Over the past few months Governor Andrew Cuomo has shown his economic love for the Adirondacks by putting his money where his mouth is, pledging $32 million towards an Adirondack Gateway facility at Frontier Town in North Hudson and another $20 million for improvements to the Gore, Whiteface and Mt Van Hoevenberg ski centers.
Seeing as generosity is in the air, I have a proposal: let’s take a small portion of the monetary love intended for these projects and turn Cascade Mountain from a dangerous and degraded poster child for Adirondack overuse to a model of Wilderness education that becomes an asset in the struggle to protect the High Peaks.
It might be an exaggeration to say that the High Peaks region is being loved to death; my recent forays there have been blissfully lonely, albeit advantaged by having been made on non-holiday winter weekends. But overuse on some trails is a real issue and overtaxing of fragile summits qualifies as an acute problem. Worse, these problems are growing by double-digit percentages, threatening the integrity some of our most important protected terrain.
The dramatic increase in hiking has been documented extensively, including here at the Almanack. Since that article posted the story has gotten even bigger. Last Labor Day weekend, summit stewards talked to over three thousand people on the summits of just four peaks: Marcy, Cascade, Algonquin and Wright. For Columbus Day weekend, the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) unfurled a multi-pronged plan to turn people away from the High Peaks and steer them towards less-used destinations, going so far as to erect a temporary information station to intercept visitors coming in via the Keene Valley. This spring DEC is actively promoting a web site with alternative destinations.
The most dramatic and visual evidence of this usage trend is the trail head for Cascade Mountain on Route 73 between Keene and Lake Placid. Cascade is by far the most-climbed High Peak: its trail head register numbers are second only to the register at Adirondack Loj, which serves dozens of destinations. Use at Cascade is growing even more rapidly than elsewhere: over the last decade the number of climbers has doubled. Fully half of the three thousand Labor Day hikers just mentioned were on top of Cascade. The road near the trail head is typically lined with cars; even on a recent cold, overcast day I counted more than two dozen vehicles. On busy weekends, there can be over a hundred cars lining the highway.
There is no sign that any of this pressure is going to improve. The recent closing of the nearby Owl’s Head trail in response to overuse and parking problems is an instructive reminder of that. Clearly, the Route 73 corridor between Keene and Lake Placid needs a strategy.
At the same time, all this use is by no means a bad thing. Anyone with an interest in preserving wild places should want as many people as possible to experience them, for to experience them is to cherish them. Besides, the public has every right to use their lands. However better management is called for to protect the ecological integrity of the land and prevent the very kinds of abuses the High Peaks increasingly suffer. I join many of my fellow Wilderness advocates in calling for the High Peaks Unit Management Plan to be reopened for discussion and improvement.
Amid the myriad debates over Wilderness management there is general agreement that a key component is education. Trail erosion, inappropriate disposal of human waste, trampling of summit vegetation and many other back country problems are exacerbated more by ignorance than by ill will or lack of concern. Those of us who frequented High Peaks summits in the 1970s and 80s know full well the difference that has been made by the Summit Steward program, which has education as its focus. It is also clear that education is becoming more important: societal trends, including the experiential drive reflected in social media phenomena like meet-ups, have driven up the percentage of novices in the woods. This is even more the case at Cascade, since it is the most accessible High Peak and a comparatively modest ascent. Cascade is typically an aspiring climber’s introduction to the High Peaks. Last fall, as I started thinking about what I would do at Cascade if I had the power, I tried my own informal survey there and found that nearly two-thirds of the hikers I spoke with were first-timers.
My suggestion is to turn Cascade’s heavy traffic and preponderance of first-time visitors from a problem to an advantage for the rest of the High Peaks, by developing a robust educational experience for hikers, while at the same time making changes to better manage and protect it. This would include:
- Build an Education Center dedicated to teaching visitors all about hiking, climbing and camping in the High Peaks, from trail and summit etiquette to Leave No Trace principles to the ecology of the region and more.
- Provide a spectrum of educational resources from an interpretive center for self-paced exploration to indoor and outdoor classroom space for lectures and classes, to an immersive on-line experience.
- Close the current trail head and open a rebuilt/hardened Cascade trail, rerouted to a new parking area. Install modest but appropriate educational signage along the climb to teach and reinforce basic ideas right where they matter, from trail erosion to disposing of human waste to the rock walk.
- Provide a full time staffer at the education center and a seasonal summit steward at the top of the trail.
- Provide a parking lot off of Route 73 sufficient in size to keep cars off the shoulder of the highway. Cascade Pass parking should service only the Pitchoff Range.
Think of the benefits to the rest of the High Peaks if thousands of Cascade hikers had a modicum of exposure to that kind of education. But how to do it? Cascade is part of the High Peaks Wilderness and any kind of infrastructure beyond a simple trail head would be illegal. Even if it were not, I’d be the last person to call for infrastructure in a Wilderness area. Nor would I ever support any spot zoning of land near the High Peaks to be classified as Intensive Use, the classification that would be required to build any sort of facilities. I’m joined in that restriction by the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan itself, which explicitly states that Intensive Use areas “…will not be situated where they will aggravate problems on lands already subject to or threatened by overuse, such as the eastern portion of the High Peaks Wilderness…”
However, look at a map: just a mile to the west of the current trail head for Cascade Mountain is a complex of State land already classified as intensive use: the Mount Van Hoevenberg Center. It has ample room, existing infrastructure, plenty of parking and most of the year it is under-utilized. A reroute of the Cascade hiking trail to begin somewhere near the large parking area for the cross country skiing loops would add roughly a flat mile of hiking, preserving Cascade’s status as the easiest, most accessible High Peak, while offering a much better place to park a car and offer facilities. The Cross Country Ski Lodge, in dire need of an upgrade, could be repurposed to additionally serve the desired interpretive and educational functions; or some modest and more attractive facilities could be built. The Mount Van Hoevenberg Center needs a lot of investment anyhow (anyone driven in there recently?) so it seems to me that planning for this additional use would not add that much to the bill.
Still, what about the money to do all these things? Well, I teach math and I’m pretty sure 20 + 32 = 52, as in the $52 million the Governor has pledged to the two regional projects I mentioned at the beginning. Clearly there is money to invest. To my thinking the State owes the High Peaks area some of that investment. The State’s interest in this jewel has always been protected by numerous private initiatives and it is time it ponied up more of its fair share. For example, the Adirondack Mountain Club has done great things with the High Peaks Information Center, but they are not in a position to offer what a State run and staffed facility, dedicated to education, could do.
Besides, I’d wager cash that investing a minor portion of those funds to create such an educational facility would return a better bang-for-the-buck in both Wilderness protection and economic benefit than, say, plowing all $32 million into the Frontier Town site.
For there to be such sensible considerations, we citizens need to talk about it. So the next time you drive past the soon-to-be-closed Owl’s Head up into Cascade Pass, then slow down as you navigate the overrun and dangerous traffic hovering around the Cascade trial heads, think about what you might contribute to the conversation.
Photo: The Cascade Range from the Keene Valley.