ADIRONDACKS — The state’s tallest mountains are groaning under the weight of increased visitation.
Some are lured in by heavy-duty advertising campaigns, while others are seeking that Instagram-perfect moment. Many are longtime hikers who visit the High Peaks regularly.
But the prolonged surge of hikers to the High Peaks region in the Adirondacks is stressing infrastructure, eroding trails, trampling plants, causing parking jams and leaving trash and human waste in the aftermath.
“When we experience these truly peak surges, it’s so far beyond the ability of a small town to handle,” said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson.
With hundreds of cars pouring into popular spots, Wilson is often forced to direct traffic, which can lead to heated skirmishes, including when the supervisor clashed with a BMW-driving Canadian bank executive at a trailhead earlier this summer.
Following the mounting concerns, the state Department of Environmental Conservation on Thursday announced the launch of a “strategic planning initiative” designed to identify ways to address the slow-burning issue.
A newly-minted committee containing representatives from environmental groups, local government, business owners and state agencies will be tasked with developing a framework for balancing the region’s “public use needs.”
The group will begin meeting this fall and will be charged with submitting the blueprint to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in 2020, a document that will eventually be made available for public review and comment.
Echoing comments made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday, Seggos stressed the concept of balance.
The group, he said, will “provide advice on a strategic approach that will support the Adirondacks’ local economies, protect the environment and provide safe, quality recreational experiences for visitors.”
Five goals will underpin the effort:
- Ensuring public safety within communities, along roadways, at trailheads and in interior areas.
- Protecting natural resources and recreation infrastructure.
- Providing a quality recreation experience.
- Supporting local economic vitality.
- Making decisions based on science using the best available data.
The state agency announced the initiative the day after The Daily Gazette asked Cuomo to weigh in on the influx of adventurers, which has been fueled, in part, by state advertising campaigns, including plastering subway cars with mountain landscapes, Adirondack-themed lotto tickets and large-scale state events in Wilmington, Lake Placid and North Creek designed to promote the region.
The governor conceded the concerns were legitimate and needed to be addressed.
“It’s not black and white," Cuomo said. "We want tourism, we want people to enjoy it. We want the economic development, but we want to make sure we’re not spoiling the asset, and that’s the balance we have to reach, and there are legitimate concerns.”
DEC met with stakeholders in July to discuss strategies for managing overuse, and has already launched several initiatives to address the surge, including banning parking along the congested Route 73 corridor, steering hikers to lesser-known areas of the Adirondack Park, promoting “Leave No Trace” principles and launching a shuttle system.
The agency has also initiated a transit study.
Stakeholders were buoyed by the announcement.
“Having representatives of the town on the group looking for solutions gives me a positive feeling on the process, and we’re really happy to be a part of the solution,” Supervisor Wilson said.
But the parking ban hasn’t been flawless, and has resulted in the High Peaks’ already-stretched forest rangers reduced to writing traffic tickets.
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer told The Adirondack Daily Enterprise in July that enforcing parking restrictions near trail heads has had a “disastrous” impact on forest rangers’ day-to-day operations, which increasingly consist of rescuing unprepared hikers.
Others said the real problem isn’t overuse, but rather spikes of visitation that affect infrastructure designed for 1960s-level visitation numbers.
“Parking, shuttles, trail hardening, community-based visitor's centers and more rangers are needed,” wrote Keene resident Aaron Miller on Facebook.
Miller questioned the strategy of steering visitors elsewhere because people are drawn to the High Peaks as destinations in themselves.
“Forcing them to go to those areas through permitting and parking enforcement will only keep them out of the Adirondacks altogether,” Miller said. “That would be both a shame for local communities as well as an absurd waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The Cuomo administration has long touted tourism as a way to bolster the economically challenged region.
“Tourism is great economic development, and when you’re talking about the North Country, you’re talking about one of the greatest special places on the planet,” Cuomo said in 2015.
Getting people to the Adirondacks, the governor said, becomes just a “function of exposure.”
“The product sells itself,” he said.
The process will be guided by Acting Executive Deputy DEC Commissioner Judy Drabicki and led by state Division of Lands and Forests Director Rob Davies and DEC Region 5 Director Bob Stegemann.
The Adirondack Council, which will have a seat on the panel, stressed the importance of public engagement.
“Such a plan can detail how previous plans will be implemented and should be developed through an open and public process,” said Executive Director William Janeway. “It can identify, detail and coordinate the management goals, education efforts, front and backcountry infrastructure and identify fair user-friendly systems to limit use at some locations on peak dates, such as with permits or reservations.”
Janeway said the plan could be finished by the state budget deadline of April 1, 2020, which means necessary funding for additional rangers, other staff and partnerships could potentially be in place to start implementation in time for the first peak weekends in May.
As the surge continues, local officials and environmental groups have intensified calls for the state to boost the number of forest rangers.
Two new recruits will begin patrolling the High Peaks next year following graduating from training academy in Pulaski, according to the DEC, which has also outfitted staff with drones, a technology upgrade they said allows rangers to do their jobs "quicker, safer and more efficiently."