Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State Message in January, indicated that the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) “…will construct infrastructure at Boreas Ponds in the Adirondacks and build trails as part of the ‘hut-to-hut’ system that links state lands to community amenities.
DEC is committed to expanding recreational opportunities for hikers, bikers, skiers, paddlers, horseback riders, hunters, anglers and others. Outdoor enthusiasts of all skills and abilities will be able to enjoy, for the first time, the most significant addition in the history of the Adirondack Forest Preserve,” according to the statement.
As one of the architects of the Adirondack Park “hut-to-hut” initiative working with the DEC and the NYS Department of State (DOS) I would like to address some of the misconceptions surrounding the governor’s announcement, which has raised red flags among some environmentalists and wilderness preservationists. I believe my record on supporting wilderness in the park over the last forty-five years stands for itself. I have trained a generation of outdoor leaders with a strong environmental ethic, a love for wilderness, and an understanding for the need to provide a range of recreational opportunities. I have written or contributed to half a dozen books on the topic.
The “Hut-to-hut” initiative I have been part of aims to support wellness, sustainable communities, and conservation by, among other ways, expanding the constituency that loves and wants to protect our wild lands. Our discussions with dozens of lodging owners across the Park appear to indicate a broad base of support for a system that utilizes existing lodging to the greatest degree possible. A survey by Paul Smith’s College hospitality students of nearly 100 existing lodging owners had 90% of them wanting to learn more about the possibilities of being part of a hut-to-hut system. Respondents cited the greatest benefits of such a system as increased promotion of their community, increased revenue, and increased occupancy.
In 2015, while already conducting a “hut-to-hut” study (Adirondack Community-based Trails and Lodging System – to be completed by January, 2018) for the NYS DOS, we were asked by the NYS DEC to conduct a similar, “fast-track” study for the Adirondack Five Towns region. Over four months we developed approximately twenty different conceptual routes in that region.
What is meant by hut? A hut is a generic term for an overnight accommodation along a destination trail. Some huts are sited in the backcountry where there is no or limited motorized vehicle access. These huts may be wall tents, platform tent, yurts, cabins or state-of-the-art ecolodges. Other “huts” can be located in the front country–communities–and include B&Bs, inns, and hotels. A hut-to-hut system is a chain of 3 or more accommodations intentionally spaced a day’s walk, bike, or ski apart. Hut systems are designed primarily, but not exclusively, for human-powered travel. Huts provide space for eating, sleeping, and social interaction. They can be self-service, meaning that you bring and cook your own food, or full-service, where meals and other amenities are included in the cost of an overnight stay.
The crux of the discussion is the location of these accommodations and whether there is any opportunity to have some sort of temporary accommodations on public land. Our directive from the DEC on the Five Towns project was to “think outside the box” regarding what might be required to make the destination trails and lodging system a reality. While we think exploring the use of temporary accommodations on Forest Preserve lands is a legitimate exercise given the current permitted use of temporary hunting camps, we recognize the need to ensure that all the concepts ultimately implemented are consistent with the “Forever Wild” Article XIV of New York State’s constitution. In addition, we must ensure that these concepts adhere to pertinent rules and regulations or recognize that, perhaps in some cases, existing regulations may need to be modified. Due to the unique nature of the Adirondack Park and its mix of private and public land, coupled with the protections granted to the NYS Forest Preserve, we prioritized the siting of permanent accommodations on private land and encouraged exploring the possibilities for siting temporary accommodations on state land.
The concern generated by our work and the governor’s proposal is understandable, but a number of things must be kept in mind. First, nothing specific has been proposed by the DEC; we don’t know exactly what the DEC has in mind. Once they share their proposal, it will be submitted to a standard public comment and subsequent approval process; everyone will be given opportunity to weigh in on its potential negative consequences and benefits.
At this point, there has been considerable conjecture and speculation (along with quite a bit of hyperbole.) Let’s wait and see exactly what the DEC proposes before we reject it out of hand. Land classification, with few exceptions, is a one-time opportunity. This is the only opportunity we will have to explore this opportunity at this location. Let’s explore it, not reject it without giving it a fair hearing.
Recent reports suggest that the DEC may recommend such amenities as permanent cabins and dining facilities, as well as full-service and “luxury” lodging on the Forest Preserve. We can affirm that we have never recommended any of those things, and would be shocked if the state proposed anything of that sort.
We are excited to see the Cuomo administration talking about the hut-to-hut concept. We truly believe that a community-based hut-to-hut system can have a tremendous economic impact on communities throughout the Adirondack Park and studies in other hut-to-hut regions of the country support this. Using existing lodging to the greatest degree possible and identifying opportunities to create primitive accommodations where gaps exist, an Adirondack hut-to-hut system will have travelers starting, ending, and passing through the vast majority of Adirondack towns, villages, and hamlets. This system will be attractive to New York State’s diverse population and the misconception that self-powered travelers don’t contribute to the Adirondack economy will be proven false, once and for all.
Photo: View of Gothics from Boreas Ponds by Phil Brown (2016).