Given ongoing evidence of recreational crowding, overuse and resource damage of the eastern High Peaks Wilderness, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve has called on our DEC to institute permit systems, sometimes called Limited Entry systems, to assure and restore Wilderness preservation, character and opportunity in the most heavily used portions of the High Peaks. Such systems are widely used around the country.
The internal debate at DEC over whether to institute permit systems for the High Peaks has gone on for more than 40 years. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is considering the expansion of such a system within 500,000 acres of federal Wilderness in Oregon’s Cascade Range.
According to Statesman Journal writer Zach Urness, the new U.S. Forest Service rules would apply to the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, Three Sisters, Waldo Lake and Diamond Peak wilderness areas in Oregon’s Cascades. Public comment is required. A final decision is expected this summer, and the expanded system would begin summer 2019.
Again according to journalist Urness, “This is happening because of too many people. The plan was developed because the number of people hiking and backpacking into Central Cascade wilderness areas has skyrocketed. Visits have almost tripled in the Three Sisters since 2011, leading to increases of trash, human poop and other problems. The main driver is Oregon’s population growth.”
Briefly, the ongoing system in the Cascades is called a Limited Entry system. It already applies to several trailheads in the Cascades, and the expanded system will apply to more within the five Wilderness areas. Each trailhead will have a different quota for the number of permits issued based on resource and user characteristics and pressures. Different permits and quotas would apply to overnight camping and day use. Most permit users would apply in advance, but Forest Service Forest Service officials said they’ll likely “keep a certain number of permits for “same day” pickup, meaning, people could pick up a permit at a local ranger station and go hiking the same day.” Under the Forest Service Limited Entry system, people pay for their permits. The fee structure will be in the $6-$12 range.
If the benefits include increased opportunities for solitude, improved natural resource conditions and a primitive and unconfined wilderness experience, can we not imagine a similar limited entry system within the South Meadows-Flowed Lands corridor? Atop peaks harboring fragile, vanishing alpine flora? On Cascade Mountain? Boreas Ponds? What if our permits were at no cost, provided through the same reservation system used by our DEC Campgrounds and required in heavily used hiking and camping corridors, presented upon request of a DEC Forest Ranger or Assistant Forest Ranger? Advance education and information would be required at first. My point is a limited entry system for portions of the eastern High Peaks Wilderness seems totally imaginable.
As to what kind of limited entry permit system proves most practicable and enforceable for the eastern High Peaks, and for what trailheads, the 1999 High Peaks Unit Management Plan pointed a way forward. A working group was supposed to have been formed by the DEC by 2002 to study both its structure and its implementation. It never was formed.
Deep inside the 1999 Unit Management Plan for the High Peaks Wilderness Complex (HPWC) are a variety of management statements, policies and actions which concern crowding and overuse, and what to do about it. For instance, the section on Campsites begins this way (page 151): “Despite the HPWC’s huge size, the land area for environmentally suitable camping is quite small. High elevation eco-types, steep mountains, rock outcrops, wetlands, poorly drained soils severely restrict camping and intensify the demand for available campsites in valley floors and lakefront locations.”
The section goes on: “In some areas, particularly in the eastern High Peaks zone, site density has reached the point where visitor crowding is an issue. Many sites, both designated and impromptu, have been located in areas not capable of sustaining repeated heavy use…Demand often exceeds the availability of environmentally suitable sites. When all the designated sites are full, visitors tend to create new sites.”
The preamble concludes: “Without stricter camping controls, it may be difficult for DEC to satisfy its legal mandates to protect wilderness resources as required by the APSLMP. A camping permit system may be eventually required to disperse and limit use in heavily used areas. Camping permits were first suggested by the High Peaks Advisory Committee of 1974. A 1976 DEC report entitled ‘A Report on Wilderness Nonconformance’ supported the 1974 proposal and recommended camping permits for Flowed Lands, Indian Falls, Lake Colden, Marcy Dam and other interior locations if overnight visitation caused overcrowding and/or resource damage.”
The UMP goes on to list these management policies and actions to address overcrowding and resource damage:
- A campsite and lean-to inventory and evaluation study to designate campsites in compliance with the APSLMP;
- Camping restrictions to designated sites in heavily used travel corridors from South Meadows to Flowed Lands;
- Restoring closed campsites to more natural conditions;
- Monitoring campsites in popular and in especially sensitive areas, and evaluating the effectiveness of a designated campsite program;
- If these actions prove ineffective in reducing damage and overcrowding, placing additional controls sequentially in the following order, after opportunity for public comment:
- Reduce or limit overnight parking consistent with the number of available interior campsites;
- Overnight camping permits for all visitors may be considered in the South Meadows-Flowed Lands corridor and at elevations between 3500 and 4000 feet for which a designated campsite program has been implemented.
Finally, there is this: “The DEC will form a working group in year 3 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 for the Commissioner (DEC) will be made no later than year 5. The decision to implement a permit system will require an amendment to this plan and will afford opportunity for public review and comment.”
Acknowledging that over 19 years our DEC and private partners have expended tons of effort to address crowding, overuse and resource degradation in the eastern High Peaks, it is just as true that DEC never undertook this key step in the sequence despite continued, intense overuse and crowding.
From the Pataki administration, through the Spitzer, Paterson, and now the Cuomo administrations, DEC never formed a working group to develop the structure and implementation process for a camping permit system – a system the DEC felt was justified as early as the mid ‘ 70s. At the APA meeting to approve the UMP amendment last week, neither agency offered an explanation.
Nevertheless, DEC is now commited by this new UMP amendment to create a new working group, to be led by dedicated DEC regional staff. Commenting on this latest High Peaks UMP amendment approved as SLMP compliant last week, APA Member Chad Dawson noted that while DEC is still kicking the overcrowding can down the road, the amendment has made forward progress. It requires a phased approach to future facilities development, active monitoring and evaluation of wild land conditions based on a chosen set of goals and resource indicators meant to determine if management actions are meeting the desired resource goals. A working group will be formed to help DEC implement the monitoring program.
Unfortunately, no phasing, no monitoring and no evaluation will occur before DEC opens miles of new road to public motorized uses (Gulf Brook and Boreas Roads) and builds multiple parking areas for well over 100 cars and trailers within 7 miles of Boreas Ponds. That intense facility development is baked into the UMP amendment, and a monitoring and evaluation system will only begin after this round of recreational development is well underway. After-the-fact monitoring and evaluation systems are better than nothing, but not an exemplary way to study carrying capacity.
Viewed positively, APA Member Dawson asked DEC about the timeline for a wildlands monitoring plan. When will a working group get started? “Let’s all become more conversant in monitoring and evaluating wilderness conditions and character, he urged. Let’s train people to do this well and involve them in photo monitoring, and let’s do this work across the Park and the entire Forest Preserve.”
DEC responded that a DEC working group will begin this summer and will have a two year lifespan. That is positive news. But, DEC also made clear, as did the State Land Chair for the APA, Karen Feldman, that “we are not ready for a permit system.” Harking back to 1974, 1976 and 1999, its déjà vu all over again. DEC again acknowledged last week that such a system may one day become necessary.
Photo of Crowding on Cascade Mountain, eastern High Peaks Wilderness by Dan Plumley.