There has been detailed documentation in the Adirondack Almanack about ongoing recreational pressures and resulting damage to parts of the High Peaks Wilderness Area, the largest Wilderness unit in the NYS Forest Preserve (and in most of the country).
Severe impacts have resulted to some adjacent trailheads, highways, roads, and parking areas, and certain areas of the interior. NYS DEC personnel, Summit Stewards, and town governments, indeed all of us, feel the pressure from large numbers of us enjoying the Eastern High Peaks, and in some cases requiring search and rescue. What to do about it all has been debated in this space by various stakeholders, including DEC Forest Rangers, with much good information exchanged and good comments and suggestions.
However, current comments and conditions feel like déjà vu all over again. I refer to the 17 year-old document that very specifically guides our public land manager, the NYS DEC, in addressing recreational user pressure on the High Peaks and how to keep the High Peaks as wilderness.
The 1999 High Peaks Wilderness Complex Unit Management Plan (UMP) is that guiding document. I propose that we spend more time addressing this plan, its management recommendations and actions to date, and how the UMP might be updated to reflect the era, conditions and user pressures we are now encountering.
Towards this end, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has been urging DEC to reconvene the Citizen Advisory Committee for the High Peaks. In the early 1990s, the Committee advised DEC and APA in creating a UMP consistent with Wilderness criteria and guidelines of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, and which practically addressed the geography, user groups and pressures, land use history, physical and biological resources existing in the High Peaks at that time. APA made that consistency determination in May, 1999 and the UMP became effective later that year.
Over the past year, DEC has told us and others that they are not ready to reconvene such a citizen committee. We find that response baffling because DEC clearly can use all the help it can get in addressing the current pressures on the Wilderness resource. I found a May, 1999 memorandum about the High Peaks UMP written by Adirondack Park Agency state land supervisor Chuck Scrafford. He wrote:
“DEC staff has done an outstanding job in preparing this Plan (for the High Peaks Wilderness). It is comprehensive and reflects a strong commitment to contemporary wilderness management principles and to the High Peaks Wilderness… 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 or 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.”
“It is my personal hope,” Scrafford continued, “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 is 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.”
So, what’s in the High Peaks UMP? Chuck Scrafford’s memo provided an overview:
“The inventory and assessment sections (of the High Peaks UMP) are very good and the level of details is appropriate to the unit… The discussion of public use is extensive and quite detailed. It describes the growth of use in the High Peaks from 57,000 in 1983 to more than 140,000 in 1998 with 18,000 visiting five alpine summits in 1998. It describes the distribution of use by trail head (58% entering from the Adirondack Loj and Johns Brook Valley) and various types of recreation occurring in the unit as well as distribution of use over time. At page 46 the Plan indicates ‘many parts of the Wilderness, especially the eastern High Peaks have areas of concentrated use where impacts on soil, water, vegetation and fauna have resulted in unnatural changes to the environment.’
“The Plan also discusses use at trailheads and states that when ‘parking exceeds the design capacities, over use results; resource and social limits are broken.’ When parking facilities were constructed in the 1970’s attempts were made to balance the capacity of the facility with the carrying capacity of the interior. It identifies the Garden in Keene Valley and the Adirondack Loj Road as two trailheads where the parking capacity is routinely exceeded and with respect to the Garden it states that expanding the parking facility would ‘contribute to and aggravate an existing overuse problem in Johns Brook Valley.’
“Of particular importance are the Management Goals and the section on Management Principles. They represent a management direction that is not only consistent with wilderness and the SLMP but will, if followed, assure that wilderness will exist in the High Peaks for the enjoyment of future generations. The management principles are the strongest articulation yet of a management approach for the Adirondack Forest Preserve that is based on contemporary environmental and social science instead of nostalgia and politics. If the Preserve is to retain its wild forest character and have a wilderness component in the 21st century its management must rely on modern wild land management principles not political expediency.”
An aside: a salute to any state employee who shines a public spotlight on political expediency when it runs roughshod over management principles.
Scrafford concluded his overview of the UMP:
“The carrying capacity analysis uses the Limits of Acceptable Change and Visitor Experience and Resource Protection Models, which focus on outputs (environmental conditions and the components of the wilderness experience) rather than inputs (the number of users). As the Plan explains, these new approaches were developed when the traditional carrying capacity approach used in range management and wildlife management failed to adequately take into consideration the multiple environmental and social variables at play, the multiple satisfactions sought by users and the difficulty in establishing predictable linkages between use levels and impacts. Coupled with research and monitoring these models can give managers the necessary information and rational to make management decisions. The Plan makes it clear that the management programs contained in the Plan should be considered only the first steps in a long-term process based on the monitoring of conditions in the unit and that in addition to the scheduled revisions at five year intervals the Plan may be revised sooner when a change in conditions warrants a change in management approach. This approach fulfills the SLMP requirement for a carrying capacity analysis and fits well with the SLMP’s focus on desired conditions.”
17 years later, the UMP has undergone no scheduled revisions even though “changes in conditions” may indeed warrant “a change in management approach.”
As for the actual management proposals adopted in the UMP, I will only briefly touch on a few of them here, again relying on Scrafford’s memo as a guide to what he, as the APA State Land Supervisor back then, felt was most important to highlight. The full UMP and all recommendations are easily searched and found at www.dec.ny.gov. In future posts I hope DEC and others will join me in referring to the UMP in far more detail, and review all that has been accomplished under the UMP since 1999, what has not worked well or not been accomplished and why, and where we may need to head in future, hopefully with the help of a new Citizen Advisory Committee for the High Peaks.
- Scrafford wrote: “One of the key (UMP) proposals is to develop a strategic education and information plan for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex;”
- With respect to the summits of the High Peaks, Scrafford wrote: “despite special designation, protective measures and programs many species remain in jeopardy and are near extinction due to heavy and sustained visitor use. Management actions include protection and restoration programs that will emphasize education; more complete inventory; continuation of the summit steward program; prohibit camping above 4000 feet; voluntary trail closure during frost-in and frost-out; and annual monitoring of vegetation;
- “To better manage trails and trailheads the plan proposes to indirectly manage interior use by balancing parking capacity to interior visitor capacities;
- “In order to remediate the herd paths on the trail less peaks the Plan calls for the most environmentally sound route to be designated and all other routes closed”;
- The Plan proposed to inventory and evaluate campsites in the eastern High Peaks and to designate, by year 3, campsites based on physical criteria and the SLMP sight and sound criteria. It proposed to limit camping to designated sites in the South Meadow to Flowed Lands corridor and between 3500 and 4000 feet. If the designated campsite program proved ineffective, the Plan indicated that additional measures may be implemented including reduction in overnight parking and overnight camping permits during the peak season of use;
- The Plan called for the DEC to form a working group to develop the structure and implementation process for a camping permit system. This working group will provide for public input and make its final recommendations to the Commissioner in year 5 of the Plan (that would have been 2005. To my knowledge that step was never taken);
- The Plan called for establishing by rule and regulation a camping group size of 8 consistent with the SLMP requirement. A day use group size of 15 will be established for the eastern and western ones. Groups using the Adirondack Canoe Route will be limited to 12 persons per campsite;
- A self-issuing permit in the eastern zone will be required to obtain better data on level, type and location of use in the unit (note: this requirement was abandoned not many years after it was implemented);
- A parking plan for The Garden in Keene will be implemented by year 3;
- All Marcy Dam campsites will be inventoried and relocated or removed to comply with the SLMP requirements;
- A special area plan for South Meadow called for a new parking area and designated campsite program at the intersection of South Meadow and Loj Road. “The Department will discuss the future of the South Meadow Road with the Town of North Elba and within the five years life of the Plan bring the road into conformance with the SLMP” (none of these actions have been taken to date).
Photo: Dan Plumley orients a newcomer to the High Peaks.