Overuse in portions of the High Peaks is a real and growing problem, exacerbated by trends in social media and the expanding desire to count-off summits. It has been documented extensively here in the Almanack. But in the last few weeks these discussions have reached a rolling boil with a bit too much hyperbole for me. A range of ideas has been raised, a number of them falling under the general concept of limiting access to the High Peaks, including permit systems, licensing schemes, daily caps and so on. Some of these limiting suggestions have been accompanied by exclusionary rhetoric with which I strongly disagree, along the lines of “Why are we trying to get more people here?” or “I like my (town, street, access) the way it is, without all the visitors.” I agree that increasing use in parts of the High Peaks is a real issue, and I have written about various aspects of the problem for several years. But the exclusionary sentiments I’m starting to hear are where I draw the line.
I hold there are three Adirondack principles that must never be compromised: one, the Forest Preserve must be protected to the greatest extent possible, especially that land which is classified as Wilderness; two, the Forest Preserve belongs to everyone and we all have an equal right to use it subject to laws and regulations that protect and preserve it; three, freedom of access, with no gates, permits or fences is a fundamental quality of the Park. The quintessentially Adirondack capacity to park one’s car along the road and simply walk into well-protected, unencumbered public land and hike where one pleases, is essential to the experience of this remarkable place. If this place becomes like other parks we’ll lose one of the most important parts of our unique and globally significant relationship to the natural world, which is that very freedom and the enlightened personal responsibility that develops with it.
Part of the human condition is a willingness to sacrifice principles under pressure: “desperate times call for desperate measures.” So let’s not overstate the pressure on the High Peaks, lest we take foolish steps that compromise these Adirondack principles. Threats to parts of High Peaks from overuse and misuse need a vigilant response, as always. But it is a mistake to paint the entire region with the same broad brush (much less the rest of the Adirondack Park, so much of which see relatively little use).
We should recognize a few facts. First, conditions in the High Peaks are vastly better than they were forty years ago. By and large we’re doing the right things, despite a deficit in human resources. Second, the problem is limited to only a few places, hardly the High Peaks as a whole. Where the problem spikes it can be severe: Cascade, Marcy from Adirondack Loj, Algonquin, Giant at the Ridge Trail, and a handful more. But most of the High Peaks region reasonably absorbs the use it gets. Overuse is also highly dependent upon both weather and the calendar: even in the height of summer, week days can be blissfully peaceful. Third, the problem is often conflated with parking issues which, though obviously related, are fundamentally different problems. To my thinking parking problems comprise a more pervasive challenge, encompassing the entire Route 73 corridor from the Ausable Club to Adirondack Loj Road.
I have been hiking a lot in the High Peaks lately, partly to test my thinking on this issue. Certainly parking has been an occasional headache. But the hiking has by and large been the same experience as the last forty years – save that the trails are better constructed and litter and garbage are greatly reduced from the “heydays” of the 1970’s and early 80’s. Just a few days ago I hiked the Cascade System as far as Porter Mountain. Granted, I did not start from the Cascade Pass trail head, a departure point I would give my first born to avoid. Instead, I entered at the Blueberry trail head and exited at the Garden via Little Porter. On this nine mile loop, during a beautiful July day, I saw exactly no one until Porter, and no one afterward until reaching the Garden. Hiking part of the Brothers trail twice, also in the last month, resulted in only two meetings with other hikers. A Roaring Brook/Giant Nubble/Washbowl foray on a misty day met no one. A weekend foray from Upper Works was typically busy, little different than thirty years ago and hardly overrun. Finally there was a magnificent loop over Dial and Nippletop to Indian Head and out via Gill Brook with my niece and nephew. Like most kids they hope for true wild adventures, not ascents riddled with the sudden appearance of other hikers who injure perceptions with their clean shoes and smart phones. Hence they were quite excited to record the following encounters: four humans (all serious back country hikers), six deer, one fox or similar-sized creature and one distinctly unafraid bear (who we met on the open rock of Indian Head, of all places). “That’s two-to-one for animals!” announced my nephew excitedly, who was still coming down from his first bona fide bear encounter.
I’ll admit these experiences are anecdotal, but they are corroborated by two High Peaks experts with whom I shared the gist of this column. The High Peaks are simply not being overrun as a whole. Still, where overuse is a problem, it’s a big problem, so what should we do? In a sentence: hire more State employees, especially Forest Rangers.
High Peaks Wilderness management does need to be addressed and there are some obvious improvements to be made, thus like many environmental advocates I favor reopening the Unit Management Plan and pulling together a broad group of stakeholders in a planning process. But by and large the existing regulations and policies are adequate. What is needed is not more bureaucracy, nor new regulations meant to limit access, but more Forest Rangers, stewards, trail builders and educators to enlighten visitors, patrol the back country and, as needed, enforce existing laws. That means securing a commitment from the Governor to adequately staff this world class hiking destination.
This must be matched by a State commitment to provide educational facilities, signage, on-line resources and programs. Kudos to the Adirondack Mountain Club and other groups for their educational work, but it needs to be a State priority. My own proposal to reroute the Cascade trails and place a State-run educational facility at Mt. Van Hoevenberg ran a few weeks ago in the Almanack.
Finally, parking issues on the Route 73 corridor must be an immediate priority. Not only is parking a headache for visitors and residents alike, but Cascade Pass and the Giant Ridge trail head are tragedies waiting to happen. This effort cannot be limited to parking problems only: a systems management approach on transportation issues as a whole is dearly needed. Some movement on this topic is beginning, but as we proceed we must not allow parking problems in our communities to falsely lead us to call for curtailed access on the trails.
All three of these things will take money, but the Governor has been in an Adirondack giving mood of late, pledging tens of millions of dollars for various projects. Off-hand, I can’t think of more important priorities, so I’d say appropriate political pressure is called for.
In the final analysis, for me this is more than an economic or wilderness preservation issue: this is an issue of fairness, privilege and a perspective bigger than that we see only from inside the Park. From my porch, awash in the privilege of living here, I look directly upon the summit of Cascade, with its hordes of visitors. Who am I to say they shouldn’t climb it?
Last weekend my wife Amy and I hiked Ampersand, another heavily-frequented summit. We shared the summit with perhaps thirty folks and passed as many during our descent. Most had kids or dogs and, yes, shoes that were far too clean considering the drenched condition of the trail. Sure, we winced at the trail erosion, which Amy tried to counter with cheery encouragements to get muddy. Ampersand’s magnificent old growth forest notwithstanding, we certainly didn’t have a wilderness experience. But many of the folks we saw certainly did. Consequently, I wanted every one of them there. People can be taught to rock hop and stay in the middle of trails. They can learn to dig proper cat holes and recognize that what they leave in the forest doesn’t magically disappear. These things are only a small part of what they learn, which chiefly is to love and cherish places like the Adirondacks. That’s an affection of global importance in these times and we owe it to the people willing to seek it.
Some claim that the time has come where we must choose between Wilderness protection, which we must do, and allowing the experience of hiking in that Wilderness to be available to all who would seek it, which we also must do. I’m not buying it. Not yet.
Photo: Cascade and Porter from the Nelson porch