GUEST COLUMN: State must invest more in Forest Preserve visitor centers

Leaves changing colors on the Gothics Mountain in fall
A view of the Adirondacks' Gothics in fall
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By Ben Lawhon/For The Daily Gazette

Every year, Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks host millions of visitors.

Many of those visitors’ first stop is the visitor center.

It is the place to get information, make reservations, learn about the area, engage with interactive features and displays, ask questions and get accurate answers.

In short, visitor centers are vital for high-quality visitor experiences and resource protection.

Visitor centers are commonplace in most parks and protected areas in the U.S., and are often funded and operated by the managing agency.

Given that the New York Forest Preserve is larger than all of these national parks combined—3 million acres and 25 million annual visitors—it is baffling that there is not robust state support of visitor centers in the Forest Preserve.

Increased outdoor recreation since the declaration of the pandemic in 2020 has been well-documented, and many parks and protected areas have experienced crushing increases in visitation over the past three years.

According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, 164.2 million, or 54% of Americans ages 6 and over, participated in outdoor recreation at least once in 2021, the highest number of participants on record.

New York’s Forest Preserve was not immune to this increased visitation.

State forest rangers broke records in 2020 when they surpassed 400 rescues statewide, nearly all of which took place in the Adirondack and Catskill parks. Recreational impacts, resulting from increased visitation, increased correspondingly.

Furthermore, Forest Preserve communities are generally struggling to maintain consistent economic growth, leading to outmigration of younger generations.

Addressing these kinds of issues can be challenging. But trying to address them without well-funded visitor centers becomes nearly impossible.

A sign reading "Forest Preserve State Land Wilderness Area"

In light of this dramatic increase visitation (and impact), there is now more than ever a clear need to interact with visitors, especially those new to the outdoors, in meaningful ways.

Visitor centers serve three critical functions:

1) Improve local economies by driving traffic to local businesses and community resources;

2) Reduce rescues by helping visitors prepare for outdoor adventures;

3) Protect the Forest Preserve by reducing recreational impacts, fostering a stronger understanding of why these places are so important.

Bottom line: Increased state funding for Adirondack and Catskill park visitor centers is essential, as they serve to support communities, prevent rescues and protect the Forest Preserve.

Numerous regional recommendation reports have highlighted visitor centers as being integral to creating a more sustainable and welcoming visitor experience in the Forest Preserve, including HPAG and CAG, Open Spaces for All and the 2019 Leave No Trace Assessment Report.

While there are currently five major visitor centers that exist in the Forest Preserve parks, they are primarily funded and managed privately.

Though three of these receive nominal funding from the state, two receive none.

Increased state funding is key to ensuring that these resources are available to the public so the Forest Preserve and its communities can thrive for years to come.

Ben Lawhon is the principal of Recreation Solutions Group and formerly worked for Leave No Trace.

Categories: Guest Column, Opinion, Opinion

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