The growing number of hikers in the High Peaks in recent years has heightened concern for the fragile alpine vegetation found on many of the summits.
If the number continues to increase, summit stewards charged with educating hikers may find themselves overwhelmed, said Julia Goren, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s education director.
“I don’t think we’ve lost ground yet,” said Goren, who heads the summit-steward program. “But I do think it’s not hyperbolic that we’re kind of at a tipping point where there’s not much more we can take before there’s going to be some kind of loss. One summit steward can’t talk to six hundred people in a day and make sure that people are respecting every patch of alpine vegetation.”
To prevent a loss of flora, Goren said there needs to be a “great investment” in infrastructure or personnel.
There are about 175 acres of alpine habitat, which harbors some rare plants, on the tops of sixteen Adirondack mountains. Summit stewards spend most of their time on Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak, two very popular peaks where much of the alpine flora grows, but they do visit other peaks.
In recent years, the program expanded to Cascade Mountain, a summit popular with hikers new to the High Peaks. The idea is to educate hikers before they head to other mountains.
Besides educating hikers, stewards perform trail work on and near the summits, building scree walls around the vegetation. They also offer advice to hikers and even assist in search-and-rescue missions.
On busy days, stewards might talk to hundreds of hikers. Over Labor Day weekend, for example, 2,563 hikers signed the Van Hoevenberg Trail register, the starting point for hikes to Marcy and Algonquin, and 1,577 people signed the Cascade register.
In fact, the summit-steward program has been setting records for interactions each of the five years leading up to 2016. Last year, summit stewards talked to 31,440 hikers for an average of ninety-one hikers per day. Just three years ago, stewards talked to an average of seventy-eight people per day; five years ago they talked to seventy per day.
And yet funding for the summit stewards has fluctuated over the years. Prior to last season, the program lost roughly one-third of its funding, or about $24,000. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers stepped in to fill that gap, but Goren doesn’t expect the organization to be able to do that every year.
“Having lost about a third of the program funding, every single year we are in the process of closing that gap,” Goren said. “A lot of people just don’t know the summit-steward program isn’t fully funded.”
Goren said the program receives about a third of its money from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a third from the Adirondack Mountain Club. For the rest, it relies on the Adirondack High Peaks Foundation and other donors. It’s also in the process of starting an endowment fund.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.
Photo: Alpine Flora on Wright Peak, courtesy Nancie Battaglia.