Of this, $8 million has been set aside specifically for the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve parks to address trail building, maintenance and resilience; educational outreach; frontcountry stewardship; trailhead parking and sanitation; and inclusivity—all critical components of high use solutions.
With more funding and a set of recommendations in hand, we now have an opportunity to strengthen and expand the numerous education and stewardship programs that exist in New York state.
From the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program to the Catskill Center’s and Catskill Mountainkeeper’s trailhead stewards to the NY-NJ Trail Conference’s trail crews, there are successful programs that already exist that can act as force multipliers for the state’s efforts to address high use.
To this end, reliable funding and increased staffing for the Department of Environmental Conservation are also a must.
The $8 million in the state budget is a great start, but consistent funding and sufficient staff will ensure that the state and its partners are ready to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Michael Barrett is the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).