KEENE VALLEY - If you want a parking spot in the High Peaks, go early.
With new no-parking zones stretching down parts of the busy Route 73 corridor and the Garden Parking lot in Keene Valley closed for road repairs, the race for limited spaces has shifted earlier in the morning.
“It's just shifted the competitive nature of finding a parking spot,” said Scott van Laer, a state forest ranger in the High Peaks zone. “(The parking lots) used to fill up at 8 or 9 in the morning... now they are fighting for spots at 6:30 or 7 a.m.”
Zoë Smith, who as deputy director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith's College manages a new frontcountry stewards program targeting busy trailheads and parking lots, said her stewards may have to start their shifts earlier in the coming weeks.
“Our stewards went at 6:30 (a.m.), and the lots were almost full,” Smith said of recent weekends, when stewards shared information about parking and trails with visitors.
The Department of Environmental Conservation has issued about 90 parking tickets since the new parking prohibitions went into place in early June, with the majority of the tickets issued in the first week of the parking ban, according to a DEC statement. And the number of illegally-parked cars has fallen since the initial enforcement burst, according to the statement.
The ban was put into place in an effort to minimize rogue parking on the shoulders of a state highway with a 55 mph speed limit and to stop hikers from weaving their way to trailheads beside traffic. The state has painted clear parking spots, posted no-parking signs, and messaged its seriousness about slapping violators with fines.
But the parking crackdown is just one step toward what many community leaders, conservationists and forest rangers have long been calling for: a broader plan to improve the region's frontcountry and backcountry infrastructure and boost staffing in an effort to handle the recent escalation in hikers and visitors flocking to the High Peaks.
“These are complex problems,” said Joe Pete Wilson, town supervisor of Keene.
Wilson has worked with Smith and the new stewards program to direct hikers in search of parking to Marcy Airfield, where numerous parking spots and shuttle service provides a central starting place.
“The town of Keene wants hikers, it's our economic lifeblood,” Wilson said.
Add it to the list
When the new no-parking zones went into effect, the job of enforcing parking violations fell to the forest rangers, a group already pressing state officials for increased staffing as the number of search and rescues on state land has risen dramatically in recent years.
Rangers are charged with enforcing all state laws, focusing on state land and environmental laws, and have long enforced parking rules at trailheads and parking lots in the Adirondacks.
The new parking restrictions and enforcement, though, come as the rangers push for increased staffing amid an increase in search and rescue operations – their chief priority. Between July 8 and July 14, rangers responded to nine separate wilderness rescues incidents throughout the state, including assisting dehydrated hikers off Mount Colden.
The parking restrictions can also fuel the frustration of hikers who have driven hours to get to their destination only to find no parking spots and be told they'll have to look elsewhere. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake recently reported a contentious interaction between a Montreal visitor and Wilson, the Keene superivsor, after Wilson told the visitor he couldn't park where he attempted to park.
“The times when people elevated with me and there was risk of physical altercation, most of those stemmed from parking, dogs off leash, very minor things,” said van Laer, speaking for this article as the head of the forest rangers union.
Van Laer expressed some wariness over efforts by volunteers and seasonal workers organized to serve as stewards at busy parking lots or trailheads. He argued the growing need for nonprofits and other Adirondack groups to develop creative programs to assist in managing the region's high usage stems from staffing shortages in the rangers' ranks.
“We are getting into the realm of putting people at risk by filling gaps where there aren't enough rangers,” van Laer said. “The state is way behind on infrastructure development, trail maintenance and staffing, and we have an influx of (of people) we can't keep up with.”
Stewardship programs have long helped land managers in the Adirondacks, said Smith, of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, citing the Adirondack Mountain Club's long-running summit stewards programs, which posts volunteers on the park's busiest peaks to share with hikers the importance of keeping off fragile alpine vegetation.
The Adirondack Watershed Institute's frontcountry steward program is new this summer, an effort to have a human presence at trailheads and parking lots to direct people to other parking options and to offer advice on hiking preparedness, the difficulty of different trails, and “leave no trace” practices for the backcountry.
“I think it's alleviating some of the confusion, hopefully,” Smith said of stewards' interactions with people. “When they are in parking lots, it's about parking; when they are at trailheads, it's about 'leave no trace.'”
The stewards, who are Paul Smith's College students, have been collecting data about their interactions, so next year the program can be further refined to focus on the busiest areas at the busiest times and deliver the most effective message.
A comprehensive strategy
Community leaders in the High Peaks region are still calling for a broader approach to the usage issues, a plan that accounts for parking, shuttle services, bathroom facilities, trailhead information, trail maintenance and staffing.
“What we really need is for DEC to engage with municipalities, user groups and really do some complex and comprehensive planning for how we are going to provide a safe and enjoyable experience,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he will be hosting a meeting later this month of stakeholders – including various user groups and environmental groups – to hear a presentation from DEC about some its next moves to address usage.
“I think DEC still has to come around and work with the town of Keene on a comprehensive plan for how to deal with this,” said Jerry Delaney, chair of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board. “Keene has become identified as the High Peaks hiking town, so a lot of people flock there.”