Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dan Crane: Licensing Adirondack Hikers

Adirondack backcountry rescues have been in the news lately. From the Saratoga man lost during a descent of Mount Marcy to the three different people requiring searches in a single day, the New York State search and rescue personnel are keeping busy. All this activity has renewed the controversy on whether those rescued should pay some or all of the cost of their rescues.

In addition to defraying the cost, the frequent rescues have spurred some interesting ideas from no-rescue zones to backcountry rescue insurance. While some ideas are intriguing, others border on the bizarre. A few of these ideas might even create new industries, such as body retrieval for the many cadavers littering the new no-rescue zones.
One idea not receiving much attention is backcountry licensing. Backcountry licensing is similar to motor vehicle licensing, where each individual traveling in the backcountry would be required to obtain and carry a license (or a permit for those hikers-in-training) or be subject to hefty fines for hiking without a license.

Like motor vehicle operation, prospective backcountry enthusiasts would have to take classes, pass both a written exam and an in-the-field exam (with a bespectacled, clip-board carrying examiner most likely covered in a head net), and perhaps even carry backcountry rescue insurance. Or maybe insurance would only be required while purchasing hiking boots.

Backcountry education classes would include basic survival skills, navigation methods, wilderness first aid, lean-to etiquette, proper insect repellent application methods and all the other necessary knowledge required to properly enjoy the Adirondack backcountry.

Enforcement of these new backcountry rules might be difficult. Perhaps requiring radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on all hiking boots used in the Adirondacks could facilitate enforcement. RFID readers placed at all trailheads, trail intersections, lean-tos and occasionally on random trees (to catch any of those wily bushwhacking types).

Placing rangers and other state personnel at strategic locations to catch non-compliant hikers might be helpful too. These “hiking traps” probably need to be moved around from time to time, as the accumulating doughnut boxes might alert hikers to their existence.

Does the hiker’s license sound like a silly idea? Of course it does! As do many of the other ideas I have seen proposed, including prosecuting those rescued for their carelessness. Search and rescue is a community service, such as police and fire protection and should remain so.

For purposes of total disclosure, I must admit to have availed myself of New York State’s search and rescue services once early in my hiking career. This was not due to any carelessness or lack of preparedness on my part, but as a result of the 1995 Microburst, which no one has yet been able to prove any responsibility for that storm on my part.

And I was assured at the time I would not be billed for their services. And hopefully this will not be changed in the future.

Photos: Red Horse Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

22 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    I’m not sure about this, but I understand that trails are maintained with funds from hunting and fishing license sales. Is this true?

  2. benjy says:

    this seems like a pretty heavy set of requirements when the goal is in its simplest terms to take a walk in the woods.

    i would expect some strong feedback if these ideas escape this blog.

  3. Justin Serpico says:

    The majority of trail work just about everywhere, including the Adirondacks, is done by volunteers. Even the Appalachian trail is done through well fed volunteers on their vacations (been there, done that). As a matter of fact, something like 25% of total trail work in the Adirondacks is done by Canadians.

    As far as the article, loved it, but I was nervous for a minute that you were serious. The sad part is, some people want to implement your faux solution.

    I always hear that SAR is expensive and dangerous and people should be penalized for using it. I’ll get to my thoughts on penalizing it, but the former is completely untrue. In the case of New Hampshire, the state charges an exhorbitant fee, beyond the actual cost of rescue. I read an article that NH charges for a search as if the paid employees are off the clock before the search. So they actually pad the bill by charging for time they were already paying employees (I suppose in theory you could argue if they are rescuing people they aren’t doing their other duties, only I am certain part of the job description is that they perform SAR missions). Secondly, Fish and Game in NH actually plays a far smaller role than the DEC in the Adirondacks. Most searches I see in the Adirondacks are started and finished with DEC Rangers, ECOs, Assistant Rangers, and the state police aviation unit. Whereas in NH most Fish and Game largely coordinates the search, and volunteers actually conduct the boots on the ground operation.

    People always say that volunteers shouldn’t have to risk their lives for a hiker/climber/skier/etc stupidity, but the fact is most people involved in SAR do it because they enjoy doing it, and accept the risk. If anything, as you can figure out from the Levi Duclos incident in Vermont, SAR volunteers are angered when they are not called upon.

    Attempting to reduce rescue calls is a catch 22 in terms of charging or citing people for asking for help (asking to be rescued).

    In NH they are pretty stringent, almost to a point where I believe they go too far and potentially add risk to rescuers and victims by delaying rescue.

    However, at the same time, the proliferation of cell service in the Adirondacks has made it easier to essentially enter the wilderness unprepared with the plan that if anything goes wrong you can simply call for help. This is reckless and dangerous, but how to stop it is not a simple solution.

    Permitting hikers (or any backcountry sport) screams of elitism and government making a dollar any way they can (what is next, permitting me to walk down the street?), it also is expensive to implement and will ultimately create confusion and reduce people visiting the Adirondacks. the end result will be fewer dollars spent in the region.

    In the end, I think all the people who want to levy fees for rescue should break down the cost benefit of recreation on the Adirondacks vs the drain of state funds on rescue. My understanding is the Forest Preserve (the bulk of which is the Adirondacks) generates $1 BILLION in revenue for the state, if rescues suck up a very tiny fraction of that (perhaps millions), it is still a major win for the citizens of the state, and the regions that contain forest preserve lands.

  4. catharus says:

    I’ve got no problem with the idea of a “backcountry license” in that it’s merely a “fee for use”. ‘Just like a hunting license. The funds can go to help protect and preserve the forests and wild areas we all love. Maybe such monies can to to assist with costs, the many committed volunteers who maintain these trails, lean-tos, etc., used by the rest of us.
    As long as such fees are specifically designated to go directly back to the appropriate state departments that manage and protect such resources, I’ve got no problem with the concept of a fee on outdoor equipment, binoculars, etc.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Don’t rescue the cadavers. The animals and the bugs need to eat too.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Don’t rescue the cadavers. The animals and bugs need to eat too.

  7. andyarthur says:

    If your going to license hikers, why not just privatize the Adirondack Park, e.g. give it over to timber companies and wealthy estates?

    I strongly suspect “licensing” hikers would be very unconstitutional, a violation under Article XVI and Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks v. Alexander MacDonald, along with People v. Adirondack Ry. Co. (160 N. Y. 225) which proceeded this court case.

    “The laws developing the Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park, up to the Constitution of 1894, are reviewed in the opinion of this court in People v. Adirondack Ry. Co. (160 N. Y. 225). By chapter 707 of the Laws of 1892 the State Park, known as the Adirondack Park, was created within certain of the Forest Preserve counties. Such park is to be “forever reserved, maintained and cared for as ground open for the free use of all the people for their health or pleasure, and as forest lands necessary to the preservation of the headwaters of the chief rivers of the State, and a future timber supply.”

  8. Paul says:


    Take a look at the budgets attached to many of the unit management plans. Lots of trail work is done by volunteers but not all of it. There are some considerable expenses required to maintain different areas. For example here is just one annual budget item for the High Peaks Wilderness:

    “Fund annual routine maintenance of facilities; interior outposts, trails, campsites, lean-tos, privies, litter removal, bridges, signs, etc.”


    This was written in the 90’s so I am sure even this one line item is considerably more today. Throw in a storm like we had last fall and you have some pretty serious costs to contend with.

    There are many more example here:

    The benefits probably outweigh the costs but to say it is all done and paid for by volunteers is not accurate.

  9. Justin Serpico says:


    when I was looking at the cost of running the forest preserve some years ago, it boiled down to something like $1 per acre per year in maintenance. I used UMP budgets to arrive at the figure. I did not use the HPW. But I did use Hurricane and Giant among others..

    All maintenance isn’t done by volunteers but the bulk is.

    And actually your proved my point. How big is the HPW? About 200k acres or so.$125k is hardly a lot of money to maintain such a large tract of land. My guess is your local 50 acre municipal park has a much higher cost per acre.

  10. Editorial Staff says:

    The falsehood about license fees being used for hikers is tiring. License fees go into the Conservation Fund. I checked with DEC and they told me that “No Conservation Fund monies have been used to purchase forest preserve or state forests lands and no Conservation Fund monies have been used to pay for construction or maintenance of facilities or structures on forest preserve or state forest lands.”

    “Conservation Fund monies have been used to pay for the construction and maintenance of facilities (trails) and structures on Wildlife Management Areas which are created mainly, but not solely, for the use of licensed hunters, anglers and trappers.”

    Also, the majority of trail work is not done by volunteers. In 2011 DEC Region 5 paid $407,000 to organizations such a the Adirondack Mountain Club Professional Trail Crew, the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society and the Student Conservation Association Adirondack Program for trail work. Another $467,000 was paid to construction contractors and $160,000 to municipalities for construction and maintenance work on trails. 24 DEC seasonal employees, including trail crew members, caretakers and backcountry stewards also work on trail maintenance costing approximately $120,000. Also $20,000 a year is expended on the Summit Stewards program who undertake some trail work as well.

    That’s almost $1.2 million of expenditures on trail construction and maintenance in 2011 – in Region 5 alone. Much of that money comes from the Environmental Protection Fund.

  11. Justin Serpico says:

    so if I am reading this correctly. Region 5 spent $1.2M.

    Considering region 5 is a large chunk of the ADK, I think once again we have showed exactly how inecpensive it is to maintain Forest Preserve land.

    BTW, since you. Are pulling real #s while also trying to sink my point, please be kind enough to look up volunteer hours. Now multiply that by minimum wage and compare it to the state budget cost for the lands in question. My guess is the volunteer hours exceed the state cost. Further, my guess is that state/local gov actually generates revenue from those volunteer hours in the form of taxes.

    I love a good debate, but to prove your point and actually win, don’t bury the other sides numbers, contrast them to your own.

    Personally, I am extremely confident that on a dollar basis, the volunteer aspect of the trail work actually exceeds the state expenditure.

  12. Edelpeddle says:

    The idea that hunting and fishing license fees somehow pay for hiking trails and hiking rescues seems to be nothing more than an urban (rural?) legend. I think it comes from the fact that in New Hampshire, most of the funding for rescues comes from $1 fees on boats, snowmobiles and ATV’s.

    But that’s not the way things work in New York State. New York’s DEC has rules that regulate what moneys from hunting and fishing licenses can be spent on. And for the most part it’s only things that benefit hunters and fishers. You can read them here.

    And as far as the DEC’s funding goes, since they’re the ones that pay the rangers that do the rescues, it’s roughly half funded by permits and license fees and half funded by taxes. So anyone who pays federal or state taxes is funding the rescues.

    I think the misconception about hunters paying for hikers to use the park is mostly so popular because it feeds on a bit of a rivalry between hikers and hunters.

  13. Paul says:

    “And actually your proved my point. How big is the HPW? About 200k acres or so.$125k is hardly a lot of money to maintain such a large tract of land”

    Justin, yes I did not say it was expensive. Here I was just pointing out ONE single line item. You can look at the UPM for all the other costs back when they wrote it.

    It looks like the year one costs were estimated at about 1 dollar per acre there. Obviously more now. This cost does not include any of the patrols and other activities we are talking about here. But again perhaps this a good deal given the benefit. About one million acres has been added to the DECs plate over the past decade and that has been done with a shrinking budget.

  14. Paul says:

    Sorry UMP not UPM!

  15. Paul says:

    Also, the idea of licensing hikers is bananas!

  16. Dan Crane says:

    But bananas are an excellent source of B6!!

  17. Paul says:

    Good point I try and eat at least two every day.

  18. Paul says:

    Also, the “maintenance” costs for the forest preserve go far beyond the budget items in the UMP.

    Some of the other real costs are things like taxes paid by the state on the land. The legal costs of maintaining the land. The state has a special office dedicated to these tasks. When disputes or problems come up then there are more legal costs that arise. Like I said they appear to outweigh the benefits but they still exist.

    Those calculations are also complex when you take into account things like tax base effects and what other uses the land could have as an alternative.

    But for this topic even if you had a bunch of private ski areas up in the high peaks you still have to rescue people, and maybe more often.

  19. Mick says:

    Why would a hiking license be any different than a fishing license or a hunting license for that matter. Hunting isn’t much different that going on a short hike with a firearm.

    I think the hikers should pay to play.

  20. Paul says:

    It is often a long hike! But how would you patrol it? I need a hunting license to take game on my own property would I need a license to go for a walk in my back yard? I just don’t think it is reasonable.

  21. Edelpeddle says:

    “Why would a hiking license be any different than a fishing license or a hunting license for that matter. Hunting isn’t much different that going on a short hike with a firearm.

    I think the hikers should pay to play.”

    I think there are multiple reasons. For one, hunters and fishermen are paying for the right to take something (deer, bears, fish, etc.) from state land while hikers simply use the state land to walk on and theoretically leave no trace.

    For another, where would you draw the line about what constitutes hiking? If a runner uses state roads in the park, would he be charged? If they take a shortcut through the woods then does it become hiking? Would only certain trails require a license? If so, how would it be enforced and would bushwhackers be charged? Charging people money simply to travel through the park is a slippery slope.

    “It is often a long hike! But how would you patrol it? I need a hunting license to take game on my own property would I need a license to go for a walk in my back yard? I just don’t think it is reasonable.”


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