Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Proposal for the High Peaks Wilderness

Marcy Dam 1Last week I set the table for a discussion on how better to manage and protect the High Peaks Wilderness, the centerpiece of the Adirondack Park.  My Dispatch offered no specifics; instead I asked readers for comments and ideas.  I got many good ones.  I paid attention to all of them and was influenced or informed by several.  Now it’s time to show my cards.

Allow me to preface my remarks by saying that while I think everyone who loves the park has a stake in the fate of the High Peaks area, I claim no definitive knowledge of what kinds of changes would be best.  We need to listen to experts in forestry, ecology, land use and the like and follow their lead. That said, I know the High Peaks better than most so I’m not merely being a provocateur here.  Additionally, I have a personal stake in this discussion that is shared by very few: a certain private parcel near and dear to my heart lies within this Wilderness. 

I begin with a basic premise: use of the High Peaks Wilderness is increasing and this is a good thing that should be encouraged.

This is not a dispute-free premise on either count.  First off, many are of the conception that use is actually decreasing.    This is due to two things, I think.  One is that anecdotal information has made the rounds that says trailhead registrations have decreased.  Second, from the perspective of most hikers impact is down, this thanks to wise policies and hard work.  The marquee summits are less trampled, camp sites are cleaner, vegetation has been restored, many main trails are in better shape and problems with nuisance bears have decreased.  So for a typical backpacker who might, say, do a two-night loop from the Loj to Marcy Dam, to the summit, down to the Four Corners, to Lake Colden and out, things for the most part look a lot better than they did even a decade ago, much less any previous decade.  This leads to a confusion betwen perceived impact versus actual volume of use even while it shows what good management of the Wilderness can accomplish.

Whatever the perceptions may be, however, the fact is that use is increasing.  As I mentioned last week I have all the trailhead numbers straight from DEC, spanning from the mid-1970’s to 2011.  I did a little analysis on them and they show some interesting patterns.

For the nerds in the readership let me describe my method.  First, I threw most of the numbers out.  Record keeping was spotty at many trailheads and it is impossible to correlate those numbers with any legitimate statistical significance (though all of those numbers, spotty or not, reflect an unmistakable increase in usage).  So although I dearly wanted to use numbers from Upper Works or the AMR, in the end I had to rely on the two trailheads with rock solid reporting every year.  Fortunately those are two trailheads most representative of High Peaks usage: the Loj to Marcy Dam and the Garden.  Next I took four-year means spanning the end of one decade through the beginning of the next in order to mitigate seasonal fluctuations caused by weather or other factors.

Here are the results, based upon that preliminary work:  from the 1978-1981 period to the 2008-2011 period, usage in the High Peaks has gone up at least 58% (I add the qualifier “at least” because most of the trailheads I could not use have become disproportionately more popular over that time period and therefore reflect an even bigger increase).  This translates to an average increase of about 1.45% per year, about the same as the population growth rate of India, dwarfing our own country’s growth rate.

It is true that from the end of the 1990’s to the mid-2000’s High Peaks trailhead usage decreased, thus accounting for the anecdotal evidence others have cited.  But since the low point in 2005 it has surged back at better than 5% per pear.  Over the last four years through 2011, the last year for which numbers available, every year has seen growth at a rate higher than the four-decade average, this despite the massive impact of Irene.  In other words, all signs point to the growth rate increasing.  This is in line with national trends that show dramatic increases in people seeking wild places. Those of you who continue to be skeptical that wilderness draws people can run the numbers yourselves.

In real terms what we have here is a caution not to have our heads in the sand.  Taking the adjusted forty-year average growth rate , not the higher growth rate we have seen recently,  in a mere ten years from now we will have more than twenty-thousand additional sets of boots on our trails and thousands more campers looking for overnight sites.

This is sobering because if you know the High Peaks as well as I do you know that while it is true that the marquee routes and camp sites are mostly better than they were, the perception that impact is down is just that  – perception.  Lesser routes show heavy erosion.  Trails are ever-wider.  Herd paths proliferate and are often wider and more damaged than the regular trails.

So the first half of my premise is on solid ground: usage is up, and with it, impact.  So what about the second half of my premise: why is that a good thing?  This is a matter of opinion of course, but I side with Tony Goodwin who summed up his philosophy to me as “let ‘em come.”  He and other commenters have rightly pointed out two very important things, both of which I buy.  First, every person who takes a walk down a trail in the High Peaks is a potential recruit to fall in love with wild places, to support and defend them, to cherish their protection, to pass that love onto their children.  We want people reveling in the High Peaks.  It is a world-class scenic area: let it be that.   Second, there is plenty of remote wilderness in the Adirondacks.  If someone finds the High Peaks too crowded it is incumbent upon them to seek out greater solitude in the vast reaches of the forest preserve.  I’ll go that one better: I have been off trail all over the High Peaks, dozens of times.  Not once have I seen another soul when I did that, until and unless I emerged onto open rock for a slide climb.  Even then it was hardly ever.  You want wilderness? It’s simple to find it in the High Peaks.

I think that several commenters have hit upon the larger issue: we don’t have the right to restrict access to the High Peaks.  Sure we can and ought to regulate its use.  But it is public land, our land.  That’s the whole point.  That’s why buying the Essex Chain and sun-setting the private club leases is important.

So if the High Peaks are challenged by overuse already and the numbers show that use is only going to go up, then in addition to the measures that have already been taken, what should we do?  Here’s my take.  I have four specific issues where I think increased use has caused problems that need to be addressed (two potential items on my list, alpine damage and bear/wildlife problems, have seen such a turnaround that I’ll leave them off).  They are, in order:

  • Ecological integrity
  • Trail erosion
  • Herd paths
  • Over-used camp sites

The first one is nebulous and tricky to discuss.  But the the same time to my mind it is the paramount concern.  Here I align with Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild who in a comment on last week’s Dispatch called for an assessment of the successes and gaps in the implementation of the High Peaks Unit Management Plan (UMP).  He goes on to say:

Key to that assessment is some professional analysis on the state of ecosystem integrity, biodiversity and function in the High Peaks. Sustaining natural communities and their ecological functions is by law and regulation the first order of business in Wilderness, but as typical for the High Peaks, recreation discussions predominate the state’s interest. There have been some great achievements on this theme as well (i.e summit stewards), but I believe there is a growing number of citizens concerned about the long-term impacts of overuse, air pollution, invasive plants and animals and other factors worth really analyzing and understanding as comprehensively as possible from a true ecosystem management point of view.

I will only add this:  the ecological understanding of the Adirondacks is growing so fast that it is hard to keep up.  Since the High Peaks UMP was released a much more holistic understanding of the park has continued to build,  So I call for what Dan calls for, a formal assessment from an ecological perspective.  That’s my first recommendation.

The other four issues are all connected, more or less.  To deal with them, here is what I don’t support: a fee system for hikers.  Regular High Peaks users well recall the brief foray into permit tags.  That was an ouch-level miscalculation.  Now imagine throwing a fee onto that.  One of the most important Adirondack perceptions that you are approaching wilderness and the joyful freedom it entails is that you just walk into them.  There is no park gate, no fee stations, nothing but forest.  Like lots of people I even feel signing the trail register to be an intrusion from time to time.  I’ll give on the trail registers  -they are important – but that’s it.  The feeling of openness attendant to this forest preserve is sacred and must not be diminished.

What I do support is a combination of things that addresses all four problems at once.  Get out your slings and arrows, partisans: here we go.

First, I would close some trails.  There are too many in the High Peaks.  Every trail is a conduit for more damage, for a loss of ecological integrity, for a diminution of the wilderness experience.   Every trail closed reverses those issues.  Perhaps more important than that is the fact that every mile of trail closed means one less mile of maintenance and one less trail to patrol.  With limited resources a given it is nice to think that fewer trail miles would mean the remaining ones can be better built, better maintained and better supported.

There should be lots of trails in the High Peaks, certainly.  But closing a number of them would gain the above benefits at little cost. Is that a crazy idea?  Let me give you a dramatic example before the hue and cry drowns me out: Cold Brook Pass.  I have had no experience of any outrage over the loss of that trail.  That should be odd considering its theoretical significance.  After all it is the only through route that connects the Indian Pass corridor with the Avalanche pass corridor and the heart of the park.  With Cold Brook Pass closed you have to choose one area of the High Peaks or the other unless you elect to go almost all the way to the beginning of the trail you started on or elect to go up and over the second highest peak in the Adirondacks.  Yet no one seems too upset (probably because those who know and have used that trail are happy to say good riddance…).  I argue that it improves the wilderness experience precisely because it segregates Indian Pass from the rest, adding to the imposing sense of barrier and isolation caused by the McIntyre Range.  I hope it remains closed.

To that I would add the following trails to consider closing (all numbers are as found on the Trails of the Adirondack High Peaks Region topographical map and related guide):

  • #33 descending Lower Wolfjaw – there are plenty of  other routes and that one is an erosion nightmare
  • #34 to Gothics – again, there are numerous other routes.
  • #3 South Side Johns Brook Trail – it is parallel to the North Side Trail and is redundant
  • #11 by Basin
  • #67 by Marcy Dam
  • #126 the spur between the Calamity trail and the Indian Pass trail – little used, it is a private favorite of mine, but it is a short cut that is unnecessary

Remember, this is just my opinion.  Yours may vary.

Next, I would surrender to the inexorable 46’er momentum (which I find kind of silly, I must say) and put official trails on every 46-ranked summit while simultaneously and aggressively closing off all the herd paths.  Have professionals put in professional-caliber trails with water bars and rock work and the rest, then put up the absolute minimum number of trail markers and let the “trailless” peaks recover from the extensive damage these herd paths have created.  For those who want the challenge of a truly trail-less peaks there are only dozens more in the High Peaks, many with views equaling the best of the marquee peaks.

Now if you are playing at home you might well be thinking that the equation at this point looks like this:

add trails to herd path peaks, subtract the few trails closed = net increase in trail miles

You’d be right. So that’s an increase in money and resources for trails.  How do we handle that?  In part from the proceeds of my next suggestion.

I propose that a campground reservation and fee system be implemented for camping in designated sites in the High Peaks.    In my thinking while the freedom to just walk into the woods must be preserved, the ability to camp at a designated, maintained site in the wilderness is a privilege, not a right.  It a privilege that can and should be supported by users.  The proceeds from these fees could pay for better campground maintenance and most important, better trail maintenance.

Many might say that people would balk at such a system.  I’m not so sure.  For one thing, hikers have the option to camp at non-designated sites – if they want a more authentic wilderness experience they need to do that anyhow.  Second, having a guaranteed site upon arrival at a destination is a big plus, one I and many others would pay for.  Third, having a system that helps you find alternatives in the event a site is full is a tremendous asset; it cannot possibly compare negatively to arriving late to a camping area that has no room, which of course leads to illegal and destructive camping.

A reservation system would lead to more dispersed camping and more even use.  It would signify an important planning difference between day hikes and overnights, not an unhelpful thing for many backpackers.   It would provide a funding scheme that would support campsite stewards with much left over for good purposes.

In the past implementing a reservation system would have been a big deal.  These days, with increasing Internet connectivity it would be fairly easy to implement a web-based system that could be accessed at retailers, camp stores, and lodges as well as any smart device.  Probably the hardest thing would be giving the stewards reliable internet access in the interior, but this too is not so difficult as it would have been even a couple of years ago.  And the software to run such a system?  There are fairly robust freeware reservation systems that would suffice perfectly well.

Finally, the demand for camp sites is high and it is only going to grow so I see an argument for more of them, all managed under the reservation system.  Like Tony Goodwin I think there is plenty of capacity in the High Peaks to add sites, not only without adversely impacting the wilderness as a whole but in fact protecting it by cutting down on illegal camping.  This is a big subject in itself, but I can see an argument to add tent sites to Flowed Lands, create a new site in the Indian Pass corridor perhaps at or near Scott’s Clearing and create one somewhere the eastern edge of the region and west of Keene Valley.

From my perspective these suggestions are modest in scope but could make a significant difference.  However I suspect that some of you have your own perspectives, including that I am out of my mind, so have at it.  Just remember, usage is going up whether you like it or not and we need to continue to protect and improve a Wilderness area that is wonderful and needs to stay that way.

One more thing:  since the beginning of the millennium the usage of the Cascade trailhead has roared past John’s Brook to the number two position behind Adirondack Loj.  Quite a few of you were smart about that but commenter Mark Obbie was first.  Mark, send an email to  I might have a little something for you.

Photo: Colden from Marcy Dam

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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.

12 Responses

  1. Mark Obbie says:

    Thanks, Pete. There must be a typo in the address because my message bounced back. Is the “little something” a guided tour to your secret wilderness paradise? 🙂

  2. Tim says:

    Mark beat me by less than 2 hours. I’m going to have to get up earlier.
    Very thoughtful post, Pete, and I agree with most of what you say. Having recently hiked almost all the unmarked trails to the 46 peaks, I would say most have now been cleared and maintained to the extent it’s pretty easy to stay on the path without trail markers. I prefer they stay that way even though it can be tough in winter.

  3. Dave says:

    A camping reservation system like you suggest has been operating for a few decades at some of the campgrounds in the Park like Saranac Lake and islands, Lake George, and others. Knowing what spot you will have means the reservation feels like it has value rather than being restrictive. The area is treated better by campers since, if it is wrecked, they know who was staying there. We use the Saranac Lake Islands every year and the people there have told us utilization went up considerably after the reservation system was set up.

    Of course the best spots get reserved a year in advance.

    I’m not sure enough money comes from this to support things beyond operation of the campground but it wouldn’t be hard to figure out. Being the State, collection of funds, and tracking the use of the funds is more complex than you might think.

    • John Warren says:

      “the best spots get reserved a year in advance.”

      Reservations actually begin in the early spring. As Dave points out, the reservation system is already in place, we’d only be talking about adding the High Peaks sites to it.


      • Dave says:

        For the Saranac Lake and Islands campground, last year, you could make reservations in November for the following July. This may well be different in each location, and it may change from year-to-year.

        • John Warren says:

          Thanks Dave, that doesn’t surprise me. I need to get reacquainted with the reservation system park-wide. I think it’s a great idea. It would be so much better knowing you had a reserved spot and would provide some accountability.


    • @tourpro says:

      Super-popular places like Mt Whitney in California actually have a lottery-system because demand is so high.

      I guess I hate to see our “Wild West” method go away, but a reservation or permit system for High Peaks, Little Tupper, St Regis, Moose River Plains (?) – especially during peak-use, would be very helpful.

      Problem I see, those “peak” dates are mainly 10-15 weekends a year.

      • Andy says:

        They tried a permit system at Moose Plains from 1977-1978. They charged $1.50 for the permit. The system was discontinued, because it was costing the state more money to administer it then it brought in, as it required full-time staffing at the gates, and patrols to check to make sure people had the permit.

        The DEC does have a permit system for a handful of state forests with camping areas that are very popular or have had problems with vandalism, such as Stony Pond State Forest and Morgan Hill State Forest. But generally there are significant administrative costs in doing such a thing — and forest rangers spend enough time doing paperwork.

        I don’t think they’re is a peak dates per say in most of the Adirondacks except maybe Labor Day Weekend and Indepdence Day Weekend when it falls that way. Memorial Day Weekend keeps people away with the black flies.

        Other then that, the Adirondack Park is 2/3rd empty. Except maybe for the High Peaks, Horseshoe Lake, and the awful Floodwood Roadside sites, which people fetishize over.

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    as always your posts are thoughtful and caring.
    i’m not sure how much effect implimenting your ideas would actually have on the envirnmental quality [health] of the High Peaks, but i feel it’s worth a further look by the APA & DEC.
    as someone with over 55 years of 4 season hiking & bushwacking in the High Peaks and elsewhere in the Park, i strongly agree with giving up the ghost of “trailless peaks” and putting in officil trails. when i began bushwacking , the trailess High Peaks were truly that, even Phelps! No longer!
    i have issues with a few of the specific trail closures you suggest in the Great Range. They are good alternatives for us “older folks” who aren’t as fast as we used to be and who are doing day hike/climbs.
    finally, i realize that i have been to Lost Brook. it was in the mid 60s & of course i had no idea it was private, but from all your photos and descriptions, i am sure of this fact. i was doing exactly what you suggest to be alone in the High Peaks, bushwacking to a certain High Peak from the N.W. but going too far to the left.

  5. Karen says:

    I always thought that locals (residents living in the Adirondacks) hike and camp for free, everyone else pays for a week (or year) pass.

    People pay these outside groups money to come into the High Peaks (and surrounding areas) and they take them here on our dime.

  6. Paul says:

    Some of these are good ideas. And some of them will cost a considerable amount of money (trail design and construction and additional enforcement activities). Yet at the same time (in other posts) you are arguing for spending large amounts of money on additional land which will require yet even more maintenance and enforcement?? Seems like we would just be rearranging the deck chairs?

  7. Michael Smith says:

    Excellent suggestions. I hope they get traction. Especially the camping proposal. I hate having to play the game of camping roulette, hoping you get the site or lean to you were hoping for. Also, having a reserved lean to would allow me to skip bringing a tent just in case. At my age, every ounce I don’t have to carry is a blessing.