For more than a century, the Adirondack Park has remained free of entrance gates and admission fees.
With a land mass larger than several New England states, the park remains the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. The sprawling 6.1 million acre preserve — 2.6 million acres of which is owned by the state — has offered outdoor recreation, work and inspiration to residents and visitors.
But with the ongoing fiscal woes of the state and its localities, at least one town supervisor in the preserve is suggesting this should change. Charlie Harrington, the supervisor of the small Essex County town of Crown Point, proposes devising a method to charge hikers a nominal fee for using public trails.
The Republican pitched the idea during a meeting of the Essex County Board of Supervisors this week. With the county facing yet another tough budget year, Harrington suggested the state look into using modern technology to generate fee revenue.
“It’s just an idea and a thought,” he said Friday, acknowledging the idea was met with little support from his fellow supervisors. “Certainly, the state is always looking for tax money and this might be a possible avenue they’d like to explore. ”
Fees are certainly nothing new for outdoor activities throughout the state. Some state boat launches charge for parking, while both hunters and fishermen are assessed license fees.
The notion of charging to use the trailheads is one that hasn’t been discussed in any depth, partially because the concept is very unpopular. And more specifically, the state has a mandate to keep the Adirondack Park free.
State conservation law specifically indicates the park will remain free for the enjoyment of the public. And absent legislative action, DEC spokeswoman Lisa King doesn’t anticipate any changes to the law.
“DEC is not considering imposing a fee on hikers,” she stated in an email Friday. “State law is clear that access should be free to the public.”
Even if state legislators did raise the issue, they’re not likely to get much support from constituents living in the Adirondacks. Michael Consuelo, the executive director of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce, said he couldn’t envision having to pay any fee to hike Prospect Mountain, a popular trail that connects to the village.
“Boy, I feel it’d be a shame to tell people they’d have to pay to see this foliage,” he said Friday. Consuelo also sees the trails as an economic driver for many Adirondack communities. He said the crowds the public trail heads draw throughout the year ultimately spend money in the surrounding businesses.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.
Neil Woodworth, the executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, echoed this skepticism. He said many hikers in the Adirondacks already contribute more than their fair share to protect the park system.
“Our members pay not only significant amounts of property tax, but also they contribute thousands of hours a year of voluntary trail work,” he said.
Woodworth also questioned the logistics of charging hikers, especially since the preserve is a patchwork of public and private lands. He said charging only the people who live outside the park wouldn’t be fair, but assessing a fee to the people who support the preserve seems wrong.
“Just who would you charge?” he asked. “Everybody in the Adirondacks who walks in their backyard?”
Harrington said he didn’t intend to stir ire with his proposal and reiterated that he doesn’t believe it will go very far — especially given the outpouring of negative comments he’s gotten since mentioning it. Still, he believes the discussion he’s started is one that could help generate ideas and perhaps one that will help lower the tax burden many residents in the Adirondack Park are facing.
“I guess I’ve opened up somewhat of a Pandora’s box,” he said. “Its just something we should explore.”