Centralized parking lots and a fleet of shuttles taking hikers to trailheads. An online reservation system for parking spots. Permits limiting the number of hikers and campers on trails of the state’s highest peaks.
It’s been just over a week since the Adirondack Park’s governing board adopted a new management plan in the High Peaks, and two weeks since state officials announced a parking crackdown along Route 73. But Adirondack groups and town officials are already looking next to more comprehensive plans to control access to the state’s prime wilderness.
“We are just as busy as last year, but I think we are getting more systems in place,” said Keene Town Supervisor Joe Wilson.
Wilson said parking remains a concern along Route 73 from the Northway into Lake Placid but that the initial steps from state officials were welcomed.
“DEC is moving as fast as they have ever moved,” Wilson said.
State officials this month painted lines to better organize and establish parking areas in an effort to control rampant use along the shoulder of the two-lane state highway that stretches through the High Peaks in the heart of the Adirondacks. During peak hiking season, cars line the narrow road as visitors pack up the gear, sneak across the road and set off into the woods, raising both safety concerns on the roads and overuse concerns in the woods.
“That’s the most visible sign of the problem,” John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said of the parking issues. “But the real damage is occurring in the woods.”
A dozen parking lots have been striped with fresh paint, and visitors have largely complied with the new parking, DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said in an email. She added there is “still some overflow parking occurring on the roadside.”
State plans also call for increased signage along the Route 73 corridor, directing cars to parking lots and warning against parking on the shoulders of the roads. Plans eventually include an enforcement crackdown that could result in tickets and potentially towing.
But the DEC’s initial steps to control parking in and around the High Peaks won’t be enough to stave off concerns about the environmental strain of the High Peaks' burgeoning popularity.
Wilson said the parking topic came up Thursday during a discussion at the annual Adirondack Common Ground Alliance Forum, a meeting of groups and officials interested in the Adirondacks.
Wilson said the area’s DEC regional director, Bob Stegemann, was on hand to listen to advocates and local officials about how the parking changes were working, which Wilson took as a sign DEC was taking the issue seriously.
“The safety concerns are still really paramount, but I just see that we are getting a handle on this,” he said, noting there are still a large number of visitors parking in non-regulated roadside areas.
Now in his second year as Keene town supervisor, Wilson said he envisions a system of a large, centralized parking lots outfitted with bathrooms and information kiosks and shuttles ready to transport hikers and visitors to trailheads along the Route 73 corridor.
“This is a problem I’m glad to have, it’s a problem of lots of people who want to come to the town of Keene and share what we’ve got,” Wilson said. “I want to make sure the experience those people have is fun and safe.”
Environmental groups say the parking overflow is symptomatic of a broader overuse issue that is starting to wear on the trails and natural resources of the High Peaks. They see better controlling parking and access to the trails and campgrounds as key to protecting the High Peaks for generations to come.
Some of the state’s major environmental and Adirondack advocacy organizations in recent weeks have called for the establishment of permit systems to control the flow of hikers and campers into the High Peaks and parking at trailheads.
The Adirondack Council detailed a plan to create an online reservation system for parking spots at the Adirondack’s busiest trailheads. Eventually, that reservation system could serve as a stepping stone to permits for hikers and campers in the backcountry, similar to how hikers are managed in popular areas of national parks and popular state parks across the country.
“The idea is not to limit the number of people who can use the forest preserve but to make sure there’s not a mad rush to get the most favorable places,” Sheehan said. “We’ve never had any rules whatsoever: You park wherever you can find a spot and jump into the woods wherever you like.”
Sheehan said a parking reservation system would be a good way to study the best way to implement a broader permit system, which could focus on the most-trafficked portions of the eastern zone of the High Peaks.
Some organizations, though, are ready to move directly to permits for backcountry camping and hiking. These advocates point to language in earlier iterations of the High Peaks management plan that in 1999 called for studying how to develop a permit system for the High Peaks. Advocates contend that the concept of a permit system from find its origins in the recommendations of a citizens advisory panel that dates to the mid-1970s.
“It’s long overdue, and it’s not something to be feared,” said David Gibson, Adirondack Wild managing partner, of a backcountry permit system. “It’s a big change and change is scary. But I think it can be done. The sooner we decide to study it in a serious way… the better.”
Gibson said he was disappointed that the new High Peaks management plan allows for an initial set of infrastructure development at Boreas Ponds. But he was heartened DEC officials promised to study the impact of that infrastructure on the environment before committing to more development, Gibson said. He hoped that study would also be used to look into a permit system, he said.
As officials deal with the parking issues along Route 73, Gibson said it’s important to be mindful of how many people the woods in that area can realistically sustain.
“It’s very tempting just to build more (parking) lots,” Gibson said. “In itself, that’s not the answer.”