Tuesday, June 20, 2017

High Peaks Overuse: Make Cascade an Educational Asset

Over the past few months Governor Andrew Cuomo has shown his economic love for the Adirondacks by putting his money where his mouth is, pledging $32 million towards an Adirondack Gateway facility at Frontier Town in North Hudson and another $20 million for improvements to the Gore, Whiteface and Mt Van Hoevenberg ski centers.

Seeing as generosity is in the air, I have a proposal:  let’s take a small portion of the monetary love intended for these projects and turn Cascade Mountain from a dangerous and degraded poster child for Adirondack overuse to a model of Wilderness education that becomes an asset in the struggle to protect the High Peaks.

It might be an exaggeration to say that the High Peaks region is being loved to death; my recent forays there have been blissfully lonely, albeit advantaged by having been made on non-holiday winter weekends. But overuse on some trails is a real issue and overtaxing of fragile summits qualifies as an acute problem. Worse, these problems are growing by double-digit percentages, threatening the integrity some of our most important protected terrain.

The dramatic increase in hiking has been documented extensively, including here at the Almanack. Since that article posted the story has gotten even bigger. Last Labor Day weekend, summit stewards talked to over three thousand people on the summits of just four peaks: Marcy, Cascade, Algonquin and Wright.  For Columbus Day weekend, the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) unfurled a multi-pronged plan to turn people away from the High Peaks and steer them towards less-used destinations, going so far as to erect a temporary information station to intercept visitors coming in via the Keene Valley. This spring DEC is actively promoting a web site with alternative destinations.

The most dramatic and visual evidence of this usage trend is the trail head for Cascade Mountain on Route 73 between Keene and Lake Placid.  Cascade is by far the most-climbed High Peak: its trail head register numbers are second only to the register at Adirondack Loj, which serves dozens of destinations. Use at Cascade is growing even more rapidly than elsewhere: over the last decade the number of climbers has doubled. Fully half of the three thousand Labor Day hikers just mentioned were on top of Cascade. The road near the trail head is typically lined with cars; even on a recent cold, overcast day I counted more than two dozen vehicles. On busy weekends, there can be over a hundred cars lining the highway.

There is no sign that any of this pressure is going to improve. The recent closing of the nearby Owl’s Head trail in response to overuse and parking problems is an instructive reminder of that. Clearly, the Route 73 corridor between Keene and Lake Placid needs a strategy.

At the same time, all this use is by no means a bad thing. Anyone with an interest in preserving wild places should want as many people as possible to experience them, for to experience them is to cherish them. Besides, the public has every right to use their lands. However better management is called for to protect the ecological integrity of the land and prevent the very kinds of abuses the High Peaks increasingly suffer. I join many of my fellow Wilderness advocates in calling for the High Peaks Unit Management Plan to be reopened for discussion and improvement.

Amid the myriad debates over Wilderness management there is general agreement that a key component is education. Trail erosion, inappropriate disposal of human waste, trampling of summit vegetation and many other back country problems are exacerbated more by ignorance than by ill will or lack of concern. Those of us who frequented High Peaks summits in the 1970s and 80s know full well the difference that has been made by the Summit Steward program, which has education as its focus. It is also clear that education is becoming more important: societal trends, including the experiential drive reflected in social media phenomena like meet-ups, have driven up the percentage of novices in the woods. This is even more the case at Cascade, since it is the most accessible High Peak and a comparatively modest ascent. Cascade is typically an aspiring climber’s introduction to the High Peaks. Last fall, as I started thinking about what I would do at Cascade if I had the power, I tried my own informal survey there and found that nearly two-thirds of the hikers I spoke with were first-timers.

My suggestion is to turn Cascade’s heavy traffic and preponderance of first-time visitors from a problem to an advantage for the rest of the High Peaks, by developing a robust educational experience for hikers, while at the same time making changes to better manage and protect it. This would include:

  • Build an Education Center dedicated to teaching visitors all about hiking, climbing and camping in the High Peaks, from trail and summit etiquette to Leave No Trace principles to the ecology of the region and more.
  • Provide a spectrum of educational resources from an interpretive center for self-paced exploration to indoor and outdoor classroom space for lectures and classes, to an immersive on-line experience.
  • Close the current trail head and open a rebuilt/hardened Cascade trail, rerouted to a new parking area. Install modest but appropriate educational signage along the climb to teach and reinforce basic ideas right where they matter, from trail erosion to disposing of human waste to the rock walk.
  • Provide a full time staffer at the education center and a seasonal summit steward at the top of the trail.
  • Provide a parking lot off of Route 73 sufficient in size to keep cars off the shoulder of the highway. Cascade Pass parking should service only the Pitchoff Range.

Think of the benefits to the rest of the High Peaks if thousands of Cascade hikers had a modicum of exposure to that kind of education. But how to do it?  Cascade is part of the High Peaks Wilderness and any kind of infrastructure beyond a simple trail head would be illegal. Even if it were not, I’d be the last person to call for infrastructure in a Wilderness area. Nor would I ever support any spot zoning of land near the High Peaks to be classified as Intensive Use, the classification that would be required to build any sort of facilities. I’m joined in that restriction by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan itself, which explicitly states that Intensive Use areas “…will not be situated where they will aggravate problems on lands already subject to or threatened by overuse, such as the eastern portion of the High Peaks Wilderness…”

However, look at a map: just a mile to the west of the current trail head for Cascade Mountain is a complex of State land already classified as intensive use: the Mount Van Hoevenberg Center.  It has ample room, existing infrastructure, plenty of parking and most of the year it is under-utilized. A reroute of the Cascade hiking trail to begin somewhere near the large parking area for the cross country skiing loops would add roughly a flat mile of hiking, preserving Cascade’s status as the easiest, most accessible High Peak, while offering a much better place to park a car and offer facilities. The Cross Country Ski Lodge, in dire need of an upgrade, could be repurposed to additionally serve the desired interpretive and educational functions; or some modest and more attractive facilities could be built. The Mount Van Hoevenberg Center needs a lot of investment anyhow (anyone driven in there recently?) so it seems to me that planning for this additional use would not add that much to the bill.

Still, what about the money to do all these things? Well, I teach math and I’m pretty sure 20 + 32 = 52, as in the $52 million the Governor has pledged to the two regional projects I mentioned at the beginning. Clearly there is money to invest. To my thinking the State owes the High Peaks area some of that investment. The State’s interest in this jewel has always been protected by numerous private initiatives and it is time it ponied up more of its fair share. For example, the Adirondack Mountain Club has done great things with the High Peaks Information Center, but they are not in a position to offer what a State run and staffed facility, dedicated to education, could do.

Besides, I’d wager cash that investing a minor portion of those funds to create such an educational facility would return a better bang-for-the-buck in both Wilderness protection and economic benefit than, say, plowing all $32 million into the Frontier Town site.

For there to be such sensible considerations, we citizens need to talk about it. So the next time you drive past the soon-to-be-closed Owl’s Head up into Cascade Pass, then slow down as you navigate the overrun and dangerous traffic hovering around the Cascade trial heads, think about what you might contribute to the conversation.

Photo: The Cascade Range from the Keene Valley.


Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




31 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Excellent suggestions!

  2. James Bullard says:

    Great idea Pete. I like it.

  3. Dennis says:

    Another suggestion to address overuse (camping as well as hiking) – use a portion of the funds otherwise devoted to further increasing the volume of visitors to actually increase the number of DEC forest rangers (including lieutenants, captains and directors) from the ridiculously low number of 134 (for the whole state!) which has been held constant now for ten years.

    • Boreas says:

      I agree. But to a politician, building is always sexier than maintenance and patrolling.

      • Bsmaven says:

        Buildings aren’t just sexier..they didn’t require direct appropriation, they are capital projects that can be paid for by borrowing. The full cost of humans, employees are paid for annually directly out of the state budget.

        • Dennis says:

          Exactly! Taxpayers will pay for capital improvements and programs to promote tourism. But as for actually protecting the asset that attracts the visitors, that’s a no-go. And it’s because those funds have a different accounting label (i.e., the operating budget). If that nonsensical distinction was eliminated, the politicians wouldn’t be able to boast about how “fiscally prudent” and responsible they are. Predictions – 1) more bragging by the Governor et al about how he’s boosting the flow of tourism dollars into the North Country, 2) no increase in DEC rangers and 3) more complaints about (mismanaged and unenforced) overuse in the Adks.

  4. laurie says:

    I like it!

  5. Alex says:

    Nice. Doesn’t need to be linked to Frontiertown as an either/or. Also there could be a shuttle bus to the cascade trail from Van Ho. Signs at Van Hovenberg could point to other hikes. Mt Van Ho has great views.

  6. Brent says:

    Excellent Idea! I appreciate the solution, not problem approach.

  7. Todd Eastman says:

    Just put up more signs…

    … add more regulations…

    … and call that management…

    … oops, that’s how the DEC already does it!

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Hyperbole…

      I can’t think of anyone in the field who would not say that education is a crucial part of Wilderness management.

      As to more regulations, where did I propose that?

      As to putting up more signs, signs already get put up, but not necessarily (or usually) as part of a structured education program. I’m not suggesting there should be signs all over Cascade, like a museum trail or something. I don’t even think there should be more signs than there are now (in fact I’m one of those who frowns on the frequent overuse of trail markers). But signs worded, themed and placed as part of a smarter education plan that specifically reinforces concepts offered at the education center makes sense to me.

  8. Big Burly says:

    Pete, as always, well reasoned and compelling.

    I wonder if this Gov will ever get the message that development in the DAKs on the cheap is a policy that is short sighted. Those of us who live inside the Blue Line, and for certain visitors, deserve better. Time to end that practice, doncha think?

    • Boreas says:

      Albany spitballing to find something that works. The Park is then left with all the spitballs to clean up.

  9. Tim Brunswick says:

    Golly gee willikers are all those vibram soles and human presence disturbing both the flora and fauna of the high peaks regions?? Holy cow..maybe we should ban people ….kinda like banning ATVs and ATV trails.

    Certainly seems like a reasonable approach: I mean really… “No People + No access” = less disturbance to the alpine zone.

    Thank you

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Timmy my boy! Up early and ready to go, eh? Good for you.

      Is it possible you missed these sentences, directly from my column?

      “At the same time, all this use is by no means a bad thing. Anyone with an interest in preserving wild places should want as many people as possible to experience them, for to experience them is to cherish them. Besides, the public has every right to use their lands.”

      Why, it appears you did! How can that be?

      Alas, sometimes the same stale reactions just don’t apply. Oh well.

  10. Blaikie Worth says:

    Lot of good thinking in here, thank you, Pete! Mount van Hoevenberg Center sounds
    good, also a rerouted trail up Cascade. and parking lot.
    There is good material in the VICs, but I don’t know how much use they get (have
    never understood their placement). A new Education Center – maybe should be
    named Adventure and Learning Center. Most of us are seeking fun and adventure
    and “education” can be a turn off, unfortunately. Material should be in French as
    well as English. The Centers on the Northway have too much material! (flyers),
    as do the ferries. What websites do people new to the area look for?

  11. Tony Goodwin Tony Goodwin says:

    I believe that the intensive use classification extends to the Porter Mountain Loops that reach Rt. 73 just west of the Cascade Trailhead. The loop that touches the road is no longer crucial for any competitions and could be shortened to make way for the kind of facility envisioned right there at the current trailhead.

    While it’s nice to think of some improvements to the Cross-Country Lodge as a way of getting more than winter use out of it, I don’t think that is really practical. First of all, it’s closer to two miles from the parking lots at Van Hoevenberg, and that route would not be totally flat. Secondly, there is significant winter use that would clearly conflict with the skiing.

    Certainly a shuttle from the parking lots is feasible, but there would have to be a ban on trailhead parking in order to get hikers to use it; and that would not be easy to implement. So, it seems to me that a “welcome center” and parking near the current trailhead would be the best option – assuming some of the $52 million could be repurposed from Frontiertown.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Hi Tony:

      Thanks for the comments. You are right that an intensive classification covers the land that abuts Route 73 just west of the Cascade Pass. In the first draft of my article I suggested facilities and parking be located there. But then I decided there was no good justification to build new structures on what is essentially undisturbed land. I toured the Van Hoevenberg area and saw possibilities, though a lot would need to be worked out.

      The choices available are greatly limited by conflict with ski trails. Here’s the option I looked at. It would require securing an easement for a hiking trail on the private lands along 73, south of South Meadow Farm. It would begin with a reroute of the existing Cascade hiking trail at about the 2,450 – 2,500 foot level. This eliminates about 0.6 miles of the existing trail. The new trail would descend west, skirt the Van Hoevenberg ridges, parallel the East Mountain ski trail and cross it at the cutoff. This is a 1.65 mile route, so a net of a 1.05 mile addition. It involves no significant elevation gain over the first mile.

      I have no solution to the winter conflict with ski trails. The Porter Loop is an issue, period. Nearer to the lodge, there would need to be at least three crossings. I would not want to see ski trails impacted, that seems unfair and unmanageable. But there are options for solutions, from bridges to reroutes. I’m merely speculating. My only point is that the distance and elevation gain is not intrinsically a problem.

      I’d be skeptical of the shuttle solution, for the reason you gave.

      Cheers,

      Pete

      • Taras says:

        At 2460′, the Cascade Trail turns from south to southeast. Using this as a starting point, the *shortest* line to Bobsled Run Road is 1.57 miles. This is a straight line running right through Mud Pond (an impractical route).

        http://imgur.com/R3ebl4j

        How are you measuring a practical route that is merely 1.65 miles long?

        • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

          I sent you an email with my map. I’m measuring from the lodge.

          Cheers,

          Pete

          • Taras says:

            Got it! Thanks! I see you shaved off some mileage by starting the trail southeast of the road (i.e. as far as one can drive). Makes sense.

            According to the Essex County Map Viewer, your proposed route runs through five independently owned parcels of land.

            http://essex-gis.co.essex.ny.us/

            Whew! Sounds like a tall order to get easements though all five properties but best of luck!

  12. Smitty says:

    Excellent idea Pete. I would go further to suggest that the current cross country ski center and biathlon range be replaced (they’re very tired and unappealing) and combined. In looking at the area map, I think they could be replaced with a single facility closer than a mile from the Cascade trailhead. This could be really nice.

  13. Taras says:

    Pete,

    Generally speaking, I like your idea. I can see the benefit of creating an education center for new hikers (who usually choose Cascade for their 1st High Peak).

    The Mount Van Hoevenberg Center seems like a good choice for this purpose. However, my only quibble is with your claim that the new trail would be “a mile of flat walking”. Based on my calculations, it understates the true dimensions of a new trail.

    First, the Center’s parking area lies 2 miles west of Cascade’s trail. Second, there’s a large area of privately held land between Cascade and the Center. Third, the Center is 200 feet lower than the Cascade trailhead.

    Map: https://adirondackatlas.org/?token=35ad2a151bb84be8d60854fccc495b86

    A new trail would be at least 2 miles long. It could follow one of the many existing ski trails (see map). However, the most direct route crosses private land and may pose easement issues (a XC ski trail now becomes a hiking highway to Cascade). If allowed to cross private land, the new trail would indeed be fairly flat (but with 200 feet of additional ascent).

    If it must remain exclusively on state land, it will have to climb *up and over* the eastern shoulder of Mount Van Hoevenberg. That’s about 400 feet up from the Center and 200 feet down the shoulder to skirt the private land.

    Based on the elevation where the new trail would intersect the old one, you’d be trading the first half-mile of the Cascade Trail for 2 miles and several hundred feet of additional ascent. That’s considerably different from “one mile of flat walking”.

    BTW, I believe the ADK Mtn Club has plans to station a Trail Steward this summer, at the Cascade Trailhead, in order to educate new hikers before they set foot on the trail. This is a very good

  14. Paul says:

    Just limit the number of hikers allowed on cascade and enforce the limits. This is inevitable for all the HPW. Too many hikers means you have too many hikers. All the education in the world can’t fix that.

    Then spend some of the 52 million clams on upgrading the cross country ski center.

    The people who can’t hike can ski.

    • Bill says:

      If the education consistently highlights attractive alternatives to the busiest peaks as well as reinforces Leave No Trace principles, it can definitely mitigate some of the worst effects of overuse. A lot of these visitors would probably be thrilled to learn about other equally beautiful nearby hikes that get them away from the crowds and parking congestion.

  15. Paul says:

    The amenities will probably attract more hikers to Cascade. I hope you are right.

  16. Paul says:

    Like Pete says many of these folks are first time hikers. They will climb this mountain (its and easy way to get a good view), and then maybe never come back. Maybe the materials will get them excited to hike more mountains (like these blogs) but it will maybe make the issue a bigger problem. They will learn about Marcy and want to bag that the next weekend – be on the top of the state! Too many hikers in the HPW – that is the problem. It isn’t a cascade thing.

  17. Paul says:

    The popularity of places like Cascade and Marcy show that most people don’t care that much about remoteness or privacy. Whenever I go to the HPW it is much more of a social affair as anything. As newer and other wilderness areas get more crowded and overused as the word spreads via education/promotion/media the same will be true.

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