Tuesday, October 4, 2016

High Peaks Crowds and Adirondack Park Management Decisions

Noonmark and the Range from Round MtnIn the recent news and comments about ongoing crowding in the High Peaks there are few references to the document which ostensibly is guiding the state’s management actions there: the 1999 Highs Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan, or UMP. That management plan is downloadable from the DEC website.

It has a lot of important things to say about applying wilderness management and carrying capacity concepts to the very practical problems of managing the widely varying human use pressures over the great distances and very different environments of the High Peaks.

The final UMP was a long time in coming, and this was due to DEC budgets, staffing and intense pressures and disagreements among organized constituencies for the High Peaks. First broached in 1974, the first UMP draft came out in 1978. Another draft did not emerge until 1994. By the time the High Peaks UMP was adopted as SLMP compliant in 1999, significant compromises had been reached. One of the most significant changes was removal from the 1994 draft of a camping or overnight permit reservation requirement in the heavily used eastern zone of the High Peaks: Van Hoevenberg trail to Marcy Dam, Colden and Flowed Lands.

The late Barbara McMartin, heralded Adirondack guidebook author, historian and activist, was a member of all the High Peaks citizen advisory committees (CAC) dating to the 1970s. These committees were advisory, intended to structure and focus the diverse citizen advice to the DEC as the department climbed the steep hill of drafting a management plan that would comply with UMP guidelines in the State Land Master Plan. The CAC’s did a great deal of work in those years. The last committee meeting, I believe, was in 1993. Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve feels the time has come to re-assemble a High Peaks CAC, as reported in the Adirondack Almanack by Mike Lynch.

Anyone wishing to better understand the challenges, controversies and compromises surrounding the High Peaks UMP can read Barbara McMartin’s first-hand account in her 2002 book Perspectives on the Adirondacks, A Thirty-year Struggle by People Protecting their Treasure (pages 264-276). Barbara concludes this chapter by writing: “For all its inadequacies, the HPWA UMP is a fair management tool, one that can guide DEC in the future. It was not groundbreaking, it did not deal with future and inevitable pressures, it has not solved all the problems that the CAC, DEC and APA catalogued. It is a first step, and if the next steps – implementation, revision, and planning for permits – are taken in a timely fashion and with vision, good things might yet be accomplished, for experience has shown that amending unit management plans can be a much swifter process than creating them.”

A memorandum from the Adirondack Park Agency’s State Lands supervisor Chuck Scrafford to his APA executive director in 1999 also provides perspective on the UMP. Scrafford wrote: “DEC staff has done an outstanding job in preparing this Plan. It is comprehensive and reflects a strong commitment to contemporary wilderness management principles and to the High Peaks Wilderness. Those who worked on it should be proud of their accomplishment. I would particularly like to commend Jim Papero, the principal author of the Plan for his untiring effort and commitment to this Plan over the last nine years and his unwavering commitment to wilderness and professional wilderness management.”

Scrafford’s APA memo contains important clues to the difficulties both agencies faced in moving the High Peaks UMP forward: “The planning process has been deliberate, building on the valuable work of not only the most recent citizens advisory committee but on the work of earlier advisory groups and Department initiatives. The content of the Plan does not contain dramatically new ideas or recommendations. The issues have been on the table for 45 years and the solutions debated for 25 years, yet the complexity of the issues and the strongly held views of the numerous constituencies have made this effort long and difficult” (emphasis mine).

Chuck Scrafford’s memo then expresses a level of personal and professional passion for wilderness and preservation absent from the rather bloodless, careful, if not scripted APA and DEC staff public communications of today. Scrafford’s wisdom still applies to the current challenges in the High Peaks and other pressured wild spaces in America: “It is my personal hope that this Plan is the first step in managing the High Peaks as wilderness. Everyone likes to say this is the premier wilderness in the Northeast, but it up to us to make it so. The High Peaks Wilderness belongs to all the people of the State and it is our charge to not just manage it for today, but to preserve it for the next generation of New Yorkers. This is not an easy task when it is within a day’s drive of 70 million people and more than 150,000 people a year visit the area. Just as the State must assume its obligation, the public must recognize that this resource is limited and seriously threatened and that without individual restraint the High Peaks Wilderness will continue to be compromised and eventually lost” (emphasis mine).

As a result of the ongoing, unrelenting human pressures on parts of the High Peaks Wilderness since the 1970s I am a believer that parts of that Wilderness require more than indirect user controls – although such indirect controls are critically important. On behalf of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks I wrote to the APA and DEC in 1999 that the UMP had been weakened “to minimize reference to Wilderness Camping Permits as a useful management tool. This despite the continuous growth in human use of the eastern High Peaks and a ten-fold increase in trailhead registration…The 1994 Draft UMP said that ‘wilderness permits are a key management tool for protecting wilderness resources and ensuring high quality visitor experiences.’ This rather factual statement was removed in subsequent drafts and from the Final UMP…. DEC has officially moved hardly at all on this issue for 21 years despite justification that has only grown more marked every passing year, informed by over twenty years of experience in permit use by federal, state and provincial public lands agencies throughout North America.”

The Final High Peaks UMP of 1999 included this management statement under the subhead Campsites: “The department will form a working group in Year Three (that would have been 2003) to develop the structure and implementation process for a camping permit system. The working group will afford opportunity for public input and comment. Final recommendations to the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation will be made no later than Year Five (that would have been 2005). The decision to implement a permit system will require an amendment to this plan and will afford opportunity for public review and comment.”

To my knowledge, no working group on this subject was ever formed and no recommendations to the Commissioner were ever made. The user control management action that was taken in 1999, requiring (by regulation) possession of a self-issuing travel permit whenever a hiker or group leader passed a DEC trailhead in the High Peaks eastern zone, was viewed as ineffectual in its goals: conveying rules and information, collecting user data to schedule trail and campsite maintenance, measure use and assess impact, and to plan wilderness management budgets, and “to be used to ascertain if additional user controls are required.” The so-called “trip tickets” were discontinued not many years after the regulation was issued. This is one of many issues in need of reorganized discussion today and one reason to reform a High Peaks Citizen Advisory Committee.

Photo: Noonmark and the Range from Round Mtn, courtesy Barbara Mcmartin.

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

27 Responses

  1. I’ve never understood the entrenched resistance in the Adirondacks to the idea of backcountry camping permits, especially for the eastern High Peaks zone. Nearly every national park, and quite a few national forests, use some type of permit system. It’s hardly an untested idea.

  2. Taras says:

    Here’s a “Modest Proposal”, ban camping in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness zone.

    This proposal obviates the need for a camping-permit system (and administration of said system). Camping remains permitted in other parts of the High Peaks (Western High Peaks, Dix, and Giant Wilderness areas).

    Too bitter a pill to swallow? Then enforce regulation 190.13 (f) (5) which was designed to restrict camping to *designated* sites in the South Meadows-Flowed Lands Corridor.

    >>>>In the South Meadows-Flowed Lands Corridor, no person shall camp except at a primitive tent site, provided that this section shall not be effective until such time as the department completes its designation of such campsites within such corridor, and provided further that until such time as the department completes such designation no person shall fail to comply with the camping instructions contained on any sign posted by the department.<<<<


    The regulation is currently NOT in effect "until such time as the department completes such designation". I have no idea when the department intends to "complete such designation" but the regulation has been around for more than a dog's age (plus a few other animal's lifetimes). Why the delay?

    Sadly, the DEC's own State Land Interactive Mapper (SLIM) contains an outdated inventory of designated campsites (and lean-to's) in the HPWA.
    http://www.spatialwebhost.com/SLIMflex/# (plus it requires you to use Adobe Flash).

    This summer, during the course of my hikes, I inventories 90% of the designated campsites, lean-to's, and privies in the HPWA and mapped them in OpenStreetMap. Marcy Dam alone has 4 lean-to's and 19 designated campsites in its vicinity.

    There are three dozen designated campsites between Marcy Dam and the southern end of Flowed Lands.

    This personal project also gave me the opportunity to see the state of the campsites (and is largely responsible for leading me to suggest banning camping in the HPWA). I can say they look far better than before campfires were banned but they still attract more trash (deposited in or around privies) than one finds along trails. I also found a few illegal campfires, one across the lake from the DEC's Lake Colden Interior Outpost (the word "brazen" comes to mind).

    In addition, campers have expanded the sites well beyond the mandated 15 feet from a camping marker. Basically, any flat spot they find, no matter how far from the marker, is deemed to be a legal campsite. The result makes some places, notably on popular weekends, look like hobo villages (with similar after-effects).

    Ban it outright or restrict it to designated (and monitored) campsites.

    • Boreas says:

      Another option just short of permits for camping would be a system to let campers know at a trailhead which campsites & leantos are occupied. Perhaps trail stewards with radios could perform this function. If all sites are full and campers are aware of a stiff fine for using a non-designated site they will either plan ahead or make other plans for their route.

      But camping is only a part of the problem. I feel day use is the larger issue.

      • M.P. Heller says:

        “But camping is only a part of the problem. I feel day use is the larger issue.”

        Clearly day use IS the larger issue. Campers didn’t create the situation on Cascade, in fact if you look at the troubled summits and trails as a whole, campers make up only a tiny percentage of the users in these areas. Blaming campers is like blaming the Easter Bunny.

        • Taras says:

          The article is about convening another CAC to address the issues affecting the HPWA (not just Cascade).

          Backcountry camping is a high impact activity. Take a quick tour of the 3 dozen sites in the Marcy Dam-Flowed Lands Corridor and you’ll see what I mean. This coming Monday should prove my point nicely.

          If the percentage of campers is as tiny as you say, then a camping ban will inconvenience no one yet the state will be spared the expense of implementing and operating a camping-permit system.

          The existing campsites can be reforested and the habituated bears will no longer have camper-delivered food. The cost of this initiative is far less than a permit system; post new signs at trailheads “No Camping Anywhere in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area”.

          To limit the number of hikers, begin by restricting parking to legal areas only. Currently, illegally parked vehicles aren’t always ticketed. For example, this is Saturday, October 1st along Ausable Club Road which is lined with “No Parking” signs (~1:00 PM; none were ticketed).

      • Taras says:

        If they activate 190.13 (f) (5) I can’t see how it would function properly without a permit system or, alternatively, “campsite caretakers” with radios.

        Campers are also day-hikers. The only difference is they need several square yards of overnight space. That seemingly modest additional requirement is governed by almost half of the DEC regulations for the EHPWA. It’s a high-impact activity and the EHPWA has the most restrictive regulations to mitigate it (no fires, bear-canisters mandatory, no camping above 3500′, camp within 15 feet of a campsite marker, etc).

  3. Dennis says:

    I agree. The adverse impact of the combination of increasing volume of hikers and campers in the High Peaks and the woefully inadequate presence of DEC oversight and enforcement resources is evident and growing. Does it make any sense whatsoever to actively promote the volume of visitors, especially in the High Peaks, without a concurrent commitment to increase oversight and enforcement resources? The current disconnect is not sustainable. Yes, it’s time to seriously consider a path forward that includes all options, including backcountry camping and hiking permits.

  4. Naj Wikoff says:

    I don’t think campers per se are the main problem, certainly not on Cascade, Giant, and Algonquin. The problem is way too many people in the woods and way too many of them not knowing proper wilderness etiquette, i.e. know what to do with human waste. That problem is not just the High Peaks. I was on Middle Saranac Lake, stopped at the lovely sandy beach on the north end, and discovered the not very lovely great amounts of human waste and toilet paper just off the beach. Aside from the need to spread people out, and a need for permits to the most popular areas, people need education. I think, as an example, a visitors center in Keene would be smart where people get their permits and a short course on what to and not to do in the woods. I think the DEC should establish a wilderness rescue squad and not use rangers for that purpose. Rangers (and we need more of them) should be freed up to do their traditional job of being out in the woods checking on hikers and campers, providing advice and direction, and being able to address the minor emergencies before they turn into major ones. I think a Citizen’s Advisory Council could be useful if it had some clout, what’s not useful is letting the current status continue to evolve and tossing ad hoc approaches at it when the parking lot at the Loj gets filled.

    • Boreas says:


      Education is one of the main reasons I have been pushing for some level of hiker/camper certification or licensing, the proceeds of which would be earmarked for ranger staffing. Nothing different than a fishing/hunting license to which we are accustomed.

      • Scott says:

        Having rangers issue hiking/camping licenses is like having Troopers issue driver licenses instead of DMV. Keep the rangers freed up for their job of ‘full police duties state land protection’, not administrative stuff.

        • Boreas says:


          I didn’t say that. Rangers would not be issuing the licenses. They would be obtained online as hunting/fishing licenses are currently. The proceeds from the licenses could go toward hiring more rangers – thus giving rangers more time, not less.

  5. Neil Luckhurst Neil Luckhurst says:

    A lifetime (or once every two or three years) obligatory video and a 20 question multiple choice test before using the busiest trails (it’s always the same ones) would work. However it would require a pretty big facility and a way of enforcing the whole thing.

    We had to watch such a video and answer a pretty difficult exam (not multiple choice) on map and compass navigation before getting permits to hike a trail in Newfoundland.

    I would hate to see a camping ban. Camping is the quintessential outdoor experience and it is not only possible but very easy to leave little to no impact/trace. I admit though that most of the camping and lean-to sites I used this summer were like slums. Especially in comparison to the bushwhack camping I also did.

    I was particularly disappointed in the Snowbird site. I thought that its special status (only campsite at 4k feet). and the difficulty of carrying overnight gear so far in and so high up would somehow render it pristine.

    • Boreas says:


      Regarding your first paragraph, this could be accomplished online – and the person would be issued a license upon completion. Basic stuff – how/where to relieve yourself, food safety, trail etiquette/safety, clothing, camping, preparedness, etc..This could be done statewide or just for certain areas. It also wouldn’t require any more enforcement manpower than what DEC officers and state police currently do for hunting/fishing/driving licenses – spot checks when patrolling to keep people honest and if caught doing something stupid a fine for the infraction AND for not having a license. Trail/summit stewards could also help with the effort.

  6. Paul says:

    It seems to me that the only solution is to limit user numbers. If we don’t want to do that and we want to try and spread use out it looks like what people want are places with easy access (Cascade as an example). Adding Boreas Ponds with a 6 mile approach with a hike down a road doesn’t seem like it would fit the bill. It will limit use but that seems counter productive. Only other option is to forcefully limit use in the HPW.

  7. SLMPdefender says:

    Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it would be unconstitutional to charge people for use of the Forest preserve. Read article XIV to see why… it would be equivalent to a “lease.” Free permits could work, and would be a great idea if we had a ranger station that everyone had to stop at (like you would do for a National Wilderness Area). The hiking license might get around the constitutional issue.

    I don’t believe anyone made a suggestion that the state should charge users directly for use of the High peaks wilderness, but I thought it would be good to put that information out there as food for thought.

    • M.P. Heller says:

      I assure you that a permit and a lease are two completely separate topics that have little in common. A lease has elements which are required by law to be enforceable and basically conveys limited ownership rights for a period of time in consideration of monetary or other tangible assets. A permit does none of that. Therefore the argument that a permit constitutes a lease and is not allowable under Art. 14 is not a defendable position.

    • Paul says:

      There isn’t any constitutional issue. If there were it would be illegal to charge people to camp on places like the Saranac Islands. That is all forest preserve land. That isn’t a sale or lease.

      Heck there they are paying 22 -27 dollars per night:


      So yes, I think you are wrong.

  8. Jan Hansen says:

    The State really needs to hire and train more Rangers and ECO’s. All the rules and regulations will do no good if there are not enough Rangers and ECO’s to enforce them and help educate the public.

    • Boreas says:


      Absolutely true. Write your legislators and the governor and let them know your feelings. They aren’t going to spend the $$ if no one complains.

    • Dennis says:

      Yes!!! That rulemaking that affects access, such as the upcoming Boreas Ponds deliberations, occurs without a concurrent determination of, and commitment to, the resources necessary to ensure adequate oversight and enforcement, seems insane to me! They are not independent issues. High Peaks oversight and enforcement is inadequate and we can clearly see the result. I guess the lesson being learned isn’t relevant. The same thing will be happening in Boreas Ponds if they open up the first six miles of the access road to motorized vehicles (within about a mile of the pond I believe).

  9. Bruce says:

    You can have all the rules and regulations you want, but if those things are not followed by active enforcement efforts, they are for naught. Based on my experience in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, rangers are liable to pop up anywhere at any time. These people are not “truck rangers,” they are actually on the ground or on horseback moving around and checking up on things.

    One amusing experience was a ranger was seen coming up the trail, sneaking from bush to bush, tree to tree checking on me (I was fishing and the only person at that location). I eventually heard him behind me, sitting on boulder, and watching me.

    Without turning around I continued what I was doing and said to him, “do you want to see my North Carolina license or my Tennessee license?” Either was allowable, and I had both. He said, “I guess I don’t need to see your license.” We had a nice chat while we ate our lunches.

    • Boreas says:

      Many states require hunting/fishing licenses to be displayed – color-coded tags, pins, etc.. Possibly wristbands could even be used. I would think the same could be used for hikers. If nothing is visible or the color is from the wrong year, they are more likely to be checked by an officer.

      I think the beauty of a license system is that it doesn’t REQUIRE more enforcement officers, but rather could help provide funding for better staffing. A licensing system requires no more enforcement than a driver’s, fishing, or hunting license. The amount of actual license checking is optional, based on number of officers patrolling and their level of suspicion. But as with any licensing system, it is basically an honor system with significant repercussions for evasion. It is a tool that has worked reasonably well to protect resources and people for a century and should be considered as an option for this problem.

  10. Rick Fenton says:

    Dave, I totally agree that it’s high time for aggressive, direct management in the High Peaks Wilderness, not to mention Dix and Giant. My casual suggestion that an indirect approach involving enforced limits on peripheral parking would be good reflected the politics of the possible, something that might be tried in the short term as we all faced that daunting adventure of devising and implementing truly effective measures. But DEC’s limited staff have been caught up for years in acquiring and managing all those new IP and Finch lands and easements, and I presume there just isn’t a lot of free band width for the big push. There’s been a lot of investment of money and staff time lately in new snowmobile trail construction. Maybe this winter that could be put on hold while they turn to what many would consider more pressing matters.

    In tasking a task force, it would be easy to conceptualize the goal: determine acceptable levels of day use and overnight use on trails, campsites and summits, and make sure those levels aren’t exceeded. Good ideas would be easy to come by.

    You could simply limit camping to designated sites. But even if you have interior staff communicating with staff at trailheads, people wouldn’t know they’re out of luck until they arrived, and likely would head off somewhere else (in very grumpy moods) without having a good idea where. And even real-time information isn’t much use if you have to drive for hours to get there. Doing nothing but limiting parking doesn’t really help much, especially if you just turn people around and suggest they try someplace else nearby. Not really getting serious about managing use. Even if parking capacity is carefully calculated and controlled, there would be no easy way to help visitors plan ahead, and people turned away would feel a great incentive to find their way in somewhere. No, it’s time to bite the bullet. Requiring camping permits-and yes, day use permits, at least on big weekends-is the only civilized and truly effective way to protect the high peaks. Without determining and enforcing limits, both for day use and camping, the job can only be partly done. The big benefit for users is that they are directed to a website or a person who can educate them, and they can rest assured that their preferred activity is available to them when they arrive. Lots of popular federal wilderness areas have used systems of day use and camping permits for decades. It’s time that New York entered the big leagues.

    How do you do it? More administrative staff to issue permits, and more educational and enforcement staff to make sure people follow the rules. How do you pay for them? Well, people could be asked to pay for permits, like they do at lots of places in the federal system.

    The Environmental Conservation Law provides:

    § 9-0301. Use and diminution of Adirondack and Catskill parks.
    1. All lands in the Catskill park and in the Adirondack park, except
    those lying within the town of Dannemora, now owned or which may
    hereafter be acquired by the state, shall be forever reserved and
    maintained for the free use of all the people, except that nothing
    herein shall prohibit the charging of a fee for services rendered or
    facilities provided.

  11. Dave Gibson says:

    I am very happy to hear Rick Fenton’s thoughts. It’s been a while, Rick. You were always a Forest Preserve leader at NYS DEC, and you still are.

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