An Adirondack Park advocacy group wants the state Department of Environmental Conservation to re-establish a High Peaks Citizen’s Advisory Committee to address increasing usage and resulting impacts to the High Peaks Wilderness.
Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve sent a letter to DEC Region 5 Director Bob Stegemann today, asking for the department to address the surging number of hikers in the High Peaks with a comprehensive approach that includes possible updates to the High Peaks unit management plan.
“It has been 24 years since a High Peaks (Citizen’s Advisory Committee) was last convened, and 18 years since the (unit management plan) was adopted,” states the Adirondack Wild letter. “We believe, therefore, the time is ripe, and current pressures serious enough to benefit from a constructive exchange with informed High Peaks stakeholders prepared to help the DEC and Adirondack Park Agency tackle current user management challenges. Our mutual objective, of course, is to sustain and enhance wilderness quality and conditions, particularly in the eastern High Peaks zone. More comprehensive discussion of the entire complex area and amendments to the UMP are clearly warranted.”
The High Peaks has seen a surge in the number of hikers in recent years, as detailed by a series of articles published by the Adirondack Explorer and the Adirondack Almanack, including “Beyond Peak Capacity: A Boom in High Peaks Hikers” and “Group of 67 people ticketed on Algonquin Peak.” The increase has come as a result of marketing of the Adirondacks by the state, more awareness of the Adirondacks on social media and the internet, and an interest in hiking challenges such as the 46 High Peaks. The surge in hikers is similar to trends in other mountainous areas, such as the Catskills in downstate New York and White Mountains in New Hampshire.
The increase in users has resulted in potential dangerous parking situations for trailheads along state Route 73, put pressure on alpine vegetation on the summits, and resulted in problems associated with unburied waste and toilet paper on and near trails. In addition, search and rescue missions for Forest Rangers jumped to about 100 in 2015, about double from a decade ago. At least two editorials have been written calling for more staff for DEC to manage the situation.
The High Peaks issue came to a head on Labor Day weekend when thousands of hikers hit the trails. The Adirondak Loj trailhead saw at least 2,563 hikers from Friday to Monday on Labor Day weekend, according to stats provided by the ADK’s summit steward program. Plus, Cascade Mountain had at least 1,577 hikers, with 665 people hiking Saturday and 640 on Sunday.
The excessive number of hikers overwhelmed Adirondak Loj staff, according to ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth. The large crowds and usage forced ADK’s High Peaks Information Center to shut down its bathrooms. “From South Meadow Road to our entry station [on Adirondack Loj Road], we had people parked on both sides of the road,” Woodworth said.
Woodworth said having cars on both sides of the roads was a safety hazard for hikers walking along the road to trailheads and could have caused problems for emergency vehicles needing to access the area. After the weekend, DEC announced it was limiting vehicle parking on Adirondak Loj Road to one side of the road and not allowing parking further than South Meadow Lane on weekends through Columbus Day. It also has started a campaign to encourage hikers to use nearby mountains.
Adirondack Wild recognized the need for the DEC to deal with the pressure to the High Peaks but cautioned that “redirecting heavy use to the region’s smaller peaks (like Owl’s Head, Baxter Mountain, Baker Mountain and others) only adds to those peak’s overuse and erosion woes.”
The organization has asked that the DEC undertake a “Limit of Acceptable Change assessment” of critical issues in the Eastern High Peaks to inform management of the area. The assessment method is used by natural resource managers to determine the appropriate resource and social conditions in recreation areas.
“The explosive growth we are experiencing now in day use and resultant negative impacts on the High Peaks resource and wilderness experience calls for a thoughtful discussion and reassessment of High Peaks management policies and actions by a variety of stakeholders,” stated Dan Plumley, a resident of Keene and a staff partner with Adirondack Wild. “The harm being done to the wilderness resource is significant and the DEC and (Adirondack Park Agency) have a number of private partners who can help them focus on today’s and long-term critical problem areas. A focused CAC process could be very helpful in moving forward a discussion to restore wilderness integrity, conditions and characteristics to the High Peaks which are of such statewide, regional and global importance.”
Photo by Mike Lynch: Hikers on Cascade Mountain.