Saturday, May 11, 2013

Improving The High Peaks Wilderness

Great Range from the First BrotherThis week I am getting my mountain fix in the Pacific Northwest, where Amy and I are attending a school in wilderness woodcraft.  That circumstance will make this week’s Dispatch mercifully short.  It will have to serve as a prelude to a more substantial missive I have been working on for a few weeks, one  which will offer suggestions – some of them certain to provoke disagreement – for improving the wilderness experience in the High Peaks, better protecting the Forest Preserve in general and sensitive high mountain terrain in particular.

Regular readers know that I am a proponent of expanding the State’s wilderness holdings.  I have written a number of Dispatches on this topic, so will not repeat my justification for this position here.  But equal to that desire is the desire to see existing wilderness holdings become wilder and healthier over time.  It should be said right at the forefront that the people of the State of New York have done extremely well with that.  Tony Goodwin, commenting to me this week on a number of topics that will be part of my coming Dispatch, gave me a useful and important perspective on this when he described the conditions when he first climbed Mount Marcy, in 1957:

When I first climbed Marcy, there were certainly many fewer hikers on the trail, but the place looked much worse than it does now. Every lean-to had a garbage pit, and animals had often strewn the contents around as they searched for leftovers,  The trails were wide and very muddy, culminating in the 100 yd by 50 yd denuded bog at timberline that my father called “Nine yahds deep swamp” after the comment of an English client he guided (this is 1923, remember) who tried to cross that area and became hopelessly stuck.  The summit of Marcy had an overflowing trash can, garbage in every crack in the rocks and the remains of a stone shelter that smelled like a latrine despite a sign that said, “This is not a latrine”.  Compare that to the trail and summit today.

Clearly, as is often said, many parts of the Adirondacks are more wild than they were a century ago, or in some places even a hundred and fifty years ago.   But that is not to say that there are not severe challenges to existing wilderness areas… or one in particular.  The High Peaks Wilderness is in a class by itself in terms of use – or overuse.  This is no secret, of course.  Once again the State, along with many private organizations and citizens, has risen admirably to the challenge. The regulations and guidelines adopted more than a decade ago as part of the High Peaks UMP have made a remarkable difference, as have ever-more-effective trail building and maintenance projects.   And can we possibly over praise the summit steward program and the efforts to restore the arctic ecosystems on our highest summits?

But there’s no getting around the fact that parts of the High Peaks can get pretty crowded, that trail erosion is a continuing severity, that campgrounds suffer from overuse, that herd paths proliferate on “unofficial” summits.  Add the imminent dual threats of climate change and invasive species and the High Peaks Wilderness is, excuse the pun, hardly out of the woods.  As the centerpiece of the Adirondacks and the park’s most popular wilderness destination, the region is owed all the attention we can give it.

One of the common assumptions one hears about the High Peaks is that usage is down.  So what’s the big deal if the pressure is off?  I’d heard that line of reasoning several times but when I went looking for usage data, no one actually had it.  An inquiry to DEC and a little bit of patience resulted in a complete set of data from 1978 forward, courtesy of David Winchell, DEC Public Affairs Specialist for Region 5.  I’m still analyzing it and will have more to say in the next Dispatch but I can tell you that while usage did dip briefly in the mid-2000s it has gone back up and the trend is surging.

Coming from the other direction another frequent comment I hear is that the High Peaks is so crowded and overrun with trails and wannabe mountaineers that it is not really wilderness.  There’s more wilderness in most wild forest areas than in the High Peaks.  So once again what’s the big deal?  I find this to be a silly notion.  Sure, hiking from the Loj to Marcy is a potentially depressing sight in the summer.  So is trying to park anywhere near the Garden.  But two of the three most remote parts of the Adirondacks as measured by the distance from the nearest road are in the High Peaks.  The largest Wilderness area by size is the High Peaks.  The dense flora and incredibly uneven terrain magnifies the effect of distance far more than most other areas of the park.  Go off trail in any direction more than a few yards, from virtually any spot in the High Peaks and you will see no one, ever.

Yet the damage from overuse in the concentrated areas is obvious to anyone who sees it.  So as I work on my proposals for improving the High Peaks region I will pose the question to Almanack readers: what new or revised initiatives, policies, programs or regulations do you see as good ideas for the High Peaks Wilderness?  Are current policies good enough and should we leave things as they are?

In addition to asking your opinion, I’ll also leave you with a little quiz, just for fun.  Over the last decade the most heavily-used trail head in the High Peaks is Adirondac Loj – no surprise – as it has been for decades.  But do you know which one is second?  Is it the John’s Brook trail head at the Garden?  The Lake Road at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve?  Elk Lake?  Upper Works? Another?  To the first correct answer in the comments I might just award a little prize.

Photo: Perusing the Great Range from the First Brother

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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.

34 Responses

  1. Mark Obbie says:

    My guess: Cascade. (I’m going with that even though I suspect it could be Giant.)

  2. Milton Zimmerman says:

    The Garden at Johns Brook Trailhead. Milton Zim

  3. Tim says:


  4. Thatcher says:

    hmmmm… Giant?

  5. Ray says:

    Upper Works

  6. Pete:

    Dr. Chad Dawson, SUNY ESF released a number of trailhead studies that you might find interesting. Also, Steve Signell who accompanied us is also doing trailhead count analysis as you know.

    As for improvement in wilderness management, i.e. managing people and their use and impacts in the High Peaks, three critical actions are needed with respect to state leadership and stakeholder participation in my view.

    First, the DEC and APA need to co-develop an updated assessment or analysis of the implementation achievements and ongoing issues within the High Peaks region under the existing High Peaks Wilderness Area Unit Management Plan (HPWAUMP). It has been over 16 years since we with 33 other stakeholder group and local government representatives produced the initial plan. Significant improvements have been realized, but there remain many gaps and ongoing and new impacts.

    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.

    Second, I believe such a forthright, professional state-led assessment would indicate clearly the need to reconstitute the High Peaks Citizen’s Advisory Committee to move forward the next rendition of the High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan. Different from the 1990’s CAC, this committee process would seek to include scientific researchers, youth, minorities, Quebec and Canadian participants if not international participants in a very real way. The CAC process should also extend its dialogue reach for inclusion and comment on new policy actions to protect the High Peaks to a much broader audience through social media and the Internet.

    We should urge a limited window of time for the CAC process and not allow it to be dragged out for years like the initial UMP. Two years maximum in my view. We can discuss the range of issues that need to be addressed and the gaps that remain unaddressed from the first plan in that context later.

    Finally, new UMP adoption or not, I believe the state, science and user groups need to convene frank discussions about how to meld human use with ecosystem and wilderness values advancement more in harmony and keeping with true wilderness goals. How can user groups be more part of the solution to existing or emerging use problems? What can we learn together about advancing wilderness and ecological stewardship?

    These are some of the dialogue directions we began last fall in our first “Stewarding the Wild Adirondacks” conference at Paul Smith’s College. With some 30 organizations involved there was great appeal and interest in strengthening such interactive dialogue and collaboration going forward.

    I look forward to your upcoming findings on the trail data and thank you for your writing and I agree with your taking the legs out from under some of the tired High Peak canards that cheapen the wilderness conception and promise for the High Peaks. Keep it up!

  7. Alan Senbaugh says:

    The answer is easy. Limit access. An expensive solution would be to create a reservation system. The cheap solution is to close meadows lane and have the Loj rd no parking all the way to 73. Close the garden and have that rd no parking all the way to 73.

    • Mike Smith says:

      Limiting access or creating bureaucratic hassles is a bad idea. We need to encourage more people to love the Adirondacks and outdoor recreation, not limit it. There are plenty of places available for those who don’t want to see other people. Limit users to just a few very hard core hikers and the next thing you know, there’s not enough people who give a darn. The High Peaks has national-park caliber quality and with better trail maintenance, it should be able to accommodate the large crowds that it sees. That means that NY needs to put some real resources into trail improvements rather than the long string of mud holes between LOJ and Marcy Dam. The current muddy conditions really diminishes the hiking experience and what’s worse, a muddy trail tends to cause the trail to become even worse, as hikers divert around the muddy sections, causing an ever-widening muddier trail. So lets face it, this is a high use trail and should be a high use trail. Perhaps that section should be board walked or stoned. Egad perhaps some of the worse sections should even be paved.

      • Alan Senbaugh says:

        I can understand people not liking the a reservation system. We have it on National Parks and federal lands but it does not feel very “Adirondack.” I prefer just pushing back motor vehicle access and closing roads. Crane Pond is a great example. The trail is in really good shape to Marcy Dam. Past that in certain directions it’s bad.

        • Matt says:

          Does not feel very “Adirondack”? A reservation system protects the human experience as much as the natural resources on public lands. Close all the roads you like, it won’t address the issue in the long run as use continues to grow. There is a silver lining in reservation systems, because they tend to encourage more day-use, which actually encourages visitors to stay in the communities adjacent to trails, and the communities benefit. Were I a public official with trail-heads in my town, I’d embrace a reservation system. Additionally, they don’t exactly discourage visitation, they just change how it happens. We need to stop demonizing this idea, and start understanding it.

          • Alan Senbaugh says:

            I understand and have been very happy to work around reservation systems elsewhere. Honestly, that is the route I prefer. When I say it doesn’t feel “Adirondack”, I am referring to the historical use and patch work of public/private lands in our park. The Adirondacks are always open and treated like our backyard. Do you know of any other public lands the scale of the adirondacks where people drive closed roads, ATV and snowmobile about as they please, build hunting camps, chain boats to a tree next to the favorite fishing hole for the summer? While these activities are not legal they are not enforced and are pretty much condoned by the DEC.

            • Paul says:

              Yes, when people live there it usually looks like a “back yard”. It is one. That is why it is somewhat unique. So rather than effective enforcement the idea is to keep the lands more difficult to access so enforcement is no longer needed? That is one way to do it. But folks have already said here there is too much use even in remote areas. Keeping more new areas remote will probably not really address this problem?

              • Alan Senbaugh says:

                Agreed that is why we have the problems we have. I would like to see more rangers and the DEC actually enforcing their regs. I saw a ranger at Marcy Dam this winter that did nothing but give a warning to a group of 30+! The farther away the motor access points the better. The only remote areas I know of that are over used are the Canoe area and HPWA. Both of those have gotten better the last decade with restrictive regs but perhaps more should be done.

  8. TiSentinel65 says:

    Low and behold the tree huggers come out of the woodwork and their plan is as it has always been. Lets limit the Adirondack park to the select few who can really appreciate it. The rest stay home. Oh and don’t forget the Biosphere model you people are really trying to push. Limits on mankind and the such. Lets also make sure the people of the world have an equal say in our political process on how things are run up here. Canadians and Internationals? Maybe we shopuld also ask the Chinese what they think. Why not just have a world wide referendum. Remember the Crane Pond Rd? If you try to keep people out, they will come, and they will be mad, and they will demand that you change your ways. Otherwise things will get nasty. Anyone espousing such ideas should feel free to write a check for the purchases of all the forever wild lands to the taxpayers of this state. You can not tell people all the great things they will be able to do with this land, hiking, camping, hunting, birdwatching, etc., then after the deal is inked tell them however, it will only be for ticket holders. You need to reevalaute your thought processes.

  9. Alan Senbaugh says:

    What is the “Biosphere model?”

  10. TiSentinel65 says:

    Look up UNESCO and you will see the Adirondack Champlain Biosphere. Its goal is a universal zoning organization headed by the U.N. . Talk about giving up rights to foreigners.

  11. Paul says:

    is it the high peaks only? ampersand mt in the saranac lakes wild forest is a zoo. cascade is a good guess that one is crazy also.

  12. Paul says:

    If you gotta have a steward at the top of the mountain you got a problem.

  13. dave says:

    I saw the same conditions as Tony Goodwin on my first hikes in the early 1960s. It is far better now and hard to believe what was acceptable back then. Garbage pits behind every leanto, can you imagine.

    When thinking about reservation systems, i suggest separating it from the issue of fees. The 911 memorial in NYC requires a time reservation, but you get it for free over the net. It spreads out crowds nicely. This might be useful at busy times in heavily used places, not all over the place for everything.

    Wether or not fees are involved is a different issue.

  14. In response to TiSentinel:

    The High Peaks receives significant use from Quebec and Canadian populations and we frankly need their help and revenue to begin addressing management problems in the High Peaks. The growing recreational interest and use from foreigners has been a benefit to our town of Keene (and others) and we would all benefit from having all stakeholders on the same page for wilderness management consideration.

    The CAC process is collaborative – not some sort of conspiracy theory grab for control. The meetings are public and representatives cover the gamut.

    The UNESCO recognition of the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve in 1989 was an honor and a just international recognition for the Adirondack Park and has nothing to do with global zoning or “outside” or international land control conspiracy theory scenario’s you are suggesting. It is scientific in nature and solely to highlight the tremendous conservation legacy that we have in the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain Watershed which, whether you understand it or not, is in fact an international waterbody.

    Other states and nations are apparently much smarter than us – they actually significantly enhance local and regional economies, jobs and tourism through recognition and promotion of their Biosphere status locations to the tune of billions of dollars annually. But here in the Adirondacks, our State and local governments have done very little — next to nothing — to recognize this international recognition and to our region’s detriment, frankly.

    Conservation, wild land planning and regional marketing value achievement takes hard, long work at many levels, but here in the Adirondacks we are fortunate to have a wide variety of dedicated stakeholders from all sectors that are willing to sit around the table and address the challenges we face and, like it or not, we gain much and can gain more from advancing our outreach and communication with both statewide, national and international audiences that are today using our wild park and benefitting our communities and economy.

  15. TiSentinel65 says:

    If environmental groups are going to use economic vitality for lynch pinning the reasons for adding to the forest preserve, then they can’t bait and switch when these people show up to use the park. You pushed for more acquisition why? Is it to help the Adirondack economy or to help yourselves with your own agenda? Maybe both? Also, now that these acquisitions are taking place, you need to keep up with the infrastructure. The state adding this land to the forest preserve means people will use it. Labeling it all wilderness would be the cheapest alternative, but people want to recreate on it. That means it will take money to keep it going called Legacy costs. You can push for volunteers to help but it will take a substantial effort by the taxpayer to keep it going, and since I am the taxpayer, I will not defer my sovereign right to Canadians and other Internationals or UNESCO or any other UN program designed to water down that sovereignty. My pockets can only withstand so many hands trying to spend my hard earned money. On the one hand you say too many people are using the park and on the other you say other states and nations are better at promoting and enhancing their tourism economies. If too many people are using it, that means the Adirondacks do not need any promoting. The park promotes itself. Some of your concerns are justified like garbage, trail upkeep and the like. I do not believe overcrowding is one of them. If the land is so crowded, how do people keep getting lost? As the state lands grow, it in turn will allow other opportunities in other areas. If you climb a High Peak and find twenty other people up there, you can rest assured that they are people just like you, enjoying what you enjoy. Overcrowding is what they do to sardines in a tin. There is solitude out there and you will still be able to find it. It is quite easy if you take the time and plan accordingly. Also, Lake Champlain is not an International Body of Water. You can not freely pass from Quebec without being stopped by Department of Homeland Security boats that will at gun point, make sure you understand what sovereignty is all about.

  16. TiSentinel65:

    Thanks for your response.

    When I stated that Lake Champlain was an international waterbody, I meant simply that it spans borders or is a transborder resource. I was not addressing sovereignty issues per se.

    “Environmental groups” are created and made up of citizens of New York. This is a fact in our Democracy and these organizations participate along with many other stakeholder interests.

    The NY State Open Space Protection Plan is developed by committees made up of local citizens, town supervisors, regional groups like the Local Government Review Board, business representatives, environmental organizations, sportsmen and women, etc. The region 5 DEC committee has been working together most extensively and actually identified lands like the Finch Pruyn ownership for conservation protection in fee and easement over several years.

    Nothing in my posts suggest that too many people are using the park. In the High Peaks, however, we do have issues with overuse and intensive use that leads to damage that requires management.

    I know of no group that has an “agenda” to use land acquisition as an economic engine. That said, it is true that local government officials are now recognizing for the better that the Forest Preserve is an asset in their communities that can draw visitors and tourism dollars. Nothing wrong with recognizing that, but use of these lands deserves to managed carefully — and, as usual, these management plans are undertaken in Democratic form and committee procedures that all go to public hearing year in and year out.

    I’m fully aware that there is plenty of solitude out in the Park. One of my favorite past times is bushwacking and route finding in some of the wildest units of the Park. Thank God our forbears and we today have saved these wild lands. They are a blessing to our families, communities and future generations.

    As for the Biosphere Reserve designation, it is recognition only and costs New Yorkers nothing from their pockets or our taxes.

    Not I, or anyone in this blog posting has suggested closing off access to the High Peaks. Permit reservation systems have been discussed by the committee years ago for areas that receive overly intensive use, but they have only been explored and I suspect could only be applied in very limited areas.

    We can do more to promote the Adirondack Park and our communities with an eye towards adding value and interest in our region while also stepping up to the plate for sound management of our special wild land resources. We have to do both.

    I’d be delighted to meet, call or discuss in more detail at any time. As one who has worked on these committee processes, I’m fully aware of the different viewpoints and the hard work it takes to make these management plans work.

  17. Paul says:

    ” That said, it is true that local government officials are now recognizing for the better that the Forest Preserve is an asset in their communities that can draw visitors and tourism dollars.”

    That is why it is imperative that any of these proposals include economic impact data projections. Right now they are just a number of different scenarios with very little information on what the impact of each will be.

    As an example what would be different about the economic impact of the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest if it were the Saranac Lakes Wilderness today? Perhaps a Wilderness designation there would have led to that area being MORE popular and a draw for tourism dollars than we see there now. Just show us the projections for these new areas then an informed decision could be made. These proposals without projections just keep everyone hunkered in their bunkers and make for more debate.

    • Alan Senbaugh says:

      I don’t think there is an area large enough within the Saranac Lakes Wild forest that to be considered wilderness. There are criteria for this designation it’s not just thrown out there for any purchase. For one you need to have 10,000 contiguous acres not bisected by roads. I know the portion North of the Pine Pond truck trail would normally have been added to the HPWA, but unfortunately the the towns refuse to abandon the road.

  18. TiSentinel65 says:

    Point taken Dan. But, you have to admit that many of our local environmental groups have used “benefits” to our local economies as a selling point. You are discussing it here right now. You never would have had support for Adirondack land acquisition if it would have been presented as a push for total wilderness designation. A point I would like to make is this. If our newly acquired lands are classified as strictly wilderness, a plan more in line with groups like yours, would it not place limits on what user groups would come here. I am quite positive something along DEC’s proposal for Finch lands will be accepted, and when it is, there should be plans in place to deal with the influx of people. That means upgrading the infrastructure to handle it. To me improving trails and the what not would be a much better plan than a reservation or a permitting system. I have said it before and I will say it again, and I understand the concerns of all who use the land. It does take money to put plans into action and boots on the ground to do the work however, we should not be charging, levying any fees, or requiring permits for the simple act of walking in the woods. This goes completely against the idea of freedom.

    • Alan Senbaugh says:

      “you have to admit that many of our local environmental groups have used “benefits” to our local economies as a selling point.” ……Yes the same way ORDA and the county use “public safety” to ram their antenna project through the APA.

      As far as the Essex chain, nothing ruins a waterbody more than drive up access. Compare the amount of litter around a waterbody people can drive to as opposed to one people have to walk to. I believe the same can be said for the introduction of exotics.

      • Paul says:

        The other reason you may see those differences is that those areas have more use and generate more tourism dollars from that use. There is no doubt that if you make access easier it will increase management costs to limit these problems. There is no argument that more restrictions will mean less of some of these issues. The best way to have protected the land was to have a conservation easement that prevented development and did NOT allow any public access. basically the reason we see the land as such a beautiful addition to the FP now. The hunting clubs that were there were excellent stewards (making sure that thinks like the invasives you describe didn’t get into the Essex chain for example). But that train has left the station. One (of several) reasons that NYS bought this land was to improve the economic conditions in the surrounding towns. The didn’t approve the idea just for preservation reasons. So now we have to look an be certain that what we do generates more revenue than the hunting clubs that are being removed. It is really not a complex problem.

    • Matt says:

      Trails cost a lot of money to maintain well; especially for the heavy traffic routes(foot or otherwise). The folks wearing the boots should be helping pay for the facilities they are using, and not relying on the rest of New York to always foot the bill for them. Freedom only works when there is a culture of personal responsibility along with it. “That goes completely against the idea of freedom”. I never thought I’d say this, but “Freedom ain’t Free” Ti. Keep that in mind when you suggest “upgrading infrastructure”.

  19. TiSentinel65 says:

    No, people throwing trash on the ground at drive up access sites ruins a water body. Mossy Point boat launch for the most part is clean with little trash even though it handles a huge influx of boaters every year. The difference is the state puts a major effort in keeping it that way. They actually maintain it fairly well.

    • Alan Senbaugh says:

      Many of the trailered DEC boat launch sites have trash pick up and people who pick up the litter. The car top places do not.

  20. Joe says:

    Lots on upper works rd are sparsely occupied aside from Upper works to Marcy. There is no one in Newcomb, please come and camp and use the trails. It’s really one parking lot, Loj, and then the little peaks off 28 and 30 that get ‘obscenely’ crowded. It’s not surprising a zillion people want to climb Marcy and Slide in the Catskills and basically not anything else aside from a blue mtn or Rondaxe near where they’re staying. It’s silly getting worked up over the few trails that get worn when there are so many others that get used so little. If you need a private experience on Marcy or Algonquin get your snowshoes and crampons on and go any weekday in march, april, oct, nov.

    • M.P. Heller says:

      A Zillion people could be going up Marcy on any given holiday weekend from the Loj or UW, but how many will be climbing from Elk Lake, or how many will you find on that day climbing via the Hopkins Trail? Probably very few in comparison. So even at busy times you can avoid the crowds if you desire by just taking the lesser used routes. Sure you might get to 4 Corners and join a small parade to the top from that point, but the other 11 miles in each direction to Elk Lake will be basically desserted.

      Perhaps some of the perception of “overcrowding” comes from people observing the crowds from crowded areas. Truthfully, when the Marcy Dam/Lake Colden corridor is busting at the seams with people, there are plenty of other areas that are empty or hardly being used. There is a definate connection between distance from a trailhead and the ease of travel along that section of trail and the types of users, and ultimately their impacts, that will go to those areas. For instance, I doubt there is much crossover at all between folks who camp at Marcy Dam, and those who carry a full pack to a primitive site like Snowbird or Lake Mary Louise. Similarly, those camping in places like Avelance Camp seem to be of a different ilk from those thru-hiking and camping along the NPT.

      I agree with Joe. There are lots of days in lots of months you can have pretty much any trail to yourself. I have been on both Marcy and Algonquin more than once by myself. Its wasn’t on Victoria Day Weekend or 4th of July though.

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